Archive for George Santayana

Religion is valid poetry…

Posted in Painting, Philosophy with tags , on November 18, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


“…morality and spirit, in my view, express specific and contrary vital interests, as in politics. To assert that one such political or vital interest, say the Jewish or the Anglo-Saxon, coincides with the total inspiration of the universe, is egotism in excelsis, and a plain illusion of animal vanity and egotism. Banish that illusion: the vital and political interest concerned remains standing, but only as one local and temporary movement of animal life on earth. It is its own excuse for being, but it leaves the speculative spirit free to transcend it and to admit equally, in their places, all the other vital and political interests that may arise. I would relax English prejudices in the Catholic and naturalistic direction by a single and consistent insight, not by casual contrary sympathies. Catholicism is paganism spiritualised: it is fundamentally naturalistic; and the transcendental spirit and the wise statesman may accept Catholicism, where it naturally arises, as a good poetic symbol for the forces and the issues of human life in that phase; not, however, as a scientific revelation of reality or a history of literal facts. Religion is valid poetry infused into common life. It is not a revelation truer than perception or than science. Nature, where it breeds life, is undoubtedly animated by a spirit kindred to man’s and to human morality; hence the dramatic sympathy in us with all real or imagined vitality in the universe. Yet this sympathy should chasten rather than inflate us, because it reveals to us how accidental are the objects of our love.”

Text: George Santayana, My Host the World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953
Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Allegoria dei pianeti e continenti, 1752, Metropolitan Museum


Posted in Painting, Philosophy with tags , , , on November 17, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


“I felt more joyful and breathed more freely, when I passed to the southern coast, and saw something Greek. Agrigentum, in its desolation, left much to the imagination, but stirred it deeply. Not so much the ruins as the magnificent site, as if all the seven hills of Rome had been linked together in a chain, doubled in height, and been made to overhang the forum and the lower town in a broad curve. That vast acropolis must have been a sublime thing. Outwards, on the convex side, it is a sheer precipice; inwards its horns descend to the plain and make it accessible. One of these horns is occupied by what remains of the town. I climbed to the top, partly by steps. There was a little square, with a café, but no vestiges of the temples that must have stood there: for a  reward I saw some large white goats, apparently clean as lambs, browsing among the steep lanes or perched upon the stone enclosures that bordered them. These ancient fortresses, in the days of peace, must have been very domestic and country-like in the simplicity and monotony of their ways. Dull, except for the recurring festivals and the frequent wars, yet well fitted, in both aspects, to fix the character of tragedy and comedy, as the Greeks fixed it, limited, monotonous, liturgical, but intensely felt, profoundly human, wonderfully central and final.

Agrigentum was a colony, suddenly rich, like an American mushroom city, short-lived and ruined even more suddenly than it had grown up; but for its day it was enormous, and it gave birth to a great poet-philosopher, the literary model of Lucretius, and a grander personage, with his tragic end soon enveloped in legend. Both Lucretius and Empedocles are said to have killed themselves, or voluntarily become gods: in any case they saw the world as the gods would: that is to say, as we all should, if we could surmount our accidental humanity and let the pure spirit in us speak through our mouths. I wonder if a mushroom civilisation, by its very thinness and sudden brilliancy, like fire in straw, may not be easier for the spirit to profit by and to transcend than a more deeply rooted tradition.”

Text: George Santayana, My Host the World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953
Image: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, L’ancienne ville d’Agrigente, 1787, Musée du Louvre

The Idea of God

Posted in Art, Book with tags , on November 17, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


“Was the idea of God alive at all in me? No: if you mean the traditional idea. But that was a symbol, vague, variable, mythical, anthropomorphic; the symbol for an overwhelming reality, a symbol that named and unified in human speech the incalculable powers on which our destiny depends. To observe, record, and measure the method by which these powers operate is not to banish the idea of God: it is what the Hebrews called meditating on his ways. The modern hatred of religion is not, like that of the Greek philosophers, a hatred of poetry, for which they wished to substitute cosmology, mathematics, or dialectic, still maintaining the reverence of man for what is superhuman. The modern hatred of religion is hatred of the truth, hatred of all sublimity, hatred of the laughter of the gods. It is puerile human vanity trying to justify itself by a lie.”

