Our task is not to construct but only to interpret ideals, confronting them with one another and with the conditions which, for the most part, they alike ignore. There is no need of refuting anything, for the will which is behind all ideals and behind most dogmas cannot itself be refuted; but it may be enlightened and led to reconsider its intent, when its satisfaction is seen to be either naturally impossible or inconsistent with better things. The age of controversy is past; that of interpretation has succeeded.
George Santayana – The Life of Reason
I’m well over half way through Santayana’s 800 page tome, The Life of Reason. Normally I wait until I’ve finished a book before waffling about it in a blog post, but I’d like to share some early impressions and see if they change by the end of the book. So :-
Firstly, I’ll probably have to read it at least twice because although Santayana is easy enough to read, his philosophy is not at all like that of your average philosopher. Two reads is 1600 pages – not an insignificant investment of anyone’s time. That's a personal take of course - I prefer two steady reads to a slower one.
The book is too long. Much could have been trimmed without any real loss to the sense and the rhythm of it. It is also imprecise in that Santayana doesn’t believe in philosophical systems because he thinks they always fall apart. He sees philosophy as more like literature than some kind of technical discipline.
As a literary work, the book is patchy. Purple prose followed by long-winded arguments which in my view are too wordy to sit well with the general tenor and cadences of his other writing.
I find this fosters a degree of inattention, where a fine passage is followed by rather more insipid or obscure writing. The less cogent material tends to be skimmed over and its importance or lack of importance is missed while the reader remains under the spell of earlier inspirations.
I also feel that the scope of Santayana’s book is too wide, covering everything from religion to art to science and of course - morality. That’s partly because Santayana appears to feel that a life of reason must be wide-ranging. However I’m also sure that he never expected many people to achieve his own range of interests and knowledge, so where does that leave his book and his philosophy?
It’s brilliant. By pursuing his philosophy in a literary manner, Santayana brings out the evanescent and indescribable aspects of real life – life as it is actually lived. It won’t be to everyone’s taste by any means, but yes – so far in spite of the caveats, it is the most captivating philosophy book I’ve ever read.