A George Santayana Home Page

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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

Was Christianity right in saying that the world was made for man? Was the account it adopted of the method and causes of Creation conceivably correct? Was the garden of Eden a historical reality, and were the Hebrew prophecies announcements of the advent of Jesus Christ? Did the deluge come because of man's wickedness, and will the last day coincide with the dramatic denouement of the Churchís history? In other words, is the spiritual experience of man the explanation of the universe? Certainly not, if we are thinking of a scientific, not of a poetical explanation. As a matter of fact, man is a product of laws which must also destroy him, and which, as Spinoza would say, infinitely exceed him in their scope and power. His welfare is indifferent to the stars, but dependent on them. And yet that counter-Copernican revolution accomplished by Christianity—a revolution which Kant should hardly have attributed to himself—which put man in the centre of the universe and made the stars circle about him, must have some kind of justification. And indeed its justification (if we may be so brief on so great a subject) is that what is false in the science of facts may be true in the science of values. While the existence of things must be understood by referring them to their causes, which are mechanical, their functions can only be explained by what is interesting in their results, in other words, by their relation to human nature and to human happiness.

The Christian drama was a magnificent poetic rendering of this side of the matter, a side which Socrates had envisaged by his admirable method, but which now flooded the consciousness of mankind with torrential emotions. Christianity was born under an eclipse, when the light of Nature was obscured; but the star that intercepted that light was itself luminous, and shed on succeeding ages a moonlike radiance, paler and sadder than the other, but no less divine, and meriting no less to be eternal. Man now studied his own destiny, as he had before studied the sky, and the woods, and the sunny depths of water; and as the earlier study produced in his soul—anima naturcditer poeta—the images of Zeus, Pan, and Nereus, so the later study produced the images of Jesus and of Mary, of Heaven and Hell, of miracles and sacraments. The observation was no less exact, the translation into poetic images no less wonderful here than there. To trace the endless transfiguration, with all its unconscious ingenuity and harmony, might be the theme of a fascinating science. Let not the reader fancy that in Christianity everything was settled by records and traditions. The idea of Christ himself had to be constructed by the imagination in response to moral demands, tradition giving only the barest external points of attachment. The facts were nothing until they became symbols; and nothing could turn them into symbols except an eager imagination on the watch for all that might embody its dreams.

Poetry & Religion at 59-60 (The Poetry of Christian Dogma) [#345 1900]

From Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe

[U]nder this childish or metaphorical [Socratic] physics, there is a serious morality. After all, the use of opium is that it is a narcotic; no matter why, physically, it is one. The use of the body is the mind, whatever the origin of the body may be. . . . [Nature's] use is to serve the good—to make life, happiness, and virtue possible. . . . Observation must yield to dialectic [under the Socratic philosophy] . . . .

Poets at 76 (Dante) [#347 1910]

From Reason in Common Sense

I had no need to adopt the cosmology of Plato—a mythical and metaphysical creation, more or less playful and desperate, designed to buttress his moral philosophy. I was old enough, when I came under his influence, to discount this sort of priestcraft in thought, so familiar to Christian apologists. Experience, knowledge of my own heart, attachment to Spinoza, even the science of the day, protected me against those voluntary illusions. Indeed, to undermine them gently, by showing how unnecessary and treacherous they are in the healthy life of the spirit, was a chief part of my undertaking.

Common Sense 2d at xii (Preface to the Second Edition) [#346 1922]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

Platonic metaphysics projects into the universe the moral progress of the soul. It is like a mountain lake, in which the aspirations and passions of a civilized mind are reflected upside down and a certain tremor and intensity is added to them in that narrow frame, which they would hardly have in the upper air. This system renders the life of the soul more unified and more beautiful than it would otherwise be. Everything becomes magical, and a sort of perpetual miracle of grace; the forms which things wear to the human mind are deputed to be their substance; the uses of life become its protecting gods; the categories of logic and of morals become celestial spheres enclosing the earth. A monstrous dream, if you take it for a description of nature; but a suitable allegory by which to illustrate the progress of the inner life: because those stages, or something like them, are really the stages of moral progress for the soul.

Soliloquies at 215 (The Progress of Philosophy) [#348 1922]

From Scepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy

[When those who deny the existence of spirit] hear the word used, it irritates them, because they suppose it means some sort of magical power or metaphysical caloric, alleged to keep bodies alive, and to impose purposes on nature; purposes which such a prior spirit, being supernatural and immortal, could have had no reason for choosing. Such a dynamic spirit would indeed be nothing but an immaterial matter, a second physical substance distinguished from its grosser partner only in that we know nothing of it, but assign to its operation all those results which seem to us inexplicable. Belief in such a spirit is simply belief in magic; innocent enough at first when it is merely verbal and childish, but becoming perverse when defended after it has ceased to be spontaneous.

