Beauty and the Labyrinth of Evil:
Santayana and the Possibility of Naturalistic Mysticism

Among the thinkers of this passing century that offer themselves to the future for its reflection, Santayana must stand out as a singular figure, one whose thought is dedicated to the overarching possibility of the spiritual life undertaken without religious faith or metaphysical dogma.(1) Among the throngs that fill the philosophical bestiary of the 20th Century, Santayana may be the one genuine contemplative of note.(2) The majority of doctrines dominant in the century have been directed either toward the goal of action (Marxism, pragmatism, existentialism) or the problem of knowledge, truth and meaning (positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology). Genuinely contemplative philosophies cannot be classified with either one of these categories, however much they may touch upon common themes. Given that Santayana sought to find a basis for philosophy as a contemplative life by grafting the classical doctrine of essence onto the modernist theory of matter as power, his thought engages nearly the whole of the history of the west, while ranging into the field of the systems of India as well. This may seem a puzzling bequest to the future from this century so filled with violence and wreckage. If the true historical parameter of the century is measured by events, we might find that it could be dated from 1914 to 1991, from the onset of World War I to the exhausted collapse of the Soviet Union, a period in which the world was either preparing for war or actively engaged in it. But the violence of the century must include the rapid and constant reorganization of life forced upon the globe by technologies some of whose impact is as yet hardly discerned. It is possible to view Santayana against this backdrop as a piece of intellectual nostalgia, rather like a beautiful old church in a buzzing urban center that someone forgot to bulldoze to the ground.
I think such a response would be unfortunate because the spiritual life is a perennial concern for us, one that politics and technology cannot address however successfully or intelligently managed they may be. The thought of Santayana offers then a permanent opportunity to explore the dimensions of the spiritual life without the confusions introduced by archaic physics or forgotten political aspirations. In the words of William James, "Mystical classics have ... neither birthday nor native land" and so have the opportunity to be as accessible or inaccessible as the contingent features of the world permit.(3) Santayana's writings may be read from this angle, and it is this approach I will take myself. Thus the problem which I intend to explore does not try to address Santayana as a figure of the 20th century or even as an "American" or "pragmatist" of whatever stripe. Rather, I want to raise an internal issue to the prospect of the spiritual discipline or askesis presented especially in Santayana's later philosophy, the problem of the relation of the spiritual and the moral lives. What, if anything, does the quest for a beatific vision have to do with the "problem of evil" in a naturalistic mysticism such as Santayana's? In this essay I will explore Santayana's vision of the spiritual life as a naturalistic contemplative discipline in relation to Platonism and Neo-Platonism.(4) In response to Santayana's conclusion that the spiritual and moral lives are somewhat at variance with each other, I offer the example of Buddhism which, though it accepts some of Santayana's fundamental premises, arrives at a different understanding of how these two lives are connected. In short I will try to show that a contemplative spirituality may acknowledge the existence of evil and develop a compassionate response to it without thereby surrendering the ideal of contemplative detachment. Santayana's ideal of the spiritual life is thus one, but not the only, possibility that is available, given the initial premises of his later system.
Santayana describes the quest of the spiritual life in terms of the radical separation of it from the natural world or "realm of matter" which forces the animal psyche to live in terms of "values" such as good and bad, which, in their extreme forms of judgment, may be described as "absolute good" and "evil." Instead, Santayana offers us an approach to the realm of essence which can be called a form of liberation insofar as spirit achieves its complete function without service to the alien needs of the psyche: intuition pure and simple. The question I wish to probe is the relation of the moral life to the spiritual, for Santayana certainly sees them not merely as divergent but in some ways as mutually inhibiting when not kept distinct. Morality, he claims, pushes spiritual life toward dogmatism, subverting it to the defense of local ideals instead of allowing spirit to roam free and see things as they are without concern for their ulterior values for life. In retrieving the classical doctrine of essence, then, Santayana had to emphasize the rejection of the moral in the spiritual, lest his view be confounded with Platonism, a doctrine whose time had come -- and gone, he thought -- with the revolution in modern physics. The release of spirit into its own domain, into the play of essence, leaves behind all moral concerns, including the "problem of evil." While moral judgments may be made about the spiritual life an individual pursues, they are made from the moral angle, not the spiritual.

Santayana and Neo-Platonism
There are two interesting essays where the issue came to occupy Santayana, though they might be regarded as occasional pieces: both were responses to bungled attempts to handle the topic of "Platonism" -- or, more specifically, Neo-Platonism -- that was so close to Santayana's heart. One was the 1916 essay "Plotinus and the Nature of Evil" written in light of B.A.G. Fuller's The Problem of Evil in Plotinus. The second, Platonism and the Spiritual Life, was composed in 1926 and takes on Dean Inge's The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought.(5) I suspect that this monograph, which saw the light of day in 1927 along with The Realm of Essence may also have been written in the afterglow of Santayana's reading of the Fifth Ennead, just published in McKenna's translation.(6) Santayana paid the highest respect to the Plotinian system, which, unlike Plato's fundamentally political philosophy, he saw as truly oriented toward the spiritual life. In a letter from 1919, Santayana defends the philosophy of Plotinus to Robert Bridges in terms that come quite close to those of Santayana's own system:
But it seems to me a very great system, very "good philosophy," and I am glad that the mystics in Oxford are taking him up, rather than pretending to find comfort in Hegel or in the meretricious psychology of Bergson. ... Of course all those things he describes do not exist; of course he is not describing this world, he is describing the other world, that is, deciphering the good just beyond it or above it, which each actual thing suggests. Even this rendering of moral aspiration is arbitrary, because nature does not really aspire to anything, each living thing aspires to something different in divergent ways. But this arbitrary aspiration, which Plotinus reads into the world, sincerely expresses his own aspiration and that of his age. That is why I say he is a decidedly "good philosopher." It is the Byzantine architecture of the mind, just as good or better than the Gothic. It seems to me better than Christian theology in this respect, that it isn't mixed up with history, it isn't half Jewish, half worldly. It is the Greek side of Christian theology made pure; and that is the side which seems to be truly spiritual, truly sacrificial and penitentially joyful.(7)
It might help us to summarize the Plotinian analysis of the problem of evil as "nothing positive in itself, only the absence of Good," which has dominated the discussion of the topic in the west ever since St. Augustine appropriated it for use in Christian theology. The most famous place this occurs in the Enneads is in the Ninth Treatise of the Second Book, the essay directed against the Gnostics.(8) The Plotinian system, recall, finds the one true principle or arch of Being beyond Being itself, and so beyond Form, making it a simplicity that defies conceptual and linguistic understanding except as such understanding can turn itself toward its source and acknowledge its derivative status.(9) From this power, the world of Being "overflows," articulating itself into the world of Form and the Divine Nous that eternally thinks them and, in thinking them, can turn back toward their common source, understanding the Forms and itself in light of the One. But the activity of direct, contemplative insight into Form is also productive, generating another "overflow" into the mimetic order of the cosmos and the living, temporal soul that animates it. Action, time, body-all are degenerate modes of "contemplation" for Plotinus.(10) Beyond the rhythmic dance of nature, everlastingly turning about the One like dancers in a chorus, is the dim and weakened quasi-nothingness of matter, a mere reception of activity that cannot produce anything further itself. It is the termination of pure generative power into absolute impotence.
