George Santayana.

Character & opinion in the United States : with reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and academic life in America online

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)UN 21 1962





The major part of this book is composed
of lectures originally addressed to British
audiences. I have added a good deal, but
I make no apology, now that the whole may
fall under American eyes, for preserving the
tone and attitude of a detached observer.
Not at all on the ground that " to see our-
selves as others see us " would be to see
ourselves truly; on the contrary, I agree
with Spinoza where he says that other
people's idea of a man is apt to be a better
expression of their nature than of his, I
accept this principle in the present instance,
and am willing it should be applied to the
judgements contained in this book, in which
the reader may see chiefly expressions of my
own feelings and hints of my own opinions.
Only an American — and I am not one except
by long association ^— can speak for the heart

^ Perhaps I should add that I have not been in the United
States since January 1012. My observations stretched, with
some intervals, through the forty years preceding that date.




of America. I try to understand it, as a
family friend may who has a different tem-
perament ; but it is only my own mind that
I speak for at bottom, or wish to speak for.
Certainly my sentiments are of little im-
portance compared with the volimie and
destiny of the things I discuss here : yet the
critic and artist too have their rights, and to
take as calm and as long a view as possible
seems to be but another name for the love
of truth. Moreover, I suspect that my feel-
ings are secretly shared by many people in
America, natives and foreigners, who may
not have the courage or the occasion to
express them frankly. After all, it has been
acquaintance with America and American
philosophers that has chiefly contributed to
clear and to settle my own mind. I have no
axe to grind, only my thoughts to burnish,
in the hope that some part of the truth of
things may be reflected there ; and I am
confident of not giving serious offence to the
judicious, because they will feel that it is
affection for the American people that makes
me wish that what is best and most beautiful
should not be absent from their lives.

Civilisation is perhaps approaching one of




those long winters that overtake it from time
to time, A flood of barbarism from below
may soon level all the fair works of our
Christian ancestors, as another flood two
thousand years ago levelled those of the
ancients. Romantic Christendom — pictur-
esque, passionate, unhappy episode — ^may be
coming to an end. Such a catastrophe would
be no reason for despair. Nothing lasts for
ever ; but the elasticity of life is wonderful,
and even if the world lost its memory it could
not lose its youth. Under the deluge, and .
watered by it, seeds of all sorts would survive
against the time to come, even if what might
eventually spring from them, imder the new
circimistances, should wear a strange aspect.
In a certain measure, and unintentionally,
both this destruction and this restoration
have already occurred in America. There is
much forgetfulness, much callow disrespect
for what is past or alien ; but there is a fund
of vigour, goodness, and hope such as no
nation ever possessed before. In what some-
times looks like American greediness and
jostling for the front place, all is love of
achievement, nothing is unkindness ; it is a
fearless people, and free from malice, as you




might see in their eyes and gestures, even if
their conduct did not prove it. This soil is
propitious to every seed, and tares must
needs grow in it ; but why should it not also
breed clear thinking,. Jionest judgement, and
rational happiness ? These things are indeed
not necessary to existence, and without them
America might long remain rich and populous
like many a barbarous land in the past ; but
in that case its existence would be hounded,
like theirs, by falsity and remorse. May
Heaven avert the omen, and make the new
world a better world than the old 1 In the
classical and romantic tradition of Europe,
love, of which there was very little, was
supposed to be kindled by beauty, of which
there was a great deal : perhaps moral
chemistry may be able to reverse this opera-
tion, and in the future and in America it
may breed beauty out of love.






