Guy W. Stroh
Lionel Trilling’s fascination with literature and his life-long quest to explore it was based on his conviction that “all literature tends to be concerned with the question of reality – I mean quite simply the old opposition between reality and appearance, between what really is and what merely seems” (Liberal 201). Trilling was also absorbed with the role that the mind plays in this matter. From this, one is led to draw the conclusion that Trilling’s approach to literature is philosophical in the traditional and wide sense of that term from Plato down to our time. This conclusion is confirmed by his tendency to explore and use ideas of Plato, Hegel, Mill, Santayana and other well-known philosophers. It is also confirmed by his strong interest in searching the philosophical dimensions of psychologists, poets and writers like Freud, Keats, Goethe and others.
This is not to say that Trilling’s endeavor was to compose a theory of reality, mind or literature. These are plentiful and he was not really concerned to add to their number. His overriding concern was rather to fathom the complexities, problems and paradoxes of poetry, the novel as well as criticism in their various forms. His essays abound in references to other authors because he saw his own mind and believed that mind itself is essentially open and receptive to fresh insights, new perspectives and intriguing problems in all it sees. He was also mindful of the values literature has to offer, but as he well realized, these are always contextual, changeable and never free of problems. If, in his long career in teaching and writing, he was guided by a conviction that progress could somehow be achieved, this advancement was always met with a sense of caution and a regard for more evidence still to come. If the great or important works of literature are inexhaustible then any searching criticism of them will always be unfinished.
In a sense, Trilling was a good Platonist, always looking for the universal idea behind the particular author or work he was studying. He loved to pick out particular passages that illuminate a definite idea, but perhaps not the idea we may expect. His admiration of Keats, for example, was based on his belief that Keats “was the most Platonic of poets. Ideas, abstractions, were his life. He lived to perceive ultimate things, essences. This is what appetite, or love, was always coming to mean for him” (Moral 236). But, for Trilling, Keats’s Platonism is not doctrinal or systematic. Like Plato, Keats was imbued with a sense of hierarchy of loves ascending from the lowest of desires to the highest. But, unlike Plato, Keats was not concerned with forming a theory to show in detail how any ideals of justice, wisdom, truth or beauty can be applied to our shifting world of affairs. Plato in fact came down hard on Homer and other poets because they were unable to explain their insights. Poets may have innate ideas of ideal justice, beauty and truth but they lack the rational discipline of the mind necessary to understand, interpret and use their insights cogently. Plato has indeed inspired romantic poets and artists with his ideal of the ascension of the human soul. However, Plato equally insisted on the hard discipline of the mind and person needed for this climb.
Trilling, of course, sees very well the importance of the twin poles of ascension and discipline needed for the development of the mind and person. Overcoming appearances is difficult and also presents the danger of harming or even dismantling the inspiration of the poet or artist.
Trilling is not only concerned with the poet’s use of philosophy but also with the philosopher’s use of poetry. He is intrigued, for example, with John Stuart Mill’s advice that all liberals should become acquainted with the powerful, conservative mind of Coleridge. As Trilling says, “The intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge could exert would force liberals to examine their position, for its weaknesses and complacencies” (Liberal viii). Trilling also mentions the benefit that Mill received from poetry. It was poetry, Trilling adds, which restored Mill to the possibility of an emotional life after the rigors of Mill’s intellectual upbringing nearly destroyed him. Santayana constructed an entire system of philosophy, wrote poetry, a novel and a good amount of criticism. His Three Philosophical Poets attempts to show how Lucretius, Dante and Goethe summed up all European philosophy.
Trilling had studied Santayana at Columbia under Irwin Edman, but it was not until much later, when he came to admire Santayana’s letters (1955) that he ventured to write his insightful essay on Santayana, “That Smile of Parmenides Made Me Think” included in his 1956 A Gathering of Fugitives. Trilling thought very highly of this essay. He requested that it be included in any future anthology of his selected essays (Moral xvii). Trilling was attracted to Santayana for a number of reasons. Both shared a strong and lasting interest in literary forms and they shared an interest in the character of the human mind vital to probing and understanding these forms in all their diversity and complexity. Each not only engaged in extensive literary criticism but they also prized and practiced constant reflection on the very idea or, one might say, the Platonic Idea of criticism itself. Both agreed that criticism required a moral responsibility to face and examine one’s own assumptions or principles of criticism. Both insisted on high standards of judgment but never absolute ones.