Scepticism at 287 (Discernment of Spirit) [#350 1923]

From The Letters of George Santayana

You seem to regard "Religion" as merely a myth and magic, that is, bad science . . . . But is religion merely bad—hasty, poetical, superstitious—science? I should say religions (because each religion seems rather irreligious to the others) often had at least two important ingredients besides magic and myth. They were the intellectual and ritual expression of a particular ethos, nationality, or civilization; and they were forms of "spiritual life". Now I like very much what you say about science, if it became a religion, losing all its scientific virtue. A philosophy more or less inspired by science, like Epicureanism or Stocism, may be a religion, or a substitute for religion: it may sanction a particular morality, and it may be refined into a form of spiritual life—I mean, into a great life-long dialogue between God and the soul of man. But science, as you conceive science—á la Dewey—is only experiment and invention; it is not a philosophy: and if any speculative ideas more or less illegitimately associated with it were set up as eternal truths, science would cease to be science to become bigotry. One of the happy, if somewhat disconcerting, discoveries of our—or my—later years has been precisely this: that science is intellectually blind and dumb, and that you may be a leading scientific expert without knowing what you think on any important question. It seems to me, therefore, that you ought not to pit "religion" and "science" so squarely against each other, as if they were rivals in the same field. A scientific philosophy might be a rival, or an ally, of certain religious philosophies; but what chiefly attaches mankind to its religions is precisely the need of completing their traditional ethos, and their spontaneous spiritual life, with an appropriate speculative doctrine: and science is dumb on that subject and, in its scientific domain, ought to be dumb. Perhaps this explains in part why, in spite of you and Voltaire, religions still exist in the world.

Letters 4:296 to 4:297 (To Horace Meyer Kallen, Rome, November 20, 1931) [#351 1931]

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

Philosophy has too long been pedagogical, and the best schooldays are half-holidays. If liberty has opened a window for us towards the infinite realm of essence, it has not authorized us to regard the prospect visible to us there as the truth about nature. Much less are we authorized to set up our visions as moral standards to which things ought to conform. The order of subordination is the opposite one. Nature being what she is, and we being in consequence what we are, certain special reaches of essence are obvious to our senses and intellect. Sights and sounds, pains and pleasures assail us; and our leisure is free to develop in music and language, in mathematics and religion, the moral burden of our animal existence. Nor will this play of ideas be sheer truancy. Our toys may become instruments, our sensations signs; and a part of the truth about nature and about ourselves will be necessarily revealed to us, directly or indirectly, by the mere existence and sequence of those apparitions. Directly, in emotion, perception, and dramatic sympathy, we may learn to know the human world, the world of images, morals, and literature: and indirectly, in close connection with the flow of sensation, we may learn to posit permanent objects and to pick our way among them to good purpose, as a child finds his way home.

Truth at 29-30 (Interplay Between Truth and Logic) [#352 1938]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Physics was now backed by a moral [that is, a self-sufficing, perfect and blessed] and logical [that is, a clear, definite and eternal] reason for the facts that it described: it had become metaphysics.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 519 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#353 1940]

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

[The] fabulous universes [of theologians] are but reversed images of the spiritual life . . . .

Spirit at 222 (Union) [#354 1940]

From The Letters of George Santayana

That you should think Plato good but not true, and should at the same time follow Darwin with approval would seem to indicate that you instinctively think as I think. This, and you Latin (or Greek—for Calabria is very Greek) blood donít apparently suffice to make you feel at home in my Weltanschauung. What is the difficulty? You don't tell me or give me any hint of where it lies. Why is Plato good in spite of being wrong? I should say because his ethics and politics are right in principle, but his cosmology is mythical and made to fit his humanism miraculously, having been planned on purpose to produce an ideal Athens and a perfect set of Athenians. Now, this is contrary to Darwin, and must be abandoned: Although the Platonic myth may be excellent parables, illustrating the growth of human virtues, I therefore stick to Darwin (or in my case—rather to Lucretius and Spinoza) in my cosmology; but when I turn to the realm of Spirit (which has its perfectly natural place in animal life) I drop Darwin, Lucretius, and even Spinoza and stick to Plato, or rather to the idea of Christ.

Letters 7:221 (To Lieutenant Garcia, Rome, February 26, 1946) [#355 1946]

From Dialogues in Limbo

[Socrates'] philosophy is all a play of words or logic of concepts, backed in his person by a heroic ascetic discipline, yet in itself arid and verbal, and fit to defend any fanaticism or superstition. . . . It is a sad fate that pursues moralists and logicians, who pipe their dialectic as if they lived in Arcadia, where nothing is to be heard but the twittering of birds and the growling of bears. Civilised human life is more complicated and dense, and nothing at all is discoverable about it by playing in that way the flute or the bagpipes. On the contrary, the order of nature is disguised or reversed by dialectic. Parmenides and Plato and Anaxagoras, by tracing thin rays of identity, implication or contradiction in ideal essences, logical or moral, cast an imaginary net over the world, like the parallels and meridians that modern geographers cast over the lands and seas of the earth; good terms in which to describe positions and distances between port and port in their voyages, but irrelevant to the hills and valleys, the nights and days, the works and the wars that diversify the world for its inhabitants. If language exhausted nature and logic could control facts, a mythologising moralist no doubt would have good sport, and Socrates might successfully confine beauty to the expression of vital and moral perfection. But perfections are multiple, and the beauty of one thing is incompatible with that of another. So with the virtues of different men, or ages, or nations: and Socrates and you [Alcibiades], though thinking you still worshipped the gods of Hellas, really were forerunners of very un-Greek loves and very romantic rebellions.