The Moral Background 1

The Academic Environment S5

WiLUAM James 64

Josiah Boyck 97


Later Speculations 139


Materialism and Idealism in American Life . l65


English. Liberty* in America . . . .192








About the middle of the nineteenth century,
in the quiet sunshine of provincial pros-
perity. New England had an Indian summer
of the mind; and an agreeable reflective/
literature showed how brilliant that russet
and yellow season could be. There were
poets, historians, orators, preachers, lyiost of
whom had studied foreign literatures and had
travelled ; they demurely kept up with the
times ; they were universal humanists. But^
it was all a harvest of leaves ; these worthies!
had an expurgated and barren conception
of life ; theirs was the purity of sweet old
age. Sometimes they made attempts to re-
juvenate their minds by broaching native
subjects ; they wished to prove how much
matter for poetry the new world supplied,
and they wrote " Rip van Winkle," " Hia-

1 B





watha," or " Evangeline " ; but the in-
spiration did not seem much more. American
than that of Swift or Ossian or Chateau-
briand. These cultivated writers lacked
native roots and fresh sap because the
American intellect itself lacked them. Their
culture was half a pious survival, half an
intentional acquirement; it was not the
inevitable flowering of a fresh experience.
Later there have been admirable analytic
novelists who have depicted American life
as it is, but rather bitterly, rather sadly ;
as if the joy and the illusion of it did not
inspire them, but only an abstract interest
in their own art. If any one, like Walt
Whitman, penetrated to the feelings and
images which the American scene was able
to breed out of itself, and filled them with a
frank and broad afflatus of his own, there
is no doubt that he misrepresented the con-
scious minds of cultivated Americans; in
them the head as yet did not belong to
the trunk.

Nevertheless, belles-lettres in the United
States — which after all stretch beyond New
England — have always had two points of
contact with the great national experiment.




One point of contact has been oratory, with
that sort of poetry, patriotic, religious, or
moral, which has the function of oratory.
Eloquence is a republican art, as conversa-
tion is an aristocratic one. By eloquence
at public meetings and dinners, in the pulpit
or in the press, the impulses of the com-
munity could be brought to expression;
consecrated maxims could be reapplied;
the whole latent manliness and shrewdness
of the nation could be mobilised. In the ^
form of oratory reflection, rising out of the
problems of action, could be turned to guide
or to sanction action, and sometimes could
attain, in so doing, a notable elevation of
thought. Although Americans, and many ,
other people, usually say that thought is
for the sake of action, it has evidently been
in these high moments, when action became
incandescent in thought, that they have
been most truly alive, intensively most
active, and although doing nothing, have
found at last that their existence was worth
while. Reflection is itself a turn, and the
top turn, given to life. Here is the second
point at which literature in America has
fused with the activities of the nation : it




has paused to enjoy them. Every animal
has his festive and eeremonious moments,
when he poses or plunes himself or thinks ;
sometimes he even sings and flies aloft in a
sort of ecstasy. Somewhat in the same way,
when reflection in man becomes dominant,
it may become passionate; it may create
religion or philosophy — adventures often
more thrilling than the humdrum experi-
ence they are supposed to interrupt.

This pure flame of mind is nothing new,
superadded, or aUen in America. It is
notorious how metaphysical was the passion
that drove the Puritans to those shores ;
they went there in the hope of living more
perfectly in the spirit. And their pilgrim's
progress was not finished when they had
founded their churches in the wilderness ;
an endless migration of the mind was still
before them, a flight from those new idols
and servitudes which prosperity involves,
and the eternal lure of spiritual freedom
and truth. The moral world always con-
tains undiscovered or thinly peopled con-
tinents open to those who are more attached
to what might or should be than to what
already is. Americans are eminently pro-




phets ; they apply morals to public affairs ;
they are impatient and enthusiastic. Their
judgements have highly speculative implica-
tions, which they often make explicit ; they
are men with principles, and fond of stating
them. Moreover, they have an intense self-
reliance ; to exercise private judgement is
not only a habit with them but a conscious
duty. Not seldom personal conversions and
mystical experiences throw their ingrained
faith into novel forms, which may be very
bold and radical. They are traditionally
exercised about religion, and adrift on the
subject more than any other people on
earth ; and if religion is a dreaming philo-
sophy, and philosophy a waking religion, a
people so wide awake and so religious as the
old Yankees ought certainly to have been
rich in philosophers.

