Friday, 14 December 2012

Santayana on character



I'm reading George Santayana's The Life of Reason. For me, this section on character is such a powerful piece of writing that I had to post it in full. I particularly like what he writes about that creep Rousseau. In 1776 James Boswell seduced Rousseau's mistress, Thérèse Le Vasseur while supposedly escorting her from Paris to England. I blame Rousseau's general ghastliness.

"It is a mark of the connoisseur to be able to read character and habit and to divine at a glance all a creature’s potentialities. This sort of penetration characterises the man with an eye for horse-flesh, the dog-fancier, and men and women of the world. 

It guides the born leader in the judgments he instinctively passes on his subordinates and enemies; it distinguishes every good judge of human affairs or of natural phenomena, who is quick to detect small but telling indications of events past or brewing. As the weather-prophet reads the heavens so the man of experience reads other men. 

Nothing concerns him less than their consciousness; he can allow that to run itself off when he is sure of their temper and habits. A great master of affairs is usually unsympathetic. His observation is not in the least dramatic or dreamful, he does not yield himself to animal contagion or re-enact other people’s inward experience. He is too busy for that, and too intent on his own purposes. 

His observation, on the contrary, is straight calculation and inference, and it sometimes reaches truths about people’s character and destiny which they themselves are very far from divining. Such apprehension is masterful and odious to weaklings, who think they know themselves because they indulge in copious soliloquy (which is the discourse of brutes and madmen), but who really know nothing of their own capacity, situation, or fate. 

If Rousseau, for instance, after writing those Confessions in which candour and ignorance of self are equally conspicuous, had heard some intelligent friend, like Hume, draw up in a few words an account of their author’s true and contemptible character, he would have been loud in protestations that no such ignoble characteristics existed in his eloquent consciousness; and they might not have existed there, because his consciousness was a histrionic thing, and as imperfect an expression of his own nature as of man’s. 

When the mind is irrational no practical purpose is served by stopping to understand it, because such a mind is irrelevant to practice, and the principles that guide the man’s practice can be as well understood by eliminating his mind altogether. 

So a wise governor ignores his subjects’ religion or concerns himself only with its economic and temperamental aspects; if the real forces that control life are understood, the symbols that represent those forces in the mind may be disregarded. 

But such a government, like that of the British in India, is more practical than sympathetic. While wise men may endure it for the sake of their material interests, they will never love it for itself. There is nothing sweeter than to be sympathised with, while nothing requires a rarer intellectual heroism than willingness to see one’s equation written out."

George Santayana - The Life of Reason (1905-6)

4 comments:

James Higham said...

Seems to me the best leaders know their stuff but also always appear to value their subordinates and their contributions.

Demetrius said...

Sky 589 is an RC channel and last night ran a report on a conference in the USA on GK Chesterton. One interesting speaker suggested that the Father Brown stories were in reality moral essays. Re India, check out Auckland Colvin in Wikipedia who had a critical poem written about him by Kipling when he brought in a 2% income tax.

Sam Vega said...

When the mind is irrational no practical purpose is served by stopping to understand it, because such a mind is irrelevant to practice, and the principles that guide the man’s practice can be as well understood by eliminating his mind altogether.

Blimey that's good!

A K Haart said...

James - they do. I suppose Santanaya is writing of leaders at the very top of the tree - CEO, president etc.

Demetrius - I think most things were moral with Chesterton, so I wouldn't be surprised if Father Brown was too.

I think I've only read one of them - a hole in my reading which I may rectify with the Kindle because I believe they are all available.

Sam - it is - chilling in a way, but pure behaviourism.