The Life of Reason

by George Santayana

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

In his autobiography, George Santayana says that The Life of Reason had its origin in a course he gave at Harvard University entitled “Philosophy of History.” It drew heavily from Plato and Aristotle, but also from Francis Bacon, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine. Other influences evident in the work are those of Arthur Schopenhauer, who was the subject of Santayana’s doctoral dissertation, and his professor William James, whose biologically oriented psychology left a strong impression on Santayana.

For Santayana, the philosophy of history implies no providential plan of creation or redemption but is simply “retrospective politics”; that is to say, an interpretation of humanity’s past in the light of its ideal development. It is the science of history that deals with events inferred from evidence and explained in terms of causal law. However, not content with a mere knowledge of what has happened, humans have a strong propensity toward trying to find meaning in events as if history were shaped to some human purpose. Admittedly, history is not; still, the exercise is profitable, for it is one of the ways in which we discover the goals we wish to pursue in the future. The failures and successes of our forebears, as their acts will appear when measured by our ideals, can help us appraise our standards and to enlighten us with respect to how far they can be attained. However, it can serve its function only if we remember that it is ideal history—an abstract from reality made to illustrate a chosen theme—rather than a description of actual tendencies observable in the world.

The Life of Reason

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The theme that Santayana selects as giving meaning to history is the rise and development of reason. Unlike his idealistic counterparts, who think of nature as the product and embodiment of reason, he conceives reason as a latecomer on the evolutionary scene and very much dependent on what has gone before. This is not to say that there is no order in nature prior to the dawn of consciousness in humanity. Santayana’s contention, on the contrary, is that reason, which is too often thought of in the abstract, schoolmasterly fashion, is in reality an extension of the order already achieved in organized matter. In its earliest phase, it is nothing more than instinct that has grown conscious of its purposes and representative of its conditions. For in the dark laboratories of nature, life has already solved the hardest problems, leaving to its strange child, reason, nothing to do at first but amuse itself with the images that drift through the mind while the body goes about its accustomed business. We can scarcely call it reason until, distinguishing these mental states from objects, reason gradually sees what the parent organism is about, what it runs from, what it pursues, and how it manages each new eventuality. Then it begins to play its role.

Although instinct is dependent on present cues, reason can summon thoughts from afar, suggest shortcuts, and balance likelihoods. Often its well-meant suggestions lead to destruction; however, its occasionally fruitful counsels tend to perpetuate themselves in habits and customs, as a shelter of branches, devised for one night’s protection, remains standing and becomes a rudimentary home. It is in this way that reason, an adjunct of life, comes to have a “life” of its own. Reason, by this accounting, is the servant of will or interest. It is these that determine what is good. Santayana calls the Life of Reason the unity inherent in all existence.

Nature and Spirit

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Santayana traces reason’s career through five phases, devoting one book to each. Reason in Common Sense may be regarded as introducing the other books. It outlines the origins of the two realms, nature and spirit, whose fortunes are followed through the rest of the work. Out of an originally chaotic experience, humans learn to distinguish first the stable, predictable realm of nature. Regularity and order are present there; and things occurring repeatedly can be identified and their habits noted. However, in a great part of experience, images come and go in no discernible pattern and combine in innumerable ways. This remainder people come to designate as spirit: It is the seat of poetry and dreams, and later of philosophy and mathematics.

Human progress may be viewed as the gradual untangling of these two realms. The rich garment of sight and sound under which nature appears to our senses conceals its structure and beguiles us into supposing that trees and rivers have spirits and pursue purposes not unlike our own. It is practical experience—fishing and agriculture—that gradually teaches us otherwise, enabling us to strip off irrelevant qualities, and discern the mechanical process underneath. Not surprisingly, we are sometimes reluctant to leave behind the more congenial picture of poetry and myth. However, insofar as we become aware of our advantage, we learn to prefer things to ideas and to subordinate thinking to the arts of living.

Almost as difficult as discerning nature is the task of deciding what is good. Before consciousness awakened, instinct guided the body toward the satisfaction of genuine, if partial, needs. However, when ideas appeared, impulse was diverted, and moral perplexity began. False gods arose, which exist only in imagination, and these must be set aside in favor of ideas that live up to their promises. There is the further problem of subordinating the claims of competing goods under a common ideal. Reason must discover the truth and order of values. By understanding our wants and the limits of our existence, reason points us toward our highest fulfillment, that is, our happiness.

