Saturday, October 06, 2018

'We Live in a Fanatical Age'

Even wise men can be viciously wrong in their prejudices. I admire much of George Santayana’s prose and thought without reservation, though he was an inexcusably stupid anti-Semite. When Richard John Neuhaus reviewed the reissue of John McCormick’s biography of the philosopher in 2005, he wrote: “What is admired in Santayana is disturbingly entangled with what is repugnant.” That makes him impossible for today’s literary Manicheans to understand or admire (of course, many of those same Manicheans are already anti-Semitic). People are complicated, more than we can hope to fathom. Let’s go further and say we will always remain mysteries to each other and ourselves. As soon as we claim to comprehensively understand another human being, we’re lying. I’m reading Santayana’s letters. Here’s a passage, written to Daniel Cory in the year of the Anschluss, Munich and Kristallnacht, that prompted these thoughts:

“We live in a fanatical age, an age of propaganda, when everybody wants the support of the whole herd in order to be quite at peace in his own conscience. I am reading the Upanishads, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Spinoza’s Politics, to take the bad taste out of my mouth.”

Spinoza, of course, was a Jew. Parallels between 1938 and 2018 will be apparent to most conscious readers. Yet, just two years earlier, on Aug. 12, 1936, Santayana wrote to George Sturgis: “The Jews, for instance, aren’t in the least like Abraham or King Solomon: they are just sheenies.”

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