To the Editor:
COMMENTARY deserves thanks for publishing Kenneth S. Lynn’s “Santayana and the Genteel Tradition” [May] so soon after Mr. Lynn’s review of Gay Wilson Allen’s Waldo Emerson: A Biography [Books in Review, March]. The review of Emerson was distinctly unsentimental, and indeed tough-minded about the shrewd motives which the sage of Concord concealed. Since Mr. Lynn exposed Emerson’s “dirty little secret” of marrying a rich, consumptive heiress and shortly himself becoming a laughing heir, we are prepared in his article on Santayana to face what Mr. Lynn regards as the facts of political life in America.
George Santayana recognized the industrial power of the United States and the decadence of Spain in the last decade of the 19th century. Unlike William James and other Harvard philosophers, he saw no use in moralizing about crude industrialism and the appetite for imperial power expressed in the Spanish-American War. In this respect Santayana broke with the genteel tradition, and mocked the puritanical guilt and moralistic need to justify the war as bringing the light of democracy to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, all darkened by Spanish tyranny.
It is easy to expose moralism, the sanctimonious assumption of one’s own innocence versus the cunning and corruption of others. This is a fair reading of Santayana’s poem, “Young Sammy’s First Wild Oats: Lines Written Before the Presidential Election of 1900,” which is the comic expression of the Spanish-American War period, 1898-1900. While Mr. Lynn quotes “Young Sammy,” he neglects its tragic counterpart in the rather longer “Spain in America: Written After the Destruction of the Spanish Fleet in the Battle of Santiago in 1898.”
With elegiac dignity Santayana recites the names of the ships of Spain’s Armada sunk in the Battle of Santiago, and contrasts the end of empire to the “boorish jest” of Admiral Sampson who said that he made a Fourth of July present of the Spanish fleet to the American people. . . .
Santayana’s intense pride in the ideals of the Spanish tradition emerges in Part II of the poem. Spain inherited from Greece, Rome, Israel, and Islam, and the ideals of Christian Spain were those of severe loyalty to the faith, which Santayana did not reduce to the lowest denominator of motivation. The whole complex relation of Spain to the New World was a matter of formal and final purpose and not only of material and efficient causes:
Why went Columbus to that high-
Frugal and pensive, prone to love
Despising kingdoms for a woman’s
For honour riches and for faith desire?
The tragedy of the Spanish empire is that with such an ideal of carrying the cross to the pagans, the colonies were exploited by the colonizers. Honor was replaced by dishonor:
That slothful planter, once the buc-
Lord of his bastards and his mon-
Ignorant, harsh, what could he list
Of Europe and the heritage of man?
Toward the end of the poem, Santayana stresses the abiding ideal:
But of thy lingering twilight bring
Memorial of the immaterial fire
Lighting thy heart, and to a wider
Waken the music of our plaintive
Santayana was not genteel when he recognized the raw fact that the Spanish prime minister had profited from appropriations for naval armament. . . . But Santayana was genteel in that he held to the moral ideal by which Sagasta, the prime minister, had dishonored himself. The ideal of Spain is that the material should support the spiritual: “. . . Spanish weakness comes only of Quixotic frailty, due to tragic and comic disproportion between the spirit and the flesh. The resources of the country and people would not be materially contemptible if they wisely husbanded, and devoted to developing at home, under native inspiration, an austere, passionate, and intelligent life.” . . .
Santayana’s position is that of Catholic gentility versus Protestant gentility. Mr. Lynn neglects the former in Santayana while he rejects the latter by using Santayana. Mr. Lynn is too hostile toward the American genteel tradition, as for example in Emerson, to study Santayana with care. . . .
This one-sidedness which Mr. Lynn represents is one aspect of the difficulty we have in establishing good relations with people of Spanish heritage. With all our preoccupation with particular moves and countermoves, reported daily from Argentina to Central America, it would be well to reread Santayana on the ideal as well as the material side of Spanish culture.
Paul G. Kuntz
Department of Philosophy
To the Editor:
It is a dubious and thankless task to try to draw from Santayana a clear attachment to a political cause. Kenneth S. Lynn remarks on Santayana’s detachment, but he does not take into account how deep and pervasive that detachment was, and what values actually animated it. The result is an earnest misreading of Santayana, a misreading in which Mr. Lynn attributes to Santayana his own militancy, and which misses the saving grace of irony always present in Santayana’s fighting stances.
Santayana certainly recognized and admired power, and sometimes seemed militant in defending manifestations of power—particularly against certain kinds of narrow moral righteousness and “idealism.” However, Santayana’s explorative sympathies ranged over the political spectrum (though weighted to the Right) and he had tentatively positive words not only about American imperialism but about power stalwarts as varied as Mussolini, Franco, Lenin, and Stalin.
. . . Mr. Lynn misses the irony in Santayana’s scolding of William James and other Americans for their reluctance to take what the Spaniards (of whom Santayana was one!) were resigned to giving up. Santayana could be reconciled to power, but it was never a simple matter of siding with it. It was with ironic and tragic recognition that Santayana dramatized his predicaments and feelings. Temperamentally Santayana was more inclined to philosophical acceptance of loss than to militant justification of gain.
Santayana was in the repeated personal and philosophical predicament of “seeing both sides.” He lived in England during World War I and had close relatives who sympathized with the Central Powers. Not even with respect to the Spanish Civil War was he absolutely one-sided. He could understand the “reds,” the rojos, even though he primarily identified with the Falangists. A nephew of his died fighting, with righteous idealism of course, for the Franco cause.
So we cannot say, as Mr. Lynn is inclined to do, how Santayana would have sided in current disputes, any more than we can say, without detailed attention to nuance and irony, how he sided in the disputes of his own time. . . .