07 August 2009

Santayana the Poet

While searching for the appropriate poem of Æ in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, ed. D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee (Lakewood, CO: Acropolis, 1997), which I have excerpted previously here and here, I noticed somewhat to my surprise a couple of Petrarchan sonnets (featuring, however, slightly unusual rhyming schemes in the sestets) by the Spanish-American atheist philosopher, Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, more commonly known as George Santayana (1863-1952). It appears Santayana wrote a bunch of sonnets (pub. in 1894 & 1896), and some of them at least sound quite religious.

At a used bookshop I once purchased a copy—which previously belonged to a local Orthodox convert and subdeacon who fell asleep in the Lord some years ago—of Santayana’s 1900 book, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (NY: Harper, 1957), and I have read some portions of it. But like most people I have long known little about Santayana beyond his famous aphorism, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

I do recall that Constantine Cavarnos—a product of the Harvard philosophy department, of which Santayana was a ‘Golden Age’ figure—quoted him favourably in the chapter on ‘Modern Western Philosophy’ in Orthodoxy and Philosophy (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2003). Cavarnos writes:

Attention to egotism in German philosophy has been called by the Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952). In his book Egotism in German Philosophy (London and Toronto, 1915), Santayana calls attention to this evil in the German philosophers Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. He defines ‘egotism’ as subjectivity in thought and willfulness in morals (p. 6). In German philosophy, he says, it is a ‘glorified and dogged egotism’, ‘a spirit of uncompromising self-assertion and metaphysical conceit’ (p. 7).

. . . Santayana points out that ‘German philosophy is a breach from Christianity. Its alliance with Christianity has always been equivocal and external’ (p. 104). . . . (Cavarnos, pp. 182-3)

But as I have mentioned, Santayana is a well known atheist, materialist, and skeptic. In Interpretations, he faults Christianity for denying that it is only ‘poetry’ and deceiving us ‘about the facts with which we have to deal’ (p. 115). His atheism, however, is of a very different sort than that of Bertrand Russell. According to John Lachs’s article on Santayana in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (‘Santayana, George’, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Robert Audi [Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1999], pp. 811-2):

The finest achievement of human beings, however, is the spiritual life in which we overcome animal partiality and thus all valuation in order to enjoy the intuition of eternal essences. Santayana identifies such spirituality with the best that religion and sound philosophy can offer. It does not help us escape finitude and death, but enables us in this short life to transcend care and to intuit the eternal.

Thus, in Interpretations, we find Santayana writing:

As music, for all that it contains nothing of a material or practical nature, offers a field for the development of human faculty and presents laws and conditions which, within its sphere, must be obeyed and which reward obedience with the keenest and purest pleasures; so a supernatural religion like Christianity, offers another world, almost as vast and solid as the real one, in which the soul may develop. In entering it we do not enter a sphere of arbitrary dreams, but a sphere of law where learning, experience, and happiness may be gained. There is more method, more reason, in such madness than in the sanity of most people. (p. 88)

According to this fascinating article by Richard Butler, OP, Santayana sometimes attended Mass and admired the beauties of Catholic worship and doctrine. He spent the last years of his life at a hospital on the Caelian Hill in Rome run by the ‘Sisters of the Little Company of Mary’. But as far as anyone knows, he died unrepentant, without any sacraments, buried in unconsecrated ground.

There is a blog dedicated to Santayana here, and an alluring WSJ review of his letters here, which sound a far cry from the evidently disappointing published correspondence of Sir Isaiah Berlin (see the Times review here [HT Maximus], wherein—aside from the criticisms of Berlin himself—A.N. Wilson writes that the editors ‘leave undone the things they ought to have done and do the things they ought not to do’, causing one to wonder if they might not be identical to the editors of the OSB).

I shall finish with the two sonnets chosen by Nicholson and Lee:

‘O World, thou choosest not’

O World, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul’s invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.

‘O Martyred Spirit’

O Martyred Spirit of this helpless Whole,
Who dost by pain for tyranny atone,
And in the star, the atom, and the stone,
Purgest the primal guilt, and in the soul;
Rich but in grief, thou dost thy wealth unroll,
And givest of thy substance to thine own,
Mingling the love, the laughter, and the groan
In the large hollow of the heaven’s bowl.
Fill full my cup; the dregss and honeyed brim
I take from thy just hand, more worthy love
For sweetening not the draught for me or him.
What in myself I am, that let me prove;
Relent not for my feeble prayer, nor dim
The burning of thine altar for my hymn. (p. 469)

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