A George Santayana Home Page

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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From The Letters of George Santayana

After this I need hardly say that I neither wish people to kiss the Pope's toe nor to be liberals, if liberalism in philosophy is to mean the tendency to believe that unverifiable hypotheses, if they are meagre and abstract enough, may be passed off for matters of fact. I want my metaphysics and religion to be good poetry, not bad and inadequate poetry. . . . Therefore I prefer Catholic ideas to Protestant, and Pagan to Catholic: or, if you like, I would only accept Christianity as a form of Paganism. For in Paganism I see the only religion that tried to do justice to all life, and at the same time retained the consciousness that it was a kind of poetry.

Letters 1:218 (To William Roscoe Thayer , Cambridge, May 29, 1900) [#722 1900]

From Reason in Religion

Pagan Christianity, or Catholicism, may accordingly be said to consist of two elements: first, the genius of paganism, the faculty of expressing spiritual experience in myth and external symbol, and, second, the experience of disillusion, forcing that pagan imagination to take wing from earth and to decorate no longer the political and material circumstances of life, but rather to remove beyond the clouds and constitute its realm of spirit beyond the veil of time and nature, in a posthumous and metaphysical sphere. A mythical economy abounding in points of attachment to human experience and in genial interpretations of life, yet lifted beyond visible nature and filling a reported world, a world believed in on hearsay or, as it is called, on faith—that is Catholicism.

Religion at 108 (Pagan Custom and Barbarian Genius Infused Into Christianity) [#721 1905]

From The Letters of George Santayana

As to my teaching Strong "Catholic metaphysics", you must understand that my own philosophy—no es muy Católica; it is independent of religion altogether, and looks at religion merely as at a historic and human fact—more or less appealing or beneficent, as the case may be. You have seen all you probably care to see of this attitude in my "Interpretations of poetry and religion". The attitude of my new book is exactly the same . . . .

Letters 1:343 (To Susan Sturgis de Sastre, Toulouse, April 29, 1906) [#723 1906]

From The Letters of George Santayana

Is there any "modernist" movement or party in Spain? . . . . I believe I have always been a "modernist"; only it never crossed my mind that such an attitude was compatible with being a practical Catholic, much less a priest. How can they be so blind?

Letters 1:402 (To Susan Sturgis de Sastre, Cambridge, March 18, 1909) [#724 1909]

From The Letters of George Santayana

You ask me what "modernism" is precisely. It is not anything precise; but as a general tendency, it consists in accepting all the rationalistic views current or possible in matters of history and science, and then saying that, in a different sense, the dogmas of the Church may still be true. For instance, all miracles, including the Incarnation and Resurrection, are denied to be historical facts; but they remain, in some symbolic sense, theological truths.

Letters 1:404 (To Susan Sturgis de Sastre , Cambridge, April 19, 1909) [#725 1909]

From The Letters of George Santayana

The Catholic Church has an immense heritage from all the ages . . . . Of course, you know I am myself a sceptic, and if one's object were to discover and embrace the truth, no religion seems to me much to the purpose, all of them being products of the human imagination. But in a moral and allegorical sense, one religion may still be said to be "truer" than another, if it brings us into greater harmony with the conditions of our life, and developes better our spiritual capacities . . . .

Letters 2:266 (To Mrs. William Warren , Torquay, March 24, 1917) [#726 1917]

From The Letters of George Santayana

It [the settled belief of the Catholic imagination] is plainly contrary to fact, as it seems to me: but fact or truth, when it lies beyond the most immediate material realm, naturally interests most men very little: and nature has not given them either the wish or the power to discern it. By choice, when we can, we live histrionically, intent on the eloquent embroideries we make upon things and people; it is a sort of dream or play which we wrap our actual life in. And the Catholic Hypnosis is a very nice one, fitting the facts in a very acceptable wise way when one has decided that the facts themselves are not decent, and can't be allowed to go about naked. I like civilized artifices of this sort.

Letters 2:317 (To Charles Raymond Bell Mortimer , Oxford, April 10, 1918) [#727 1918]

From The Letters of George Santayana

My philosophy is normal human orthodox philosophy, such as has come down from the Indians through the Greeks, to Spinoza. It is simply not Protestant philosophy. The problems of Protestant philosophy do not exist for me: I regard them as products of a confusion of thought, of a heresy. Catholic philosophy differs from the normal only in that it accepts sacred history as well as natural history as the true account of the facts: but when the facts are agreed upon, one way or another, philosophy has no real difficulty in discovering what to say. It has said everything essential already. To invent a philosophy would be not to have understood.

Letters 3:219 (To John Boynton Priestley , Cortina d'Ampezzo, September 15, 1924) [#728 1924]

From The Letters of George Santayana

Please tell Berty Russell, if you see him, that I was immensely amused at his diagnosis of "Catholic and Protestant Sceptics", and in particular of myself. But I don't like his saying that I dislike the Founder of Christianity: has he read my "Lucifer" or the dialogue about "The Philanthropist"? It may be a biased interpretation, but I take even the eschatology, and the coming of the Kingdom, in Christ's mouth, to be gently ironical and meant secretly in a spiritual sense. So understood, I accept his doctrine and spirit in toto.

