A George Santayana Home Page

Spirit Incarnate

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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From The Letters of George Santayana

[W]e don't agree about the nature of mind. Feeling of the most elementary kind seems to me as obviously an expression of the life and the plight of an animal as we agree that perception is . . . . Feeling must be the intuition of an essence—call it an "element of quality" if you like, that is just what an essence is. . . . [Feelings are spiritual facts, quite as much as thoughts are spiritual facts.] . . . I shall never desert the Aristotelian insight that sensibility is the act of a natural living being, an entelechy and not a substance. . . . What I chiefly recoil from [in your way of viewing the nature of mind] is the denaturalization of the psychical itself which seems to me involved in panpsychism: its meaning and essence vanish if you cease to regard it as expressive and supervening.

Letters 2:334 to 2:335 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Oxford, December 22, 1918) [#395 1918]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

But how could the spirit, if it had been free originally, ever have attached its fortunes to any lump of clay? . . . . Why should spirit have fallen in the first instance, or made any beginning in sin and illusion?

It would have been better, for the moral and religious purposes of these sages, to have observed and respected the prose facts, and admitted that each little spirit falls for the first time when the body is generated which it is to dwell in. It never, in fact, existed before; it is the spirit of that body. Its transcendental prerogatives and its impersonal aims are by no means inconsistent with that humble facts: they seem inconsistent only to those who are ignorant of the life and fertility of nature, which breeds spirit as naturally as the lark sings. Aspiration to liberate spirit from absorption in finite existence is in danger of missing its way if it is not enlightened by a true theory of existence and of spirit; for it is utterly impossible to free the spirit materially, since it is the voice of matter, but by a proper hygiene it can be feed ideally, so that it ceases to be troubled by its sluggish instrument, or conscious of it.

Soliloquies at 211-212 (The Progress of Philosophy) [#396 1922]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

Nevertheless, all their [the Indian people] mythology and scholasticism did not invalidate (as they did not in the Catholic church afterwards) the initial spiritual insight on which their system rested. The spirit, viewed from within, is omnipresent and timeless, and must be spoken of as falling, or coming down, or entering (as Aristotle puts it) through the house-door.

Soliloquies at 212 (The Progress of Philosophy) [#397 1922]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

Spirit everywhere expresses the life of nature, and echoes its endeavours ; but the animal life which prompts these feelings is itself not arbitrary : it passes through a cycle of changes which are pre-ordained. This predetermined, specific direction of animal life is the key to everything moral ; without it no external circumstances could be favourable or unfavourable to us ; and spirit within us would have no reason to welcome, to deplore, or to notice anything. What an anomaly it would seem to a free spirit (if there could be such a thing) that it should care particularly for what happens in the body of some animal, or that it should see one set of facts rather than another, and this in so partial and violent a perspective! But spirit does, and must, do this ; and it is an absurd and satanic presumption on its part to profess that it could exist, or be a spirit at all, if it were not the spirit of some body, the voice of some animal heart. To have a station in matter, and to have interests in the material world, are essential to spirit . . . .

Soliloquies at 219 (The Psyche) [#398 1922]

From The Letters of George Santayana

[A]ppearances or angelic intuitions floating about on the loose would not be expressions of animal life in me or you: it is the same difficulty that besets the Humian ”ideas”. They must be moored to the organism, not merely by a temporal concomitance, but by inner relevance: they are taken from it as a centre, in its interests, through its organs, and are woven into that personal life in which the perception of the organism, its environment, in perspectives centered upon it, its memories, and its passion are all woven constantly together.

Letters 3:273 to 3:274 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Rome, February 2, 1926) [#399 1926]

From The Letters of George Santayana

The spirit is an animal function, if we consider its basis and its fate, but it is a divine faculty in its allegiance, having all truth and all existence for its object, and seeing everything necessarily under the form of eternity. It therefore regards its incarnation as ignominious and protests against all the natural passions and partialities to which it is subject. But this protest is perfectly vain and hopeless. Spirit is rooted in the flesh, and these rebellions on its part merely derange without emancipating it. The solution would be a sort of Epicureanism: yet spirit itself distrusts and despises such a self-subordination; so that the conflict remains perennial and the end, for most high spirits, is tragic.

