A George Santayana Home Page

Human Nature

Use of moral

Essence / existence
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Spirit incarnate
Virtual knowledge
Mind function of body

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Human nature
Relativity of morals
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British philosophy
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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From The Letters of George Santayana

There is a certain ideal dwelling in each of us, which the growth of our minds and bodies under the most favorable circumstances would fulfil.

Letters 1:91 to 1:92 (To William Morton Fullerton, Berlin, December 28, 1887) [#525 1887]

From Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

Indeed, if there be any special endowment of mind and body called human nature, as there seems to be, it is obvious that all human experience must be relative to that. . . .

. . . . It is true that every idea is equally relative to human nature and that nothing can be represented in the human mind except by the operation of human faculties. But it is not true that all these products of human ideation are of equal value, since they are not equally conducive to human purposes or satisfactory to human demands.

Poetry & Religion at 12-13 (Understanding, Imagination, and Mysticism) [#527 1900]

From Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

The ideal of mysticism is accordingly exactly contrary to the ideal of reason ; instead of perfecting human nature it seeks to abolish it . . . .

Poetry & Religion at 14 (Understanding, Imagination, and Mysticism) [#528 1900]

From Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

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.

Poetry & Religion at 59 (The Poetry of Christian Dogma) [#529 1900]

From Introduction and Reason in Common Sense

Modern theory has not done so much to help us here, however, as it has in physics. It seldom occurs to the modern moralists that theirs is the science of all good and the art of its attainment; they think only of some set of categorical precepts or some theory of moral sentiments, abstracting altogether from the ideals reigning in society, in science, and in art. . . . They attach morals to religion, rather than to politics . . . . They divide man into compartments . . .; and sometimes pedantry and scholasticism are carried so far that noting but an abstract sense of duty remains in the broad region which should contain all human goods.

Such trivial sanctimony in morals is doubtless due to artificial views about the conditions of welfare; the basis is laid in authority rather than in human nature, and the goal in salvation rather than in happiness.

Common Sense at 30 (Introduction) [#530 1905]

From Introduction and Reason in Common Sense

Nature had been proved [in Kant's thought] a figment of human imagination so that, once rid of all but a mock allegiance to her facts and laws, we might be free to invent any world we chose and believe it to be absolutely real and independent of our nature.

Common Sense at 97 (On Some Critics of This Discovery) [#531 1905]

From Introduction and Reason in Common Sense

The picture of life as an eternal war for illusory ends was drawn at first by satirists . . . . A barbarous mind cannot conceive life, like health, as a harmony continually preserved or restored, and containing those natural and ideal activities which disease merely interrupts. Such a mind, never having tasted order, cannot conceive it, and identifies progress with new conflicts and life with continual death. Its deification of unreason, instability, and strife comes partly from piety and partly from inexperience. There is piety in saluting nature in her perpetual flux and in thinking that since no equilibrium is maintained forever none, perhaps, deserves to be. There is inexperience in not considering that whatever interests and judgments exist, the natural flux has fallen, so to speak, into a vortex, and created a natural good, a cumulative life, and an ideal purpose. Art, science, government, human nature itself, are self-defining and self-preserving: by partly fixing a structure they fix an ideal. But the barbarian can hardly regard such things, for to have distinguished and fostered them would be to have founded a civilization.

Common Sense at 262 (Some Abstract Conditions of the Ideal) [#532 1905]

From Introduction and Reason in Common Sense

This definition of human nature, clear as it may be in itself and true to the facts, will perhaps hardly make sufficiently plain how the Life of Reason, having a natural basis, has in the ideal world a creative and absolute authority. A more concrete description of human nature may accordingly not come amiss, especially as the important practical question touching the extension of a given moral authority over times and places depends on the degree of kinship found among the creatures inhabiting those regions. To give a general picture of human nature and its rational functions will be the tasks of the following books.

Common Sense at 290 (Flux and Constancy in Human Nature) [#533 1905]

From Reason in Science

In vindicating his ideal [the autonomous moralist] does not recant his human nature. In asserting the initial right of every impulse in others, he remains the spokesman of his own. . . . If the sophist declares that what his nature attaches him to is not 'really' a good, because it would not be a good, perhaps, for a different creature, he is a false interpreter of his own heart, and rather discreditably stultifies his honest feelings and actions by those theoretical valuations which, in guise of a mystical ethics, he gives out to the world.

Science at 243-244 (Rational Ethics) [#534 1906]

From Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion

Hence the whole Platonic and Christian scheme, in making the good independent of private will and opinion, by no means makes it independent of the direction of nature in general and of human nature in particular; for all things have been created with an innate predisposition towards the creative good, and are capable of finding happiness in nothing else. Obligation, in this system, remains internal and vital.

