Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter X

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Egotism in German Philosophy by George Santayana
Chapter X. The Breach with Christianity
the breach with Christianity

German philosophy has a religious spirit, but its alliance with Christianity has always been equivocal and external. Even in the speculations of Leibniz, concerned as he was about orthodoxy, there was a spirit of independence and absolutism which was rationalistic, not to say heathen. The principle of sufficient reason, for instance, demands that God and nature shall explain their existence and behaviour to us, as timid parents explain their behaviour to their censorious children. By rendering everything necessary, even the acts of God, it takes the place of God and makes him superfluous. Such frigid optimism as this principle involves, besides being fatalistic, is deeply discouraging to that hope of deliverance which is the soul of Christianity: for if this is the best world possible, how poor must be that realm of possible worlds where everything is tainted, and there is no heaven! The theory, too, that each soul contains the seeds of its whole experience and suffices for its own infinite development, destroys the meaning of creation, revelation, miracles, sin, grace, and charity. Thus without intending it, even the obsequious but incredibly intelligent Leibniz undermined all the doctrines of Christianity in the act of thinking them afresh, and insinuated into them a sort of magic heathen individualism.

Kant, Fichte, and Hegel were less punctilious in their theology, but they still intended to be or to seem Christians. They felt that what made the sanctity of traditional religion and its moral force could be recovered in a purer form in their systems. This feeling of theirs was not unwarranted; at least, many religious minds, after the first shock of losing their realistic faith, have seen in transcendentalism a means, and perhaps the only safe means, of still maintaining a sort of Christianity which shall not claim any longer to be a miraculous or exceptional revelation, but only a fair enough poetic symbol for the principles found in all moral life. That he who loses his life shall save it, for instance, is a maxim much prized and much glossed by Hegelians. They lend it a meaning of their own, which might, indeed, be said to be the opposite of what the Gospel meant; for there the believer is urged to discard the very world with which Hegel asks him to identify himself. The idea is that if you surrender your private interests to those of your profession, science, or country, you become thereby a good and important person, and unintentionally a happy one. You will then feel that the world shares your thoughts and renders them perpetual, while you, being absorbed in ideal pursuits, forget your private miseries and mortality.

In this sort of moral psychology there is evidently some truth; but the “law of experience” which it points to is but a loose and ambiguous law, which disguises more facts than it expresses. Honest minds will rebel against the suggestion that when you outgrow a desire you have fulfilled it; and they will detect the furtive irony in bidding you live hard in order not to feel the vanity of living. To drown sorrow in work, and to forget private failures in public interests, is certainly possible, but it is only drugging yourself with hurry and routine, which may not be more advantageous to others than it really is to yourself. Impersonal or “ideal” aims are not necessarily less delusive or “higher” than personal ones; in fact there is far more likelihood that they are conventional humbug. This pathological hygiene of idealism, which always stops at some uncriticised impulse, thinks it secures health when perhaps it has only increased the dose of illusion.

Nevertheless transcendentalism has this important element in common with Christianity and with the other Hebraic religions, that it regards human interests as the core of the universe and God as the God of man, who disposes all things for man’s benefit. In its eyes the sphere of providence and moral life is bounded by the history of a part of Europe and Asia for a few thousand years. So long as transcendentalism is taken to imply some such philosophy of history it can compound its differences with liberal Christianity, since they are at one in the cardinal point of their faith, which is the apotheosis of the human spirit.

Yet this human egotism, which comforts so many minds, offends others, in their way no less religious. Of course, those who believe in the infinity of the universe, be they mystics or naturalists, smile at such pettiness and fatuity. But even among transcendentalists, some are repelled; for the dominion which they attribute to their ego is a dominion over appearances only; they do not pretend that the grammar of the human intellect can lay down the law for the world at large. At the same time, in their own house they wish to keep their freedom. That prescribed evolution and that reversible optimism of the absolute transcendentalists are repulsive to them; they resent that such a precise and distasteful career should be imposed on their transcendental individuality, and should swallow it up. It is these rebels that have carried romanticism and German philosophy into its last phase. They have broken at last with Christianity and at the same time with the theological and cosmic transcendentalism that was its treacherous ally, and hoped to be its heir.

The transcendentalism of Schopenhauer, sweeping as it was in its way, retained the modest and agnostic character it had had in Kant: he proclaimed that the world was his idea, but meant only (what is undeniable) that his idea of the world was his idea. The egotistical doctrine that the whole universe is but the image of it created by the mind disappeared altogether in his system. The so-called Will which he still placed behind everything was no longer his own will evolving experience out of nothing; it was a fanciful name for whatever force or substance might lie behind experience, animating all its objects, determining their inherent life, and constituting them facts collateral with himself. If his metaphysics remained idealistic, it was on account of his romantic habit of assimilating the life of nature to that of man, as hasty introspection reveals it; so that the universe is described in moral and poetical terms rather than in the terms of science.

