book cover imageThe Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States
by George Santayana, edited by James Seaton.
Yale University Press, 2009. Paper, 240 pp. $16.

This volume contains in full the two title works of George Santayana (1863–1952) as well as four essays by distinguished commentators, making it both a valuable primary sourcebook and a “companion” book. The editor James Seaton introduces the selections with a lengthy essay, “George Santayana: The Philosopher as Cultural Critic.” This sets the table for Santayana’s two works of 1911 and 1920, respectively, which represent his “cultural criticism” of American life and philosophy before and after he retired from Harvard in 1912. The four essays that follow are by Wilfred M. McClay, “The Unclaimed Legacy of George Santayana”; John Lachs’s “Understanding America”; James Seaton’s further essay, “The Genteel Tradition and English Liberty”; and Roger Kimball’s “Mental Hygiene and Good Manners: The Contributions of George Santayana.”

Seaton’s introductory essay argues for the relevance of Santayana’s concept of the “genteel tradition” in American life as providing a counterweight to the contemporary postmodernist discourses in their “culturally constructivist” character. But while this may be true in certain minor skirmishes, the overall effect of the present volume appears to establish Santayana as a forerunner of contemporary postmodernism. Santayana delighted in deconstruction of the intellectual establishments, and he promoted a skeptical version of moral equivalence ahead of many writers of his time.In his way of nationalizing philosophies into “American,” English,” “German,” “French,” and other camps, his polemicized historicism arguably anticipated the identity politics, culture wars, and ethnic chauvinisms in today’s academy.

In 1935, twenty-three years after departing the shores of America, Santayana published a thinly allegorical novel, The Last Puritan, the subtitle of which is Memoirs in the Form of a Novel. It is fair to say that all of his writings on American life and philosophy were such “memoirs.” They were the products of his “literary psychology,” and indeed expressed his credo that the writing of philosophy itself is “a personal work of art.” This credo was true to his epistemological distinction between “literal truth,” which he rejected as impossible, and “symbolical truth,” through which the philosopher and writer psychologized his own subjective perspective on the world.

Santayana’s concept of the “genteel tradition” was a rhetorical isotope that sputtered out in time, notably after “progressive” literary critics of the 1920s tried to coopt it for their own purposes. The concept involved Santayana’s sweeping depiction of a “divided consciousness” in the “American mind,” the result of alleged contradictions in a “moral background” between the heritages of American Puritanism and 19th-century Transcendentalism that devolved into a split between the masculine world of business, represented by the skyscraper, and the feminine world of intellect, symbolized by the colonial mansion. All this, however, was Santayana’s procrustean “memoir in the form of a novel,” in no way adequate as a historiographical account of the teeming, buzzing, booming, burgeoning American continent during his Harvard years or afterwards.

Santayana’s account of America elided the positive moral evolution of American civilization from the Revolutionary War and Declaration of Independence (which he called “a salad of illusions”) to the Civil War and beyond, and he downplayed the progress of its intellectual life from Puritanism through Emerson’s Transcendentalism to the leading thinkers of his own day, Charles S. Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and John Dewey. His logical framework remained agonistic, portraying unresolvable divisions and contradictions in the waning “genteel tradition” and in American intellectual life in general.

Lachs’s essay is valuable for its perspective on Santayana’s eventual emigrant status. The “Understanding America,” describes Santayana’s misunderstanding of America. He focuses on the contrast between Old World internecine antagonisms and the “surprisingly tame” relation of the same Old World immigrants when they settle in America. Lachs considers several hypotheses for this phenomenon before arriving at a primary consideration—that of “America’s economic engine,” which turns immigrants into workers and cooperative citizens in view of the personal rewards they can achieve in the New World. This sets the stage for Lachs’s discussion of Character and Opinion in the United States where Santayana distinguishes between “English liberty” and “Absolute liberty.” The latter is the premodern form of absolute power that corrupts absolutely: it “allows no compromise,” while the former, the modern democratic form, “thrives on the spirit of compromise,” is “tolerant and optimistic.” Lachs depicts how immigrants come to America to enter the latter’s “energetical benign world, seeking the benefits it provides.” In the course of time they leave behind their Old World attitudes and values. “English liberty” taps deeper instincts.

