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Santayana on the State

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07/01/2022David Gordon

People usually don’t study the philosopher George Santayana very much today, and he was not a libertarian, but rather a “skeptical conservative.” Ludwig von Mises took him seriously, though, and often quotes him, though sometimes to disagree; and in this week’s article, I’d like to look at what he says about the state in Human Society, the second volume of his five-volume work The Life of Reason.

Before doing so, I must warn you of an obstacle. Santayana wrote in a “literary” style some people don’t like. Here is an example: “We crave support in vanity, as we do in religion, and never forgive contradictions in that sphere; for however persistent and passionate such prejudices may be, we know too well that they are woven of thin air.”

One of Santayana’s greatest insights is about war, and we’ll see how he arrives at a conclusion about it libertarians will find congenial but gets there in an unusual way. He starts with something you will be familiar with if you have read Frank Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock:

The history of Asia is replete with examples of conquest and extortion in which a rural population living in comparative plenty is attacked by some more ferocious neighbor, who, after a round of pillage, establishes a quite unnecessary government, raising taxes and soldiers for purposes absolutely remote from the conquered people’s interests. Such a government is nothing but a chronic raid, mitigated by the desire to leave the inhabitants prosperous enough to be continually despoiled afresh.

You might expect Santayana to take this insight in an antistatist direction, but he doesn’t. He suggests that a regime established on this unpropitious basis might “settle down,” becoming a system that exploited people but offered them spiritual satisfaction in a way that left them better off than they would otherwise have been. He bases his reasoning on the view that most people can think only at a low level of rationality.

Hence those who cannot conceive a rational polity … especially if they have a luxurious fancy, can take pleasure in despotism; for it does not matter to an ordinary fool whether he suffers from another’s oppression or his own lazy improvidence…. Serfs are not in a worse condition than savages, and their spiritual opportunities are infinitely greater; for their eye and fancy are fed with visions of human greatness, and even if they cannot improve their outward estate they can possess a poetry and a religion.

Santayana doesn’t use this argument to favor the state, all things considered. In one of the many twists and turns characteristic of his thought, he says that whatever the advantages of the state, it leads to a disabling disadvantage. States go to war with each other, and war is a terrible thing.

An insurance capitalised may exceed the value of the property insured, and the drain caused by armies and navies may be much greater than the havoc they prevent…. Nor is this all: the military classes, since they inherit the blood and habits of conquerors, naturally love war…. A military class is therefore always recalling, foretelling, and mediating war; it fosters artificial and senseless jealousies toward other governments that possess armies; and, finally, as often as not, it precipitates disaster by bringing about the objectless struggle on which it has set its heart.

Some people in Santayana’s day, though not so openly now, exalted the value of war; but here Santayana calls a halt to his dialectic. War is unconditionally bad.

Nevertheless the panegyrist of war places himself on the lowest level on which a moralist or patriot can stand and shows a great a want of refined feeling as of right reason. For the glories of war are all bloodstained, delirious, and inflected with crime; the combative instinct is a savage prompting by which one man’s good is found in another’s evil. The existence of such a contradiction in the moral world is the original sin of nature, whence flows every other wrong. He is a willing accomplice of that perversity in things who delights in another’s discomfiture or in his own, and craves the blind tension of plunging into danger without reason, or the idiot’s pleasure in facing a pure chance.

Now, you might think, at last Santayana’s position is clear. Whatever good the state may do, this is outweighed by the evil of war; but this isn’t what he says. Ideally, he believes, the cure for war would be a world state. But he doesn’t think people are rational enough to bring this about.

As the suppression of some nest of piratical tribes by a great emperor substitutes judicial for military sanctions among them, so the conquest of all warring nations by some imperial people could alone establish general peace…. If at the present day two or three powerful governments could so far forget their irrational origin as to renounce the right of occasional piracy and could unite in enforcing the decisions of some international tribunal, they would thereby constitute that tribunal the organ of a universal government and render war impossible between responsible states. But on account of their irrational basis all governments largely misrepresent the true interests of those who live under them.

If Santayana’s conclusion is “it would be nice if this could happen, but it can’t,” it would seem that in the actual world, the evils of war should lead us to be skeptical of the state.

It should be evident that suffering caused by human action is for Santayana supremely evil, though the existence of suffering in nature in inevitable. He applies this judgment to assessing aristocratic societies. He displays some sympathy for the idea of a hierarchical order, in which people at different levels lead different sorts of life, and he displays little patience for the complaint that opportunities in it are not equal. Such a society, though, must pass an exacting test.

It is not mere inequality, therefore, that can be a reproach to the aristocratic … ideal. Could each person fulfill his own nature the most striking differences in endowment and fortune would trouble nobody’s dreams. The true reproach to which aristocracy … [is] open is the thwarting of those unequal natures and the consequent suffering imposed on them all. Injustice in this world is not something comparative; the wrong is deep, clear, and absolute in each private fate. A bruised child wailing in the street, his small world for the moment utterly black and cruel before him, does not fetch his unhappiness from sophisticated comparisons or irrational envy.

Santayana has here in view a society in which some are forced into stations below others; a voluntary society that respected the nonaggression principle would be immune to this reproach. Had he known of libertarianism, Santayana would have dismissed it as abstract and desiccated; but our difference from him about this should not blind us to his insights.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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