Viewed in these larger aspects, the rational life is sanity, maturity, and common sense. It justifies itself against romanticism, mysticism, and all otherworldliness that betoken a failure to distinguish between ideal and real, or a misguided flight from nature to the world of dreams.

The Social Expression of Reason

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Reason in Society follows the course of humanity’s ideal attachments from the passionate love of a person for one of the opposite sex to the fancies of a person of taste and finally to the devotions of a saint. The instincts that unite the sexes, bind parents and offspring, and draw the lonely from their isolation into tribes and cities, when illuminated with the flame of consciousness, take on ideal dimensions and give rise to love, loyalty, and faith. It is the mark of love to combine impulse and representation; and no one who has truly loved can be entirely deaf to the voice of reason or indifferent to the liberal life toward which it calls.

Santayana groups societies into three classes. The first, which he calls natural societies, includes not merely the family but also economic and political groups. In these, association is more instinctive than voluntary. However, they serve reason well when the regimen that they prescribe becomes the means of fashioning strong, reliant individuals who, without disloyalty to their origins, form free societies based on mutual attachments and common interests. Such persons, in possession of their own wills, may go further and create ideal societies, which is what we do when, forsaking the company of others, we make beauty or truth our companion.

In its social expressions, perhaps more than anywhere else, reason has to draw the fine line between crude fact and irresponsible fancy. Somewhere between the shrewd materialism of Sancho and the lofty madness of Don Quixote, there is a way of living that incorporates the ideal in the actual, whether in love or in politics. Therein lies the liberal or free life for humanity.

Religion and Reason

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Reason in Religion develops the view that religion is a halfway station on the road from irresponsible fancy to verifiable truth. It is neither to be rejected out of hand as imbecile and superstitious, nor rationalized and allegorized until it agrees with science. In the story of human progress, it fulfills a civilizing function but under serious disabilities: For although it pursues the same goal as reason, it relies on imagination instead of logic and experiment. On the positive side, its occasional profound insights into moral reality have spurred humankind to needed reforms; but this gain is offset by its stubborn adherence to an anthropomorphic view of nature that closes the way to systematic advance.

A lifelong student of the religions of the West, Santayana illuminates his theme with detailed criticisms of the major traditions. The Hebrew religion gets high marks for its wholesome emphasis upon morals but is censured for its dogmatic and intolerant spirit. The Christian gospel, which dramatizes one’s efforts to transcend human nature, is an important step toward the goal of freedom; but it needs to be blended with pagan ritual if people are not to lose sight of their moral dimensions. Such a paganized Christianity developed along Mediterranean shores; however, it remained strange to Christian converts in the northern forests. Gothic art, philosophy, and chivalry are, by contrast, a barbarized Christianity and have as their proper motif the native religion of the Teutons. This it was that, coming of age, threw off the world-denying gospel and emerged in its proper sublimation, first as Protestantism, then as Romanticism and Absolute Egotism. Less mature, and further divorced from reality than Catholicism, Gothic Christianity lingers on in various idealisms—moral, political, philosophical—obscuring the path of reason.

Art and Reason

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Reason in Art is broadly conceived to include every activity that “humanizes and rationalizes objects.” For Santayana, with his classical bias, artistic activity consists in imposing form upon matter. Like religion, art is preoccupied with imagination; but its concern is more wholesome because, instead of mistaking fancies for facts, it fashions facts according to its ideal preferences. Thus, each genuinely artistic achievement is a step toward the goal of rational living.

Humanity’s earliest constructions must have been clumsy and unprepossessing, not even rivaling the spontaneous products of nature. Compared, for example, with the prancing of a stallion, the movements of primitive people performing the first war or mating dances were probably crude and lacking in fluidity. However, when art frees the dance from the excitement of war or courtship and makes the intention its study, a new form of discipline and social control appears that purges the soul. Through art, we tame our own spirit and gladden it with sights and sounds.