This is the context in which Plotinus faced the Gnostics, who held that the physical world was evil, produced by an arrogant and rebellious god in an act of cosmic hubris (possibly, some speculated, the very figure described in the Hebrew Genesis). By a saving act of intimate, esoteric knowledge -- gnosis -- the soul could be delivered to its true home and cease to be afflicted by the body. Such a doctrine proceeds from a hard moral realism about the sorts of expectations one must face in our sojourn here in the realm of matter, from the fumbled attempts at order nature regularly produces and the daily ineptitudes of any given political or administrative system to the impressive catastrophes of the Black Death or mudslides that entomb twenty thousand people at once or similar human catastrophes: Huns, Goths, Mongols, Nazis, the Japanese Imperial Army, and so on. I dwell on this because, in a certain sense (as Anthony Woodward has noted), Santayana's own view of nature bears at times rather close resemblance to the Gnostics' bleak view of nature.(11) Plotinus' response to this view was to say we shouldn't judge a city by looking only at its worst neighborhoods.(12) If this order is confused, it nevertheless leads usto recognize it as the image of the higher and more intelligible good, and, as a rippling reflection in water may turns us toward its source, so nature can direct us to go beyond itself. But the reflection is not "evil" for being a reflection, even if it is a troubled reflection. Disciplined reasoning, says Plotinus, allows us to place the goods and bads of the world in their proper place and rise above them to the genuine, higher goods.(13) More profoundly, Plotinus says that to hate the world is to remove oneself from the immanence of the divine which is at the innermost center of our being. The genuine beauty of the world lures us to turn toward an inner and higher beauty that leaves the world and its imperfections behind. The emotion of contempt or hatred utterly fails to make this inward ascent. As Augustine would say, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Pondus meum, amor meus, he says: my love is my weight.(14) I stress this point because I believe it is crucial in Santayana's own response to "the problem of evil." Beauty is not a "solution" to the riddle of the existence of evil, but a strategy that turns away from the problem itself. The response to evil, in other words, lies in the discovery of the spiritual life.

The Spiritual Life as Transcendent of the Problem of Evil
With this in the background, let us now turn to Santayana's 1916 essay "Plotinus and the Nature of Evil," ostensibly a review of Fuller's book on the topic. Fuller saw the problem of evil on the horns of a dilemma. The alternatives are either naturalism or mysticism. If one opts for naturalism, Fuller thought, then all values must be equal, for everything is equally "natural," the saint and the serial murderer and everyone in between. Each thing is perfect after its own unique kind. The only alternative, to Fuller at least, was mysticism in which the only good was the highest reality and anything that separated itself from that good was automatically evil. The dilemma is summed up by Santayana as "either all excellences are absolute and incomparable, or there is no excellence but one."(15)
With reference to the naturalist horn, Santayana argues that to say everything is equally a phenomenon of nature does not lead to pure moral relativism. Naturalism admits that the impulses that spring from the live creature may be premoral, but this is not the same as saying they are all equal, much less morally equal. Some are more in harmony with their environments than others, and insofar as they are out of harmony, may generate ideals naturally. As Santayana says, "Hence each nature originally pronounces itself to be good, but imperfect as it stumbles and creaks as it goes" (os, 72). Moral values and ideals may have a natural origin without therefore being branded equal. As living interests become organized, so goods may be organized in a hierarchy of values. In short, as a naturalist it may be valuable to have a system of ethics more functional and in touch with the world than pure relativism allows, though this certainly does not prevent the naturalist from seeing that several systems are possible or may conflict with each other. This is more true when we consider values arising from nonhuman organisms. As Santayana put it, "Had animals spoken, the Inquisition would have had pretty work on its hands" (os, 70).
This leaves the mystical horn of Fuller's dilemma. Santayana will not admit the thesis that there is one supreme good means that everything else falls into some degree of evil, that the levels in the great chain of Being are but "so many stages of spiritual misery" (os, 70). One overarching good does not exclude the possibility of subordinate goods. A good book may have good sentences and each sentence be composed of well-chosen words written out in perfectly formed letters. Each may be perfect after its kind and also involved in an overall order of higher and lower degrees of perfection. It is true, Santayana says, that Plotinus, believing as he did in the potency of form, reversed the true order of genesis -- his mythology of the overflowing descent of creative power from beyond the Forms down through nature into the torpid murk of matter was an inversion of the truth. In nature as we saw there is a natural heterogeneity of goods. In this way, says Santayana, Plotinus "incidentally ... missed the true explanation of the origin of evil, which lies in the natural conflict of many powers and many ideals" (os, 75-76).(16) To thrive in nature we must adopt an organized economy of values so we can move in one direction at a time, but this does not mean we may not encounter someone else whose internal economy has set them at cross purposes to ours. Platonism is basically a moral view that seeks to insist that its analysis of human values achieves a final, defining insight into the order of things as such, and this is merely presumptuous, according to Santayana. For such a person, he says, "His Socratic wisdom in life will become Platonic folly in science" (os, 76). Thus evil, for Santayana, is simply the partisan word for the inevitable clash of interests in a natural world that is inherently pluralistic in its aims and not governed by an over-arching, coordinating good that redeems and saves all things.