Winds at 154 n.8 (The Philosophy of Mr. Bertrand Russell) [#535 1911]

From Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews

Human nature is not altogether fixed, and human goodness and what man can look upon as good vary with it.

Buchler's Obiter at 75 (Plotinus and the Nature of Evil) [#798 1913]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

After all, antiquity must have been right in thinking that reasonable self-direction must rest on having a determinate character and knowing what it is, and that only the truth about God and happiness, if we somehow found it, could make us free. But the truth is not to be found by guessing at it, as religious prophets and men of genius have done, and then damning every one who does not agree. Human nature, for all its substantial fixity, is a living thing with many varieties and variations. All diversity of opinion is therefore not founded on ignorance ; it may express a legitimate change of habit or interest. The classic and Christian synthesis from which we have broken loose was certainly premature, even if the only issue of our liberal experiments should be to lead us back to some such equilibrium. Let us hope at least that the new morality, when it comes, may be more broadly based than the old on knowledge of the world, not so absolute, not so meticulous, and not chanted so much in the monotone of an abstracted sage.

Soliloquies at 168-169 (Classic Liberty) [#538 1915]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

The days of liberalism are numbered. First the horrors of competition discredited it, and now the trial of war, which it foolishly thought it could elude. The vogue of culture, too, has declined. We see that the man whose success is merely personal—the actor, the sophist, the millionaire, the aesthete—is incurably vulgar. The rightness of liberalism is exactly proportional to the diversity of human nature, to its vague hold on its ideals. Where this vagueness and play of variation stop, and they stop not far below the surface, the sphere of public organization should begin. It is in the subsoil of uniformity, of tradition, of dire necessity that human welfare is rooted, together with wisdom and unaffected art, and the flowers of culture that do not draw their sap from that soil are only paper flowers.

Soliloquies at 177-178 (Liberalism and Culture) [#539 1915]

From Animal Faith and Spiritual Life

What enabled Socrates and Plato to apply their personal morality in the gross, and to imagine that they had a political system as well as a spiritual one, was a triple oversight on their part. . . . [T]hey assumed that human nature was single, definite, and invariable. . . .

. . . . The orthodox then profess to know the man better a priori than he knows himself by experience; everything that departs from their conventions is set down for a disease, a sin, or a contradiction; and this innate obliquity in man their zeal must hasten to extirpate. No attempt to do justice to life or society is possible on such a basis.

Lach's Animal Faith at 355 (Two Rational Moralists) [#536 1916]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

[T]he primary impulses of nature, though intermittent, are monotonous and clearly defined, as are the gestures of love and of anger. A man who is unaffectedly himself turns out to be uncommonly like other people. Simple sincerity will continually rediscover the old right ways of thinking and speaking, and will be perfectly conventional without suspecting it. This classic iteration comes of nature, it is not the consequence of any revision or censorship imposed by reason. . . . [T]he Old Adam is conservative ; he repeats himself mechanically in every child who cries and loves sweets and is imitative and jealous.

Soliloquies at 136 (The Comic Mask) [#537 1921]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

[G]ranting a human nature to which to appeal, the good and the ideal may be defined with some accuracy. Of course, they cannot be defined immutably, because human nature is not immutable . . . .

Soliloquies at 258 (On My Friendly Critics) [#541 1921]

From Reason in Common Sense

All that was needed [to distinguish progress in the Life of Reason] was to know oneself. No unnatural constancy need be imposed on human nature at large: it sufficed that the critic himself should have a determinate character and a sane capacity for happiness. He was not likely to be so original that, if he was sincere, nobody else would be found to share and approve his judgments.

Common Sense 2d at xi (Preface to the Second Edition) [#557 1922]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

Science as yet has no answer to this most important of all questions, if we wish to understand human nature : namely, How is the body, and how are its senses and passions, determined to develop as they do? . . . . Mechanism is one habit of matter, and life is another habit of matter ; the first we can measure mathematically and forecast accurately, the second we can only express in moral terms, and anticipate vaguely ; but that the mechanical habit runs through the vital habit, and conditions it, is made obvious by the dependence of life on food, on time, on temperature, by its routine in health and by its diseases, by its end, and above all by its origin ; for it is a habit of matter continuous with other inorganic habits, and (if evolution is true) arising out of them. In any case, life comes from a seed in which it lies apparently dormant and arrested, and from which it is elicited by purely mechanical agencies. On the other hand, the seed reacts on those agencies in a manner as yet inexplicable by what we know of its structure ; and its development closely repeats (though perhaps with spontaneous variation) the phases proper to the species.