The advance of civilization is not always friendly to free creation. Customs, acquiring almost the force of instincts, stifle invention; and products have a way of enslaving their producers. A society that views art as truancy from business condemns artists to vagrancy and robs their genius of its normal incentive. Such a society has entered a postrational phase because it has lost touch with humanity’s genuine needs. Art is no mere pleasurable accessory to life. We are engaged in liberal and humane enterprise in the measure that, transcending our animal needs and vulgar ambition, we become the master of the conditions of our existence, visit on them our kind of perfection, and render their tragic aspects endurable by clothing them in intelligible and regular forms.

Science and Reason

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Reason in Science brings the Life of Reason to its logical conclusion; for, as Santayana defines science, it is the consummation of the rational ideal in the light of which the other phases of human life have been interpreted and alongside which they have been judged. Insofar as the standard has been presupposed all along, this final volume is somewhat anticlimactic. What saves it from this lot is the feeling of contemporaneousness that goes with the word “science,” together with the belief (characteristic of the period in which the work appeared) that humankind has actually entered the scientific era for which all previous history was but the prelude. Science, says Santayana, is practically a new thing: Only twice in history has it appeared—for three hundred years in Greece and for a comparable time in the modern West. Art and religion have had their day, and nothing more is to be expected from them. They bow before the new techniques of measurement and verification. The fruits of science, however, have scarcely begun to appear, and the morrow is sure to bring many surprises.

Santayana’s purpose, however, was not primarily to trumpet the dawn of a new day. Optimism with respect to the future was never one of his characteristics. However, he was concerned to defend tough-minded naturalism against tender-minded idealism and against all kinds of compromise. His trumpet blast might be described as an effort to frighten off the enemies of science who, he thought, would yet have their way.

To this end, he stresses the sharp distinction between the realm of nature and the realm of spirit. There is a science corresponding to each of these, which, using classic terms, he designates respectively as physics and dialectic.

Physics and Dialectic

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The ideal expression of physics is mechanics, because the laws governing the behavior of matter are there made perfectly intelligible. However, mechanics is exceptional, true only in the gross. The forms and repetitions of nature are never simple and never perfect. Nevertheless, all knowledge that deals with facts must adopt a mechanical principle of explanation. This is true, Santayana insists, even in the sciences that treat of humanity—notably history and psychology. There are no special “historical forces,” such as idealists are wont to suppose: Historical causation breaks up into miscellaneous natural processes and minute particular causes. Similarly, there are no “moral causes,” such as biographers and literary psychologists presume: The part of psychology that is a science is physiological and belongs to human biology.

As physics comprehends all sciences of fact, dialectic includes all sciences of idea. Its perfect expression is mathematics, which makes possible the deductive elaboration of hypotheses in physics. However, another branch of dialectics elaborates the relationship between conflicting human purposes or ideals. Socrates, who pioneered in its development, first established rational ethics. Purely a normative science, it sheds great light on human undertakings and is presupposed in any study (such as the present one) that attempts to deal intelligently with problems of good and evil. However, it is limited to ideas and cannot take the place of observation and experiment in questions that have to do with existence.

Postrational Systems and Science

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Questions of purpose are far more fateful than questions of fact because it is within the former’s domain to decide whether the life of reason is to be pursued. Here Santayana considers at length the subject of postrational ethics and religion. The age of the Greeks passed. In mathematics, physics, and medicine, knowledge continued to progress; however, a sense of worldweariness descended on people’s minds, causing them to turn their backs on worldly enterprise and seek consolation in pleasure or compensation in ecstasy or to deaden disappointment by asceticism and obedience. The humanism of Socrates gave place to Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and to a revival of pagan cults, all founded on personal or metaphysical despair. In Christianity, a similar experience of disillusion forced the imagination to take wings and seek its hope beyond the clouds.

In Santayana’s judgment these postrational systems are not to be condemned. They witness the fact that life is older and more persistent than reason and knows how to fall back on more primitive solutions to its problems when its bolder experiments fail. Even in retreat, they hold on to certain conquests of reason, which they fortify and furnish in rare fashion. Therefore, true sages can flourish and true civilizations can develop in retrogressive times, and supernaturalism can nourish a rational and humane wisdom.

