The place of Buddhism in Santayana's moral philosophy

by John Magnus Michelsen

Asian Philosophy

Vol. 5 NO. 1 Mar.1995


Copyright by Asian Philosophy

ABSTRACT Within the moral philosophy of the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), reference to Buddhism becomes an essential feature in his formulation of the notion of post-rational morality, which is that 'phase' of morality which involves an effort to subordinate all precepts to one that points to some single eventual good. Post-rational morality is synonymous with the spiritual life, an essential feature of which is detachment; and this is why the Buddhists can be said to be the 'true masters' of the subject. Santayana's claim that Buddhism "suffers from a fundamental contradiction" can also be seen as an opportunity for us to deepen our own understanding of that philosophy. Like so many other philosophers whose origins were in Europe of the 19th century, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) had strong affinities with the systems of thought of ancient India, and Buddhism in particular. Although Santayana's knowledge of Indian philosophy was not extensive, it was--I believe--deep. The most interesting aspect of the relationship between Santayana's philosophy and that of India may well be the fact that Santayana developed almost exclusively within the Western tradition a philosophy which is very much akin to Buddhism. It is therefore appropriate to talk of affinity rather than of influence. This affinity finds its expression in Santayana's thoroughgoing scepticism, in his conception of the spiritual life, and in his moral philosophy. Although these three facets of his thought are interdependent, it is primarily upon an aspect of his moral philosophy that I will focus in this paper. What I will show is that reference to Buddhism becomes an essential feature in his formulation of the notion of post-rational morality, which is that 'phase' of morality which involves an effort to subordinate all precepts to one that points to some single eventual good. Post-rational morality is synonymous with the spiritual life, an essential feature of which is detachment; and this is why the Buddhists can be said to be the 'true masters' of the subject. In order to understand this notion of post-rational morality, it has to be placed in the larger context. Santayana distinguishes three phases of morality: pre-rational morality, rational ethics, and post-rational morality. Although there is the suggestion that these are successive stages in the development of a culture, and that the so-called post-rational phase is borne of despair and belongs to the ages of decadence, this is not really his considered view. The three phases are aspects of moral life which may be realised in the same moment, even though one phase or another may be most clearly manifested in a particular individual or culture in a particular historical period. That aspect of morality which is said to be pre-rational has to do with the foundation of morality, and the fact that this is said by Santayana to be 'morality proper' betrays the fundamental relativism and naturalism of his position. According to this view, morality is rounded on instinct and expressive of passion; it exists on the level of radical elementary preferences, accommodating a multiplicity of goods which are ultimately unstable in themselves and incompatible with one another. To deem anything good is to express certain affinities between that thing and the person forming that judgement; and the judgement is unassailable provided that the affinity is real, which means that the judgement is based on adequate self-knowledge and knowledge of the thing in question. This qualification shows that Santayana's relativism is not of the naive and sophomoric kind according to which the mere opinion that something is good is unassailable. Santayana's relativism is not one of opinion but of nature; it is therefore inseparable from his naturalism. This naturalistic conception of the good is sometimes elaborated in terms of the notion of intent, which has to do with the active operation and the forward-directed character of action. In order for a thing or a situation to be deemed to be really good, it must somehow respond to that intent, which sets up its own standard and forms the basis for moral judgement. Although intent does not rest upon any moral principle, being itself the basis of moral principles, it does rest upon the physical habit and necessity of things; it rests upon "the propulsive essence of animals and of the universal flux, which renders forms possible but unstable and either helpful or hurtful to one another". [1] This appeal to nature rather than opinion does not form the basis for any sort of absolutism. Desires, ambitions, and ideals come into conflict not only between individuals, nations and religious traditions, but also within each individual. It is possible that agents in conflict may be so far apart in nature and ideals that if they meet they can meet "only to poison or to crush one another". As far as conflicts between humans are concerned, however, it is possible that the humanity in them is "definable ideally ... by a partially identical function and intent". If so, it is possible to rise above their mutual opposition by studying their own nature, and they may come to realise that they "were hardly doing justice to themselves when they did such great injustice to others". [2] And it is here that rational ethics comes into play, for the principles of harmony, synthesis, and integration are here central. Rational ethics is a theoretical attempt to bring order into the chaos of the instincts and impulses which form the basis of morality and are by Santayana labelled 'pre-rational morality'. Pre-rational or 'intuitive' morality, as he also calls it, is adequate as long as it simply