Trilling admired Santayana’s self-possession or, as he called it, self-definition. From a very early age and for the rest of his long life, Santayana always knew exactly who he was. In his life and also in his letters he cultivated many friends of diverse sorts; some were philosophers like William James, others were poets like Robert Bridges and Ezra Pound, even jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others. Santayana believed that life was to be enjoyed and that friendship was essential to happiness. He also held that happiness was impossible without discipline and detachment. While he was certainly no recluse or nihilist, he did not favor the idea or practice of philosophical engagement in the world, especially in politics. Unlike Dewey and other pragmatists, Santayana did not subscribe to the idea of the philosopher as social engineer or active reformer. He was not opposed to social reform or improvements in education, but his sense of detachment and self-definition required that his mind and person be free to study, write and create. After teaching at Harvard for over twenty years, he retired from academic life at the age of forty-nine and lived in Europe, never to return to America. This was a personal preference.
Trilling mentions that perhaps Santayana is not an easy person to like. He further states that “my own antagonism to Santayana goes back to my college days” (Gathering 155). Trilling notes the trouble he had understanding what philosophy was really all about. He says that his teacher, Irwin Edman, “could never make plain to me what Santayana was up to” (Gathering 155). He admits that he and other students had an aversion to detachment or an “aestheticism” which looks down upon the world. Such detachment is undemocratic, too aristocratic. Thus, Santayana’s detachment represented for the young Trilling and others something too elegant, too cultivated, too involved with aesthetic values. This view of Santayana as an aesthetically detached philosopher was shared by many others who saw his early works, The Sense of Beauty (1896), Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) and Three Philosophical Poets (1910) as all too much concerned with aesthetic appearances to the neglect of other more important or real values.
Trilling came to see this as an erroneous view of Santayana. As he says, “Santayana was very severe in his attitude toward the aesthetic experience — as severe as William James and for rather better reasons. This is one of the remarkable and salutary things about him. He was not in the least taken in by the modern pieties about art and as he grew older art meant less and less to him, and he thought that it should” (Gathering 156–7). In his first major and systematic work, the five volume The Life of Reason (1905–6), Santayana placed art in the context of his naturalism along with common sense, society, religion and science. Art is only one of the elements of what he called the phases of human progress. Art is not the most fundamental form in which human beings rise above their mere animal nature and achieve order and harmony in life. Common sense is more fundamental, as are society and religion. Science is the most sophisticated form by which mankind advances to rationality and it is the most difficult and the latest to appear on the scene. All human societies can be expected to have religion, art and a measure of common sense, but not necessarily any true science which requires arduous experimentation as well as proof. If art implies skill in construction and action then the only justification of art will be its usefulness and the satisfactions it brings. For Santayana “All art is therefore useful and practical, and the notable aesthetic value which some works of art possess, for reasons flowing for the most part out of their moral significance, is itself one of the satisfactions which art offers to human nature as a whole” (Life 303). To be useful and produce satisfaction, art has to acquire discipline and order. In other words, it has to become rational. Wild or pure spontaneous fancy and mere utility or drudgery are the polar opposites of art.
