A George Santayana Home Page

Relativity of Knowledge and of Morals

Use of moral

Essence / existence
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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From The Letters of George Santayana

To say that all standards of value are arbitrary is not to say that you have none—that you have given up the practice of estimating the relative worth of things. All you have done is to admit that this worth depends on a standard proper to you, and that the same things have a different value according to other standards. To perceive that your ideal is one of many which are actual, and of numberless ideals which are possible, is not equivalent to giving it up. The unemancipated are like the children who think the angels talk English: but there is no contradiction in going on talking English when you discover that the little angels don't. English doesn't become less necessary when it becomes less heavenly. So I go on using my moral language—talking about good, bad, beautiful, ugly, right and wrong. I suppose you to understand my language: if you don't, why, you are a foreigner, and I will respect you as such and wish I could understand you better. I take for granted that my good is your good: should your good happen to be my evil, why, I will say you worship the devil,—and admit your perfect right to do so, else I should be authorizing you to deny my right to worship God.

Letters 1:19 (To Henry Ward Abbot, Berlin, November 1, 1886) [#573 1886]

From Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

These complications not unnaturally inspire discouragement and a sense of the hopeless relativity of human thought. 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. But the truth, the absolute reality, surrounds and precedes these operations of finite faculty. What value, then, we may say, have these various ideals or perceptions, or the conflicts between them? Are not our senses as human, as "subjective" as our wills? Is not the understanding as visionary as the fancy? Does it not transform the Unknowable into as remote a symbol as does the vainest dream?

The answer which a rational philosophy would make to these questions would be a double one. 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.

The impulse that would throw over as equally worthless every product of human art, because it is not indistinguishable from some alleged external reality, does not perceive the serious self-contradictions under which it labours. In the first place the notion of an external reality is a human notion; our reason makes that hypothesis, and its verification in our experience is one of the ideals of science, as its validity is one of the assumptions of daily life. In throwing over all human ideas, because they are infected with humanity, all human ideas are being sacrificed to one of them—the idea of an absolute reality. . . . Furthermore, even if we granted for the sake of argument a reality which our thoughts were essentially helpless to represent, whence comes the duty of our thoughts to represent it? Whence comes the value of this unattainable truth? From an ideal of human reason. We covet truth. So that the attempt to surrender all human science as relative and all human ideals as trivial is founded on a blind belief in one human idea and an absolute surrender to one human passion.

Poetry & Religion at 12-13 (Understanding, Imagination, and Mysticism) [#574 1900]

From Reason in Science

The autonomous moralist differs from the sophist or ethical sceptic in this: that he retains his integrity. In vindicating his ideal he does not recant his human nature. In asserting the initial right of every impulse in others, he remains the spokesman of his own. Knowledge of the world, courtesy, and fairness do not neutralise his positive life. He is thoroughly sincere, as the sophist is not; for every man, while he lives, embodies and enacts some special interest; and this truth, which those who confound psychology with ethics may think destructive of all authority in morals, is in fact what alone renders moral judgment possible and respectable. 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) [#575 1906]

From Animal Faith and Spiritual Life

Socrates and Plato] were political philosophers by tradition, being Greeks, but private moralists by vocation, and it is only to private morality that their system really applies. In the 'Republic' the problem is how to save the soul, and the political discussion is introduced only as a great parable, because the public in those pre-Christian days had a keener sense for political than for spiritual perfection. 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. In the first place they thought that scientific knowledge of nature was impossible, or at least irrelevant to the government of life and to the right choice of ideals. In the next place, unlike the Indians, they overlooked the whole non-human creation. Finally they assumed that human nature was single, definite, and invariable. If appearance, tradition, and religious faith enlightened us sufficiently about the universe, if no beings counted except the human, and all human beings were essentially identical with ourselves, then, indeed, the morality of the single soul would cover all public morality: all men, to be good, would need to follow the same precepts, and if all men were good, society would be perfect.

Most of us now see quite clearly how far this is from being the case. The living world is fluid and contradictory, and to assume the uniformity of human nature and the adequacy of private virtue to secure public good opens the door wide to tyranny and to political apathy. 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) [#576 1916]

From Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

[A]ll I wish for others, or dare to recommend to them, is that they should keep their lives sweet also, not after my fashion, but each man in his own way. I talk a great deal about the good and the ideal, having learned from Plato and Aristotle (since the living have never shown me how to live) that, granting 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; and they cannot be defined in such a way as to be transferred without change from one race or person to another, because human nature is various. Yet any reflective and honest man, in expressing his hopes and preferences, may expect to find many of his neighbours agreeing with him, and when they agree, they may work politically together. Now I am sometimes blamed for not labouring more earnestly to bring down the good of which I prate into the lives of other men. My critics suppose, apparently, that I mean by the good some particular way of life or some type of character which is alone virtuous, and which ought to be propagated. Alas, their propagandas! How they have filled this world with hatred, darkness, and blood! How they are still the eternal obstacle, in every home and in every heart, to a simple happiness! I have no wish to propagate any particular character, least of all my own; my conceit does not take that form. I wish individuals, and races, and nations to be themselves, and to multiply the forms of perfection and happiness, as nature prompts them. The only thing which I think might be propagated without injustice to the types thereby suppressed is harmony; enough harmony to prevent the interference of one type with another, and to allow the perfect development of each type. The good, as I conceive it, is happiness, happiness for each man after his own heart, and for each hour according to its inspiration.