enforces "these obvious and universal laws which are indispensable to any society"; but it is not adequate to resolve conflicts between rival authorities: for that it is necessary to appeal to "the only real authority, to experience, reason, and human nature in the living man". [3] It is worth noting at this stage that, whereas Santayana speaks of pre-rational and post-rational moralities, he speaks of rational ethics. Why is this? Is there no such thing as rational morality? In a very real sense no, for a rational morality would imply not only perfect self-knowledge but also perfect knowledge of the world and others, and--in fact--a perfect sympathy with the goods of others. This kind of morality has never existed and it is in fact beyond our reach. In lieu of a rational morality we therefore have rational ethics, which for Santayana is the mere idea of a rational morality. In the absence of perfect self-knowledge and perfect sympathy, which would entail perfect humanity and perfect justice, we may observe "the general principles of these ideal things [and] sketch the ground-plan of a true common-wealth". [4] The true masters of this science are for Santayana--and not surprisingly--the ancient Greeks, and above all Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. But to say this is not to claim that ancient Greek society embodied a perfectly rational morality, which veneration of the Greeks might lead one to attribute to them if one did not make this distraction between morality and ethics. Central to the concerns of rational ethics is the phenomenon of volition. The will is the expression of an animal's living interest and preference and manifests therefore a radical bias. It is the role of reason to render will consistent and far-reaching. Rational ethics, unlike the pre-rational, seeks to be complete; and, unlike intuitive morality, rational ethics rests upon the impulse to reflect. Reflection upon the individual and society, upon self and other, reveals that: Sympathy and justice are simply an expression of the soul's interests, arising when we consider other men's lives so intently that something in us initiates and re-enacts their experience, so that we move partly in unison with their movement, recognise the reality and initial legitimacy of their interests, and consequently regard their aims in our action, in so far as our own status and purposes have become identical with theirs. [5] This rational reflection, which demands consistency and completeness, also demands that existence be viewed as a whole; and it shows that, although the instincts and preferences upon which morality rests are individual, egoism is not a particularly rational position to adopt; for there is something quite problematic about the notion of the individual self: "the same principle that creates the ideal of a self creates the ideal of a family or an institution". [6] The reason for this is that what a biographer may define as an individual's life is ultimately not a significant unity: "All the substances and efficient processes that figure within it come from elsewhere and continue beyond; while all the rational objects and interests to which it refers have a transpersonal status". [7] (Although Santayana does not at this point make reference to it, affinities with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta are quite apparent.) Another way to express the inadequacies of an ethics of egoism and metaphysics of the self is to show that there is a significant difference between pleasure and happiness: if the former can be said to be the satisfaction of instinct or the aim of impulse, the latter is the aim of reason: "The direct aim of reason is harmony; yet harmony, when made to rule in life, gives reason a noble satisfaction which we call happiness." The reason why happiness belongs in the realm of the rational is that it is impossible without discipline, and this is something the intuitive moralist rejects. It is discipline that renders man rational and capable of happiness by suppressing without hatred what needs to be suppressed to attain a beautiful naturalness. Discipline discredits the random pleasures of illusion, hope, and triumph, and substitutes those which are self-reproductive, perennial and serene, because they express an equilibrium maintained with reality. [8] These effects of discipline are not unrelated to the element of sympathy touched upon above. Sympathy has a natural base in such things as parental and sexual instincts, but in order to find one's happiness in the exercise of this sympathy, one has to "lay one's foundations deeper in nature and to expand the range of one's being". [9] If it is the role of rational ethics to bring order and harmony to the multifarious and conflicting individual instincts and passions, to promote happiness through the deepening and expansion of one's being and to demonstrate the untenability of the egoism/al-truism and the self/other dichotomies by adopting a holistic point of view through reflection upon experience--what need is there for anything other than pre-rational morality transformed by rational ethics? Why bring in or establish a third phase, post-rational morality? I believe Santayana's answer lies ultimately in the fact that rational ethics is, as mentioned above, a system of thought: it is the mere idea of rational morality. Human history shows that such rational structures of thought do not translate into rational modes of behaviour, and to Santayana, given his general philosophical position, this is not surprising. There does exist a need for post-rational morality, which is essentially a religious dimension of human existence: it is synonymous with the spiritual life. The relationship and perfect continuity between the three phases of morality are brought out in the following passage: Now you cannot have a harmony of nothings, and