January 27, 2006

George Santayana

Richard Butler SPIRITUALITY TODAY Winter 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 319-336
He was, of course, influenced by two prominent philosophy professors at Harvard at that time. One was Josiah Royce, a romantic idealist, and the other was William James, the "Father of Pragmatism." Both Royce and James were basically religious in a natural way. William James even wrote a much-used text called Varieties of Religious Experience; but faithful to their intellectual legacy of rationalism, he denied a personal God who enters history or personally relates to humankind.
Santayana was not, in a technical or scientific sense, a philosopher at all. He was a poet reflecting and commenting on life in the universe as it appeared to him. He did attempt to construct an integral pattern of ultimate concerns with his four-volume summary called Realms of Being, introduced by a treatise entitled Skepticism and Animal Faith; but he denied that this was meant to be a system or even thought of as objective truth. He maturely considered that all systems of reproducing nature are equally subject to limitations and that none can claim to be a carbon copy of the original. No matter how eloquent or profound, they are all soliloquies extrinsic to the drama of natural history, which unfolds without intermission as the spectator defectively describes it in his own terms.
His recorded view of religion, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), set a conclusive theme that religion is a sort of poetry which expresses moral values and reacts beneficently upon life. He identified the two subjects. Poetry, he said, is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry. He knew his basic position in matters of religious faith and expressed it sadly and succinctly...Thus his best works are his poems and essays, and even his single novel, The Last Puritan, which was based on his Harvard and Boston experience, met with wide success.
Santayana was enthusiastic in his praises of the French philosopher, "the only great philosopher I knew personally." He had attended some of Bergson's lectures in Paris and had incorporated some elements of Bergsonian philosophy into his own system. At least there is a strong correspondence of thought -- the flux of matter warring against the spirit, the prejudice of intellect in interpreting that flux, the preference of intuition, which alone can grasp the essences of things. "Above all," said Santayana, "is his keen notion of la fonction fabulatrice, the creative function of the imagination that is capable of supplying all that a man needs and lacks in reality." Santayana's eyes sparkled playfully as he added the phrase "such as the fabric of revelation that can make gods of men."
I wondered if he knew about the report of Bergson's religious conversion; anyway, I could not resist a reply making mention of it. His reaction was one of shock and incredulity. He was stunned momentarily, then asked for more details...George Santayana presents the classic case of the confused skeptic who hesitatingly stands (in his own words) "at the church door." Like him, many today are at the same stage of their spiritual life.

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