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Philosophy & Love

Singer & Santayana On Love

Tim Madigan considers the ideals and the realities of love.

Love but the formless and eternal Whole
From whose effulgence one unheeded ray
Breaks on this prism of dissolving clay
Into the flickering colours of thy soul.
These flash and vanish; bid them not to stay,
For wisdom brightens as they fade away.
– George Santayana (1863-1952)

The above stanza is from Santayana’s sonnet ‘Love not as do the flesh-imprisoned men’, and it expresses well a theme which he pursued throughout his many years of writing on the topic of love: the search for a perfect ideal. In his own writings on love, Irving Singer, Professor of Philosophy at MIT, often quotes Santayana’s epigram about Platonic love: “all beauties attract by suggesting the ideal and then fail to satisfy by not fulfilling it.” Singer has delivered many lectures and published many papers on Santayana, and he provided the introduction to the critical edition of Santayana’s novel The Last Puritan. In 1950, he had the opportunity to meet the aged philosopher in his Italian retreat. In this article I will explore how Singer’s monumental three-volume work The Nature of Love (1984-87) utilizes Santayana’s curious combination of Platonism and materialism throughout, and how Singer nonetheless feels obliged to criticize Santayana’s inadequate appreciation of love.

In The Nature of Love, Singer gives a sweeping overview of the myriad philosophers, theologians, poets and novelists who have tackled this subject. The cast is truly remarkable. Yet Santayana is a constant presence, and his work is discussed in all three volumes. Volume One: Plato to Luther, has a long description of Santayana’s views on idealization as its second chapter, and Volume Three: The Modern World, also contains a chapter explicitly devoted to Santayana. Volume Two: Courtly and Romantic Love, contains several references to Santayana’s neo-Platonic outlook. Santayana also is discussed in great detail in Singer’s later books Meaning in Life and The Pursuit of Love. Such a heavy emphasis on one man’s views cannot be coincidental.

Certainly Singer was mindful of the warning Santayana gives in 1905 in Reason in Society (volume two of The Life of Reason) to those who would explore the topic of love:

“Even a poet… can give of love but a meagre expression, while the philosopher, who renounces dramatic representation, is condemned to be avowedly inadequate. Love, to the lover, is a noble and immense aspiration; to the naturalist it is a thin veil and prelude to the self-assertion of lust. This opposition has prevented philosophers from doing justice to the subject. Two things need to be admitted by anyone who would not go wholly astray in such speculation: one, that love has an animal basis; the other, that it has an ideal object. Since these two propositions have usually been thought contradictory, no writer has ventured to present more than half the truth, and that half out of its true relations.” (pp.12-13.)

Singer has been ever-mindful of Santayana’s two propositions of love, and has sought to supplement his own analytically-trained explications with plentiful illustrations from the works of poets and novelists, such as Dante, Shakespeare, Shelley, Proust, Lawrence, and even the Marquis de Sade. It is fitting that he should also use the work of Santayana himself, one of the few individuals to excel in both philosophy and poetry.

There is also a personal element in Singer’s homage to Santayana. As he states in the afterword to his 1995 volume The Nature and Pursuit of Love: The Philosophy of Irving Singer: “What I learned most of all from Santayana was the importance of the humanities as an interdisciplinary resource in all intellectual pursuits. His writings taught me that in the life of the mind there is no absolute chasm between philosophy and literature, the two academic fields that have meant the most to me.” (p.361.) Yet Singer is no acolyte or apologist: Santayana is a touchstone rather than a foundation stone for Singer’s work. In fact, the majority of references to Santayana in Singer’s writings on love take him to task, or point out differences between their views on the role of idealization in love. “As Santayana complained that Dewey was a half-hearted naturalist,” he writes, “so too do I feel that Santayana was a half-hearted materialist” ( ibid p.360). What Singer is most troubled by is the tragic element in Santayana’s philosophy of love – the view that our ideals of love can never really be met.