The consequences of this change were important. The Will became infinite in what Hegel called the evil sense, that is, in the true one. It was no longer possible to speak of a plan of creation, nor of a dramatic progress in history, with its beginning in Eden and its end in Berlin. Life was seen to radiate, as it really does, from an elementary form into all sorts of disparate and incomparable growths, capable of endless diversity. No limit, no forced co-operation, no stereotyped method was imputed to life. The pocket universe of Hegel opened out to the stars, so hateful to that philosopher. Man lost his importance and at the same time the insufferable burden of his false pretensions. In Schopenhauer frankness returned, and with frankness clearness. Yet he could not quite reconcile man to his actual place in nature. A deep prejudice still intervened.

Both Christianity and romanticism had accustomed people to disregard the intrinsic value of things. Things ought to be useful for salvation, or symbols of other greater but unknown things: it was not to be expected that they should be simply good in themselves. This life was to be justified, if justified at all, only as servile work or tedious business may be justified, not as health or artistic expression justify themselves. Unless some external and ulterior end could be achieved by living, it was thought that life would be vanity. Remove now the expectation of a millennium or of a paradise in the sky, and it may seem that all serious value has disappeared from our earthly existence. Yet this feeling is only a temporary after-image of a particular education. The romantic poets, through pride, restlessness, and longing for vague impossible things, came to the same conclusion that the church had reached through censoriousness and hope. To be always dissatisfied seemed to that Faust-like age a mark of loftiness. To be dissatisfied is, indeed, a healthy and promising thing, when what troubles us can be set right; but the romantic mind despises such incidental improvements which far from freeing the wild egotistical soul would rather fatten and harness it. It is beneath the romantic pessimist to remember that people, in all ages, sometimes achieve what they have set their hearts on, and that if human will and conduct were better disciplined, this contentment would be more frequent and more massive. On the contrary, he asserts that willing is always and everywhere abortive.

How can he persuade himself of something so evidently false? By that mystical misinterpretation of human nature which is perhaps the core of romanticism. He imagines that what is desired is not this or that—food, children, victory, knowledge, or some other specific goal of a human instinct—but an abstract and perpetual happiness behind all these alternating interests. Of course an abstract and perpetual happiness is impossible, not merely because events are sure to disturb any equilibrium we may think we have established in our lives, but for the far more fundamental reason that we have no abstract and perpetual instinct to satisfy. The desire for self-preservation or power or union with God is no more perpetual or comprehensive than any other: it is commonly when we are in straits that we become aware of such objects, and to achieve them, or imagine we achieve them, will give us only a momentary satisfaction, like any other success. A highest good to be obtained apart from each and every specific interest is more than unattainable; it is unthinkable. The romanticist, chasing wilfully that ignis fatuus, naturally finds his life arduous and disappointing. But he might have learned from Plato or any sound moralist, if his genius could allow him to learn anything, that the highest good of man is the sum and harmony of those specific goods upon which his nature is directed. But because the romantic will was unteachable, all will was declared to be foolish.

Schopenhauer was led into his pessimism also by the spirit of opposition; his righteous wrath was aroused by the sardonic and inhuman optimism of Hegel, the arguments for which were so cogent, so Calvinistic, and so irrelevant that they would have lost none of their force if they had been proposed in hell. The best possible world and the worst possible world are, indeed, identical for that philosophy. Schopenhauer needed to change nothing in the description of life, as the other idealists conceived it, in order to prove that life was a tragedy; for they were as romantic as himself and as far from feeling the intrinsic value of happiness, and the possibility of real progress. Real progress has little to do with perpetual evolution. It occurs only in certain places and times, when nature or art comes to the assistance of some definite interest already embodied, as the interest in security and mutual confidence, knowledge, or the fine arts is already embodied in mankind. Schopenhauer was not insensible to these achievements; he felt by instinct the infinity and luxuriance of the moral world. It was in part this secret sympathy with nature that alienated him from Christianity and from transcendental metaphysics. But because natural goods cannot be desired or possessed for ever, he thought their value was cancelled, even for those who desired and possessed them. The leaven of romanticism was still at work, forbidding him to recognise a natural order, with which a vital harmony might be established. The ground of life, the Will in all things, was something lurid and tempestuous, itself a psychological chaos. The alternative to theism in the mind of Schopenhauer was not naturalism but anarchy.

This romantic travesty of life and this conception of metaphysical anarchy were inherited by Nietzsche and regarded by him as the last word of philosophy. But he made the breach with Christianity still wider. The grief of Schopenhauer in the presence of such a world, his desperate and exotic remedy—the denial of the will—and his love of contemplation were all evidences of a mind still half Christian: his pessimism itself was so much homage to the faith he had lost. Such backward glances were not for the impetuous Nietzsche, who felt he was a prophet of the future, and really was one. Romantic anarchy delighted him; and he crowned it with a rakish optimism, as with the red cap of Liberty. He was in hearty sympathy with absolute Will; he praised it even for being vain and maleficent, if it was only proud enough to praise itself.