Santayana on barbarism. The notion of ‘barbarism’ in Santayana has predominantly (though not exclusively) a form of something that can be called a ‘cultural barbarism’ as opposed to ‘civilization,’ and, in this sense, does not refer directly to any indiscriminate killings or plundering, as it is frequently associated in the popular usage of this term. According to him, barbarism in this cultural form can be found both in the ancient past, when “barbarian genius infused into Christianity” (LR 228) – the Gothic cathedrals having been an example of such an infusion -, and in the modern era, when such eminent representatives of the “poetry of barbarism” can be found as Walt Whitman and Robert Browning. By employing the opposition ‘barbarian-civilized’ in many of his texts, he wanted to tell us that the civilized way of thinking lies in having a clear vision of a perfect life along with the recognition of the ultimate justification of the machinery of life, understanding it with its ideals, wisdom, and beauty (cf. IPR, 166-168); contrary to that, barbarian means “undisciplined, rebellious against the nature of things” (L4, 45).
Santayana claims that our age is not more civilized than other epochs in the past — the time of ancient Greece being the most civilized — hence, some elements of both can be found in different proportions in any epoch. In his text “Hellenism and Barbarism” he somewhat metaphorically describes it as an eternal conflict that embodies “the moral difference between art and adventure, between experience and presumption” (BR 24). A civilized person is able to see, appreciate, and cultivate the richness of life in its full perspective, whereas a barbarian is happy to recognize some fragments and ignore many excellences of life that are outside of the scope of his outlook. Having ideas in front of us and making them as if eternal standards for making life better (meaning: fuller, ampler, wiser, and wider) is civilized; having fragments of life in front of us and being dedicated to accidental, contingent, and artificial objects of desire make us barbarian.
Such is, according to Santayana, the expression barbarity in the poetry of Whitman: “We find the swarms of men and objects rendered as they might strike the retina in a sort of waking dream. It is the most sincere possible confession of the lowest — I mean the most primitive — type of perception. All ancient poets are sophisticated in comparison and give proof of longer intellectual and moral training” (IPR 178). One can add that in Santayana education, especially the liberal arts, has a big role in the process of civilizing people because a part of a civilized life is got by having taken lessons from the past, something that the barbarian does not need. More precisely, what the barbarian finds out in history is first of all the superstition and the idols that are unable to elevate the barbarian mentality onto a higher level of understanding the world.
There is another sense in which Santayana uses the word ‘barbarism’, one that historically refers to the “Wandering nations, with nothing of their own and working havoc wherever they go” (PP 543). In The Life of Reason he was critical about those apologists of barbarism and panegyrists of war who claim that periodical bleedings are instrumental for keeping a given race pure and a given nation brave. Santayana was against the war in general, but the argumentation does not seem pacifist, at least at this place (cf. LR 126), but rather elitist and aristocratic. Namely, in wars and conflicts the heroes, the most courageous, and the most eminent people fight and die, which means that a given society is deprived of its most noble people and its most eminent achievements of culture — and this is the barbaric dimension of the war. As a result, he says, “Instead of being descended from heroes, modern nations are descended from slaves” (LR 126).
Reception. George Howgate, in the very first book written on Santayana (the book that was read by Santayana, and appreciatively commented upon) mentioned the notion of ‘barbarity’ in Santayana, predominantly in the literary context, which is the poetry of barbarism. He described the ‘poetry of barbarism’ as “incoherent, its vision distorted, its range narrow. It would worship passion rather than reason, intensity rather than repose, vagueness rather than clarity” (Howgate 142). Much later, Henry Samuel Levinson, in his book on Santayana, Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life, recognizes the issue putting, however, a bit more emphasis upon the philosophical meaning upon it: “It is the Santayana for whom the romantic self-expression of poets like Whitman and Browning becomes anathema, the very mark of barbarism, the Santayana who rails against them for singing of themselves rather than surrendering themselves to ‘the ideal’ (and fessing up to the traditions that informed their poetic voices” (Levinson 107). Fernando Savater, in his recent book on Santayana, Acerca de Santayana, takes a look at Santayana’s idea of barbarism from a different point of view, one of aesthetics. He interprets Santayana as saying that an expression of barbarism is by claiming that evil can be separated from the beauty, in the sense that the cultivation of some form of the fine arts does not translate into promoting some form of the good (cf. Savater 48). Savater refers to this claim by Santayana: “It is mere barbarism to feel that a thing is aesthetically good but morally evil, or morally good but hateful to perception (RAc 109).
Comparison. George Howgate suggests in his book on Santayana (cf. p. 207) that Santayana’s notion of barbarism has something to do with Matthew Arnold’s notion of ‘provinciality.’ If we follow this suggestion, we can see this similarity in places in which Arnold’s ‘provinciality’ means the fragmentation of cultural thought. However, this fragmentation (in Britain) was caused, according to Arnold, by the remoteness from a centre of correct knowledge or a recognized authority, such as, for example, the French Academy that had an impact upon the French system of schooling. In contrast to this, Santayana never had any sympathies for an organized system of education, even to a university so much respected as Harvard.
For those who compare Santayana with American pragmatists, there appears a definite difference between Deweyan and Rortyan future orientation and the hope with regard to the melioration of the social system, especially its democratic basis. Santayana’s reservation about the success of our contemporary culture and his past orientation (seeing the Greek Antiquity as the most civilized culture ever) makes his philosophy very different at this point. Bellow describes Santayana’s approach towards American culture in the following way: “Santayana was willing to participate in and observe American life. But . . . Santayana preferred to be a sympathetic spectator, a sophisticate in the midst of the barbarians who were engaged in the struggle for success” (Ballowe 10-11)
Contribution. Santayana is a strong voice in the discussion about the sense and meaning of the contemporary civilization of the West. His was the claim that the Ancient Greek civilization was the best — not only by its millennial significance, but also by giving us the criterion according to which the progress of human life is had when our lives are spiritually richer, intellectually wiser, imaginary fuller, and at the same time emotionally joyful. Barbarity he treats as a sort of opposition to that and, he claimed, a big portion of our contemporary culture should be described by this pejorative term.
A note: This is the first version of the entry on barbarism; a more completed version, having more plots, referring to more material, and including more commentators will be provided after the presentation of the entries on civilization, the life of reason, genteel tradition, American culture, contemporary culture, progress, and others.
(LR) Santayana, George (1905-1906/1998). The Life of Reason. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
(PP). Santayana George (1944-1953/1986). Persons and Places. Fragments of Autobiography. Critical Edition. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England.
(L4). Santayana George (2003). The Letters of George Santayana. Book Four 1928-1932. Critical Edition. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England.
(RAc) Santayana, George (1905/2015). Reason in Art. Critical Edition. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England.
(IPR) Santayana George (1900/1957). Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York: Harper
(BR) Santayana George (1968). “Hellenism and Barbarism,” in: The Birth of Reason and Other Essays. Edited by Daniel Cory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ballowe, James (1969). George Santayana’s America: Essays on Literature and Culture. Urbana, Ill., Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press.
Howgate, George W (1938/1961). George Santayana. Philadelphia: Barnes And Noble.
Levinson, Henry Samuel (1992). Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Savater, Fernando (2012). Acerca de Santayana. Valencia: Biblioteca Javier Coy