Letters 4:74 (To Desmond MacCarthy , Rome, November 16, 1928) [#729 1928]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I haven't evolved, except as I was involved: and almost the only point at which you seem to misrepresent a little the truth of my history is in saying I was "converted" to naturalism. No: it was not a conversion, but a decision. Both views had always been before me: I had hesitated or oscillated: but gradually it became impossible for me steadily to hold the Catholic position: the history and psychology of it, in the other picture, shone through; as if, through a too-thin back-drop at the theatre, I had seen the ropes and scaffolding of the stage, the scene-shifters hurrying about in their shirtsleeves, and the prima donna in her green-room, putting on the rouge.

Letters 5:174 (To Frederick Champion Ward, Rome, January 26, 1935) [#730 1935]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I am also in doubt about "social humanism" being implicit in my physics. Materialism may, psychologically, be allied in the materialist's mind with one or another view in ethics and politics. That will depend, if materialism is true, on the man's heritage and circumstances. In that sense I entirely accept historical materialism, which is only an application of materialism to history. But the phrase carries now an association with Hegelian or Marxian dialectic, which if meant to be more than the doctrine of universal flux, is a denial of materialism. My personal sympathies are personal, and of no ultimate importance: what is implied in my natural philosophy is that all moralities and inspirations are natural, biological, animal preferences or obsessions, changing and passing with the organisms and habits that gave them birth. That is not the Catholic doctrine, which you say I represent; but it is quite compatible with liking Catholic ways, considered as a form of human society and human imagination. Yet even there, I prefer the Greeks.

Letters 6:76 (To Harry Slochower, Rome, September 18, 1937) [#731 1937]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I was christened in the Church and profess no other religion, so that from the point of view of the census-taker I am unmistakably a Catholic. My Protestant and Jewish critics also discover a good deal of Catholicism in my writings; but I have never been a practising Catholic, and my views in philosophy and history are incompatible with belief in any revelation. It would therefore be wholly misleading to classify me among "Catholic Authors".

Letters 6:256 (To Matthew Hoehn , Cortina d'Ampezzo, August 10, 1939) [#732 1939]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

[M]y affection for the Catholic system is justified naturalistically because I regard it as a true symbol for the real relations of spirit within nature.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 583 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#733 1940]

From The Realm of Spirit: Book Fourth of Realms of Being

Christianity was thus a fundamentally new religion, a religion of the spirit. It completely reversed the inspiration of the Jews in their frank original hopes, and rather resembled Neo-Platonism and Buddhism. The Jews did well, from their point of view, to reject it, and the Protestants, from theirs, to reform it so as to revert to the cultus of marriage, thrift, science, and nationality. Nevertheless, a religion or philosophy without repentance, without disillusion or asceticism, reckons without its host. The Jews themselves produced Christianity, and the Greeks helped them do it. After all, it is the spirit that makes human nature human; and in the confused, tormented, corrupt life of Christendom, not only do we find many a bright focus of mercy, sanctity, poetry, speculation, and love, but even the tone and habit of the common mind seem shot through with more wit and insight, more merriment and kindness, than in ages and nations that have never asked to be saved.

Spirit at 212-213 (Liberation) [#734 1940]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

[My sister, Susana] thought religion a matter of fact, like geography of the Fiji Islands . . . . Now I was aware, at first instinctively and soon quite clearly on historical and psychological grounds, that religion and all philosophy of that kind was invented. It was all conceived and worked out inwardly, imaginatively, for moral reasons; I could have invented or helped to invent it myself . . . .Such invention need not be dishonest, if it is taken for a revelation. But you can't go for the proof or confirmation of it to the Fiji Islands, or to any other part of the existing universe; you must place it, and live by it, on quite another plane. In a word, I was a spontaneous modernist in theology and philosophy: but not being pledged, either socially or superstitiously, to any sect or tradition, I was spared the torments of those poor Catholic priests or those limping Anglicans who think they can be at once modernists and believers.

Persons and Places at 87-88 (My Sister Susana) [#735 1944]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

Catholicism is the most human of religions, if taken humanly: it is paganism spiritually transformed and made metaphysical. It corresponds most adequately to the various exigencies of moral life, with just the needed dose of wisdom, sublimity, and illusion. Only it should be accepted humanly, traditionally, as part of an unquestioned order, a moral heritage, like one's language and family life, leaving religious controversy to the synods and metaphysical speculation to the schools.

Persons and Places at 93 (My Sister Susana) [#736 1944]

From The Letters of George Santayana

All Spaniards, at least in my time, were Catholics, and I have never called myself anything else, from the point of view of society or the Census taker. But now-a-days, perhaps, "being a Catholic", especially in Protestant countries, is understood to imply a personal positive adherence to the doctrine and discipline of the Church; and to class me, and much more to quote me, as militant in the Catholic cause would create a misunderstanding. I certainly have no other religion: but my philosophy and habits are not specifically Catholic, so that it would be better for you not to include me among your contributors to "Catholic Literature."

