"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Santayana: On Finding Meaning in Life

George Santayana
"The whole machinery of our intelligence," wrote the Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, "our general ideas and laws, fixed and external objects, principles, persons, and gods, are so many symbolic, algebraic expressions. They stand for experience; experience which we are incapable of retaining and surveying in its multitudinous immediacy. We should flounder hopelessly, like the animals, did we not keep ourselves afloat and direct our course by these intellectual devices. Theory helps us to bear our ignorance of fact."

Widely viewed as a "pragmatist," like his professor and then colleague in Harvard's philosophy department, William James, he eschewed the label and his iconoclastic philosophy is difficult to define; perhaps, because he was a man decidedly of his moment, yet embued with a pragmatic sense of the past. His was a voice of reason in the increasingly irrational twentieth century, who may be best known for his observation: "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

Denis Doyle/AP
Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"
"History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory," he remarked. "It might almost be said to be no science at all, if memory and faith in memory were not what science necessarily rest on. In order to sift evidence we must rely on some witness, and we must trust experience before we proceed to expand it. The line between what is known scientifically and what has to be assumed in order to support knowledge is impossible to draw. Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe."

On "Reason in Religion," he observed: "Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon's that "a little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." In every age the most comprehensive thinkers have found in the religion of their time and country something they could accept, interpreting and illustrating that religion so as to give it depth and universal application. Even the heretics and atheists, if they have had profundity, turn out after a while to be forerunners of some new orthodoxy."

Moreover, long before it became intellectually (or theologically) fashionable to advocate the use of reason, rather than faith, in understanding the tenets of established religions, Santayana (an agnostic who described himself as an "aesthetic Catholic") saw that reason and religion need not be antithetical.
"The enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion — something which the blindest half see — is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function. Such studies would bring the skeptic face to face with the mystery and pathos of mortal existence. They would make him understand why religion is so profoundly moving and in a sense so profoundly just. There must needs be something humane and necessary in an influence that has become the most general sanction of virtue, the chief occasion for art and philosophy, and the source, perhaps, of the best human happiness. If nothing, as Hooker said, is "so malapert as a splenetic religion," a sour irreligion is almost as perverse."
[George Santayana, "On Religion"]
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See the video, below, for more on Santayana's reasoning about philosophy and the quest to find meaning in life:

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