rational ethics would be impossible if pre-rational morality were annulled. And as the impulse to establish harmony, and the love of order, are themselves natural and pre-rational passions, so an ulterior shift to post-rational morality introduces a new natural and pre-rational passion, the demand for harmony not merely within the human psyche or within the human world, but between this world and the psyche on the one hand and the universe, the truth, or God on the other. [10] One might express this by saying that, although rational ethics adopts a holistic point of view, post-rational morality does so in an ultimate sense, by placing both the individual and the natural world in the context of the transcendent reality postulated by religious systems. But more important, in my view, is the distinction between rational ethics as a system of thought and post-rational morality as a way of life--the spiritual life. Post-rational morality is borne of despair--despair over the failure of reason. These systems of morality are "experiments in redemption", [11] Santayana considers a number of such experiments which have occurred throughout human history: Epicureanism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Islam, Platonism, Christianity and Buddhism. Since my concern here is primarily with the role that Buddhism plays, I will not discuss the other 'experiments in redemption', except to say enough about Christianity to bring out the contrast with Buddhism. It is after all striking that a philosopher who was so much a product of Catholic Christian culture should come to recognise an Eastern religion as a superior expression of the spiritual life. There is for Santayana a certain double aspect to Christianity. On the one hand, the soul of the gospel is really post-rational, which is to say that it recognises that all earthly things are vanity, and that its effort at redemption takes the form of renunciation of the world, an emptying of the will as regards all human desires, thereby realising a deeper peace through contemplation and mystical detachment. On the other hand, Christianity's Jewish heritage made this renunciation of the world temporary and partial only, for it never gave up the pre-rational craving for a delectable promised land; and although it conceives of a life of the soul in the beyond, hope of a new order in this world has never been abandoned. Since the emptying of the will of desire and the renunciation of the world were half-hearted only, there has been within Christianity a tendency towards a destructive extreme in its asceticism and its cult of suffering. Buddhism, being 'a purely negative system', would not allow such extremism: "For a discipline that is looked upon as merely temporary can contradict nature more boldly than one intended to take nature's place". [12] And Santayana elaborates: The hope of unimaginable benefits to ensue could drive religion to greater frenzies than it could have fallen into if its object had been merely to silence the will. Christianity persecuted, tortured, and burned . . . It kindled wars, and nursed furious hatreds and ambitions . . . All this would have been impossible if, like Buddhism, it had looked only to peace and the liberation of souls. Man [in Christianity], far from being freed from his natural passions, was plunged into artificial ones quite as violent and much more disappointing. Buddhism had tried to quiet a sick world with anesthetics; Christianity sought to purge it with fire. [13] Buddhism then is for Santayana 'a purely negative system', by which he means--I believe--that it is a system which through its spiritual discipline somehow seeks 'to take nature's place'. And this in turn means that its 'experiment in redemption' takes the form of a practice of detachment which seeks to silence the will, liberate the soul and bring about peace. Seeking to 'replace' nature, it does not 'contradict' it, which is to say that it does not promote violence, hatred and strife among people, or between body and soul. That Buddhism is an eirenic religion which seeks to liberate the individual through a practice of detachment is of course not news to anyone familiar with it. Rather than give a detailed account of this religious philosophy, what is important for us is to understand how Santayana conceives of this form of the spiritual life and--most importantly--what function this highest form of post-rational morality performs in moral life. I have said above that Santayana characterises Buddhism as a purely negative system, and he adds to this that it is wholly pessimistic. He does not refer explicitly to the Four Noble Truths, but we recognise the characterisation as an expression of that wisdom, and realise that he does not speak pejoratively. Since every Buddhistic virtue is said to be viewed as 'merely removing guilt and alleviating suffering', Santayana also says that Buddhism is purely remedial; and it is this which has enabled it to keep morality pure--"free from that admixture of worldly and partisan precepts with which less pessimistic systems are encumbered". [14] Elaborating upon the superiority of this system of morality, he continues: If there is something in a purely remedial system of morality which seems one-sided and extreme, we must call to mind the far less excusable one-sidedness of those moralities of prejudice to which we are accustomed in the Occident--the ethics of irrational acquisitiveness, irrational faith, and irrational honour. Buddhistic morality, so reasonable and beautifully persuasive, rising so willingly to the ideal of sanctity, merits in comparison the profoundest respect. It is lifted as far above the crudities of intuitionism as the whisperings of an angel are above a schoolboy's code. [15] While it is clear that the superiority of Buddhism lies in its pessimistic and remedial nature, I believe that this