In fact, philosophy in the good old sense
of curiosity about the nature of things, with
readiness to make the best of them, has
not been absent from the practice of Ameri-
cans or from their humorous moods ; their
humour and shrewdness are sly comments on
the shortcomings of some polite convention
that everybody accepts tacitly, yet feels to





be insecure and contrary to the principles
on which life is actually carried on. Never-
theless, with the shyness which simple cona-
petence often shows in the presence of
conventional shams, these wits have not
taken their native wisdom very seriously.
They have not had the leisure nor the
intellectual scope to think out and defend
the implications of their homely perceptions.
Their fresh insight has been whispered in
parentheses and asides ; it has been humbly
banished, in alarm, from their solemn
moments. What people have respected have
been rather scraps of official philosophy, or
entire systems, which they have inherited
or imported, as they have respected operas
and art museums. To be on speaking terms
with these fine things was a part of social
respectability, like having family silver.
High thoughts must be at hand, hke those
candlesticks, probably candleless, sometimes
displayed as a seemly ornament in a room
blazing with electric light. Even in William
James, spontaneous and stimulating as he
was, a certain underlying discomfort was
discernible ; he had come out into the open,
into what should have been the simshine.




but the vast shadow of the temple still stood
between him and the sun. He was worried
about what ought to be believed and the
awful deprivations of disbelieving. What
he called the cynical view of anything had
first to be brushed aside, without stopping
to consider whether it was not the true one ;
and he was bent on finding new and empirical
reasons for clinging to free-will, departed
spirits, and tutelary gods. Nobody, except
perhaps in this last decade, has tried to
bridge the chasm between what he believes
in daily life and the " problems *' of philo-
sophy. Nature and science have not been
ignored, and " practice " in some schools has
been constantly referred to; but instead
of supplying philosophy with its data they
have only constituted its difficulties ; its
function has been not to build on known
facts but to explain them away. Hence a
curious alternation and irrelevance, as be-
tween weekdays and Sabbaths, between
American ways and American opinions.

That philosophy should be attached to
tradition would be a great advantage, con-
ducive to mutual understanding, to maturity,
and to progress, if the tradition lay in the




highway of truth. To deviate from it in

that case would be to betray the fact that,

while one might have a lively mind, one was

not master of the subject. Unfortunately,

in the nineteenth century, in America as

elsewhere, the ruling tradition was not only

erratic and far from the highway of truth,

but the noonday of this tradition was over,

and its classic forms were outgrown. A

philosophy may have a high value, other

than its truth to things, in its truth to

method and to the genius of its author ; it

may be a feat of synthesis and imagination,

like a great poem, expressing one of the

eternal possibilities of being, although one

which the creator happened to reject when

he made this world. It is possible to be a

master in false philosophy— easier, in fact,

than to be a master in the truth, because

a false philosophy can be made as simple

and consistent as one pleases. Such had

been the masters of the tradition prevalent

in New England — Calvin, Hume, Fichte, not

to mention others more relished because less

pure ; but one of the disadvantages of such

perfection in error is that the illusion is

harder to transmit to another age and




country. If Jonathan Edwards, for in-
stance, was a Calvinist of pristine force
and perhaps the greatest master in false
philosophy that America has yet produced,
he paid the price by being abandoned, even
in his lifetime, by his own sect, and seeing
the world turn a deaf ear to his logic
writhout so much as attempting to refute it.
One of the peculiarities of recent speculation,
especially in America, is that ideas are
abandoned in virtue of a mere change of
feeling, without any new evidence or new "
arguments. We do not nowadays refute
our predecessors, we pleasantly bid them
good-bye. Even if all our principles are
unwittingly traditional we do not like to
bow openly to authority. Hence masters
like Calvin, Hume, or Fichte rose before
their American admirers like formidable
ghosts, foreign and unseizable. People re-
fused to be encumbered with any system,
even one of their own; they were content
to imbibe more or less of the spirit of a
philosophy and to let it play on such facts
as happened to attract their attention. The
originality even of Emerson and of William -
James was of this incidental character ; they

^ /




found new approaches to old beliefs or new
expedients in old dilemmas. They were not
in a scholastic sense pupils of anybody or
masters in anything. They hated the schol-
astic way of saying what they meant, if
they had heard of it; they insisted on a
personal freshness of style, refusing to make
their thought more precise than it happened
to be spontaneously ; and they lisped their
logic, when the logic came.