Fuller's more fundamental problem lies behind the sophistic dilemma; it is a failure to understand mysticism as much as naturalism. The true mystic is not kept from a "hatred of finitude" simply by a mere inconsistency any more than the naturalist is kept from proclaiming the equality of every value. Pointing out to the mystic that he adores his supreme good only because he is separate from it does not lead at all to his condemnation of himself and everything else distinguished from that good as "evil." Actual mystics -- not the "classroom idols" of Fuller's paradox -- have been quite consistent with their principles when they felt "the tenderness and wonder which filled them in the presence of creation" (os, 77). Though it is true that the adoration of the mystic implies a separation from the source, this does not fill him or her with rage at the separation, but with humility and adoration. The problem, as seen by Plotinus, then, was not the existence of evil; "it was rather to rise above evil, to decipher a divine image in the worn and degraded lineaments of things and to save the soul from a temporal and sensuous life to which evil was native" (os, 78). It may be that when evil cannot be erased, the natural impulse is to evade it as much as possible, but the root impulse of Platonism was a love of beauty, passing from lower to higher forms of it. The problem of evil, says Santayana, is for theologians and apologists for creator deities or pantheists wishing to assert that all is somehow good. But
It does not exist for the naturalist because for him both good and evil are relative to finite interests necessarily at war in this crowded world. Nor does it exist for the Platonist, to whom it is obvious that the good is far away and that it was not the good that removed the good where it is absent. The problem of darkness does not exist for the man gazing at the stars. No doubt the darkness is there, fundamental, pervasive, and unconquerable except at the pinpoints where the stars twinkle; but the problem is not why there is such darkness, but what is the light that breaks through it so remarkably; and granting this light, why we have eyes to see it and hearts to be gladdened by it. (os 86)
Even though Platonism is now in abeyance, being an ideal of values now out of fashion, it may be that "things come round in this world; the ruffians may be upon us some day when we least expect it and philosophy may have again to retire to the sanctuary." Santayana concludes with this enigmatic remark: " Even then we should search the books of Plotinus in vain for any solution to the artificial problem concerning the existence of evil; but if we searched them for a thread out of the natural labyrinth of evil, we might possibly find it" (os, 86-87). Santayana indicates that there may be an important clue for us in the philosophy of Plotinus, something far different from an sophistical "solution" to the "problem of evil." Instead of a solution, there is an escape. But what is this "thread" out of the "natural labyrinth of evil"? And what is the relationship of Santayana's own later philosophy to this "escape"? Could Santayana's later philosophy be the naturalistic version of tracing the Plotinian thread out of the labyrinth, a version purged of Plotinus' moralistic metaphysics and with its myth of the descending emanation of the supernatural into nature inverted to become the ascent of spirit from the realm of matter?

Santayana's Ideal in Platonism and the Spiritual Life
I turn now to Platonism and the Spiritual Life, written a decade after Santayana's response to Fuller. Santayana scholars tend to neglect this monograph for some puzzling reason, since I find it one of the most lucid statements of his thought, something of an enchiridion to the Realms of Being.(17) Coming as it did after Scepticism and Animal Faith and appearing simultaneously with The Realm of Essence, it offered at the time an important link between those opening works in Santayana's mature system and The Realm of Spirit, the concluding volume of the series, not destined to appear until some thirteen years later. In other words, at the time of its appearance, Platonism and the Spiritual Life offered a crucial as well as succinct overview of the spiritual upshot of Realms of Being. As in the earlier essay on Plotinus, Santayana begins with a critique of a fumbled interpretation, this time by Dean Inge, who had described Platonism as "a firm belief in absolute and eternal values as the most real things in the universe."(18)
As we have seen, "value" for Santayana refers to something as it stands in contingent relationship to various human desires, and so does not express at all well the eternal characters of Plato's eid. Plato was willing to assert the eternal worth of the Forms for the soul because he thought the nature of the universe relatively fixed and eternal, a fact which we now know not to be true. Secondly, Plato had conceived his Forms as causes, which for Santayana was a confession of faith in magic, since their power to make other things behave derived solely from their inward character of being. The true locus of casual power he identified with matter, conceived along the lines of a dynamic flux. However much he respected matter as the only source of existence, Santayana did not find in it any reassuring endorsement of an "absolute and eternal" set of values. On the contrary, contingency and conflict, waste and annihilation abound in nature. Given that death is the one "absolute" the live creature faces, the realm of matter might well have been that "labyrinth of evil" Santayana had spoken of earlier.(19) Nevertheless, natural piety insists that without matter neither animal, psyche nor the embodiment of essence could exist. Thus the problem of the spiritual life is how is it possible, given that nature is not fixed and essences are impotent. The failure of Inge's effort to reassert the contemporary value of Platonism provoked Santayana to explore the permanent possibility of the spiritual life without it. The essay had in fact begun with this challenge: "One of the great things past is Platonism, and one of the great things always possible is the spiritual life" (psl, 1).
Actually, Santayana does not see Plato as a genuine champion of the spiritual life at all. He quite correctly describes Plato as from first to last a political thinker. "To this descendent of Solon," says Santayana, "the universe could never be anything but a crystal case to hold the jewel of a Greek city" (psl, 27).(20) His metaphysics, according to Santayana, was a sublimated and poetized mythology reflecting Greek morals. On the other hand, in Plotinus, for whom the political realm was a gesture and an afterthought, one finds a perfect expression of what the spiritual life is because it made the act of contemplation, the "flight of the alone to the Alone," the central theme of its system, to which, as we have noted, Santayana paid the highest of compliments.(21) As Santayana put it, the political world for Plotinus was a mere "barnyard" compared to the fortunes of the soul (psl, 25).
