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A Quick Musing on the Santayana Movement

In Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, Santayana on June 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm

There’s been, of late, a renewal of interest in George Santayana.

Yale University Press recently released The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States (2009), edited by James Seaton.  With contributions by Seaton, Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball, and comprised of two seminal works by Santayana and four critical essays about Santayana, the book, however thin, seeks nothing less than a revamping of “culture.”  That’s because its subject, the enigmatic Santayana, was an aesthete par excellence and, paradoxically if not impossibly, an atheist-Catholic defender of the faith.

Most conservatives remember Santayana from Russell Kirk’s magnum opus, The Conservative Mind.  The original title to that work was The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana.  Santayana’s reputation has receded in importance since Kirk’s landmark book, in part because conservatives have drifted away from the literati while the literati have drifted away from conservatives.     

Rather than critique Santayana’s works or investigate Santayana the man, this post speculates about Santayana the movement, or anti-movement.  What does this man stand for?  What does it mean that cultural critics have returned to his oeuvre?

It’s odd to think of Santayana as the frontrunner of any sort of movement, since his cultural criticism derives its principles from Matthew Arnold, the eminent Victorian known for disinterestedness and the pursuit of “the best that is known and thought in the world.”

The American critics who have carried on Santayana’s tradition—including all four contributors to the Yale volume—have proven quite influential.  Kimball’s The New Criterion has assailed the presuppositions of postmodernism in literary and artistic circles.  It has elevated the quality of rhetoric among politico-pundits and reacquainted conservatives with an artistic and intellectual heritage that would have pleased Kirk.

Followers of Santayana privilege aesthetic theory over deconstruction, truth over relativism, civil debate over polemic militancy, and recognition of human limitations over the embrace of quixotic utopianism.  They recall Paul Elmore More and Irving Babbitt.  Their mantra is to lack a mantra.  They proselytize about not proselytizing.  For them, conservatism is about tradition and a cultivated worldview and not about building coalitions, categorizing allies and foes, demonizing enemies, or preserving ideological cliques.

Paul Gottfried recently criticized conservative literati who purport that moral vision and high seriousness are above politics.  “To say that conservatism has ceased to be political and thereby has become essentially apolitical,” Gottfried remarked, “is itself a political tactic, one to which those who are losing the value war have sometimes resorted.”  Gottfried is right; and many leftists would agree with him.

One could direct Gottfried’s charge against Santayana in his time and against contemporary Santayana followers.

One wonders whether Santayana’s adherents are right that literature illustrates the complexity of human behavior and interaction in a way that political rhetoric, with its tendency to simplify, slander, and slur, cannot.  Gregory Wolfe recently claimed in The American Conservative that “culture shapes politics far more powerfully than politics shapes culture.”  That seems plausible.  So does Wolfe’s follow-up: “I found that the very nature of politicization was inimical to the task of building and sustaining order.”

Santayana’s works could be a vehicle for exposing fundamental contradictions in various politicized projects of literary theory.

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