Santayana on Fanaticism. “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim (LR 8)” – this most famous Santayana’s quote on fanaticism encapsulates his view on the issue. The fanatics multiply their emotions in the realization of something that does not serve a worthy cause in the long run. They give up the realization of a given ideal in a positive way, which is building, attracting, and developing; instead, they attack and destroy in a brutal way the objects and humans that symbolize or represent the rivalling ideology, religion, and lifestyle. He was against such ideologies that prioritize some moral systems and depreciate others claiming that “the fanatic is a tyrant on principle and often a hypocrite in practice (DP 200).” According to Santayana’s naturalistic pluralism, all ideologies, systems of values, religions, and systems of thoughts have some natural justification and deserve cultivation at least to some degree. They as such result from natural needs, ambitions, and visions of some people. Since we have many and diverse ambitions and conflicting visions, one can think whether it is possible, realistic, and necessary at all to think about the one and obligatory universal perspective for everybody. Santayana believed that conflicts and wars are also something natural and biologically justified; on the other hand, however, it is natural for many to live and thrive without conflicts and wars. His idea of “Life of Reason” recognizes those efforts that aim at the cultivation and harmonization of divergent tendencies. To use Angus Kerr-Lawson’s words, Santayana’s idea (of “Life of Reason”) “arises as a coherent accommodation in action of the genuine interests of a person or society which advances the more dominant ones, and relinquishes any that are entirely incompatible with these” (Kerr-Lawson 2008, 693).
In “The Logic of Fanaticism” (1914), Santayana writes that “the inhumanity of fanaticism does not lie chiefly in the conscientious crimes which it dictates here and there; it lies rather in the miserable imaginary end itself, for the sake of which those crimes are committed.” In this text he interpreted the eruption of WWI, and he accused Germans of having no ideas – including the idea of Kultur – worthy of launching the war. On this example, he proposed a more general conclusion according to which “Neither prosperity nor empire nor heaven can be worth winning at the price of a virulent temper, bloody hands, an anguished spirit, and a vain hatred of the rest of the world.” In his book, Egotism in German Philosophy (1915) he accused German idealist philosophers of having promoted the idea of national egoism and an utopian wishful thinking, which is the main source of fanaticism. Santayana’s realism saw the human progress in minimizing the gap between utopian illusions and the factual realizations of different forms of noble lives according to given ideals. To use Michael Weinstein’s words, “Santayana’s realism, which was shaped in opposition to German idealism and British empiricism, is most profoundly a protest against wishful thinking, which Santayana believed, was at the origin of fanaticism and intolerance” (Weinstein 1983, 123).
Santayana’s cosmopolitanism excludes any particular aims of a given nation at the cost of the aims and ambitions of other nations. This does not mean at all that Santayana wanted to limit the cultivation of national, moral, and religious sentiments; he wanted to harmonize them and pluralistically cultivate each of them. Santayana’s cosmopolitanism does not mean, then, an elevation of a particular view upon the universal level but rather an attempt to synchronize existing traditions and systems of thought. This is one of the reasons why Santayana was a promoter of relativism in values; as he wrote in Little Essays: “a consciousness of the relativity of values, if it became prevalent, would tend to render people more truly social than would a belief that things have an intrinsic and unchangeable values, no matter what the attitude of any one to them may be” (LE 94).
It should be added that there is a difference between ‘fanatic’ and ‘barbarian’ – both terms being used by Santayana in important contexts. The former acts with ‘redoubled efforts’ and ‘having forgotten the aim’ whereas the latter acts, irrespectively to the level of his/her efforts, having an aim that is constituted by the ideas that are low, common, and unimportant (‘barbarity’ being described in the next entry on this blog).
Controversy. Beth Singer, in her book about Santayana, notices that according to him all ideologies, if consequent, should lead to idolatry and fanaticism, and this includes liberalism, which, if attained “would be at the expense of existing individuality and traditional distinctiveness (Singer 1970, 86). Singer refers to such quotes in Santayana as the one that says that liberals are “dogmatists who when in power think they are ruling for the good of mankind” (DP 430-431).
Criticism. Santayana can be criticized for his latitudinarian approach towards various systems of thought and, thus, giving no reason to fight for and against them. In other words, one can conclude that he criticized fanaticism as did he any fight against fanaticism, and the following quote illustrates what I mean: “Sweeter and more profound, to my sense, is the philosophy of Homer, whose every line seems to breathe the conviction that what is beautiful and precious has not thereby any right to existence; nothing has such a right; nor is it given us to condemn absolutely any force – god or man – that destroys what is beautiful or precious, for it has doubtless something beautiful or precious of its own to achieve” (LE 241)
Comparison. Michael Weinstein compares Santayana’s criticism of pathetic fallacy to A. Whitehead’s criticism of ‘dogmatic fallacy’ and ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ as well as to J. Dewey’s ‘intellectualist fallacy’ as having both ethical and epistemological import in the context of fanaticism. These criticisms well address the utopian illusions of those who want to fanatically convert their views into the ideologies obligatory for everyone, forgetting about the humane aims to live good lives.
Contribution. Santayana’s definition of fanaticism – “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim (LR 8)” – seems to be the most visible contribution to the philosophical reflection about fanaticism. Wikipedia uses this definition in the entry on fanaticism, and Collins Dictionary uses it as an explanation of the term; also, we can find very many places on the Internet where Santayana’s definition is quoted. This quote has also been applied to the current political discussions, as in Jihad Watch website’s discussion on fanaticism (Sept 24, 2015), and educational strategies, as in SimUnesCo 2015 Education Committee’s statement.
Continuations. Most recently, Michael Brodrick, in his Ethics of Detachment in Santayana’s Philosophy, follows Santayana in the recognition of human constraints and the limits in the realization of various (and conflicting) ideals: “Recollecting such constrains leads us to pursue imperfect but achievable goods over those that are perfect but unachievable. The seemingly simple act of surrounding the perfect can enable us to avoid much needless pain and suffering” (Brodrick 2015, introduction). Years earlier, John Lachs, in “Relativism and its Benefits,” continued Santayana’s relativism in ethics as a possible tool helpful to reduce the engagements in fanatical actions and unrealizable aims, though he focussed on dogmatists rather than on fanatics.
A note: This is the first version of the entry on fanaticism; 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 barbarism, relativity of values, dogmatism, madness, ‘normal madness,’ toleration, war, and others.
(LR) Santayana, George (2005). The Life of Reason. The Project Gutenberg e-book.
(DP) Santayana, George (1951). Dominations and Powers. New York: Scribner’s
(LE) Santayana, George (1920). Little Essays: Drawn From the Writings of George Santayana by Logan Pearsall Smith, With the Collaboration of the Author. New York: Scribner’s
Santayana, George (1914). “The Logic of Fanaticism,” in: New Republic, 28 November, 18-19
Brodrick, Michael (2015). The Ethics of Detachment in Santayana’s Philosophy. Palgrave
Kerr-Lawson, Angus (2008). “Santayana, George: Life of Reason,” in: American Philosophy. An Encyclopedia. Edited by John Lachs and Robert Talisse. New York and London: Routledge.
Lachs, John (1973). “Relativism and its Benefits,” in: Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal Vol. 56, No. 3 (Fall), pp. 312-322
Singer, Beth (1970). The Rational Society. A Critical Study of Santayana’s Social Thought. Cleveland and London: The Press of Case Western Reserve University.
Weinstein, Michael (1983). “Twentieth-century Realism and the Autonomy of the Human Sciences: The Case of George Santayana,” in: Analecta Husserliana, vol. XV, pp. 119-130.