This, however, is not to admit that the postrational systems are an advance over the rational even in the solution of humanity’s spiritual enigmas. When the same despair breeds arbitrary substitutes for physical science, it is time to sound the alarm. Santayana’s final chapter, “The Validity of Science,” is devoted to criticisms of science, particularly from theologians and transcendental philosophers. The former wish to combine scientific explanation with relics of myth, and thereby preserve a sanction over moral and political behavior. What the latter seek is less clear. Their attack consists in showing (what was never in doubt) that the findings of science are relative; such philosophers, apparently, aim at freeing their minds of intelligible notions so that they can swim in the void of the vegetative and digestive stage of consciousness.

Science is not beyond criticism. A healthy skepticism respecting the claims of reason is ever in order. It is an integral part of science to review its findings, and purge itself of arbitrariness and bad faith. For its whole aim is to free the mind from caprice by bringing it under the control of objective principles. Santayana quotes Heraclitus’s saying, “Men asleep live each in his own world, but when awake they live in the same world together.” Religion and art are too much like dreaming; when people brings their dreams under the control of the real world, on the one hand, and the principle of contradiction, on the other, they pass from mere faith and aspiration to knowledge and expectation.


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Additional Reading

Arnett, Willard E. George Santayana. New York: Twayne, 1968. This brief yet clear introduction concentrates on the basic themes in George Santayana’s thought, especially his aesthetics and his view of spirituality. It also contains a short biography and a bibliography of his works.

Arnett, Willard E. Santayana and the Sense of Beauty. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955. The author probes Santayana’s view of beauty and art, revealing a highly elaborated theory of aesthetics. The work also deals with the place of religion in Santayana’s thought.

Cory, Daniel L. Santayana: The Later Years: A Portrait with Letter. New York: George Braziller, 1963. Using letters and personal anecdotes, Cory gives a biographical and intellectual description of the man who was his friend and colleague from 1928 until Santayana’s death.

Hodges, Michael, and John Lachs. Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. A comparison of the two quite different philosophers.

Kirby-Smith, H. T. A Philosophical Novelist: George Santayana and the Last Puritan. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. This work looks at Santayana’s philosophy in literature. Includes index.

Lamont, Corliss, ed. Dialogue on George Santayana. New York: Horizon Press, 1959. This thin volume is a transcript of a conversation about Santayana by friends and scholars, providing biographical detail along with philosophical insights. The editor was a close friend of Santayana.

Levinson, Henry Samuel. Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. This book situates Santayana as a pragmatist who differs from John Dewey and the mainline pragmatists in that he takes the religious life seriously. Levinson criticizes some contemporary interpretations of Santayana.

McCormick, John. George Santayana: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1987. This biography traces Santayana from his birth in Madrid to his professorship of philosophy in the United States, and then back again to Europe. McCormick quotes extensively from Santayana’s public works and his private letters.

Munson, Thomas N. The Essential Wisdom of George Santayana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. This critical examination of Santayana’s thought from a neo-Thomist point-of-view attempts to show that he failed at achieving true philosophy. The book is valuable for its bibliography of articles by and about Santayana and its letters from Santayana to the author questioning the book’s thesis.

Schlipp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of George Santayana. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1940, 1951. This serious study surveys all aspects of Santayana’s life and work, with a critical examination of his major themes by eighteen scholars. The volume also contains Santayana’s reply to his critics as well as a bibliography of Santayana’s writings.

Singer, Irving. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A philosophical study of Santayana.

Sprigge, Timothy L. S. Santayana: An Examination of His Philosophy. 1974. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1995. This work clarifies the philosophical issues in Santayana’s rich prose to provide an introduction to his thought. The author focuses on Santayana’s treatment of skepticism, but also includes chapters on truth and ethics. It also includes the author’s reflections on contemporary discussions of Santayana’s work. It includes a bibliography of secondary sources on Santayana.

Tejera, V. American Modern, the Path Not Taken: Aesthetics, Metaphysics, and Intellectual History in Classic American Philosophy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996. This work examines several modern philosophers, including Santayana, Justus Buchler, C. H. Peirce, and John Dewey. Includes index.

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