Egotism, the “Western Thing”

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I've
lately been on a sort of jag, reading the works of the American
philosopher George Santayana. He is without doubt an American
writer and philosopher, although he remained a Spanish citizen all
his life (1863–1952), and spent all the years from 1912 on
living in Europe. I find it a delight to take national credit for
him; he makes up for a carload of run-of-the-mill sophists.

To
paraphrase something Santayana said somewhat ironically about himself
(that he set out to write in English as many un-English things as
possible), I would say he set out to express a Mediterranean and
Catholic worldview to an English-speaking world captive to a Nordic
(northern) and Protestant-Judaic worldview. His clear intention,
which he never abandoned, was to point out that the northern view
was "false philosophy" and destined sooner or later to
fall flat on its face. He was fully aware that what he was saying
was unwelcome to his primary audience, the philosophers and intellectuals
of America (specifically those at Harvard in the years 1880–1912);
and he has perhaps paid for that by being shunted aside as "literary"
and "poetic," when in fact he writes prose magnificently,
thinks deeply, and wields a trenchant analytical pen. I think it
will one day be acknowledged that in his time he commanded the philosophical
arena, and in our time he remains, in contrast with most of his
peers, eminently readable and persuasive.

To
oversimplify, Santayana saw that the "northern" view emphasized
will and idea, not to mention blood und power, whereas the Mediterranean
or "southern" view started with nature, the reality of
things, the uses of reason and art, and the loveliness of religious
and social traditions.

"Northern"
is my term rather than Santayana's – "German" is
what he used, but "German" as understood in a very broad
way, and as, in a sense, simply in contradistinction to "Roman."
This passage from his Egotism
in German Philosophy
will give the feel of the idea:

Consider
. . . the pathetic history of the German people. It conquered
the Roman Empire and it became Roman, or wished to become so.
It had had a mythology and a morality of its own (very like in
principle to those it has since rediscovered), yet it accepted
Christianity with the docility of a child. It began to feel, after
some centuries, how alien to its genius this religion was, but
it could find relief only in a fresh draft from the same foreign
sources, or others more remote. To cease to be Roman it tried
to become Hebraic and Greek . . .1

Santayana
thus summarizes the 1900 years that ended in the Reformation and
the major post-Reformation philosophies, especially "German
idealism." Included among the new philosophies was a search
for a more authentic, primitive, historically true, and, if you
will, Judaic Christianity, not subject to the accommodations and
hypocrisies of old Rome and certainly not to its cultural dominance
(all this as the "northern" worldview had it).

I
have no hope of condensing Santayana into a short article, but I
do hope to sketch here my appreciation of a primary theme that runs
through his life's work (of which I doubt I have read even half).
That theme is egotism, which Santayana thought the primary mistake
that riddled the whole of Western philosophy. In his very last book
and on its very last pages he wrote:

Often things as they are become intolerable; there must be insurrection
at any cost, as when the established order is not only casually
oppressive, but ideally perverse and due to some previous epidemic
of militant madness become constitutional. Against that domination,
established in willful indifference to the true good of man and
to his possibilities, any political nostrum, proposed with some
rashness, will be accepted with the same faith. Thus the blind
in extirpating the mad may plant a new madness.

That
this is the present state of the world [in the 1930s and 1940s]
everyone can see by looking about him, or reading the newspapers;
but I think that the elements in this crisis have been working
in the body-politic for ages, ever since the Reformation, not
to say since the age of the Greek Sophists and of Socrates. For
the virulent cause of this long fever is subjectivism, egotism,
conceit of mind [my emphasis].

Not
that culture of the conscience and even the logical refinements
of dialectic are anything but good for the mind itself and for
moral self-knowledge, which is one of the two conditions that
I have assigned to political sanity; but the same logical arts
are fatal if they are used to construct, by way of a moral fable,
an anthropomorphic picture of the universe given out for scientific
truth and imposed on mankind by propaganda, by threats, and by
persecution. And this militant method of reforming mankind by
misrepresenting their capacities and their place in the universe
is no merely ancient or medieval delusion. It is the official
and intolerant method of our most zealous contemporary prophets
and reformers. Barbarism has adopted the weapons of flattery and
prophecy. Merciless irrational ambition has borrowed the language
of brotherly love.

