Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday 11/20/19

The philosopher Santayana was a wise man, a materialist who had respect for religion. He was fascinated by America and wrote his only novel, The Last Puritan, about it. It is less a story than a collection of ideas, a tapestry of thoughts and viewpoints. He had an amusing view of a philosophical crisis he saw in America: America's material success had outpaced their Calvinistic theological pessimism. For all Santayana's nostalgia for Puritan rigor, though, he did not much like it. Protestantism was a poor foundation on which to build a society—it was arid and unimaginative, especially when compared with the vastly richer mystical resources of Roman Catholicism. But what post-Puritan America encouraged was even worse: a soft tolerance that ruined religion for everyone, including Catholics. Another European import that troubled Santayana was German Romanticism, which gave the highest regard to the individual's intense experience of nature. Transcendentalism was its American variant.
Santayana resented the way that liberalism—the genteel tradition's political expression—had supplanted religion and glossed over the intractability of human nature. And, for all his erudition, he eventually took up some na├»ve political positions.
Here is his character, Wetherbee, speaking on his Catholic religious beliefs:

"There are only two radical alternatives open to human faith. Both are hypotheses. To accept either is to run a risk, to lay a wager; but the gamble is forced upon us by life itself.  To live is to bet, because the conduct of life pledges all our poor assets and pledges our soul, to one side or the other. You may choose the broad and obvious path of heathen philosophy, fancifully decorated, if you like with some heathen religion....You will find yourself in an immeasurable physical or logical or psychological universe--your analysis of its substance and movement really makes little difference, for in any case your soul, with everything you love, will be a pure incident, long prepared and soon transcended. Your life will be a tragic or a comic episode in a universal hurly-burly of atoms or laws or energies or illusions. I do not say you might not find such a life bearable or even entertaining; all the animals take to it with gusto, and why shouldn't man, if he is nothing but a talking, laughing, machine-making animal? But there is an alternative, which is to believe in the human heart, to believe in the supernatural, and to refuse to follow the great heathen procession except perfunctorily and provisionally. Those who deliberately choose this alternative cannot be taxed, for that reason, with intellectual illusion. We can formulate as well as the heathen, or perhaps better, the results of cold observation, and the views with the unaided intellect must be content; but we appeal to the higher court. We impose upon all natural facts and all natural desires a supernatural interpretation. A miracle we say has occurred both in the manger of Bethlehem and in our own souls; and we have understood that astronomy and biology and profane history may show the universe to be manifestly heartless, and yet it may be the work of a divine heart of which own heart is a distorted image; and every event in it may have been designed as a stimulus or occasion or punishment for the thoughts of the heart."

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