He rightly credits Santayana for a powerful invocation of ideals and the hold they have on us, and he admires the way in which Santayana never deviates from grounding these ideals in material facts. In Volume One of The Nature of Love, Singer says:

“For Santayana, as for Plato, all love worthy of the name must have an ‘ideal object’. Lovers seek in one another the embodiment of ‘an ideal form essentially eternal and capable of endless embodiments.’ This ‘form’, or ‘essence’ as Santayana was later to call it, is the abstract possibility of some perfection. If a man falls in love with a fair-haired woman, he does so because his heart has been captured by the ideal of a perfect blonde. It is this ideal object, not the woman ‘in her unvarnished and accidental person,’ that the man truly loves.” (p.26)

In a very real sense, then, Santayana is discussing not a love of persons but a love of essences, or ideals. One can see in Santayana a strong affinity for ideals, which can be the source of great poetry. But there is also a note of sadness, even at times despair, in some of his writings.

Passions & Perfections

Interestingly enough, Santayana places the origins of love in general within sexual passion, specifically the mating drives between men and women. One notes here the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer’s dour notion that romance is the blind Will’s way of tricking human beings into perpetuating the species. Santayana’s emphasis on sexual passion is intriguing coming as it does from a man who himself never married or reproduced, and who was suspected of having homosexual inclinations, which he may or may not have acted upon. He maintained an aloof attitude when it came to sex. Singer touches upon these biographical details (although he does not discuss what may have been the cause of Santayana’s aloofness – his upbringing by an emotionally withdrawn mother who seldom showed him any affection or nurturing). Without wishing to magnify these, he cannot help but address them since Santayana himself places such great emphasis on the role sexuality plays in generating the ideals of love. Singer does write that “despite the differences between Proust and Santayana, they write as men who have been disqualified from appreciating the possibilities of a satisfying sexual love for any other person.” (The Nature of Love, Vol 3: p.268.) Yet what Santayana does brilliantly is to show how when the ideal of love is not achieved through sexual union, it can still be vital in life. In The Sense of Beauty, the book which outlines his aesthetic theory, Santayana points out how the sex drive is at the center of artistic appreciation. He writes:

“Sex is not the only object of sexual passion. When love lacks its specific object, when it does not yet understand itself, or has been sacrificed to some other interest, we see the stifled fire bursting out in various directions. One is religious devotion, another is zealous philanthropy, a third is the fondling of pet animals, but not the least fortunate is the love of nature, and of art; for nature also is often a second mistress that consoles us for the loss of a first.” (p.54)

One can again sense a Schopenhauerian detachment – an affinity for art and beauty as an escape from the world. But unlike Schopenhauer, Santayana never derides the world, nor expresses a disgust toward nature.

It is in his discussions of the love both of things and of ideals that Santayana is most profound. He is surely speaking from experience. His sensitivity to subtle nuances is particularly refined. This shows in his theoretical works and his fiction, especially The Last Puritan. Oliver Alden, the central character of that novel, is a young man who finds his deeply refined sensibilities to be of little use in the hustle-and-bustle of turn-of-the-century New England. Attracted to men, but duty-bound to propose marriage to two women, who recognize that he sees them only for their ideals and not themselves and who thus spurn his suit, Oliver retreats into an independent bachelorhood. As Morris Dickstein astutely pointed out in his review of the reissue of The Last Puritan, “with this doomed character, priggish and virginal yet sensitive and brilliant, the ageing author reaches a complicated verdict on his own strengths and limitations.” (Times Literary Supplement, January 20, 1995)

Singer on Santayana and Shelley

I think the best understanding of Singer’s qualms regarding Santayana’s idealization of love can be extracted from his discussion of Percy Shelley’s love poetry in Volume Two of The Nature of Love. Singer writes: “It is because Shelley thinks of love as imagination subsuming imperfect creatures under an inborn image of non-existent perfection that his poetry is able to express such heart-rending lamentations about the world. His soaring soul suffers as it does because it cannot understand how nature could have provided him with a prototype of beauty and goodness while systematically preventing any [human] reality from living up to it.” (pp.416-417) Thus Shelley seems to mirror Santayana’s own tragic view – love at best is an appreciation of ideals, not a deep relationship between persons. Shelley, though, has a deeper appreciation of human relationships than Santayana: he feels the need that humans have for social interaction, and more importantly, the need to act upon ideals. Shelley’s many love affairs and his tempestuous marriages demonstrate his concern with physical relationships. While there is a Neoplatonic (that is, an idealistic) aspect to Shelley’s thinking, it is superseded by his emphasis on action. Santayana, Singer points out:

“saw in Shelley’s genius nothing but a longing for abstract ideas. He therefore concluded that Shelley’s poetry could not express historical reality or human nature in general… But this interpretation, which puts too great an emphasis upon Neoplatonic elements in Shelley’s thinking, neglects his constant preoccupation with the need to act, to strive within the world... Santayana thought that Shelley betrayed his vision and the high calling of his poetic talent by seeking for love through actual experience, by having love affairs and getting married rather than being content to write about the beauty of love’s sheer possibility.” (Ibid, pp. 422-423.)