We must remember that ever since the
days of Socrates, and especially after the
establishment of Christianity, the dice of
thought have been loaded. Certain pledges
have preceded inquiry and divided the
possible conclusions beforehand into the
acceptable and the inacceptable, the edi-
fying and the shocking, the noble and the
base. Wonder has no longer been the root
of philosophy, but sometimes impatience
at having been cheated and sometimes fear
of being undeceived. The marvel of exist-
ence, in which the luminous and the opaque
are so romantically mingled, no longer lay
like a sea open to intellectual adventure,
tempting the mind to conceive some bold
and curious system of the universe, on the



analogy of what had been so far discovered.
Instead, people were confronted with an ortho-
doxy — though not always the same orthodoxy
— whispering mysteries and brandishing
anathemas. Their wits were absorbed in
solving traditional problems, many of them
artificial and such as the ruling orthodoxy
had created by its gratuitous assumptions.
DiflBculties were therefore found in some
perfectly obvious truths ; and obvious fables,
if they were hallowed by association, were
seriously weighed in the balance against one
another or against the facts; and many an
actual thing was proved to be impossible, or
was hidden under a false description. In
conservative schools the student learned and
tried to fathom the received solutions ; in
liberal schools he was perhaps invited to
seek solutions of his own, but still to the
old questions. Freedom, when nominally
allowed, was a provisional freedom ; if your
wanderings did not somehow bring you back
to orthodoxy you were a misguided being,
no matter how disparate from the orthodox
might be the field from which you fetched
your little harvest; and if you could not
be answered you were called superficial.




Most spirits are cowed by such disparage-
ment ; but even those who snap their fingers
at it do not escape ; they can hardly help
feeling that in calling a spade a spade they
are petulant and naughty; or if their in-
spiration is too genuine for that, they still
unwittingly shape their opinions in contrast
> to those that claim authority, and there-
^^^ fore on the same false lines — ^a terrible tax
to pay to the errors of others ; and it is
only here and there that a very great and
solitary mind, like that of Spinoza, can
endure obloquy without bitterness or can
pass through perverse controversies without

Under such circumstances it is- obvious
that speculation can be frank and happy
only where orthodoxy has receded, abandon-
ing a larger and larger field to imprejudiced
inquiry; or else (as has happened among
liberal Protestants) where the very heart of
orthodoxy has melted, has absorbed the most
alien substances, and is ready to bloom into
anything that anybody finds attractive. This
is the secret of that extraordinary vogue
^ which the transcendental philosophy has
had for nearly a century in Great Britain




and America ; it is a method which enables
a man to renovate all his beliefs, scientific
and religious, from the inside, giving them a
new status and interpretation as phases of
his own experience or imagination; so that
he does not seem to himself to reject any-
thing, and yet is bound to nothing, except to
his creative self. Many too who have no
inclination to practise this transcendental
method — a, personal, arduotis, and futile art,
which requires to be renewed at every moment
— ^have been impressed with the results or the
maxims of this or that transcendental philo-
sopher, such as that every opinion leads on
to another that reinterprets it, or every evil
to some higher good that contains it; and
they have managed to identify these views
with what still seemed to them vital in

In spite of this profound mutation at the
core, and much paring at the edges, tradi-
tional belief in New England retained its
continuity and its priestly unction; and
religious teachers and philosophers could
slip away from Calvinism and even from
Christianity without any loss of elevation
or austerity. They found it so pleasant^




and easy to elude the past that they really
had no quarrel with it. The world, they
felt, was a safe place, watched over by a
kindly God, who exacted nothing but cheer-
fulness and good- will from his children ; and
the American flag was a sort of rainbow in
the sky, promising that all storms were over^
Or if storms came, such as the Civil War,
they would not be harder to weather than
was necessary to test the national spirit
and raise it to a new efficiency. The subtler
dangers which we may now see threatening
America had not yet come in sight — material
restlessness was not yet ominous, the press-
ure of business enterprises was not yet out
of scale with the old life or out of key with
the old moral harmonies. A new type of
American had not appeared — the imtrained,
pushing, cosmopolitan orphan, cock-sure in
manner but not too sure in his morality, to

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