For Santayana, to separate the aesthetic aspect of art from its usefulness and the satisfactions it brings is “more misleading than helpful; for neither in the history of art nor in a rational estimate of its value can the aesthetic function of things be divorced from the practical and moral” (Life 303). It is quite remarkable that Trilling overcame his early antagonism to Santayana and came to see the view of Santayana as an aesthetically detached philosopher as mistaken. Trilling tells us that he never made a scholarly study of Santayana’s many philosophical works. But he did study Santayana’s letters and he considered them of classical importance. In his letters Santayana does not hide his philosophy, but quite the reverse, he reveals his most basic ideas at every given opportunity. This is consistent with Santayana’s very conception of philosophy as not only a love of wisdom, but also a way of everyday living that is based on what this wisdom teaches. In fact, Santayana was a very harsh critic of modern philosophy since he saw this as abandoning the search for wisdom and the attempt to live in accordance with it. He admired Plato, Aristotle, the ancient Greeks along with Spinoza precisely because they refused to develop a philosophy they could not live by. Modern philosophers are for Santayana too inclined to have philosophy become scientific and technical. They are thus motivated to talk and write to one another rather than to the wider audience of intelligent human beings. While philosophy has always been a challenging and difficult subject, its genuine difficulty emerges from the difficulty of its problems about man, reality, the mind, values and way of life in the world. These are not technical problems requiring a technical vocabulary to be stated and solved. These problems, for Santayana, belong to everyone who has the interest and the wonder to pursue them.
Trilling is right to notice that Santayana’s “feelings about America go very deep, go to his first principles” (Gathering 158). Santayana was born in Spain in 1863 and came to America when he was nine years old. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard and joined the Harvard philosophy faculty where he remained until 1912. For about twenty-three years he was a colleague of William James and Josiah Royce. Santayana always retained his Spanish citizenship. He died in Rome in 1952.
Santayana lived for about forty years in America but he never really felt at home there. There were many things he admired about America but there were also features he found uncongenial. The one feature that stands out as the most negative aspect of American life, Santayana called “the genteel tradition.” As Trilling notes, this became a famous phrase and Santayana wrote several essays on this theme. As Santayana viewed it at the beginning of the twentieth century, America was a new country with an old mentality. Its old mentality was primarily what it had borrowed from Europe and this was centered in its inherited Protestanism or religiously centered moralism. America essentially inherited a belief in absolute moral values along with a supernatural conviction that the world was created for man’s benefit if only he would adhere to these perfect or divine moral standards. Actually Santayana found that America had a divided mentality or two mentalities; “one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations. In all the higher things of the mind — in religion, in literature, in the moral emotions — it is the hereditary spirit that still prevails” (Genteel 39). He then adds that the newer side of the American mind is all aggressive enterprise, the older side is all genteel tradition.
The genteel tradition Santayana found still surviving at Harvard of his time and also throughout other American colleges and institutions. Earlier it was embodied in the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and also in the Transcendentalism of Emerson. Santayana came down hard on the genteel tradition, not only because he believed it false, but also because he found it stale and moribund and further because it was an impediment to the freedom of mind needed for genuine philosophy, literature and art. Santayana saw the poet Walt Whitman and the pragmatist William James as breaking away from this tradition and he could have cited Thoreau and others.
What Santayana liked about American life was its spirit of enterprise, inventions, its spirit of independence and freedom. After all, had America not indeed produced a Thomas Edison and an Alexander Graham Bell? America was indeed the land of invention, having begun by inventing itself. But these marvelous inventions were material things which presented a problem for the genteel tradition since it was fixated on immaterial and supernatural goals. Here Trilling is right to see how this genteel tradition conflicted with Santayana’s naturalism or materialism, as he liked to call his basic philosophy. Trilling mentions that Santayana “found it very difficult to convince people that he really was a materialist” (Gathering 159). How could someone vitally interested in the highest reaches of mind, poetry, religion, morality and a life of reason be a materialist? A materialist in the ordinary sense of that term is someone who believes that only matter or material things exist and that only these have real value. Trilling sees very well that Santayana’s materialism was not of this ordinary kind. While Santayana believed that we all live in a material world of earth, air, fire, water etc., our mind and its ideas are not material things, nor are the numbers we count with, nor are the shapes and colors of things and nor are the values and ideals we cherish. The mind certainly depends on its material body and brain and could not exist or function without them. But, for Santayana, mind is not material, nor is it supernatural. Mind or spirit as he prefers to call it, has its own quality of existence and this is what makes it so important. Mind is ontologically distinct from matter since it does not exist in physical space or place. But mind, consciousness, or spirit depends on matter and Santayana holds that it is perfectly natural. Mind is intrinsically invisible and can never be photographed as can bodies or the brain. Matter is extremely complicated and we have trouble understanding how lifeless matter becomes organic and gives rise to living things, to plants, animals and humans. But we know it does. In lieu of knowing exactly how nature works, we imagine all sorts of mythical stories as to how it gives rise to life, language, mind or spirit. But imagination, as great a thing as it is, is not the same as knowledge. Children can easily imagine animals that can talk and think; we all can imagine a better future. Imagination is a source of all great poetry, literature and art. But imagination is not science, though all science and invention depend on it. Imagination is mind or spirit and for Santayana it has supreme value. But it is not a material thing and has no physical or mechanical energy.