Letters 7:374 (To J. T. Nolan Jr., Rome, September 23, 1947) [#738 1947]

From The Letters of George Santayana

This is the chief error of fact in my critics. They are positivists; apparently know nothing of poetry, history, or religion except their physical obstructive presence as words, events, and ceremonies. But I never, not in my earliest boyhood, was superstitious. I never expected fictions to interfere with or prolong physical processes. In this sense I never believe in another world that coexisted with this one. What I suffered from was distaste for this world, and liking in pure speculation, in a sort [of] challenge, to say "Life is a Dream". It was not the Bible stories or the Church dogmas that troubled me. I was perfectly at home with them; but being dreams, and exercising no compulsion over me or my actions, they were all more or less welcome, according to the imagination and emotion that belonged to them, as to Greek or Shakespearean tragedies[.] The idea of your friend (and of all positivists) that it is the outside, the cultus, that attaches people to the Church is based simply on ignorance. Most Catholic crowds have little aesthetic perception; but they have dramatic sympathy; they feel the catharsis of the passions evoked, and the ceremonies merely stage the play that fills the imagination. But when people have no imagination (or take such as they have for true knowledge of fact) they cannot conceive anything of human importance, history, poetry, religion, or art, as anything but true or false reporting of physical events in our world. If our world was a dream (and so it actually is in its sensuous or imaginative dimensions) it will vanish for each of us when we die. Nothing will probably succeed it for us: but other dreams are probably present to spirit at other times, seeming other worlds. Our good dreams (poetry) are, however, a part of our world, its best part, because they are focussed on what is, for us, most congenial. There is therefore no conflict in a disillusioned mind, between science and poetry, or religion well understood.

Letters 8:385 to 8:386 (To Ira Detrich Cardiff, Rome, August 31, 1951) [#739 1951]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I hope you will not go in your book into the possibility of my replacing Aristotle as the accepted pagan philosopher for Catholics. The Church is founded on Judaism; it accepts a naturalism with miraculous powers secretly controlling it, and controlling each soul. My naturalism does not admit a moral or humanistic control over the cosmos; and it puts spirit at the top, and accidental ultimate self-awakening of organic formations, themselves perfectly automatic. Spirit comes and goes in the world like dew in the morning. That is not compatible with the supernatural realism and monarchical theism of the Church.

Letters 8:389 (To Robert C. Hahnel, Rome, October 3, 1951) [#740 1951]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

Catholicism is paganism spiritualised: it is fundamentally naturalistic; and the transcendental spirit and the wise statesman may accept Catholicism, where it naturally arises, as a good poetic symbol for the forces and the issues of human life in that phase; not, however, as a scientific revelation of reality or a history of literal facts. Religion is valid poetry infused into common life. It is not a revelation truer than perception or than science.

Persons and Places at 492 (Oxford Friends) [#737 1953]

From The Birth of Reason & Other Essays

My first philosophical enthusiasm was for Catholic theology; I admired, and still admire, that magnificent construction and the spiritual discipline it can inspire; but I soon learned to admire also Hellenistic and Indian wisdom. All religions and moralities seem to me forms of paganism; only that in ages of ripe experience or of decadence they become penitential and subjective.

Cory's Birth of Reason at 134 (Three American Philosophers) [#741 1968]


Number of quotations (including supressed): 21


In a biography of Robert Lowell, the author awkwardly describes Santayana's attitude towards Catholicism, attributing a well-known quip on the matter to Lowell:

An affirmed agnostic, Santayana had nevertheless maintained a rather decorous love affair over the years with the Catholicism of his youth. "There is no God, and Mary is His Mother," would be Lowell's way of summing up Santayana's stance.

Paul Mariani, Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell 159 (W. W. Norton & Co., New York 1994).

Roger Kimball describes Santayana's position on Catholicism as follows:

Santayana's naturalism assured his implacable hostility to supernaturalism: the patent variety—his native Roman Catholicism, for example—as well as the covert versions populating many schools of philosophy—German idealism, say, in both its original and transplanted - to - England - and - America forms. . . . In 1890, when he was in his late twenties, Santayana wrote to William James that "I doubt whether the earth supports a more genuine enemy of all that the Catholic Church inwardly stands for than I do," and he later noted that he had "never been what is called a practising Catholic." It was a position from which he never wavered. It is worth stressing this. Santayana spent the last twelve years of his life at the Blue Sisters' clinic in Rome. This has tempted some commentators to suggest that his atheism softened or even evaporated with age. But this was not the case. During his last illness, Santayana took pains to advise Daniel Cory that if he were unconscious and the sacrament of Extreme Unction were administered, no one should interpret that as a deathbed conversion.

Roger Kimball, George Santayana, 20 New Criterion (February 2002).

This page gathers a handful of quotations describing Catholicism and explaining Santayana's scepticism.



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