Soliloquies at 258 (On My Friendly Critics) [#577 1921]

From The Letters of George Santayana

In recognizing the equal legitimacy of every creature, with his innate ethics, I do not renounce my own: the contradiction would come if, professing to admire integrity in lions and barbarians, I allowed my own integrity to be polluted or dissolved.

Letters 3:219 (To John Boynoton Priestly, Cortina d’Ampezzo, September 15, 1924) [#578 1924]

From Platonism and the Spiritual Life

Values presuppose living beings having a direction of development, and exerting themselves in it, so that good and evil may exist in reference to them. That the good should be relative to actual natures and simply their innate ideal, latent or realized, is essential to its being truly a good. Otherwise the term 'good' would be an empty title applied to some existing object or force for no assignable reason.

Platonism at 13-14 (Chapter IV) [#579 1927]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

Spinoza, too, whom I was reading under Royce himself, filled me with joy and enthusiasm: I gathered at once from him 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 of the universe infinitely exceeds the force of any of its parts.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 10 (A General Confession) [#582 1930]

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

Hence the absence of a need or a passion in one phase of life cannot be taken for an argument that such a need or passion is false or wicked elsewhere. The contrary assumption is the root of much idle censoriousness and injustice in moralists, who are probably old men, and sapless even in youth, all their zeal being about phrases and maxims that run in their heads and desiccate the rest of their spirit.

Truth at 75-76 (Moral Truth) [#580 1938]

From Egotism in German Philosophy

Like the animal life which it expresses, pre-rational morality is far from being inwardly wicked or condemnable. . . . Reason cannot oppose these intuitions but may insinuate itself into them and transform them. Therefore, Socrates, the father of rational ethics, though he had clear moral and political allegiances of his own, never imposed them dogmatically upon his disciples. He begged them to speak for themselves, merely testing their consistency and pointing out the consequences. And he sought to enlighten only the Athenians, especially the very young among them, though with little success. Here, at least, he thought he knew the nature of the animal and its possible virtue, so that in appealing to spontaneous judgments he could be sure of the issue. He was never guilty of the moralistic practice of blaming fishes for liking to live under water. St. Francis, when he preached to them, also avoided this error.

Egotism (New) at 183-184 (Postscript: The Nature of Egotism and of the Moral Conflicts That Disturb the World) [#581 1939]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

This principle is what I call moralism, and has two forms. One, moralism proper, asserts the categorical imperative of an absolute reason or duty determining right judgment and conduct. In the other form, moralism becomes a principle of cosmology and religion; it asserts the actual dominance of reason or goodness over the universe at large.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 502 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#583 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

There are thus two kinds of dogmatism, although both preserve this fundamental presupposition of animal intelligence, namely: that apprehension is informative, that antecedent or hidden facts exist to be discovered, and that knowledge of them is possible. But the initial kind of dogmatist, having only sensation and fancy to guide him, assumes that things are just as they seem or as he thinks they ought to be: and if this assumption be challenged, the rash dogmatist hotly denies the relativity of his knowledge and of his conscience. Now I have always asserted this double relativity; it is implied in my materialism. I am not, then, a dogmatist in this first popular sense of the word, but decidedly a sceptic. Yet I stoutly assert relativity; I am a dogmatist there; for I see clearly that an animal cannot exist without a habitat, and that his impulses and perceptions are soon directed upon it with a remarkable quickness and precision: he therefore has true and transitive knowledge. But I also see clearly that knowledge, if it takes an imaginative or moral form at all, must take a form determined by his specific senses and instincts. His true knowledge must then be, in its terms, relative to his nature, and no miraculous intuition of his habitat as it exists in itself.

This inevitable relativity of knowledge and interest, far from abolishing their assertiveness, justifies this assertiveness in its intellectual confidence and in its moral warmth. For it is some soul that is being touched, that is finding its level, and building its nest. My perceptions and my preferences are my own; but they are just as relevant to the facts as those of other creatures, and just as true to my nature as their different sentiments are to theirs. In this way I confirm myself in a dogmatism of a deliberate, qualified, and critical kind, not built on sense or imagination, but on faith, a faith in which active impulse is redirected by reflection and judgment.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 511-512 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#584 1940]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