Trilling sees very well that Santayana’s materialism is not the ordinary kind, not the kind Americans assume. “For if the Americans were truly materialistic, they would recognize the necessity of dualism, they would have contrived a life of the spirit apart from and in opposition to the life of material concern” (Gathering 163). Trilling quotes a 1951 letter where Santayana says that his materialism is not to be confused with the romantic naturalism of Goethe and others. These others would include Emerson and other transcendentalists who had in reality a soft naturalism where hard matter evaporates into spirit or the mere ideas we have of it. The ideas or thoughts we have of nature and matter are not to be confused with nature and matter as they really are in their hard and independent existence. There is nothing mental, subjective or imaginary about nature or matter. Nature or matter are not extensions of mind, spirit or the ideas we may frame of them. Trilling is correct in calling attention to dualism in Santayana’s materialism. This dualism is notable in all the sharp distinctions he makes between essence and existence, matter and spirit etc. For example, Santayana claims that there are two kinds of psychology, which he terms scientific and literary. These are easily confused since they are often practiced together. Scientific psychology is concerned with observing and studying behavior. Literary psychology is concerned with imagining how people feel and think. Literary psychology is an art rather than a science, since it is literally impossible to observe or verify what goes on in the inner life or minds of people. We can observe and photograph their actions and study them scientifically, but we cannot photograph or observe how people feel and think. We can only imagine this. Even when they talk to us and claim to tell us how they feel and think, we have no sure way to determine whether they are fabricating or telling the truth.
Mind or consciousness for Santayana is epiphenomenal; it occurs in time and depends upon its body and material circumstances. But mind or spirit does not intervene in the motions and energies of the material world. It supervenes upon the world; it is a witness and imaginative interpreter of all it sees. Trilling also sees that Santayana places a very high value on mind, especially its ability to be rational and imaginative. But reason and imagination are not properties of matter, they are purely spiritual qualities. Thus, Santayana declares, “By the mind, its scope, quality and temper, we estimate men, for by the mind only do we exist as men, and are more than so many, storage-batteries for material energy.” (Genteel 64).
For Trilling and Santayana, man is much more than a material thing. Man is a mind with spiritual interests and abilities that rise above and even survive his body and mere animal powers. The human being is capable of poetry, philosophy, science, art and religion. In fact, Santayana claims that poetry and religion are basically the same in their essential nature. “Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry.” (Interpretations v). Trilling is very perceptive to see that Santayana’s materialism is quite unusual in not being hostile to religion, as materialism is often seen to be. For Santayana, religion pursues a life of reason through the imagination. Religion and poetry are both symbolic and come together in their attraction to essences or universal forms, which survive the changing, material world. For Santayana, all symbols are essences, not material existences, and it is these symbolic forms that mind or spirit can comprehend and cherish. Essences can be complex as well as simple, and they can be used to refer to facts as well as fictions. We believe we know the essence of water; it is H2O. But material things are extremely complicated. Pegasus and Sherlock Holmes also have essential features that make them who they are, but we know they are fictions.
These symbolic forms or essences, since they are universals, can be shared by others and passed on to future generations. In this sense, mankind enjoys a double, ideal immortality, since these timeless, symbolic forms or essences can be enjoyed while man lives and when communicated to others, they survive in the further enjoyment they bring to countless others.
