The Tragedy of Happiness

Written on December 14, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy

As published on the Wall Street Journal

Revisiting a philosopher's ambivalent thoughts about his prosperous adopted home—America.


Do Americans have a national character? The idea sounds plausible enough—until you try to pin it down.

Are we a nation of individualists pursuing happiness as we each see fit or a country of conformists taking the road most traveled by? The children of Puritans striving to build the city upon a hill or the heirs of Jamestown, driven by the promise of profit? Prudish homebodies or easy riders? Whoever we are, we seem to suffer from a kind of divided personality.

No one could have agreed more than George Santayana (1863-1952). He was once a household name in America: a Spanish-born Harvard professor whose face once graced the cover of Time magazine; a best-selling novelist ("The Last Puritan"), popular essayist and memoir-writer; and an intellectual mentor to the columnist Walter Lippmann and the poet Wallace Stevens. In his later years he became a permanent expatriate who ended his days being tended by Catholic nuns in Italy, an "old philosopher in Rome," as Stevens put it.

Santayana is most remembered today for a single, painfully overquoted sentence: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But in his lifetime he achieved stature as a philosopher for a whole series of books about the nature of human reason, the sense of beauty and the value of religion. His greatest subject was perhaps his adopted homeland. His writings about America still have the freshness of new discoveries, and they are enlivened—like nearly everything he wrote—by sharp turns of phrase and pungent judgments.

For its Rethinking the Western Tradition series, Yale University Press has republished two major Santayana works, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" and "Character and Opinion in the United States," together with essays by four contemporary commentators, including the book's editor, James Seaton. It is a brief, thought-provoking volume that allows us to revisit Santayana's elegant prose and re-engage his thoughts about American culture.

Santayana's major insight was that America was "a young country with an old mentality" or "old wine in new bottles." The "old wine" was the unfiltered Calvinism that the Puritans brought with them to New England, where they expected their experience to bear out the harsh tenets of their faith. The problem, according to Santayana, was that their material success outpaced their theological pessimism.

The Puritans, much to their chagrin, did rather well. They prospered to the point where their certainty about man's fallen nature gave way to a mild-mannered faith in human progress. The poor were now in need of reform instead of redemption. The popular clergyman Henry Ward Beecher replaced the severe sermonizer Jonathan Edwards. God no longer held man over the pit of hell but helped him along his merry way.

"If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved," Santayana wrote, "he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is." The problem with slackened Calvinism, in Santayana's view, was that it cheapened culture. "Serious poetry, profound religion are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself," he wrote. When "a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them."

In other words, the "agonized conscience" of Calvinism allowed for more fully human works of art and religion than its milder, more secular offspring. The well-meaning custodians of Puritan ideals eventually lost their taste for moral reckoning and invigorating self-questioning.

For all Santayana's nostalgia for Puritan rigor, though, he did not much like it. Protestantism for him, even in its purest form, was a poor foundation on which to build a society—it was arid and unimaginative, especially when compared with the vastly richer mystical resources of Roman Catholicism.

But what post-Puritan America encouraged was even worse: a fuddy-duddy tolerance that ruined religion for everyone, including Catholics. "The American Catholic is entirely at peace," Santayana chafed. "It is wonderful how silently, amicably, and happily he lives in a community whose spirit is profoundly hostile to that of his religion." What seemed like the most religion-friendly of nations was, for Santayana, a deeply secular society inoculated against the claims of the sacred.

But Calvinism was only half the American story; there was another European import that troubled Santayana. This was German Romanticism, which gave pride of place to the individual's intense experience of nature. Transcendentalism was its American variant. Santayana admits that Ralph Waldo Emerson's faith in Americans to remake the world in their own image found some warrant in the landscape, which offered bountiful opportunities. But Santayana could not abide the solipsism of it all: "Nature, for the transcendentalist, is precious because it is his own work, a mirror in which he looks at himself and says . . . 'What a genius I am! Who would have thought there was such stuff in me?' "

Santayana pitied his students at Harvard—bred in a lukewarm genteel tradition only to arrive at college and be fed scraps of dried-out philosophy that no longer spoke to the century they lived in. Ultimately he held little hope for an intellectual counterweight to America's material reality.

Though a materialist himself, Santayana "saw religion as a friend to human yearning," as Roger Kimball writes in the Yale volume. Wilfred McClay, in his own essay, argues that Santayana's passion for "living in the mind" deserves a special hearing in our own time. Mr. Seaton finds parallels between the genteel tradition and today's academic left, which also moralizes while avoiding first principles. John Lachs, for his part, is attracted to Santayana's vision of "English liberty," which fostered a spirit of "perpetual compromise" in the U.S. even if it was a compromise that Santayana was himself unwilling to make.

Santayana so resented the way that liberalism—the genteel tradition's political expression—had supplanted religion and glossed over the intractability of human nature that he misidentified it as the scourge of the age. Such judgments often led him to recklessness. Thus he admired Mussolini and joked that he would have rather been born under Bolshevism than in Boston.

Santayana's political outlook was as naive as his philosophical speculation was sophisticated. He should be remembered as a penetrating critic of Western culture and an astute guide to the divided American mind. But in the end it is hard to give full credit to a philosopher who exposed so many human limitations but rarely acknowledged his own. He believed that America needed to face up to its material circumstances, but too often Santayana preferred to ignore the events outside his room.


—Mr. Meaney is a writer in New York.


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