The notion that a single universal vocation summons all mankind and even all the universe to tread a single path towards the same end seems to me utterly anti-natural. It has come into modern opinion as a heritage from religion; and I respect it in religion when it expresses the genuine aspiration of some particular race or, in the best instance, of spirit in anybody; but I cannot respect it as a view of history; and I positively deplore it when it undertakes to coerce spirit in everybody into the worship of some insolent local, temporary, material ambition.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 558 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#585 1940]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

The notion of belittling any [civilization of which I was learning about as a youth] never crossed my mind; and as one style of architecture does not prevent the others from being equally beautiful and proper in their time and place, so the whole mental and moral civilisation that flourished with that style must be accepted as right and honourable in its day. This principle is applicable to the religions and philosophies, in so far as they too are local and temporary; but in so far as the universe and human nature are constant, it is evident that a single system of science will serve to describe them, although the images and language will constantly differ in which that system is expressed. . . .

In regard, however, to rival forms of art or civilisation, I was directed from the beginning towards impartiality, which does not imply omnivorousness or confusion. All beauties are to be honoured, but only one embraced.

Persons and Places at 143-144 (No. 302 Beacon Street) [#586 1944]

From Persons and Places: fragments of autobiography

For those who love war the world is an excellent field, but I am a born cleric or poet. I must see both sides and take neither, in order, ideally, to embrace both, to sing both, and love the different forms that the good and the beautiful wear to different creatures. This comprehensiveness in sympathy by no means implies that good and evil are indistinguishable or dubious. Nature sets definite standards for every living being; the good and the beautiful could not exist otherwise; and the failure or lapse of natural perfection in each is an irreparable evil. But it is, in every case a ground of sorrow to the spirit, not of rage; for such failure or lapse is fated and involuntary.

Persons and Places at 155-156 (The Latin School) [#587 1944]

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

The effort to moralise God or nature, and to see in God or nature the model for human virtue—an effort which I call moralism—ends by justifying all evils and dissolving any definite human morality in theory if not in practice.

Idea of Christ at 205 (Moralism) [#588 1946]

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

Two mistakes seem to me to inhere in moralism: one, that God cannot be good or worthy of worship unless he obeys the precepts of human morality; the other, that if God is not good after our fashion, our own morality is undermined.

Idea of Christ at 205 (Moralism) [#589 1946]

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

This idea of Christ . . . is also an ideal to hold up before the philosopher who cannot renounce being a man, yet cannot help transcending his humanity in thought before the overwhelming spectacle of nature and the infinite intricacies of logic. . . . Yet, with this model before him, he may at least escape the snare of moralism, that destroys the sweetness of human affections by stretching them on the rack of infinity and absoluteness. He may learn from Christ to cultivate and honour these affections for what they are, human and accidental, but ordained and sanctioned in that capacity by the eternal order of things.

Idea of Christ at 212 (Moralism) [#590 1946]

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

This custom, when it arises, cannot have proved fatal to the race, where it still lasts; but short of that extremity, there is hardly any degree of constraint, cruelty, and ineptitude which may not characterise custom. The stupid moralism which clings to it is like that which assumes the inevitableness of a given language.

Dominations at 70 (Servitude to Custom) [#591 1951]

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

Since it is relative to temporary needs progress cannot last without losing gradually its moral identity; but the very impossibility of an absolute moral standard justifies the relative moral authority of vital Will, in its own sphere, wherever it arises. The contrary values that the same events may have for contrary interests does not obscure the exact value that each event may have for each of those interests.

Dominations at 341 (Confusions About Progress) [#594 1951]

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

If such is the natural history of morals, it follows that there is a complete inversion of the order of nature in striving after or preaching any particular type of virtue as if it were divinely imposed upon all men alike, or even upon the cosmos at large . . . . In other words moralism, that takes moral sense for the foundation of religion and even of cosmology, is a radical error. Good and evil are relative to natures already existing and making specific demands . . . .

Lachs' Physical Order at 206 (Relativity of Morals) [#595 1969]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 24

Contrasting the absolutism of moralists to the relativism of morality based on human nature, Santayana writes:

Suppose we discount as fabulous every projection of human morality into the supernatural: need we thereby relapse into moral anarchy? In one sense, and from the point of view of the absolute or monocular moralist, we must: because the whole moral sphere then relapses into the bosom of nature, and nature, though not anarchical, is not governed by morality. But for a philosopher with two eyes, the natural status of morality in the animal world does not exclude the greatest vigour in those moral judgments and moral passions which belong to his nature. On the contrary, I think that it is only when he can see the natural origin and limits of the moral sphere that a moralist can be morally sane and just. Blindness to the biological truth about morality is not favourable to purity of moral feeling: it removes all sense of proportion and relativity; it kills charity, humility, and humour; and it shuts the door against that ultimate light which comes to the spirit from the spheres above morality.

The Genteel Tradition at Bay '31 at 51 (Moral Adequacy of Naturalism).

This page focuses on quotations dealing with the relativity of opinion and judgment, as well as Santayana's ideas about the denial of this relativity in what he calls, "moralism."