Trilling discerns the important point that Santayana’s materialism is the source of his philosophical detachment. As Trilling says, “The world is not spirit, following the laws of spirit, made to accommodate spirit, available to full comprehension by spirit. It permits spirit to exist, but this is by chance and chancily: no intention is avowed” (Gathering 160). Spirit or mind does not create or control reality as the false egotism of German idealism and all romantic philosophers may assume. Spirit, for Santayana, is part of reality since it occurs in time. But it is only one of the four realms of being that Santayana distinguishes in his ontology. As he says, “This simple dissolution of superstition yields three of my realms of being: matter, as the region and method of power; essence, as the proper nature of appearances and relations, and spirit as the witness or moral sensibility that is subject to the double assault of material events and of dramatic illusions. There remains the realm of truth, which is the total history and destiny of matter and spirit, or the enormously complex essence which they exemplify by existing” (Realms 834). Mankind has always been superstitious, substituting magical or imagined powers for real physical forces or powers. Superstition is one salient form of how appearance may be confused with reality. The number thirteen is a case in point. This number as an essence has no power to harm anyone, yet it is easy for people to fear and avoid it because of a belief that it is a bad omen. Santayana claims, “Men became superstitious not because they had too much imagination, but because they were not aware they had any.” (Interpretations 108).
Spirit or mind is a set of diverse or uneven perspectives or points of view some of which may be sane and true while many others are quite fanciful and full of illusions. In other words, spirit is the source of the appearance – reality distinction, as it is the source of all distinctions. Matter does not distinguish itself from mind, nature does not distinguish itself from man. Only mind or spirit can see or make any distinctions at all. As Santayana views it, spirit or mind is a born hermit. It finds itself alone and has to discover that it lives on borrowed time in an alien ferment that it has to disentangle to make its way. But Santayana does believe that spirit has the ability to distinguish appearance from reality or as he calls it, essence from existence. That this is not easy is proved by all the various and conflicting opinions, philosophies and visions that mankind has produced. Truth, wisdom, science, reality itself are far from self-evident. Even mathematics, the queen of the sciences, is far from self-evident. Plato and others have made it the cornerstone of their philosophy to show how difficult it is to overcome appearances and reach the truth about reality. Santayana applauds these efforts and continues the quest. Both Santayana and Trilling see that all literature is a spiritual journey or quest of man’s given mind or spirit to grapple with and hopefully transcend the appearance – reality distinction.
Trilling calls attention to what he terms “the knowledge of the abyss, the awareness of the discontinuity between man and world, this is the forming perception of Santayana’s thought as it comes to us in the letters. It is already in force at the age of twenty-three – it makes itself manifest in the perfectly amazing self-awareness and self-possession of the letters he writes from his first trip abroad just after his graduation from Harvard. The philosophical detachment is wholly explicit, and we see at once that it is matched by a personal detachment no less rigorous” (Gathering 161). Trilling is correct to see Santayana’s detachment as philosophical and not aesthetic. Detachment has to be rational; it cannot deny the self or subject which is the witness for any detachment, nor can it meaningfully deny the material sources and conditions necessary for mind’s ability to engage in reflection at all. Detachment, in other words, cannot end up in absolute emptiness or nihilism. Nihilism is not the beginning of wisdom but the end or utter loss of it. This kind of emptiness or abyss, as Trilling sees, Santayana never endorses. The abyss that Trilling finds in Santayana concerns the ontological gap between matter and spirit, nature and mind, world and man. Trilling’s image of this is flying over an abyss or emptiness in a balloon, then, he says, we at least have the balloon and can value that. Matter, nature, world are not made for man, to suit his mind or spiritual benefit. But man can find benefits from them and these benefits are not cancelled because they are not secure or lasting.
Santayana does not suggest that self-definition and detachment are easy, since knowledge is always prone to error. Knowledge at best, Santayana describes as a kind of animal faith that seeks confirmation and sometimes receives it. Particular facts can be doubted, but not all facts at once, this would be senseless. Existence is precarious and the existence of the self, mind or spirit is not self – sustaining or guaranteed.
