Egotism, the “Western Thing”

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.


  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