Thus the spiritual life for Plotinus was not a "compensation" for frustrated political hopes, as it was for Plato. "Pure spiritual life cannot be something compensatory, a consolation for having missed more solid satisfactions," comments Santayana, "it should be rather the flower of all satisfactions, in which satisfaction becomes free from care, selfless, and wholly actual, and in that inward sense, eternal" (psl, 29). The underlying drive of Platonic spirituality, ers, is replaced with the condition of what Santayana calls being "truly emancipated and enlightened" (psl, 29). The spiritual life is the "disintoxication" from the moral life, the world of "values," not its sublimated fulfillment, according to Santayana. The function of pure intelligence becomes "to see such things as come its way under the form of eternity," which is to say as essences considered apart from their existence, truth, import or history (psl, 33). Though spirituality arises from material conditions, including such moral virtues as "concentration of thought, indifference to fortune and reputation, warmth of temperament (because spirit cannot burn clear except at high temperature)," nevertheless "when once aroused, it does not look back in that direction" (psl, 38). In its purified state, spirit achieves "self-annihilation" (psl, 40). The spiritual life for Santayana cannot be based on the ultimate fulfilment of the erotic desire of the good since it aims at the overcoming of all desire for liberation, that is, enlightenment.
Although Santayana wishes to speak of the life of spirit in this purely positive sense, in terms of liberation, yet he is willing to acknowledge two ways in which it can still maintain an orientation to the world of existence, one by bearing, as it were, the scars of its birth, and the other involving a selfless and somewhat icy tenderness as it looks down from its liberated heights. With regard to the first, Santayana gives a somewhat extraordinary and, I suspect, confessional description. He says:
Were any world perfect ... its spirit would view it with the same contemplative satisfaction with which it views any pure essence that spontaneously engages its attention. It would not, in respect to that perfect world, be harassed by remorse, as it must be in an imperfect world where it counts the cost of existence and considers the dreadful sufferings which plagued it like a nightmare, before something beautiful and good could appear for even a moment. I say remorse because such is the feeling that comes over me when I remember the travail in which, at least in man, the spirit has had to endure in bringing its better life to birth: but the spirit itself has no guilt in the matter; it was caught in a vice; and it may overlook that terrible gestation when at last it reaches the open and rewards itself with an hour of freedom and gladness. (psl, 51)
As in the earlier essay on Plotinus, Santayana insists that the aim of spirit is not to rebuke the world for the darkness in it, but to gaze instead at the stars. The Gnostic who condemns the world as evil and who dwells upon that fact has merely transported the moral distractions of existence into the world of spirit, thereby spoiling its own natural radiance and joy with a halo of sadness and recrimination that could -- and should -- have been left behind.
The other response of spirit when it has achieved detachment is not blank indifference, but "joy" in anything when approached in "simplicity," that is, without any "ulterior interest."
... in other words, purity comes from detaching the thing seen and loved from the world that besets and threatens it and attaching it to the spirit to which it is an eternal possession. But this thing eternally possessed is not the thing as the world knows and prizes it; it is not the person, nation, or religion as it asserts and flaunts itself, in a mortal anxiety to be dominant; it is only that thing in its eternal essence, out of which the stress and doubt of existence have wholly passed. It is that thing dead, immortal, its soul restored, as Plotinus would have said, to the soul of the universe where, together with all other souls, it has always been contained in its purity and perfection. But the truth of it there is not the fact of it here; and therefore the world, though the spirit loves it far more truly and tenderly than it loves itself, is chilled and rebuked by that look of divine love, which, if it were heeded, would transmute its whole life and change it from what it so passionately and cruelly is, in time, into that which the spirit sees it to be in eternity. (psl, 53-54)(22)
Thus the joy and tenderness with which spirit sees the world are due to spirit's ability to see the things of the world purely, as essences, and not as the mortal, suffering beings they are, caught up in the turbid flood of existence. Spirit apprehends things in the light of its own actuality: "awareness, intelligence, reconciliation" (psl, 56). It welcomes the essences that come its way without hunger or desire or with the sense that better views are to be had elsewhere. As Dante's Picardia says in her eternal place in the lowly lunar heaven, "There is no envy in these spheres" (psl, 75).(23)
Thus Santayana offers us a naturalistic mysticism, a "way out of the labyrinth of evil" that releases spirit to its free home, the infinite wilderness of essence where things may be selflessly possessed in their eternity and immediacy. Mysticism, Santayana observes, means silence because it involves "the negation of every human wish and idea" (psl, 77). Names still carry "animal faith" with them, and so any discourse about "essence" may permit it to be overheard as a "temporal fact"; "Silence is therefore imperative, if the mystic has any conscience" (psl, 78). The only danger is that the mystic confuses his ecstasy for a higher reality or makes ecstasy itself his object. The first is a mistake in truth and the second in substitution of essence for the will, which must be renounced to be transcended. In renouncing words, Santayana says, we know them as symbols only; the straight but difficult way, in the words of San Juan de la Cruz is "Nothing, Nothing, Nothing" (psl, 81). Spirit is nothing and empties itself into nothing.
The discipline of the spiritual life is "disillusion," a term Santayana had used from the very beginning of his philosophical development.(24) Positively, this means that we experience the world as much as possible with the sense of "the ultimate in the immediate" (psl, 83). Anxiety must be effectively banished, initially by all pragmatic means to achieve a temporary island of relative stability in the flux of existence, and ultimately by the concentration of spirit apart from the urgencies and anguishes of the animal host. Thus morality actually presents a serious danger to Santayana insofar as it may interject its "distractions" into the spiritual life -- the heaven of Christianity, did it exist, might effectively choke the life of spirit with its perfect and pervasive moral industriousness. In other words, in a world where the Good and the Beautiful perfectly combine everywhere, it is far more likely that the Beautiful will be eclipsed by the Good and remain unseen for what it is. Romantic pantheism presents a similar problem, infected as it is with a subliminal need to moralize beauty. Wordsworth, for example, could not effectively free his spirit, struggling as it did "to wash the world white and clean, adopt it and set it up for a respectable person" (psl, 85). But, says Santayana, "The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly and struggles to the light among the thorns" (psl, 85). Wordsworth's problem was that he could not banish the world and "Nothing is able to banish the world except contempt for the world, and this was not in him" (psl, 85).