Soliloquies at 219-220 (The Psyche) [#540 1922]

From The Letters of George Santayana

You seem to leave out the authority of a man's own nature over his casual preferences, in other words, self-knowledge. I entirely agree that different natures have no moral authority over one another; but folly in judgement and action is nevertheless possible if a creature ignores the interests or the facts which he would wish to take into account if he remembered them.

Letters 3:245 (To Curt John Ducasse, Rome, May 2, 1925) [#543 1925]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I am as convinced as ever of [Liberalism's or Individualism's] correctness: values are relative to natures, and it is all a question of sincerity and self-knowledge whether we organize them rationally or not. Yet there is some difference in weight between a sincere Goethe and a sincere Clive Bell . . . Don't let us let Liberalism make us inhuman!

Letters 4:156 (To Curt John Ducasse, Rome, January 5, 1930) [#544 1930]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

I gathered at once from [Spinoza] a doctrine which has remained axiomatic with me ever since, namely that good and evil are relative to the natures of animals, irreversible in that relation, but indifferent to the march of cosmic events, since the force the universe infinitely exceeds the force of any one of its parts.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 10 (A General Confession) [#551 1930]

From The Genteel Tradition at Bay

[I]n no case is reason a code, an oracle, or an external censor condemning the perceptions of sense or suppressing the animal impulses. On the contrary, in the moral life, reason is a harmony of the passions, a harmony which perceptions and impulses may compose in so far as they grow sensitive to one another, and begin to move with mutual deference and a total grace.

. . . . Socrates had expressed this principle paradoxically when he taught that virtue is knowledge—self-knowledge taken to heart and applied prudently in action. Not that spontaneous preferences, character, and will could be dispensed with: these were presupposed; but it was reason that alone could mould those animal components of human nature into a noble and modest happiness.

Genteel Tradition at Bay at 60-61 (Moral Adequacy of Naturalism) [#545 1931]

From The Genteel Tradition at Bay

Conscience is an index to integrity of character, and under varying circumstances may retain an iron rigidity, like the staff and arrow of a weather-vane; but if directed by sentiment only, and not by a solid science of human nature, conscience will always be pointing in a different direction.

Genteel Tradition at Bay at 69 (Moral Adequacy of Naturalism) [#546 1931]

From The Genteel Tradition at Bay

[O]nly a morality frankly relative to man's nature is worthy of man, being at once vital and rational, martial and generous . . . .

Genteel Tradition at Bay at 73-74 (Moral Adequacy of Naturalism) [#547 1931]

From Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays

The self which acts in a man is itself moved by forces which have long been familiar to common sense, without being understood except dramatically. These forces are called the passions; or when the dramatic units distinguished are longish strands rather than striking episodes, they are called temperament, character, or will; or perhaps, weaving all these strands and episodes together again into one moral fabric, we call them simply human nature.

Turns of Thought at 39 (Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense) [#772 1933]

From The Letters of George Santayana

I am not yet sure what these archetypal patterns are [in your poetry]: I mean, what they are ontologically. Everything in my old-fashioned mind seems to be covered by what was called "human nature" and "the passions." We are all much alike in our capacities for feeling, as in our bodily structure. The doctors find, almost always, every organic detail in each of us exactly in its allotted place; and so the various sensuous phenomena that strike the imagination are bathed in each of us in exactly similar emotions.

Letters 5:155 (To Amy Maud Bodkin, Rome, November 22, 1934) [#548 1934]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

That is all my message: that morality and religion are expressions of human nature; that human nature is a biological growth; and finally that spirit, fascinated and tortured, is involved in the process, and asks to be saved.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 23 (A General Confession) [#552 1937]

From The Letters of George Santayana

[P]ragmatism, like empiricism, is a most ambiguous thing. They may mean testing ideas by experiment, by an appeal to the object or physical fact, which in ethics would be human nature with it's physical potentialities of achievement and happiness. On the other hand, empiricism and pragmatism may mean accepting every idea as an ultimate fact and absolute standard for itself, and in practice deciding everything by vote, by sentiment, or by the actual prevalence of one idea over another. In this second direction lies softness, anarchy, and dissolution.

Letters 6:151 (To Beryl Harold Levy, Cortina d'Ampezzo, August 8, 1938) [#550 1938]

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

Humanism begins in the moral sphere, with the perception that every man's nature is, for him, the arbiter of values. So far, this view merely universalizes the Gospel text that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. From such moral enlightenment, however, we may easily slip into equivocations that will land us in moral chaos. In saying that a man's nature is, for him, the arbiter of values, we may understand that nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. We shall then have confused what a man is with what he thinks he is, and identified his interests with his wishes. Under cover of freedom to be ourselves we shall be denying that we have any true nature; and under cover of asserting our native rights, we shall be denying that we have any ultimate interests. Humanism, so understood, will have disintegrated humanity, declared all passions equally good and proclaimed moral anarchy.

