Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Appeal of Santayana

I'm given to speculate regarding just what it is that attracts me to this philosopher, this man who was, I think, more than a philosopher--a kind of Renaissance Man to the extent someone who lived most of his life in the 20th Century can be considered such.  Not "just" a philosopher, but a noted poet and novelist.  I wonder sometimes if there is something of the old Catholic in him which speaks to the old Catholic in me, or something of the Latin in him that speaks to the Latin in me.

He writes so well and in such a fashion I think it's sometimes difficult to think of him as writing philosophy.  He doesn't seem to write of things as a philosopher would, though it is clear that he is engaged in a most piercing analysis of the subject matter he addresses.  Perhaps that in itself is the basis for his appeal.  He seems both rigorous and artful, even artistic, in his approach to things.

In certain ways it seems that his concerns and assertions are contradictory, but I think this is part of a universalism which perhaps may be said to have characterized Catholicism at one point, paganism as well, at one point; that can even be said to have been pretended to by Rome, or dreamt of by it's more noble exponents, like Virgil, who wrote of the skill of the Roman being that of ruling the various and dissimilar nations in peace.  He respects and acknowledges the place of ritual, ceremony, art, mysticism in human life, but he also subjects them to analysis--and thereby elucidates their flaws and limitations--even while honoring them and although he seems to believe that they are necessary aspects of the way we live.  He does the same, I think, to science and philosophy.  He is a proponent of reason but speaks of its limitations as well, and accepts them.

As should be apparent, I find it hard to think of him without thinking of Wallace Stevens' poem about him, To an Old Philosopher in Rome.  In that poem we see glimpses of the Catholic and the Roman, sometimes as day to day appearances and perhaps sometimes more than that.  "Total grandeur of total edifice, Chosen by an inquisitor of structures, For himself...."  It amazes me that such a man should have been so completely devoted to naturalism and yet devoted to those characteristics of humanity and those works of humanity which evoke seemingly the desire if not the claim that there is something more, something greater, than nature.  One feels as if he noted and painstakingly studied what it is to be human in all respects, without bias and even coldly and with no illusions, and yet at the same time appreciative of a certain grandeur or at least the capacity for grandeur.

There is something of the stoic in him, I think, that comes with the acknowledgement of limitations and even to a certain extent the inevitability if not appropriateness of those limitations.  Something of the pragmatist as well, though it seems a very individual pragmatism, more like Peirce than James or Dewey.  Dewey's philosophy was a very social philosophy, and Santayana does not strike me as a social thinker.

But there's something else as well, and I think that something may well be the better, or at least the singular, part of him  I'm finding it very hard to define let alone describe just what that is, though I suspect that if I ever do so I'll have discovered what it is that makes him such a unique and--to me at least--fascinating figure.

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