in turn is inseparable from its epistemological and ontological conception of the world, for it is this which fosters the practice of detachment from the world which for Santayana is the essence of the spiritual life. This could ultimately not be elaborated upon without goring into the complex and central topic of the practice of meditation; a few words about Santayana's conception of the spiritual life, and of how this relates to morality, will, however, have to suffice. Central to Santayana's philosophy is the distinction between existence and essence. The realm of existence is the natural world, the dynamic world of flux, the world of temporal entities which are subject to generation and corruption. The realm of essence, by contrast, is the realm of eternal and immutable entities; essences are the forms or aspects that existent objects may manifest for a time, but many essences are not ever manifested in existence; the realm of essence is infinite. This basic distinction is therefore at heart the distinction between the temporal and the eternal; put in Platonic terms it is the distinction between Becoming and Being, and in terms of Buddhist philosophy it is the distinction between Samsara and Nirvana. It is important to realise that, for Santayana, essences--being eternal--are non-temporal, which is different from saying that they are everlasting. If there were any everlasting entities, such as the gods and souls postulated by various religions, they would be temporal, albeit of infinite temporal extent, and not eternal. Santayana is one with the Buddhists in believing neither in the existence of gods nor in the reality of enduring selves. The following passage makes it clear that Santayana sees a close connection between his own fundamental ontology and that of So Nirvana may be called annihilation in that it annihilates personality, desire and temporal existence; yet the 'Buddha teaches that all beings are from eternity abiding in Nirvana' so that far from being nothing Nirvana embraces the whole realm of essence--pure Being in its infinite implications--from which, of course, existence is excluded; because since existence is necessarily in flux and is centred in some arbitrary moment, it itself exists only by exclusion and with one foot in the grave. [16] Now the spiritual life, for Santayana, is life in the eternal; which is to say that, although it is a life which is a possibility for a natural being in the natural world, it is a life which transcends the natural world to the greatest possible extent and attends in the fullest possible way to the realm of essence, to the eternal aspect that temporal things wear. The key to realising this life in the eternal is detachment, and Santayana makes it very clear that by this he does not mean indifference. To be detached from a thing is, spiritually speaking, to regard it with joy; it is to detach it "from the world that besets and threatens it", and to attach it to the spirit "to which it is an eternal possession". But this thing eternally possessed by the spirit is not the thing as the world knows and prizes it; it is not the person, or 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 the doubt of existence has wholly passed. [17] This passage points to the fact that the realm of existence can be distinguished from the realm of essence in less metaphysical terms by saying that the former is the world of care, anxiety, desire, fear and passion; whereas the latter is the world freed from these stresses and doubts. In a sense it is of course misleading to speak of two worlds, for it is the same world which is experienced in different ways: Samsara and Nirvana are in a sense the same world and to attain the capacity to sense the ultimate in the immediate is to be freed from anxiety; it is to realise the Pyrrhonian ideal of ataraxia, or tranquillity. The spiritual life entails a complete transformation of the person: in being liberated from oneself one comes to feel for the first time that one/s oneself; in being liberated from the world one becomes capable of a universal love of nature. Santayana elaborates: Your detachment will not be spiritual unless it is universal; it will then bring you liberation at once from the world and from yourself. This will neither destroy your natural gifts and duties nor add to them; but it will enable you to exercise them without illusion and in far-seeing harmony with their real function and end. Detachment leaves you content to be where you are, and what you are . . . yet in your physical particularity detachment makes you ideally impartial; and in enlightening your mind it is likely to render your action also more successful and generous. [18] In this last remark about the connection between enlightenment and action we have a clue to the connection between the spiritual life and morality; for just as the spiritual life transforms the individual, so does it also transform morality, and it effects what reason can not. A post-rational morality has value to the extent that it retains some natural impulse and restores natural morality. It will be recalled that natural, or pre-rational, morality is the multiplicity of variable and conflicting natural desires, instincts and impulses; and that rational ethics is an intellectual attempt to bring order and harmony into natural morality, an attempt at which it can be at best only partially successful. Post-rational morality is the subordination of all precepts to some single eventual good. In the case of Christianity, this is presumably the salvation and eternal life of the soul in the afterlife; and this rests upon faith in the divine and redeeming nature of Christ. In the case of Buddhism it is the Bodhisattva ideal of enlightenment, which involves the overcoming of greed, hatred and the delusion of an ego isolated from other happenings and existences; and this