Truth at 124-125 (Denials of Truth) [#549 1938]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Naturalism and humanism mean order and firm precept for a man who believes in an ordered universe and a moderately stable human nature; but for a man who thinks his passing ideas and wishes absolute, they mean anarchy. . . . My naturalism and humanism seemed to them [my readers] to give carte blanche to revolution: and so they do, if revolution represents a deeper understanding of human nature and human virtue than tradition does at that moment; but, if we make allowance for the inevitable symbolism and convention in human ideas, tradition must normally represent human nature and human virtue much better than impatience with tradition can do; especially when this impatience is founded on love of luxury, childishness, and the absence of any serious discipline of mind or heart. These are the perils that threaten naturalism and humanism in America.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 559 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#554 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

This spontaneous democratic love of mankind [of William James] overlooks the nature and fate of mankind in deference to their wishes; it overlooks the need of tradition and of team-work.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 583 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#558 1940]

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

After all, it is the spirit that makes human nature human . . . .

Spirit at 212 (Liberation) [#559 1940]

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

[To eulogize all essence] would be treason to human nature and to the Good . . . .

Spirit at 286-287 (General Review of Realms of Being) [#560 1940]

From The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or, God in Man: A Critical Essay

[T]he ideal virtue of any living creature can never depend on the nature of any other: for this ideal virtue, by definition, is that to which this living being naturally aspires. God therefore, in creating human nature, has rendered living and authoritative over mankind the human ideal of virtue. If human nature changes, this ideal changes with it. So, once for all or by gradual definition, through instinct, custom, and the inspiration of prophets, God has imposed on man rules of conduct suitable to his human condition, together with the suitable emotions. These rules are inflexible, so long as human nature and the relevant circumstances remain the same, but are expressly different according to personal endowment, age, station and epoch. In order to be living, binding and practicable, laws must be suited to the living man. Otherwise the voice of conscience would not confirm them, and true morality would demand reforms in the morality prescribed.

Idea of Christ at 206 (Moralism) [#561 1946]

From The Letters of George Santayana

The roots and effects of clericalism must first be considered from its own side: since it is just as human as anything else in human society. Everything is bound to take up room and to shove other things aside in some measure: the question is to understand justly what hold each thing has normally in nature and in human nature, and how great is the ascension or flowering of life that it is capable of producing.

Letters 7:382 (To Philip Roddman, Rome, October 2, 1947) [#562 1947]

From The Letters of George Santayana

. . . I am not a dogmatist in morals. It is for each man's nature—not for his consciousness or opinion—to determine what his "true" interests are.

Letters 8:143 (To Ervin Paul Hexner, Rome, February 28, 1949) [#567 1949]

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

I have become aware that anyone's sense of what is good and beautiful must have a somewhat narrow foundation, namely, his circumstances and his particular brand of human nature; and he should not expect the good or the beautiful after his own heart to be greatly prevalent of long maintained in the world.

Dominations at vii (Preface) [#569 1951]

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

Reason cannot define or codify human nature: that is the error of militant sects and factions. But it can exercise a modicum of control over local and temporal impulses and keep at least an ideal of spiritual liberty and social justice before the public eye.

Dominations at 382 (Representative Government III: Moral Representation in Society) [#570 1951]

From The Genteel Tradition at Bay

There can be, I should say, no morality where there is no nature determining the needs, demands, and innate aspirations of living creatures.

If such a creature were the only one of his race or in his circumstances, his good or his duties could be based only on his own idiosyncracies.

If there are many, or a close sect, of similar creatures, the assurance with which each, if alone, would have distinguished his good or duty will be vastly intensified by the herd instinct confirming and solidifying that animal assurance. This is what happens to sects and nations of all sorts.

But in society, while natural virtues are sanctified by unanimity, they are rendered sad and embarrassed by contradiction, and arguments are sought for persuading oneself and others that one is right and others wrong.

But this is foolish. If each knows himself he knows what is good for him by nature, and he must ask others, as Socrates did, to say for themselves each whether his own heart has the same voice.

Genteel Tradition at Bay 8:371 (To John W. Yolton, Rome, July 12, 1951) [#571 1951]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 41

Santayana's faith in human nature serves to distinguish his doctrine of the relativity of knowledge and morals from pure subjectivity in idea and will, and is also integral to understanding his criticism of moralisms of all stripes. See, e.g., Religion '05 at 214-215 (Charity) (having discovered ideals true to one's nature, it remains necessary to recognize their relativity). Santayana dedicates a chapter of The Life of Reason to an explication of human nature, see Common Sense '05 at 269 et. seq. (Flux and Constancy in Human Nature), which is further elaborated by the selections gathered here.