The Theosophical Forum – February 1940

SANTAYANA AND THE KEY TO INTERPRETATION — H. T. Edge

A foreword by Irwin Edman explains the purpose of this book, (1) which is to present an interpretation of the views of this versatile and many-sided philosopher. Santayana has covered so many aspects of contemporary culture — theory of knowledge, aesthetics, metaphysics, literary criticism, etc. — that it is natural to seek an essential unity underlying and uniting the diversity, a jewel behind the many facets presented to the eye. Such an interpretation will be valuable to many whose acquaintance with Santayana is less comprehensive, and also it will serve to vindicate him against misunderstandings arising from partial acquaintance with his writings. Another reason given for this interpretation is, however, more open to question; it is expressed in the following words:

To Santayana himself there does not seem to be any essential conflict between his Greek morality and his Buddhist-Christian detachment. But a philosopher does not always know himself best and it is a merit of an interpreter at once responsible and imaginative to elicit what is sometimes hidden from the philosopher himself, and from many unwary readers.

The above refers to the fact that in Santayana's philosophy we find two contrasted viewpoints, which to him do not seem to conflict essentially, but which the interpreter finds irreconcilable. These are what may be called the naturalistic or worldly view, and the mystic, transcendental, detached, or other-worldly view. For, says Dr. Munitz in his concluding summary:

[The Philosophy] exhibits two points of view that allow each one to criticize the other: the one being worldly, naturalistic, humanistic, Aristotelian; the other otherworldly, supernatural, dualistic, Platonic. Yet no ultimate synthesis or mixture such as Santayana evidently seeks is possible.

Now it may surely be argued that Santayana felt the truth of the adage that harmony results from the equilibrium of contraries, and that he felt himself under no necessity for attempting to reduce all his various points of view to a single formula. The truth must be whole and single; yet the ratiocinative function of our understanding is unable to present it as a unity, and can present it only as a series of pictures. But the ratiocinative faculty is not the whole of our understanding, and a unity which cannot be visualized may nevertheless be felt — seen with the inner eye, if the expression be preferred. A true picture can only be given by presenting both aspects; the emphasizing of one to the exclusion of the other will result in a lopsided and partial view. A true philosopher, having presented one side of the picture, will inevitably feel impelled to present the other side; and cannot be content to stay fixed at any position.

It should be pointed out here that the word "moral" and its derivatives "designates an interest in the conditions and ideals of human activity, rather than in preachment." Moral philosophy in this sense is declared by Santayana to be his chosen subject. The author divides his book into three sections under the headings: Naturalism and Dualism, The Life of Reason, The Spiritual Life. The problem of the relation of man and of his spirit to the universe, declared by Santayana to be the chief problem of philosophy, brings up the question of where man ends and the universe begins, and what is the difference between man and his spirit. If there is no essential difference between man and the universe, then the problem of understanding man's relation to the universe becomes reducible to the Delphic maxim, "Man, know thyself." In other words, there is nothing else to know. If man is essentially a unity, how can we distinguish his spirit from himself? However we feel that the philosopher must have realized this himself, and we need not cavil over distinctions which it is necessary to make for particular purposes.

The following quotation will be welcome to Theosophists:

What we call life, mind, spirit, are simply the forms, or in Santayana's language, the tropes that substance assumes when it reaches certain degrees of complexity. The difference between what Santayana calls the psyche and the spirit are differences in the level of organization and function that we find in living beings.

And more to the same effect, which defines the Theosophical teaching of the unity of Life through diversity in its manifestations.

Under the heading of naturalism, the inadequacy of science is duly recognised, its very accuracy being obtained by means of strict limitation and exclusion. What is said about Christianity will also interest us; for, whatever that religion may have been originally, or may be now in the minds of its best representatives, it cannot be denied that Christianity as a historical fact has been characterized by a lamentable dualism. We read:

Santayana, in reviewing the point of view indigenous to Christianity, remarks that according to that view "all history was henceforth essentially nothing but the conflict between these two cities [the city of God and the city of Satan]; two moralities, one natural, the other supernatural; two philosophies, one rational, the other revealed; two beauties, one corporeal, the other spiritual; two glories, one temporal, the other eternal; two institutions, one the world, the other the Church. These, whatever their momentary alliances or compromises, were radically opposed and fundamentally alien to one another."

The more one reads the earnest and intelligent searchings of philosophers, the more is one impressed by the need for that master-key of interpretation, the Secret Doctrine of antiquity. No doubt an appeal to this may be classed as an appeal to tradition and authority; but it must be borne in mind that tradition and authority are as much a concomitant of our faith as are our intellect, our moral sense, or any other concomitants enumerated by philosophy; and that it is only when pushed to extremes that any one of them becomes questionable. Moreover the authority claimed by Theosophists is not to be accepted unquestioningly; it is verifiable, partly by the evidences of its uniformity and invariability afforded by an examination of the religious and philosophical lore of all times and lands; and partly by the inner faculties of the student himself, which may be awakened to a direct perception. It is this ancient and universal philosophy alone which is sufficiently broadly based and comprehensive to reconcile all seeming contradictions and reveal the fundamental unity underlying all.

FOOTNOTES:

1. The Moral Philosophy of Santayana. By Milton Karl Munitz. Columbia University Press. 1939. $1.75. (return to text)


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE