Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter II

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Egotism in German Philosophy by George Santayana
Chapter II. The Protestant Heritage
the protestant heritage

The German people, according to Fichte and Hegel, are called by the plan of Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe.

A little consideration of this belief will perhaps lead us more surely to the heart of German philosophy than would the usual laborious approach to it through what is called the theory of knowledge. This theory of knowledge is a tangle of equivocations; but even if it were correct it would be something technical, and the technical side of a great philosophy, interesting as it may be in itself, hardly ever determines its essential views. These essential views are derived rather from instincts or traditions which the technique of the system is designed to defend; or, at least, they decide how that technique shall be applied and interpreted.

The moment we hear Fichte and Hegel mentioning a providential plan of the world, we gather that in their view the history of things is not infinite and endlessly various, but has a closed plot like a drama in which one nation (the very one to which these philosophers belong) has the central place and the chief role: and we perceive at once that theirs is a revealed philosophy. It is the heir of Judaism. It could never have been formed by free observation of life and nature, like the philosophy of Greece or of the Renaissance. It is Protestant theology rationalised. The element of religious faith, in the Protestant sense of the word faith, is essential to it. About the witness of tradition, even about the witness of the senses, it may be as sceptical as it likes. It may reduce nature and God to figments of the mind; but throughout its criticism of all matters of fact it will remain deeply persuaded that the questioning and striving spirit within is indefeasible and divine. It will never reduce all things, including the mind, to loose and intractable appearances, as might a free idealism. It will employ its scepticism to turn all things into ideas, in order to chain them the more tightly to the moral interests of the thinker. These moral interests, human and pathetic as they may seem to the outsider, it will exalt immeasurably, pronouncing them to be groundless and immutable; and it will never tolerate the suspicion that all things might not minister to them.

From the same tenet of Fichte and Hegel we may also learn that in the plan of the world, as this revealed philosophy conceives it, the principal figures are not individuals, like the Creator, the Redeemer, and one’s own soul, but nations and institutions. It is of the essence of Protestantism and of German philosophy that religion should gradually drop its supernatural personages and comforting private hopes and be absorbed in the duty of living manfully and conscientiously the conventional life of this world. Not the whole life of the world, however, since gay religions and many other gay things are excluded, or admitted only as childish toys. Positive religion, in fact, disappears, as well as the frivolous sort of worldliness, and there remains only a consecrated worldliness that is deliberate and imposed as a duty. Just as in pantheism God is naturalised into a cosmic force, so in German philosophy the Biblical piety of the earlier Protestants is secularised into social and patriotic zeal.

German philosophy has inherited from Protestantism its earnestness and pious intention; also a tendency to retain, for whatever changed views it may put forward, the names of former beliefs. God, freedom, and immortality, for instance, may eventually be transformed into their opposites, since the oracle of faith is internal; but their names may be kept, together with a feeling that what will now bear those names is much more satisfying than what they originally stood for. If it should seem that God came nearest to us, and dwelt within us, in the form of vital energy, if freedom should turn out really to mean personality, if immortality, in the end, should prove identical with the endlessness of human progress, and if these new thoughts should satisfy and encourage us as the evanescent ideas of God, freedom, and immortality satisfied and encouraged our fathers, why should we not use these consecrated names for our new conceptions, and thus indicate the continuity of religion amid the flux of science? This expedient is not always hypocritical. It was quite candid in men like Spinoza and Emerson, whose attachment to positive religion had insensibly given way to a half-mystical, half-intellectual satisfaction with the natural world, as their eloquent imagination conceived it. But whether candid or disingenuous, this habit has the advantage of oiling the wheels of progress with a sacred unction. In facilitating change it blurs the consciousness of change, and leads people to associate with their new opinions sentiments which are logically incompatible with them. The attachment of many tender-minded people to German philosophy is due to this circumstance, for German philosophy is not tender.

The beauty and the torment of Protestantism is that it opens the door so wide to what lies beyond it. This progressive quality it has fully transmitted to all the systems of German philosophy. Not that each of them, like the earlier Protestant sects, does not think itself true and final; but in spite of itself it suggests some next thing. We must expect, therefore, that the more conservative elements in each system should provoke protests in the next generation; and it is hard to say whether such inconstancy is a weakness, or is simply loyalty to the principle of progress. Kant was a puritan; he revered the rule of right as something immutable and holy, perhaps never obeyed in the world. Fichte was somewhat freer in his Calvinism; the rule of right was the moving power in all life and nature, though it might have been betrayed by a doomed and self-seeking generation. Hegel was a very free and superior Lutheran; he saw that the divine will was necessarily and continuously realised in this world, though we might not recognise the fact in our petty moral judgments. Schopenhauer, speaking again for this human judgment, revolted against that cruel optimism, and was an indignant atheist; and finally, in Nietzsche, this atheism became exultant; he thought it the part of a man to abet the movement of things, however calamitous, in order to appropriate its wild force and be for a moment the very crest of its wave.