realisation of the Buddha nature within ourselves rests not upon the kind of faith that is central to Christianity, but rather upon the spiritual discipline of meditation. I hope it has been clear from my brief account that Santayana's conception of the spiritual life is close to that ideal. Although post-rational morality is said to subordinate all precepts to some single eventual good, it should not be thought that it is Santayana's view that morality is based on the sort of religious system which constitutes post-rational morality: morality has an entirely natural genesis, but it has a wholly ideal or spiritual telos. What remains is to explain how this spiritual life 'restores' natural morality and why it is that Buddhism is the superior form of post-rational morality. Speaking generally, Santayana says that: Systems of post-rational morality are not original works: they are versions of natural morality translated into different metaphysical languages, each of which adds its peculiar flavour, its own genius and poetry, to the plain sense of the common original. [19] As an example, he gives the law of Karma, which is the natural experience of retribution and the fact of character 'ideally extended and made precise'. In the law of Karma a particular observation about life is raised to such a level of eminence that we come to imagine it as underlying and explaining all empirical observations. This 'imaginary extension of the law of moral continuity and natural retribution' becomes a dogma which--although it institutes a deeper spiritual law--contains certain dangers; for it rests on what Santayana calls 'the fantastic metaphysics' of the transmigration of souls, and--by making my future entirely dependent on my former conduct--the law tends to deny the fact that the efforts of others can have a real influence over my salvation through works of love, pity, science or prayer. In other words, systems of post-rational morality tend in the direction of faith in the supernatural, which may issue in destructive superstition, from which even the Buddhistic law of Karma may not be immune. (Whether Santayana has an adequate understanding of this law may well be a matter for debate.) Although some metaphysical dogma or moral fable may be an inescapable aspect of any post-rational morality, the value of any such system depends on the extent to which it restores natural morality. It works best when the symbolism is not deceptive, when the 'supernatural machinery' becomes a poetic echo of experience which does not offend intelligence. "True sages and true civilisations can accordingly flourish under a dispensation nominally supernatural; for that supernaturalism may have become a sincere form in which imagination clothes a rational and human wisdom" [20]. Although the sophisticated Buddhist would no doubt say that dogma and faith in supernatural machinery are completely obviated in Buddhism, I believe Santayana would be inclined to say that in Buddhism they are reduced to their minimum; in any case, this freedom from dogma is no doubt related to the negative, pessimistic and purely remedial character of its orientation discussed above. It is because of its freedom from superstitious dogma that Buddhism is able to work to redeem us from the illusion which is the fountain of our troubles: "Ignorance is to be enlightened, passion calmed, mistaken destiny revoked; only what the innermost being desiderates, only what can really quiet the longings embodied in any particular will, is to occupy the redeemed mind." [21] Buddhism was able, he said, to "pierce to the genuine principles of happiness and misery" [22], and "to combine universal sympathy with perfect spirituality" [23]. And this perfect spirituality, with the attendant consequences for the moral life, is ultimately made possible through the spiritual discipline of meditation--something to which Santayana does not give nearly enough explicit attention. It is through this practice, and not through dogmas and doctrines, that the individual realises that detachment which is liberation both from the world and from the self. The moral power of Buddhism does not lie in the discipline of the Eightfold Path if this is conceived of as but one ethical code among others; its power lies in its capacity to transform natural morality as such through the transformation of the individual as the result of spiritual practice. This is why Buddhism, more than any other religious system or post-rational morality, is of universal relevance and universal appeal, and this is why "It is lifted as far above the crudities of intuitionism as the whisperings of an angel are above a schoolboy's code" [24]. NOTES [1] SANTAYANA, GEORGE (1962) Reason in Science (London, Collier) p. 154. [2] Reason in Science, pp. 158-159. [3] Reason in Science, pp. 163, 164. [4] Reason in Science, p. 171. [5] Reason in Science, p. 175. [6] Reason in Science, p. 177. [7] Reason in Science, p. 188. [8] Reason in Science, p. 179. [9] Reason in Science, p. 182. [10] SANTAYANA, GEORGE (1940) Apologia pro mente sua, in: P. A. SCHLIPP (Ed.) The Philosophy of George Santayana (hereafter PGS) (New York, Tudor Publishing) p. 563. [11] Reason in Science, p. 189. [12] Reason in Science, p. 201. [13] Ibid. [14] Reason in Science, p. 205. [15] Reason in Science, p. 206. [16] SANTAYANA, GEORGE (1957) Platonism and the Spiritual Life (hereafter Platonism) (New York, Harper Torchbooks, p. 30). [17] Platonism, p. 271. [18] PGS, p. 571. [19] Reason in Science, p. 204. [20] Reason in Science, p. 209. [21] SANTAYANA, GEORGE (1962) Reason in Religion (London, Collier Books) p. 155. [22] Reason in Religion, p. 156. [23] Reason in Religion, p. 155. [24] Reason in Science, p. 206. ~~~~~~~~ By JOHN MAGNUS MICHELSEN John Magnus Michelsen, Department of Philosophy, University of Victoria, Victoria BG, Canada V8W 3PH. -------------------