Text: George Santayana, My Host the World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953
Image: William Blake, The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth, frontispiece to copy K of Europe a Prophecy, 1821, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Posted in Architecture, Philosophy, Photo with tags , , , on November 17, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


“…I went to Paestum, and there saw Doric temples for the first time, symbols of severity, simplicity, harmony, and strength. There was the pure vein to be traced in the quartz of Roman accumulations and grossness…

Doric purity is not a thing to be expected again in history, at least not yet. It indicates a people that knows its small place in the universe and yet asserts its dignity. In early Christian art there may be simplicity and naïveté, but never self-knowledge. The aspiration in it is childlike. For anything like Doric fortitude in the West we must look to the castles, not to the churches; and the castles are Christian only by association. Here then was an ultimate point of reference, a principle of manly purity, to mark one extreme in the moral scale of all human arts…”

Text: George Santayana, My Host the World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953
Image: Alexander John Ellis, two daguerreotypes of the temple of Hera at Paestum, 1841. via Getty Images


Santayana on Greek Mythology

Posted in Greece, Greek Myth, Philosophy, Poetry with tags on September 17, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


The moral sanctions of religion were embodied in the domestic and civic worship; the pious imagination remained thereby all the freer to follow the analogies of physical objects in its mythology. Apollo was the father of Asclepius and the leader of the Muses; his ideal dignity and beneficence were vouched for by those attributes. He could well afford, therefore, as the Sun-god, to decimate the Greek army with the same fatal shafts with which he slew the Python. The moral function of the god was certain on other grounds, being enshrined in the local religions of the people. The poet might follow without scruple the suggestions of experience; he might attribute to the god the various activities, beneficent and maleficent, observable in the element over which he presided. This is a liberty taken even in the most moralistic religions. In the Gospels, for instance, we sometimes find the kingdom of heaven illustrated by principles drawn from observation of this world rather than from an ideal conception of justice; as when we hear that to him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Such characterizations appeal to our sense of fact. They remind us that the God we are seeking is present and active, that he is the living God; they are doubtless necessary if we are to keep religion from passing into a mere idealism and God into the vanishing point of our thought and endeavour. For we naturally seek to express his awful actuality, his unchallengeable power, no less than his holiness and beauty. This sense of the real existence of religious objects can only be maintained by identifying them with objects of actual experience, with the forces of Nature, or the passions or conscience of man, or (if it must come to that) with written laws or visible images.

An instinctive recognition of this necessity kept Greek mythology ever ready to return to Nature to gather its materials afresh from a docile, if poetical, observation of reality. The character of the god must be studied in the manifestations of his chosen element; otherwise men might forget that, although the form of the god was poetical, his essence was a positive reality of the most practical kind. Zeus must still toss his ambrosial locks with a certain irritation, in order that we may recognize him in the rumblings of the sky; he must still be capable of wrath and deliberate malice, that his awful hand may be thought to have hurled the thunderbolt. Cronos must not be forbidden to devour his children, else we should no longer reverence in him the inexorable might of time. Mythology was quite right in not shrinking from such poetic audacities. They were its chief title to legitimacy, the proof, amid the embroideries of fancy which over-lay the divine idea, that the god was not an invention, but a fact. He had been found, he was known. His character, like all character, was merely a principle which reflection discovered in his observed conduct. The reality, then, of the mythological gods was initially unquestionable; and the more faithful the study of Nature by which the poet was inspired, the more authority did his prophetic vision retain.