However, Santayana himself personally rejected “English liberty in America” for the absolute liberty of Mussolini’s fascism. Lachs himself begins a criticism of Santayana, though in sotto voce, in pointing out that “Material values receive poor press from the guardians of high culture.” “To his credit,” he continues, “Santayana does not go out of his way to smear commercial life, but even he fails to show adequate appreciation ofthe central and vital roles played by material plenty in American life.” “Highbrow intellectuals, in particular,” Lachs continues, “encounter difficulty in grasping the legitimacy and value of seeking the good in the quest of goods.” “The high priests of morality . . . heap scorn on trade and consumption, overlooking the fact that the affirmation of human dignity through freedom of contract is the ground of commercial life, and the reduction of suffering through plenty is its product.”

Lachs implies that Santayana was a highbrow intellectual and high priest of morality whose backward-looking “cultural theology” attacked American enterprise and sense of the future. To the contrary, Lachs asserts: “The difference between past-directed retaliatory and future-directed ameliorative activities plays a central role in American philosophy. Pragmatists such as John Dewey and William James extol the value of human actions focused on influencing the future, which alone is open to improvement by our efforts. Even Royce, who recognizes the importance of communities of memory, places them in the broader context of communities of hope . . .”

The other commentaries also address Santayana’s reactionary attitudes. Seaton’s Introduction skewers Santayana’s last work, Domination of Powers of 1951, for its “failure to mention, let alone respond to, Hitler’s nearly successful attempt to murder all the Jews within reach.” His essay on “The Genteel Tradition and English Liberty” goes on to record that in The Genteel Tradition at Bay, while criticizing Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More for their moralizing against gentility in literature, Santayana advocated “frankly [to] rejoice” in a modern world that includes “at least (besides football) . . . Einstein and Freud, Proust and Paul Valery, Lenin and Mussolini.” Lenin and Mussolini, says Seaton, provided “food for thought and speculation,” their politics apparently besides the point “at least when Santayana was out to score a polemical point.”

However, this passage, Seaton says, is not nearly as disturbing as Santayana’s declaration in the preface of Domination as to “the moral light in which I am accustomed to see the world.” “This ‘moral light’ includes, he writes six years after the near-success of the Nazi’s Final Solution, a willingness to ‘gladly extirpate all the crawling ugliness in the world’ if doing so would allow one ‘to obtain anything lovely.’” And “One’s doubts are not eased by the previous sentence, in which Santayana announces that ‘I prefer the rose to the dandelion; I prefer the lion to the vermin in the lion’s skin’”—“. . . ‘vermin’ was a common term of abuse applied by the Nazis to Jews and by Communists in the Soviet Union to those of the wrong class or ideology.”

Seaton continues: “In the same preface, writing just after the defeat of Nazism, fascism, and Japanese imperialism and while Stalin’s dictatorship remained in power, Santayana singled out ‘liberalism’ for condemnation, apparently on aesthetic criteria: ‘if one political tendency kindled my wrath, it was precisely the tendency of industrial liberalism to level down all civilizations to a single cheap and dreary pattern.’”

The essays of McClay and Kimball plead the same case. After examining Santayana’s ambiguous treatment of “English” and “Absolute” liberties, and his personal opting for the latter, McClay refers to his “great insensibility,” his “preternatural serenity,” his “quietism bordering on fatalism,” and “this strain of irresponsibility in Santayana’s naturalism” which, like one of his custom-made European suits, was “too much designed to fit one body.” He challenges Santayana’s political judgments; e.g., his disagreement with William James (“who was lapsing into the genteel tradition”) over the annexation of the Philippines, and his remark that theDeclaration of Independence is a salad of illusions. He confirms that Santayana “had surprisingly benign feelings about the Mussolini regime in Italy, and on a number of occasions he expressed a preference for the focused energy of authoritarian regimes, whether fascist, communist, or theocratic, as opposed to the ‘moral anarchy’ and centrifugal impotence of liberal ones.”