This then is Santayana's challenge: the condition of the spiritual life is to leave moral concerns behind; if the world is held in the light, it is the in cold light of the emptiness of essence under the sky of eternity. But Santayana's discipline of liberation, like its Plotinian model, is a discipline of ascent. The irony, of course, is that Santayana has utterly rejected any Platonic metaphysics that would make this ascent one toward reality. His "ascent" is a flight that takes off from terra firma (or rather, given his view of matter, terra infirma) and must return to it. Indeed, it never really leaves the ground. It is more of a shift of attention away from the path before us toward the stars above. Like that of Plotinus, Santayana's askesis requires perfection of inward concentration that ends in ecstatic union where simplicity of vision coincides perfectly with the simplicity of its object. But that is where Santayana's discussions leave us, both in the breviary of Platonism and the Spiritual Life and the conclusion of The Realm of Spirit.

The Descent of Spirit and Santayana's Dilemma
The trouble with the mystic ascent, however, is that the ladder is never really pulled up. There is the descent, the reawakening. This troubled Plotinus deeply. "Many times it has happened," he says, "lifted out of the body into myself, becoming external to all other things and self-encentered, beholding a marvelous beauty ... yet there comes the moment of descent ... I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending..."(25) For Santayana this is no more than the trough of the wave which we ride through until the next crest, and our moral concerns are those of keeping afloat and navigating the waters as best we may. The moral life is not abandoned at all, merely temporarily bracketed in precious moments of illumination. And it may be any kind of moral life, though Santayana recommends one that lives with piety toward the real natural harmonies that can exist between the rhythms of nature and our own bodies. Still, in the end, the moral life and the spiritual life have little to say to each other: the spiritual life offers itself to the moral life as a potentially welcome distraction; the moral life threatens to disturb the spiritual life, even while making it possible in the first place. The more the two are brought into harmony, it seems, the greater the danger that the spiritual life will become confused with the moral life -- with "Platonism" being the unhappy result.
Is this a necessary conclusion? Or has Santayana presented us with something akin to Fuller's dilemma, that is, a false dilemma based upon extremes that are artificial abstractions? First, Santayana does not claim that the spiritual life has an absolute demand upon all of us. There are a plurality of values for living beings and what he has to say about the spiritual life only has bearing upon those for whom this has a positive value in the first place. Others may be perfectly happy wandering the "labyrinth" without concern for an escape. While his moral and political writings may speak to those individuals, Santayana recognizes that his ulterior philosophy of the spiritual life is not addressed to them at all. He is a contemplative speaking to contemplatives. In this dialogue, however, there may be a response that diverges from Santayana's own conclusions without violating the premises.
Second, there is some difficulty with the opposition between these two lives Santayana presents. There is something unsettling in the attempt to deal with the reality of evil (not the conceptual "problem of evil") by relegating it to the inherent plurality of values the natural world spawns and offering an aesthetic alternative that, from its own perspective, is value-neutral. Must an aesthetic attitude toward the world be forced to choose between the view that art's sole function is to serve morality or be limited to focus on pure form regardless of content? To use an example, Goya's Third of May, 1808, which shows Spanish patriots being executed by a French firing squad, or Picasso's Guernica, also a protest against the horrors of war, can both be viewed in the gallery in terms of their "pure form," that is, in terms of their rhythm, balance, color, use of space and so on. And one school of aesthetics would say this is really what constitutes them as "art," whatever their content may refer to. But a richer aesthetics would say that these works evoke through their aesthetic form the clarified meaning of the evils they portray, a clarification that may not have been lucidly present even to those who suffered the events directly. If one beheld a Greek tragedy while remaining oblivious to the moral content of the play, one would miss the meaning of the aesthetic experience.(26) The evocation of these meanings enables us to engage in a contemplative response to the world in all its aspects, including the moral. In other words, the aesthetic attitude can contemplate an "essence" as a meaning that has been purified or clarified via catharsis. And this may result in our ability to exist in the world itself with an enhanced understanding and vision of things. In other words, one of the aims of contemplative liberation may be to teach us a way of wisdom, an enlightened way of life, that is thoroughly integrated, not tangential to, daily moral practice. The question that needs to be posed to Santayana is: Given the presuppositions of his ontology, can there be a method of liberation that offers a more inclusive response to the moral life and the nature of the existence of the natural world than the one Santayana himself offered? Can the spiritual life be directed toward a compassionate, mindful awareness of the world without thereby developing a moralism antithetical to the spiritual life?

The Buddhist Ideal of Compassionate Insight
The Buddhist tradition may offer an important example for Santayana's philosophy, sharing as it does a similar view of the physical world as a turbid flux of "dependent co-arising" or "inter-being" (pratitya-samutpada) which is fundamentally "empty" (unya) and so pervaded with transitory instability, anxiety, and suffering (dukkha).(27) Buddhism does not take a Gnostic view of the world as inherently "evil," though at times it can dramatize its negative aspects rather excessively.(28) Nevertheless, the proper pragmatic Buddhist response is: If the world is like this, then what can we do about it? Like Santayana, Buddhist philosophy sees an intelligent or "awakened" (bodhi) response to the nature of existence which aims at liberation by clarity of insight (prajña) into the fundamentals (or dharmas) and their behavior.(29) A great deal of attention is paid in Buddhist practice to training the mind to see beyond the apparent substantiality of ordinary experience and recognizing how objects and "self" arise functionally as products of change, desire, and inherited causal dispositions (karma).(30) With enough skill, this can effect the dissipation of desire born of illusion, the frantic "thirst" or "grasping" after things (tanha) that gives rise to the existential "problem of evil," the reality of suffering. Not only does this dispel any false notion of the substantial self-identity of "objects," which are ways of designating events (even the elements or dharmas of the world are "empty," unya, said Nagarjuna), but the self-identity of "essences," even of the non-existential sort like Santayana's, suffers the same fate.(31) In other words, the critique of a Buddhist philosopher like Nagarjuna would be that to assert the non-existential identity of essences is still due to a degree of "attachment" or grasping, and when this is given up the essence is neither identical nor non-identical and can be penetrated with an act of liberating insight (prajña). When all things can be seen in their emptiness, their clear but momentary "suchness" (tathata), then nirvana and samsara coincide.(32) Liberation is not a rejection of the world for the sake of some transcendent "there." Nirvana is not a "place" (as if fire went "somewhere" when it was put out) but a "way"; not a "what" but a "how." How does one behold the world and respond to it when one has "passed through" the empty nature of desire?