But the intense imaginative vitality that must have preceded Homer and Hesiod, the prodigious gift of sympathetic observation to which we owe Zeus and Pan and all their endless retinue, was too glorious to last. No later interpreter could find so much meaning in his text. Mythology was accordingly placed in a sad dilemma, with either horn fatal to its life; it must either be impoverished to remain sincere, or become artificial to remain adequate. The history of Greek religion, on its speculative side, is nothing but the story of this double decadence. Reflection upon the process of Nature and desire for philosophic truth led inevitably to a blank pantheism and to the reduction of positive traditions to moral allegories. This was the direction taken by the Stoic theology. On the other hand, adherence to the traditional gods, with no further vivifying reference to their natural functions in the world, could lead only to arbitrary fictions, which, having no foothold or justification in reality, were incapable of withstanding the first sceptical attack. What an age of imagination had intuited as truth, an age of reflection could preserve only as fable; and as fable, accordingly, the religion of the ancients survived throughout the Christian ages. It remains still the mother-tongue of the imagination and, in spite of all revolutions and admixtures, is the classic language of art and poetry, which no other means of expression has superseded.

Text: George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900
Image: Attic red-figure cup depicting Apollo and Artemis, decorated by the Briseis Painter, c. 470 BC. Musée du Louvre

Santayana on Homer

Posted in Greece, Painting, Poetry with tags , , on September 16, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


It is an observation at first sight melancholy but in the end, perhaps, enlightening, that the earliest poets are the most ideal, and that primitive ages furnish the most heroic characters and have the clearest vision of a perfect life. The Homeric times must have been full of ignorance and suffering. In those little barbaric towns, in those camps and farms, in those shipyards, there must have been much insecurity and superstition. That age was singularly poor in all that concerns the convenience of life and the entertainment of the mind with arts and sciences. Yet it had a sense for civilization. That machinery of life which men were beginning to devise appealed to them as poetical; they knew its ultimate justification and studied its incipient processes with delight. The poetry of that simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known; the most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration. Without lacking variety and homeliness, it bathed all things human in the golden light of morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness. Nowhere else can we find so noble a rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight in life, so uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of seeing beauty in everything. Homer, the first of poets, was also the best and the most poetical.

Text: George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900
Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653. Metropolitan Museum of Art

John Locke 384

Posted in Drawing, Philosophy, Writing with tags , , on August 29, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden
Sylvester Brounower-John Locke-c.1693-NPG
Sylvester Brounower
Portrait of John Locke, c. 1693
National Portrait Gallery

While I can hardly do justice here to the ideas and influence of the great John Locke, born this day in 1632, George Santayana provides a lovely sketch in his essay Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense:

“And who of you has not known some other spontaneous, inquisitive, unsettled genius, no less preoccupied with the marvellous intelligence of some Brazilian parrot, than with the sad obstinacy of some Bishop of Worcester? Here is eternal freshness of conviction and ardour for reform; great keenness of perception in spots, and in other spots lacunae and impulsive judgements; distrust of tradition, of words, of constructive argument; horror of vested interests and of their smooth defenders; a love of navigating alone and exploring for oneself even the coasts already well charted by others. Here is romanticism united with a scientific conscience and power of destructive analysis balanced by moral enthusiasm. Doubtless Locke might have dug his foundations deeper and integrated his faith better. His system was no metaphysical castle, no theological acropolis: rather a homely ancestral manor house built in several styles of architecture: a Tudor chapel, a Palladian front toward the new geometrical garden, a Jacobean parlour for political consultation and learned disputes, and even — since we are almost in the eighteenth century — a Chinese cabinet full of curios. It was a habitable philosophy, and not too inharmonious. There was no greater incongruity in its parts than in the gentle variations of English weather or in the qualified moods and insights of a civilised mind. Impoverished as we are, morally and humanly, we can no longer live in such a rambling mansion. It has become a national monument. On the days when it is open we revisit it with admiration; and those chambers and garden walks re-echo to us the clear dogmas and savoury diction of the sage — omnivorous, artless, loquacious — whose dwelling it was.”

–Santayana, George. Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: University Press, 1933