Protestantism was not a reformation by accident, because it happened to find the church corrupt; it is a reformation essentially, in that every individual must reinterpret the Bible and the practices of the church in his own spirit. If he accepted them without renewing them in the light of his personal religious experience, he would never have what Protestantism thinks living religion. German philosophy has inherited this characteristic; it is not a cumulative science that can be transmitted ready made. It is essentially a reform, a revision of traditional knowledge, which each neophyte must make for himself, under pain of rendering only lip-service to transcendental truth, and remaining at heart unregenerate. His chief business is to be converted; he must refute for himself the natural views with which he and all other men have begun life. And still these views—like the temptations of Satan—inevitably form themselves afresh in each generation, and even in the philosopher, between one spell of introspective thought and another, so that he always has to recapitulate his saving arguments from the beginning. Each new idealist in each of his books, often in every lecture and every chapter, must run back to refute again the same homely opponents—materialism, naturalism, dualism, or whatever he may call them. Dead as each day he declares these foes to be, he has to fight them again in his own soul on the morrow. Hence his continual preoccupation lest he fall away, or lest the world should forget him. To preserve his freedom and his idealism he must daily conquer them anew. This philosophy is secondary, critical, sophistical; it has a perennial quarrel with inevitable opinions.

Protestantism, in spite of its personal status, wished to revert to primitive Christianity. In this desire it was guided partly by a conventional faith in the Scriptures, and partly by a deep sympathy with experimental religion. German religion and philosophy are homesick: they wish to be quite primitive once more. And they actually remain primitive in spirit, spontaneous and tentative, even in the midst of the most cumbrous erudition, as a composition of Dürer’s, where flesh, fish, and fowl crowd every corner, still remains primitive, puzzled, and oppressed. Such a naive but overloaded mind is lost in admiration of its own depth and richness; yet, in fact, it is rather helpless and immature; it has not learned to select what suffices, or to be satisfied with what is best.

Faith for the Germans must be a primitive and groundless assurance, not knowledge credibly transmitted by others whose experience may have been greater than our own. Even philosophy is not conceived as a reasonable adjustment to what may have been discovered to be the constitution of the world; it is in the first instance a criticism, to dissolve that reputed knowledge, and then, when primitive innocence is happily restored, it is a wager or demand made beyond all evidence, and in contempt of all evidence, in obedience to an innate impulse. Of course, it is usual, as a concession to the weaker brethren, to assume that experience, in the end, will seem to satisfy these demands, and that we shall win our bets and our wars; but the point of principle, borrowed by German philosophy from Protestantism, is that the authority of faith is intrinsic and absolute, while any external corroboration of it is problematical and not essential to the Tightness of the assumptions that faith makes. In this we have a fundamental characteristic of the school. Carried (as it seldom is) to its logical conclusion, it leads to the ultra-romantic and ultra-idealistic doctrine that the very notion of truth or fact is a fiction of the will, invented to satisfy our desire for some fixed point of reference in thought. In this doctrine we may see the culmination of the Protestant rebellion against mediation in religion, against external authority, and against dogma.

The Protestant precept to search the Scriptures, and the sense that every man must settle the highest questions for himself, have contributed to the zeal with which science and scholarship have been pursued in Germany. In no other country has so large, so industrious, and (amid its rude polemics) so cooperative a set of professors devoted itself to all sorts of learning. But as the original motive was to save one’s soul, an apologetic and scholastic manner has often survived: the issue is prejudged and egotism has appeared even in science. For favourable as Protestantism is to investigation and learning, it is almost incompatible with clearness of thought and fundamental freedom of attitude. If the controlling purpose is not political or religious, it is at least “philosophical,” that is to say, arbitrary.

We must remember that the greater part of the “facts” on which theories are based are reported or inferred facts—all in the historical sciences, since the documents and sources must first be pronounced genuine or spurious by the philosophical critic. Here presumptions and private methods of inference determine what shall be admitted for a fact, to say nothing of the interpretation to be given to it. Hence a piece of Biblical or Homeric criticism, a history of Rome or of Germany often becomes a little system of egotistical philosophy, posited and defended with all the parental zeal and all the increasing conviction with which a prophet defends his supernatural inspirations. The distinction between Mary and Martha is not a German distinction: in Germany the rapt idealist is busy about many things, so that his action is apt to be heady and his contemplation perturbed. Only the principle is expected to be spiritual, the illustrations must all be material and mundane. There is no paradox in German idealism turning to material science, commerce, and war for a fresh field of operation. No degeneracy is implied in such an extension of its vocation, especially when the other ideals of the state—pure learning, art, social organisation—are pursued at the same time with an equal ardour. The test of a genuine German idealist is that he should forget and sink his private happiness in whatever service the state may set him to do.

In view of this political fidelity the changing opinions of men are all indifferent to true religion. It is not a question of correctness in opinion or conduct, since for the idealist there can be no external standard of truth, existence, or excellence on which such correctness could depend. Ideas are so much real experience and have no further subject-matter. Thought is simply more or less rich, elaborate, or vehement, like a musical composition, and more or less consistent with itself. It is all a question of depth and fulness of experience, obtained by hacking one’s way through this visionary and bewitched existence, the secret purpose of which is to serve the self in its development. In this philosophy-imagination that is sustained is called knowledge, illusion that is coherent is called truth, and will that is systematic is called virtue.

Evidently the only sanction or vindication that such a belief will look for is the determination to reassert it. Religion is here its own heaven, and faith the only proof of its own truth. What is harmonised in the end is not the experience through which people have actually passed but only the echoes of that experience chiming in the mystic ear. Memory too can play the egotist. Subjectivism can rule even within the subject and can make him substitute his idea of himself, in his most self-satisfied moment, for the poor desultory self that he has actually been.

The German philosophers have carried on Protestantism beyond itself. They have separated the two ingredients mingled in traditional religions. One of these ingredients—the vital faith or self-trust of the animal will—they have retained. The other—the lessons of experience—they have rejected. To which element the name of religion should still be given, if it is given to either, is a matter of indifference. The important thing is that, call it religion or irreligion, we should know what we are clinging to.