"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form," says the Heart Sutra, but this insight does not terminate in pessimism, fatalism, scepticism or nihilism.(33) Rather, it leads to "tranquility" or the extinction of dukkha (i.e., "nirvana") which is also positively described at times as "bliss" (ananda), a condition that also involves the response of compassion (karuna) for all sentient beings, at least in the later Mahayana traditions stemming from the Prajñaparamita literature.(34) Buddhism does not seek to turn away from this world to another, better one. Rather, it is concerned with a careful way of "handling" this world without getting burned by it. In this approach contemplative insight and practical action are not opposed by mutually sustaining. The Buddha himself presented the Eightfold Path precisely as a "skilful way" of passing through this world, a moral discipline that was fundamentally connected with the spiritual life. The eight parts of the path are classified in three main groups. One consists of three virtues of right conduct: kindness and moderation in (1) speech, (2) actions and (3) livelihood. Another includes three virtues of right mental discipline: (4) building habits of endeavor, (5) clarity of awareness, and (6) meditative concentration. The last has two virtues of right wisdom: (7) intelligent understanding and (8) "right thought." All work together, as the eight spokes of a wheel, to keep it moving smoothly.(35) But it is this last, "right thought," that I will briefly describe because it offers, I believe, a significant alternative to the severe antimoralism of Santayana's conception of the spiritual life while still accepting most of his analysis of the nature of existence. It shows us a "contemplative ethics of compassion" that does not fall into Santayana's conception of the moral life as a "distraction" to the spiritual life.
Right thought (samm sankappa) is included with right understanding (samm ditthi) as a necessary aspect of the nature of wisdom. "Right understanding" involves deep insight into the true nature of the world, especially with respect to the problem of suffering -- the "labyrinth of evil," as Santayana would say. It is a strictly cognitive ability. "Right thought," however, is a discipline that works on meditative beholding suffering beings with compassion. It is not easy to say that this is a moral or aesthetic or emotional ability more than a "cognitive" one, since it also involves insight into the true nature of things. But it focuses upon those aspects of the world that help us attain compassionate awareness. It is an integral part of the nature of wisdom to cultivate benevolent selfless love (metta) with respect to all beings and compassion (karuna) for all that are suffering. Buddhism believes that our daily actions, including those that are called "moral," spring from the sorts of beliefs we have which in turn generate desires which create the "objects" to which we become attached (including the "object" of the self). Attention to our basic beliefs and a clear understanding of how they constitute the objects of our world -- and so of our lives -- is a central concern for Buddhism. As Walpola Ruhala says, "All thoughts of selfish desire, ill-will, hatred, and violence are the result of lack of wisdom -- in all spheres of life, whether individual, social or political."(36) The way to overcome dukkha is to develop insights and daily habits that generate actions that do not lead to grasping, violence, and so to more suffering. All eight parts of the Eightfold Path cooperate and mutually sustain each other. Contemplation and practice work together to generate a life that is "liberated." And this may be contrasted to Santayana's philosophy which tends to keep the spiritual and moral lives disjointed or, at best, irrelevant to each other.
The Buddhist discipline of right thought in particular might reveal a more functional connection between these two ends and so exhibit an alternative to Santayana's response to "the labyrinth of evil." Right understanding involves daily attentiveness to features of the world that might awaken the negative passions of grasping or hatred and beholding them instead with gentle but egoless benevolence attended by penetratingly clear understanding into their fundamental nature. It involves daily meditation practices that develop methods of beholding other beings so that feelings of benevolence and compassion are at the forefront of consciousness.(37) By contemplating others compassionately, one is not only more disposed to act in a compassionate manner toward them but in a way that evokes the ability of others to seek compassionate, liberated wisdom. For example, a great deal of obscurity of perception can arise from conscious or unconscious fears we may have toward things. Beholding those things as "essences" not only allows us to see them more clearly but to transcend our fear of them. Compassion or metta means seeing things as they truly are; this can only be done when the spirit is at peace. Another example is the meditation practice that seeks to cultivate enduring states of benevolent compassion by developing habits that focus on remembering acts of benevolence one has done or which have been done to one, gradually extending these thoughts outward toward recollection of acts of benevolence others have done to others and so on. By so doing, one comes to focus one's conscious thoughts regularly on being well-disposed to others in the world.(38) As the Mahayana sages say, all beings are potentially the Buddha.(39) The path towards that goal of compassionate freedom lies in cultivating habits of "paying attention."(40)
To put these ideas into more Santayanan terms, the Realm of Essence may be constituted of an infinite number of essences, any of which may offer themselves to spirit as an object of contemplation. But some of those essences may be conducive toward leading a lift of compassionate benevolence while others may be conducive toward quite the opposite sort of actions. That is, there are a number of essences relating to aspects of compassion, and by disciplining ourselves to focus on these as they might be instantiated in the realm of existence, we can develop a mode of conduct that is at once "ethical" without involving "distraction" from the spiritual life. Indeed, by concentrating on such essences one might develop a mode of life that was even more highly conducive to the spiritual life than the one offered by Santayana himself, which suffers from a fluctuation between acting in the existential, moral life and intermittently escaping into the realm of spirit for its "hour of gladness." The sorts of essences spirit contemplates do not have equally neutral consequences for our existential psychic life, and the concern which essences might be contemplated is not merely a question for the animal psyche, but for spirit as well. In particular, a life that is in harmony with spirit's ideal of liberation and persistently conducive to it, should be preferred by both the psyche and spirit over those lives in which the two do not sustain each other or, worse, in which spirit and psyche inhibit each other and are at best disconnected. In this sense, the Buddhist life of contemplative compassion offers a significant alternative to Santayana's conception of the spiritual life without fundamentally altering the premises from which Santayana's later philosophy sets out.(41)
I offer this as an example only -- that we may see that there is more connection between the spiritual and the moral life than Santayana was willing to grant. Santayana thought of the moral life in western terms, as a struggle of will, and so an effort reaching toward an end, rather than as a shadow that follows us because we have turned toward the light. In concluding, I will reaffirm that I think what Santayana has offered the future is an exemplary conception of philosophy in service to the spiritual life. His own rendition of this philosophy bears understandably the scars of its birth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which saw the shattering of so many ideals and comforting illusions. No doubt it also bears the scars of its "terrible gestation" in Santayana's own life, which he only obliquely acknowledges. But I do not think that we need to dismiss the moral life from the spiritual or to condemn its presence in spirit as regrettable "remorse" tainting the otherwise happy intuition of essence. Compassion and benevolence are part of the wisdom of spirit, if handled properly. As the Japanese poet Issa said on the death of his child,

This world of dew is a world of dew, and yet, and yet ... .