Dialogues 2d at 216-217 (The Vortex of Dialectic) [#356 1948]

From Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government

Life and spirit are not the cause of order in the world but its result.

Dominations at 9 (Naturalism) [#357 1951]

From Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government

For this reason Aristotle (who in spite of realistic observation and judgment was at bottom a disciple of Socrates and Plato) believed that all motion and change were violently imposed; that they were all not powers but dominations. Even the planets . . . were impelled thus to labour only by hopeless love of something immutable, namely, of eternal mind. This he taught although he was no poet; or rather, because he was no poet, he could believe that utility governed the world, and that nothing could exist save for the sake of something else. In this, as in the Platonic worship of essence, there was tragic wisdom; but it expresses the ultimate religion of spirit, not the primary motive power or Will in nature. It therefore inverts, by a schoolmaster's fallacy, the generative order of life and of society, as if grammars had been written first, and children manufactured afterwards, rather unsuccessfully, to learn them.

Dominations at 39 (Primal Will) [#358 1951]

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

[C]auses can never be truly found, however, so long as appearances are not first reduced to the terms of substance, and the mechanism of this substance is not disclosed. For this reason only the exact physical and mathematical sciences can make any solid progress: in others, the superficial plane of the enquiry forbids all thorough understanding of the actual methods of change. In Darwinism, for instance, natural history seemed to take a great step forward: and so, indeed, it did, in that it conceived the possibility of reducing the superficial fact of diverse species, and the adaptation of their organs to one another and to the environment, to the mechanical influence of selection by death. Nevertheless, as the exact method of this selection was not traced, so as to become calculable mathematically, and as the exact origin of variations also remained unexplored, the positive gain and even the scientific tendency of Darwinism could come to be doubted: and it has not prevented a relapse into vitalism in some half-scientific quarters. The argument has even been heard that the "sciences of life" required a different method, because the mechanical method had not succeeded in dealing with them. These "sciences of life," however, are only the vague impressions and dreams of people unable to understand what occurs in nature: astronomy was once a ""science of life," of that of the beasts of the Zodiac, or of the divine children of Heaven. Natural history, psychology, and all other fields where observation remains superficial, can be distributed only into impressionistic units and described in rhetorical terms, so long as the substantial movement and inner connection of their objects is not discovered. If that should occur, however, the sciences of life would really begin to exist, because the mechanism of life would begin to be clear. Such understanding of nature everywhere on the material plane, with its universal order and consecutiveness, would not destroy, of course, the appearances from which human investigation must start. Astronomical appearances endure, and so vital appearances always will; but if they were understood they would cease to be confused with powers or causes, and to the great gain of the spirit, they would be recognised as that coinage of the brain which fancy is very cunning in; and as the ghosts disappeared, poetry would come into its own.

Lachs' Physical Order at 31-32 (Causation) [#360 1969]

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

The notion of types or Platonic Ideas being the reality behind things is not now prevalent in physics, and never should have been so. It is an interpretation of discourse, not of nature; it belongs to moral philosophy, not to natural science, since it clarifies the goals and meanings of human life, but never discloses the causes or origin of anything. Displaced and treated as natural powers, Platonic Ideas at once turn into metaphysical substances; they are undiscoverable and incongruous with material things, the real substance of which is simply what is to be found inside them. Nevertheless in discourse, in art, and in morals, the Platonic method is and must remain the sole method of reason. They are the essences, fixed by intent or hinted at by growth and inspiration, in which the spirit might find its congenial objects, and the counters of its game. They are not substances behind things, nor fixed patterns in nature, nor forces, nor prescribed forms, outside which it would be deformity to fall; they are essences above things, to which things have chosen to aspire, or ideals with which we have chosen to compare them.

Lachs' Physical Order at 114 (Notions of Substance) [#641 1969]

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

If spirit must be invoked to account for all these unaccountable facts [gravity, motion, time, change], spirit is evidently at the root of everything. But alas, if spirit be conceived as one more fact, its existence too is perfectly unaccountable; and its connection with other events or power to produce them is not only unaccountable but incapable of being represented in any image, spirit and nature not having any dimension in common. . . . The appeal to spirit therefore only multiplies the insoluble problems presented by events, if we aspire in any intellectual sense to account for them.

Lachs' Physical Order at 181-182 (Cosmic Animism) [#361 1969]


Number of quotations (including supressed): 17


Santayana describes metaphysics as a moral or logical background to existence and criticizes it in the following quotations.



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