“We sometimes speak of regretting lost illusions. What a silly idea! We may well regret lost powers, but the loss of illusions is an unmixed benefit. It leaves you free face to face with the facts and authorizes you to profit by every real opportunity.”
How do we know when we have shed our illusions? Is such a state humanly possible? Without effort we can detect the illusions of others. Our certainty that we have attained an illusion-free existence is a self-proving conviction. We know it; ergo, it must be true. And what’s so wrong with illusions anyway?
The passage above is from the letter George Santayana wrote on this date, January 11, in 1905, to his Harvard friend and fellow philosopher Benjamin Apthorp Gould Fuller. Santayana was touring the Mediterranean region and, on this day, traveling up the Nile near Luxor. He continues:
“The trouble is that, the Life of Reason being so largely in abeyance, people do not ordinarily lose their illusions till they have lost their passions, and then the real world, when they see it for the first time as it is, seems to them stale, not because it is real but because they are played out.”
Santayana might be describing the Boomers, those illusion-clinging Americans born between 1946 and 1964. I was born in 1952 and feel no loyalty to my so-called generation. We have a lot to account for. Few sights are sadder than a man with a gray ponytail reliving 1968. Michael Oakeshott writes in Notebooks, 1922-86 (2014):
“The feeling of the Russian Revolution, cp. Wordsworth & the French Revolution.
“I was 17 and in 1917 felt it all. Illusions. But saw dimly even then the value of what was being destroyed – the civilization of Tolstoy & Turgenev. The intellectual grandeur of the Eastern church.”