Perhaps least attractive of all, McClay writes, were his “anti-Semitic thoughts and sentiments,” which “popped up disturbingly in various letters and occasional obiter scripta.” Such remarks were “[m]ore prominent as he entered old age, during his post-America years, but they were certainly detectable early on in his writings.” In the 1930s “he frequently read the virulent anti-Semitic writings of Louis Ferdinand Celine.” Finally in a powerful passage, McClay, a professional historian, depicts “the dragon-ridden time” when General Clark and the Fifth Army recaptured Rome in June, 1944. During the horrors of the hour, “The secluded and aging Santayana continued to work placidly and industriously on his many projects”; there was “something awesome in such a picture,” McClay remarks, but also “something disturbing in it.”

Kimball’s essay generalizes the political issues by way of calling attention to Santayana’s philosophical bottom line. He characterizes Santayana’s “view of freedom and the meaning of life” as a “radical curious hybrid, radical like Schopenhauer (whom he greatly admired), or Nietzsche (whom he did not).” Out of skepticism came “animal faith, modest, graceful, thoroughly materialistic: disillusioned but also at peace.” Kimball advances two interrelated sources of Santayana’s “calm.” The first was his “thoroughgoing aestheticism”: in Santayana’s own words, “I draw no distinction . . . between moral and aesthetic values.” Kimball says there are many problems with Santayana’s aestheticism: “The chief problem is subjectivity.” Santayana, “in locating the criterion of morality and truth in a species of pleasurable sensation,” “in effect denies them any public measure.” And “not everyone has the sensibility” (as Lachs’s essay also points out).

The other source of Santayana’s “calm” was his Epicureanism, “a deeply ascetic philosophy. It is devoted to pleasure, but pleasure understood as the absence of pain. The goal is ataraxia: privative tranquility.” He quotes Santayana: “I have the Epicurean contentment which is not far from asceticism.” For the “detached observer,” as Santayana expressed it in Three Philosophical Poets, “The moral pageantry of this world is calculated wonderfully to strengthen and refine the philosophy of abstention suggested by Epicurus by the flux of material things and by the illusions of the vulgar passions.”

This reenactment of the Epicurean paradigm, Kimball concludes, accounts for Santayana’s “dispassionate passions of observation, retrospection, and amused noninvolvement.” It was “an impression that Santayana was careful to cultivate, and it nurtured the reputation he had . . . for emotional chilliness.” His “distance from involvement was a leitmotif of his character.” “Burdens, responsibilities, emotional ties: these sutures of ordinary life are among the chief evils in the Epicurean’s lexicon.”

In general, while noting Santayana’s downward-spiraling cultural criticism, all four essays speak positively of Santayana’s treatment of “English Liberty in America” in the final chapter of Character and Opinion in the United States. But this chapter, written for British audiences in 1920, should be seen as thoroughly unoriginal. Not to mention the legacy ofsocial contract theory in Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza (who contributed the key marks of freedom of speech and religious tolerance in modern democracy), arguably the theoretical highpoint of the discussion of political modernity was already accomplished in the mid-19th century writings of Emerson (e.g., “Politics” of 1844), Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself” and Democratic Vistas), and Thoreau’s writing on civil disobedience. In his “cultural criticism” in the next generation, Santayana impugned these authors and expressed reactionary sentiments against political modernity. His praise of English Liberty in America was too little, too late, and offset by his personal preference for absolute liberty.  

David A. Dilworth is a professor in the Philosophy Department at SUNY at Stony Brook.