The
very fact, however, that these evils have deep roots and have
long existed without destroying Western civilization, but on the
contrary have stimulated its contrary virtues and confused arts
– this very fact seems to me to counsel calmness in contemplating
the future. Those who look for a panacea will not find it. Those
who advise resignation to a life of industrial slavery (because
spiritual virtues may be cultivated by a slave, like Epictetus,
more easily perhaps than by rich men) are surrendering the political
future to an artificial militant regime that cannot last for a
decade anywhere, and could hardly last for a day, if by military
force it were ever made universal. The fanaticism of all parties
must be allowed to burn down to ashes, like a fire out of control.
. . .2

This
insight of Santayana's, so central to his mature thought, is a helpful
lens through which to view our present condition in the West generally,
and in America especially, as the dominant power of the West.

It
would appear that a detailed, abstract rationale has been developed
by philosophers over the last half-millennium to permit men and
nations to adopt the very simple stance that any mere animal adopts
instinctively. It is a rationale that argues, indeed insists, that
the only reality there is, is my reality.

An
animal, driven by instinct, has to act on this basis – kill
or be killed. But mankind, endowed with reason, has been supposed
in the West since ancient times and up through the Reformation to
be capable of something better. He has indeed worked hard to be
better by adhering to certain religions and philosophies that assert
a reality not centered in "I, me, mine" but – under
God – dedicated to service, cooperation, and generosity.

Notably,
Christianity has attempted to inculcate a reasonable morality that
balances the interests of self and the rest of the world. The high
civilization of medieval Europe is proof of this, even though, as
anyone can see, many a King, Duke, Pope, or Priest who preached
the doctrine with more or less enthusiasm, in practice was as convinced
an egotist as any mere worldling. But this never vitiated the stance
of the whole culture.

If
I read him aright, Santayana is saying that it was only in the late
days of the Christian era in the West, that there arose a "high"
philosophy of agonized intellectual complexity to establish subjectivism
at the summit of human purpose. The effect of this over the last
couple of centuries has been to sanction, for men and for nations,
nothing other than the instinctive barbarism of the wild animal.

The
latest public manifestation in America of this high-toned philosophy
of egotistical greed and force is so-called "Straussian neo-conservatism";
but it is really just an old, old, sorry story of force as its own
justification. Might makes right.

Most
people everywhere have never heard about this curious Straussian
intellectual construct and therefore are living their lives without
ever thinking about it. But the neocons, so-called, a tiny but effective
band, have patiently elaborated and advanced the ideas that have
come to rule us and are now destroying us – we "late few
travelers in the Western pass" – as we pursue, as a nation
and a culture, egomaniacal goals with "iron will," "unflinching
resolve," "inexorable cruelty," and the rest of the
postures of Superman. This is indeed "militant madness become
constitutional," to employ Santayana's phrase.

And
as Santayana also said, this conceited national and imperial egotism
cannot prevail ultimately. It "could hardly last for a day,
if by military force it were ever made universal. The fanaticism
of all parties must be allowed to burn down to ashes, like a fire
out of control…." The daily newspapers make it plain that is
what is happening, whether you are talking about dead soldiers and
civilians in Iraq, lying politicians at home, or the insane budgets
floated by the regime that rules us.

That
is the process we are now watching and in which we are all participants,
willing or unwilling. A virulent fever is burning its way through
a crumbling society. When it burns itself out, sanity – health
– will return, as it has many times before after such times
of madness regnant.

Notes

  1. George
    Santayana, Egotism
    in German Philosophy
    (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
    1916) page 158.
  2. George
    Santayana, Persons
    and Places
    , (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963)
    Vol. III, pages 143–144.

February
2, 2004

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives


        
        

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