Letters 5:281 (To Gorham Bert Munson, Rome, January 25, 1936) [#401 1936]

From The Letters of George Santayana

We see visible things, the material objects by which sight is aroused. But I am a critic, a sceptic; and I can't help seeing that, for the spirit, this is a strange commitment: virtually truly, because spirit is incarnate; but logically and morally distracting, because it fills spirit with presumption and care, as do all animal passions. Now natural knowledge is an animal passion . . .; it truly reveals to the spirit the extraordinary fact that it is incarnate, and that an alien material world actually surrounds it. . . .

Letters 5:326 to 5:327 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, April 25, 1936) [#402 1936]

From The Realm of Truth: Book Third of Realms of Being

If spirit were not incarnate, if it had no bodily organ, if in consequence it were not domiciled in the material and temporal world so that certain things did not press upon it and trouble it more than others, if in a word it had not object but the realm of essence, then truth would not need to enter into its thoughts.

Truth at 44 (Radiation of Truth) [#403 1938]

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

Perhaps it is not logically impossible that spirit should exist without a body: but in that case how should spirit come upon any particular images, interests, or categories?

Spirit at 11 (The Nature of Spirit) [#405 1940]

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

Spirit, then, belongs here below, not yonder, έχεί, in the Platonic heaven.

Spirit at 291 (General Review of Realms of Being) [#406 1940]

From Realms of Being

What I should say without hesitation is that, for mental life, the body and the world cannot be dispensed with . . . .

. . . . Romantic souls, who think that spirit is an unharnessed Pegasus tumbling among the clouds, will find nothing here to their purpose.

Realms at xxxii (Introduction to One-Volume Edition) [#407 1942]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

For the freest spirit must have some birthplace, some locus standi from which to view the world and some innate passion by which to judge it. Spirit must always be the spirit of some body.

Persons and Places at 97-98 (Avila) [#408 1944]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

A point of view and a special lighting are not distortions. They are conditions of vision, and spirit can see nothing not focussed in some living eye.

Persons and Places at 146 (The Latin School) [#409 1944]

From The Letters of George Santayana

We must see heaven in the midst of earth, just above it, accompanying earth as beauty accompanies it. We must not try to get heaven pure, afterwards, or instead. Christ is essentially a spirit of the earth. He is a tragic hero.

Letters 7:121 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, January 21, 1945) [#410 1945]

From The Letters of George Santayana

Spirit (or attention) can never be disembodied: therefore it is never solipsistic in fact; yet it is, in each intuition or feeling, a focus, transcendental and invisible, for whatever it sees. The Germans confuse this transcendental function with dynamic mythical “spirits” existing in a void.

Letters 8:117 (To Richard Colton Lyon, Rome, November 7, 1948) [#411 1948]

From Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays of George Santayana

On the other hand, this omnipresent vocation to live in the spirit, far from separating the spirit from our animal lives, rests on the fact that the spirit is incarnate in us . . . . In other words, the spirit is not a bodiless divine intellect or universal ego, but an intellectual expression of private moral predicaments and human passions . . . .

The profound saying of Aristotle, that spirit comes into us from beyond the gates need by no means be rejected; it need only be interpreted as the mythical expression of a moral truth. The deliverance of the spirit is here turned, in the Greek manner, into a fable concerning its origin.

Lachs' Physical Order at 134 (Pure Feeling—Pain) [#639 1969]


Number of quotations (including supressed): 19


Santayana's doctrine of the incarnation of spirit in a natural psyche is a restatement of an orthodox position on the relation of mind to body and is deeply characteristic of his philosophy. It seems that this important theme is presumed rather than elaborated in his early writings. E.g., Poetry & Religion at 166 (The Elements and Function of Poetry) ("When the 'infinite' spirit enters the human body, it is determined to certain limited forms of life by the organism which it wears; and its blank potentiality becomes actual in thought and deed, according to the fortunes and relations of its organism."). The following quotations, then, are chiefly from items written in his later years.



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