Thursday, 31 October 2013

Philosopher George Santayana and why it's often a relief to be reminded of our own puny insignificance

William Ernest Henley
Ever since I read W.E. Henley’s poem "Invictus" at the age of 11 or 12 in Sir Algernon Methuen's excellent An Anthology of Modern Verse 1900-1920, it has worried me. Of course there's something exciting, brave and bracing about the idea that we're the masters of our fate.  It seems pretty obvious that this belief has underpinned the tremendous achievements of the Nordic peoples since the Reformation (not to mention our many failings). Certainly, countries where people cleave to the fatalistic principle that what will be will be have never held much appeal for me (except as holiday destinations).

But I also know that this assertion of mastery is only true up to a point. You can take steps to control your life by, for instance, not smashing your boss in the face when they annoy you, not smoking, taking care when you cross the road, not committing crimes, learning the habit of deferred gratification and eating less than 5000 calories a day. But of course, none of that will stop you being fired by a psychopath, developing inoperable cancer in a part of your body of whose existence you hadn’t previously been aware, being mown down by some moronic teenage joy-rider, contracting Type I diabetes despite a blameless diet, or being convicted of a crime of which you are entirely innocent. Even if it makes sense to live as if we are masters of our fate, we never entirely are.

This was brought home to me when I learned that a former friend busily forging a glittering legal career had died at 40 of “sudden death syndrome” (in other words, doctors didn’t have a clue). A short while later, a friend I'd worked alongside at TV News – probably the nicest, most decent, most cheerful human being I have ever known – died of cancer in her late thirties.

While pretending that we’re in total control of our destiny is a tremendous help in summoning the necessary energy for getting things done, it wears us out after a while. For me, two regular – and easily available – activities afford respite: attending church and experiencing nature. I’ve long understood that taking part in a church service involves
George Santayana
(among many other things) the implicit admission that I’m not in sole charge of my fate. What I hadn’t quite grasped until reading this extract from a 1911 lecture at Berkley by the American philosopher George Santayana was that the experience of nature feels like another route to God because it involves the same implicit admission – and the same temporary lifting of the responsibility of self-determination from our weary shoulders (by the way, the “genteel tradition” Santayana refers to is Western philosophy):
From what…does the society of nature liberate you, that you find it so sweet? It is hardly (is it?) that you wish to forget your past, or your friends, or that you have any secret contempt for your present ambitions. You respect these, you respect them perhaps too much; you are not suffered by the genteel tradition to criticise or to reform them at all radically. No; it is the yoke of this genteel tradition itself that these primeval solitudes lift from your shoulders. They suspend your forced sense of your own importance not merely as individuals, but even as men. They allow you, in one happy moment, at once to play and to worship, to take yourselves simply, humbly, for what you are, and to salute the wild, indifferent, non-censorious infinity of nature. You are admonished that what you can do avails little materially, and in the end nothing. At the same time, through wonder and pleasure, you are taught speculation. You learn what you are really fitted to do, and where lie your natural dignity and joy, namely, in representing many things, without being them, and in letting your imagination, through sympathy, celebrate and echo their life.  
George Santayana, quoted in The University Bookman (here).

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons involves a pompous businessman clutching a brandy goblet  and a fat cigar while gazing at the night sky from the roof terrace of some swanky skyscraper and saying “Well, it sure as hell doesn’t make me feel insignificant.” Of course, unless you’re a monstrous, puffed-up, self-regarding idiot, insignificant is exactly how it makes you feel. What Santayana seems to have done is explain why that sense of puniness in the face of nature's utter indifference to our little lives so often comes as such a blessed relief.


  1. Satayana has fallen out - or rather, been expelled - from the canon of Western thought partly because of his approving comments on the British Empire and his appreciation of the Englishman's character in respect of that empire - for instance

    "Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him."

    This assessment by Roger Kimball provides a useful survey of Santayana's thought.

    1. Thanks, Umbongo - the Kimball essay is excellent.Although Santayana was idiotic on Bolshevism, he was spot-on regarding modern liberals: "If you refuse to move in the prescribed direction, you are not simply different, you are arrested and perverse. The savage must not remain a savage, nor the nun a nun, and China must not keep its wall. If the animals remain animals it is somehow through a failure of the will in them, and very sad. Classic liberty, though only a name for stubborn independence, and obedience to one’s own nature, was too free, in one way, for the modern liberal."

      I must read more of him.

  2. He was also a very talented musician. His performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 was outstanding. He was also the author of the line " He who forgets the really corny jokes he has uttered is condemned to repeat them."