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Santayana Society at its annual meeting in Boston on December 28, 1999.
2. Along with Thomas Merton, a theologian rather than a philosopher.
3. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Harvard, 1985), p. 332.
4. I find that my comments in this essay have unintentionally inserted themselves into a previous discussion carried on between my old teacher Paul Kuntz and Herman Saatkamp. (See Overheard in Seville: Bulletin of the Santayana Society No. 3, 1985, and No. 10, 1992.) In his initial article, "Santayana's Neo-Platonism," Kuntz argued that Santayana's Realms of Being implied not only a spiritual ascent but an ontological order corresponding to it, one that was Christian as well as Neo-Platonic. While acknowledging Santayana's use of the imagery of the spiritual ascent, Saatkamp did not find this to lead to any deep commitment to anything beyond a naturalism that accepts a plurality of goods, only one of which might be the "life of spirit." Kuntz's reply, "The Ascent of Spirit: Is Santayana's System a Naturalistic Neo-Platonic Hierarchy" (1992), persisted with the original argument, focusing on a detailed exegesis of Platonism and the Spiritual Life (a key text for my essay as well). While I agree, as does Saatkamp, that Kuntz has commendably drawn attention to the Neo-Platonic (and Indian) influences in Santayana's mature philosophy, which have tended to be neglected by those stressing Santayana's naturalism, I also agree with Saatkamp that Kuntz has pushed the argument a step too far and is in danger of ignoring the explicit role of contingency and plurality as the basis for any sort of life, spiritual or otherwise. In short, Kuntz tries to move Santayana's ideal of the spiritual life from being the expression of one of the many contingent values in nature (one that Santayana himself valued) to one everyone ought to adopt because nature herself recommends it, thereby transforming Santayana's ontology into a moralistic metaphysics. This move is explicitly rejected by Santayana. For an attempt to present a much more Aristotelian idea of a spiritual life, a practical rather than contemplative ideal grounded in Santayana's The Life of Reason, see the recent essay by yet another former teacher of mine, James Gouinlock's "Ultimate Religion," Overheard in Seville, Vol. 12 (1998).
5. In fact it may have also been settling a score dating back to 1918 when Santayana had written in the margin of Inge's The Philosophy of Plotinus "The motley eloquence of the pulpit, the lazy [line?] of a rhetorician and moralist who wants to talk about the world without studying it." Cited in John McCormick, George Santayana: A Biography (Knopf, 1987), p. 268.
6. McKenna's beautiful, if eccentric, multi-volume translation of the Enneads began in 1917 with Ennead I (along with other extracts), and continued with a second volume in 1921 (consisting of Enneads III and II in that order), with a third in 1924 (Ennead IV). The final volume with the sixth Ennead was published in 1930. But my suspicion is as yet unverified.
7. Santayana to Robert Bridges of Sept. 18, 1919 in The Letters of George Santayana, ed. Daniel Cory (Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1955), p. 178. In this letter Santayana does comment on reading the first volume of McKenna's translation just then published.
8. Recent scholarship has actually determined that this is but the last third of a much longer treatise cut up and distributed throughout the Enneads by Plotinus' editor, Porphyry. The full treatise consists of Enneads III. 8, V.5, and II.9. When read together in proper sequence the work ranks, in my view, with one of the greatest philosophical documents from antiquity. See the discussion by A. H. Armstrong at II.9 in his edition and translation of the Enneads (Loeb Classical Library).
9. The whole philosophy of Plotinus develops the logical consequences of Plato's sketchy and somewhat embarrassed treatment of the Good as "the Form of Forms" at Republic 509 c, which describes it as "transcending Being in dignity and power,"a comment that provokes laughter from Glaucon and Adeimantus. As the arch of Form, Plotinus observed, the One cannot be a Form and so is form-less and as the principle of Being cannot be said to "be" at all. Logos fails, though Plotinus is willing to describe the One as "limitless power" as well as pure simplicity. As "one" it is not at all a "numerical unity," something both conceptual and abstract.
10. "Contemplation" is the poor English word used for the Greek therein (). This word rejects any notion discursive process or muddled drifting, which our word "contemplation" drags in. It involves the idea of rapt, penetrating comprehension in which the truth, order and beauty of something are fused together forever timelessly and made entirely lucid.
11. See Anthony Woodward, Living in the Eternal (Vanderbilt, 1988), pp. 108-109, 111-113. What offsets his tendency toward the gnostic view of the world, of course is Santayana's equally hard-headed rejection of magic and supernaturalism, leaving him with a more realistic and occasionally genial expression of "natrual piety" toward the Realm of Matter. Nevertheless, he did find idealism of any sort insufferably tender-minded.
12. En. II.9.7
13. A constant criticism in Ennead II.9 is that the Gnostics are half-literate, irrational, pompous and histrionic (the ancient world apparently had its fundamentalists). He says, "The rest of their teachings I leave you to investigate by reading their books and to observe throughout the kind of philosophy which we pursue, besides all its other excellences, displays simplicity and straightforwardness of character along with clear thinking, and aims at dignity, not rash arrogance, and combines confident boldness with reason and much safeguarding and caution and a great deal of circumspection: you are to use philosophy of this kind as a standard of comparison for the rest." (Armstrong)
14. Confessions XIII.9. The role of beauty in salvation is the key theme of Ennead I.6, one of the first and most influential of the Enneads read by Augustine. The idea of one's love being one's "weight" (or the natural place toward which one tends) is the guiding theme of Dante's Comedia: the souls exist in the manifested world of their genuine loves, from lowest to highest.
