Back in print

Forgotten philosopher and critic George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition and Character and Opinion in the United States have been reissued by Yale University Press. In the often combined volumes, Santayana trains his considerable powers of prose and analysis to the quesiton of the American spirit:

Santayana’s major insight was that America was “a young country with an old mentality” or “old wine in new bottles.” The “old wine” was the unfiltered Calvinism that the Puritans brought with them to New England, where they expected their experience to bear out the harsh tenets of their faith. The problem, according to Santayana, was that their material success outpaced their theological pessimism. The Puritans, much to their chagrin, did rather well. They prospered to the point where their certainty about man’s fallen nature gave way to a mild-mannered faith in human progress. The poor were now in need of reform instead of redemption. The popular clergyman Henry Ward Beecher replaced the severe sermonizer Jonathan Edwards. God no longer held man over the pit of hell but helped him along his merry way.

“If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved,” Santayana wrote, “he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is.” The problem with slackened Calvinism, in Santayana’s view, was that it cheapened culture. “Serious poetry, profound religion are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself,” he wrote. When “a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them.”

In other words, the “agonized conscience” of Calvinism allowed for more fully human works of art and religion than its milder, more secular offspring. The well-meaning custodians of Puritan ideals eventually lost their taste for moral reckoning and invigorating self-questioning.

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