Trilling says he does not pretend to comprehend Santayana’s doctrine of essences and he says the same thing about Keats. He believes the two doctrines have much in common and recommends the exploration of this possibility to others. Santayana’s doctrine of essences is central to his thought, but his view has given trouble to many who have studied it and even to his friendly critics. Dewey admired Santayana’s naturalism, that everything ideal has a natural basis and that everything natural has an ideal development possible within it. Love, for example, we realize has been greatly idealized in literature, religion and in philosophy, but love also has a biological, natural basis. Just as Santayana’s materialism has given rise to controversy and misunderstanding, so also has his doctrine of essences. Santayana says “The most material thing, in so far as it is felt to be beautiful, is instantly immaterialized, raised above external personal relations, concentrated and deepened in its proper being, in a word, sublimated into an essence” (Realms 8). Here one is rightly puzzled as to how a material thing, a tree for example, can be sublimated or changed into an essence, when as Santayana also holds essences are not material, not even existent things. Essences are universals, not particulars, they are eternal and not temporal, changing things. One is puzzled to know how a physical tree can become its very opposite. The answer is, it all depends upon the way we regard things. The mind is capable of feeling or imagining the beauty of things as well as studying the physical facts and relations of things. It all depends on interest. The poet or artist may be interested in how things feel and the chemist may be interested in how things interact to make a new compound. But essences for Santayana are not limited to aesthetic appearances, since they are universal forms of any kind, such as numbers. The number ten is not a material thing, but it is a form that we can know, count, and accordingly number things in the world with. Red and blue as mere colors are essences but red paint and blue light are material existences. The numbers two and four are essences, detached from any existence in space and time. But two chairs and four tables are material things existing in space and time. Essences have perfect identity; they never change. Blue is always blue, the number two is always the number two. They have being but not existence. Material things, by contrast, are continually subject to change. Essences or universals are eminently useful and we could not have language, science, literature or the best fruits of the mind or spirit without them. But they are not material things. They are immaterial but not supernatural or occult.
Essences for Santayana, being infinite and eternal, are not material powers or forces that control man’s life. But man is attracted to them. As universals and ideals they are useful to mankind and congenial to his mind. Essences are possible values and truths that the human mind can discover and cherish. However, without preferences, desires or interests there could be no pursuit of what is good or what is true. Truth and goodness for Santayana are essences or universals – they are detached from existence and change. They do not change but our perspectives and interests constantly undergo variation. Platonic Ideas are essences but not all essences are Platonic Ideas. Since essences make up an infinite realm of pure forms or universals for Santayana, most essences are nameless and extend far beyond man’s awareness or comprehension. Essences, as such, are not necessarily moral values or forms of goodness or beauty. Moral value depends on human interest or preference. Some essences or forms of filth or rubbish are not congenial to human interest. Santayana cites Plato’s late dialogue Parmenides where Socrates recoils from these ideas of filth, rubbish, etc., as not beautiful, causing old Parmenides to smile. That smile of Parmenides made Santayana think how far the realm of essence extends beyond the beautiful and moral Platonic Ideas (Letters 373).
There is a clear sense of tolerance built into Santayana’s notion of detachment. He says, “I was not bound to any type of society by ideal loyalty nor estranged from any by resentment. In my personal contacts I found them all tolerable when seen from the inside and not judged by some standard unintelligible to those born and bred under that influence” (Dominations vii). He never believed in imposing his values or interests on others. He asserted, “The good, as I conceive it, is happiness, happiness for each man after his own heart, and for each hour according to its inspiration. I should dread to transplant my happiness into other people, it might die in that soil” (Soliloquies 258–59). Trilling, I believe, would be in perfect agreement with this sentiment of tolerance.
Lionel Trilling is to be applauded for helping us to get a better handle on the highest reaches of literature, poetry, criticism and philosophy. His perceptive essays on Santayana, Keats, Freud and many others are always probing and careful not to falsely simplify the complexities of the authors he studies. His critical connection with Santayana is evident the more we follow his example and carefully read Santayana’s letters. The smile of Parmenides in the title of Trilling’s essay on Santayana would then refer us not only back to Santayana and how it made him think, but also back to Plato and even the young Socrates and how the smile of the older Parmenides made them think. Trilling admired Santayana, Keats and others because they never stopped climbing and they always made him think. We can pay the same compliment to Trilling and say that he also never stopped climbing and he certainly made us think.
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