15. Obiter Scripta, p. 71. Hereafter cited as os.
16. Compare Platonism and the Spiritual Life where he says, "Evil can arise only within each world when it becomes faithless to some Idea which it has begun to pursue or is crossed in it by some external enemy (if any) or by the inward contradiction and complexity of its own impulses" (p. 44). To judge the world as "evil" requires those very animal interests and concerns that are condemned in the act of judgment -- "these feelings are part of the world which they condemn." Hence to turn from the moral world is to turn from such judgments altogether.
17. At least see John McCormick's rather dismissive remarks in his George Santayana" A Biography, p. 268. For Platonism and the Spiritual Life as an enchiridion or "handbook" of Santayana's later philosophy see my article "Santayana's Sage: The Disciplines of Aesthetic Enlightenment," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XXXIII, No. 2, p. 332 f. By describing the work as an enchiridon, I am not only thinking of its similarity to the "handbooks" of Epictetus, Augustine, and Erasmus, but of other short, major summaries of a philosopher's thought such as Spinoza's Treatise on the Improvement of the Mind or Leibniz's Monadology.
18. Quoted in Platonism and the Spiritual Life, p. 2. Hereafter cited in the text as psl.
19. In fact in this essay he describes it as "barbarous and in indefinite flux" (psl, 33).
20. For those who insist on thinking of Plato as primarily a metaphysician, some attention should be given to the likelihood that the tetrology beginning with Timaeus was broken off in mid-sentence in its second work, Critias, so that Plato could undertake his longest work, Laws.
21. Ennead VI.9.11, the famous conclusion of the Enneads. Santayana says, "In the unclouded, synthetic believing mind of Plotinus, this chastened mythology [i.e. Plato's] crystalized into the most beautiful of systems" (psl, 23, italics added). This is no idle compliment.
22. Santayana's stress of the words "here" and "there" is an echo of Plotinian language, "here" being the world of nature and "there" () being the divine world of Nous contemplating the Forms. Compare psl, p. 64 and refer to the full text of the letter to Robert Bridges cited above.
23. Paradiso III. This is the sphere of those who, though dedicated to a life of worship, have had to break their vows and return to worldly life, hence the significance of the mottled discoloration of the moon reflects their lives of "blended virtues." After speaking, Picardia recedes singing, "vanishing like a heavy thing downward in deep water" (123).
24. See "A Religion of Disillusion" in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion and the much later, crucial essay "Ultimate Religion" in Obiter Scripta.
25. Ennead IV.8.1. McKenna translation.
26. The idea that art allows us to look at the "clarified meaning" of events that otherwise may remain dark is what I take to be the best understanding of the term katharsis, whatever Aristotle himself may have intended. Art, like tragedy, gives us emotional as well as intellectual clarification of meaning and value. The contrast between Santayana's formalist aesthetics and Dewey's aesthetics that integrates form and content is the theme of my essay, "Santayana's Unbearable Lightness of Being," Overheard in Seville: Bulletin of the Santayana Society 11 (1993).
27. Though dukkha can often carry the primary sense of "suffering," it can also mean "instability" and "impermanence." Thus the experience of happiness or joy, though certainly not "sorrowful" or painful at the time is nevertheless dukkha when understood clearly.
28. The Buddha's famous "Fire Sermon" being one noted example of this tendency.
29. Dharma has a wide range of meanings (comparble to those of the Greek term logos): its core meaning is "that which upholds," and so is extended to "laws" or moral customs which uphold society, the laws of the universe, the basic elements of the universe, the elements of self, the expression of those laws in teachings, and specifically the teachings of the Buddha.
30. This part of Buddhist teaching is called "Abidharma."
31. Nagarjuna (ca. 150 CE) was one of the main philosophical exponents of the Mahayana school known as "the Middle Way" or Madhyamika. By insisting on the emptiness of the dharmas (taken in whatever sense), Nagarjuna moved Buddhist philosophy from the dogmatic factionalism into which it had lapsed back to its original therapeutic mission. See Frederick Streng's fine study, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning.
32. Samsara is the "wheel" of existence of ordinary life lived in ignorance, and so subject to the demands of causality and grasping -- the "Realm of Matter" in Santayana's terminology as experienced by biological organisms. Santayana puts all morality into this sphere. By showing that nirvana, the realm of liberated insight (Santayana's Realm of Spirit) is "empty" and so nowhere, it is nothing else than the world, but experienced in terms of its emptiness and so freed of its existential power. Indeed, the liberating nature of insight (prajña) is that the world stands out far more clearly than before.
33. The Heart Sutra is a short but central Mahayana text containing a synopsis of the prajñaparamita teaching. "Form" (rupa) is actually more what we would call "substance" or even "body." See Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, ed. Edward Conze (Philosophical Library, 1954), pp. 152-53 and Conze's commentary in Buddhist Wisdom Texts.
34. These texts were the product of various thinkers in India between 200 BCE and 400CE. They are critical of the earlier ideal of the enlightened sage (arhat) who simply rejects the world for his own salvation and put forward the new ideal of the "awakened being of compassion," the bodhisattva, who turns toward the suffering beings of the world with enlightened understanding.
35. For a discussion of the Eightfold Path, here summarized, see Walpola Ruhala, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd edition (Grove Press, 1974), Ch. V.
36. What the Buddha Taught, p. 49.
37. Metta or benevolence is the first of the four "brahma-viharas" or "sacred houses" of karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekha (equinimity), these latter growing out of the cultivation of the first.
38. Compare Dante's purification before entering the Garden of Eden at the end of Purgatario: he bathes in the river of Lethe to forget his sins and then in the river of Eunoë to remember all the good deeds he did and which were done to him. (Purgartario XXVIII, XXXI).
39. To explore how this is carried out in practice, see Sharon Salzberg's Loving-Kindness (Shambala Publications, 1995). Salzberg is an acclaimed American Buddhist teacher specializing in this particular form of meditation practice.
40. Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness, p.192.
41. In this sense, James Gouinlock's attempt to present a conception of the spiritual life based on the more Aristotelian views of Santayana's Life of Reason -- and those of Aristotle himself -- does not present the strong counter-example to Santayana's later philosophy that Buddhism does, in my view, because it introduces a sense of naturalistic teleology that the later Santayana clearly abjures.