However, Shelley, who was influenced by the utilitarian thinkers of his time, such as David Hume, Adam Smith and his father-in-law William Godwin, was concerned about the usefulness of ideals. How could they enrich life in the here-and-now? There is also a strain of utopian thinking in Shelley, perhaps most clearly manifested in his masterpiece Prometheus Unbound, where love unites all of the formerly warring parties on earth:

Man, one harmonious soul of many a soul,
Whose nature is its own divine control,
Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea;
Familiar acts are beautiful through love…

Shelley understood that this ideal of universal peace and harmony would probably never be achieved, and he felt the pain of ideals unrealized. But he was propelled by these ideals, and felt that they keep one from retreating into splendid isolation. Unlike Santayana, Shelley in his poetry and his writings on love was not content to merely contemplate ideals – he saw them as guidelines for actions. The map is not the territory, and there is no need to worship the map.

Appraising Love

Ultimately, what Singer finds lacking in Santayana’s ideas on love, is the concept of bestowing. Santayana seemed to lack an appreciation of the ways in which bestowing love on another person enriches both. The interpersonal aspect is crucial.

In loving the ideal, one cannot help but be dissatisfied with the object of one’s affections. As mentioned earlier, love for a fair-haired woman, no matter how beautiful she is, cannot match the ideal of blonde beauty. Singer calls the realistic type of love appraisal – where there is something about the love object which moves one, and which leads to a relationship.

In Volume Three of the Nature of Love, Singer upholds Santayana’s insistence upon appraisal as a crucial ingredient of love: those who would try to eliminate the physiological and psychological mechanisms that give our ideals form are missing out on an important element of love. But the objective appraisal of individuals as to how close they come to meeting an ideal is a rather cold-eyed view of love. Santayana would be an excellent judge of a beauty pageant. But Singer feels that there is more to love than mere appraisal. Once one bestows profound value on another person, a bond is formed which goes beyond appraisal. As Singer puts it:

“In treating the beloved as an end, the lover has no need to compare her with anything else. His love is not a way of ranking her in relation to the ideal: he cares about her as a particular person despite her imperfections, despite her inevitable distance from any or all ideals. The lover uses his imagination not to see an ideal object reflected through another person, but rather to find ways of acting as if that person were herself the ideal.” (Love, Vol 1: p.36)

Singer adds that even when it comes to appraising, Santayana has an unrealistic attitude. Our standards are seldom as precise as he makes them out to be. This is perhaps due to the fact that Santayana had a high sense of what constitutes our ideals. Perhaps his above-the-battle position, coupled with his deep sensibilities, gave him a unique perspective on love. In many ways, he achieves what Buddhists call a ‘detached compassion’. However, it would be wrong to see Santayana as a aesthete, withdrawn from the world in sullen retreat. He was fascinated by the many ways human beings interact. It is important to note that he himself was never puritanical when it came to discussing sexual or – as he put it – ‘frank’ love.

Throughout his writings on love, Irving Singer has called for cooperation among scientists, philosophers, poets and novelists, and has demonstrated a conscious effort to familiarize himself with the literature of love from all fields. It is fitting that George Santayana should be a major touchstone for his work. For Santayana, with his level-headed, dispassionate manner, had the eye of a scientist, yet mastered both philosophy and literature. We can learn from Santayana a great deal about the forms, if not the content, of love. It is this aspect which Singer appreciates and pays tribute to, even as he feels obligated to point out its inadequacies in delineating a full-blown theory of love. If the character of Oliver Alden is any indication, Santayana recognized this lacuna in himself, and – like all great artists – used it as an inspiration for his work.

If I may be allowed to wax poetic, I see the relationship between Santayana and Singer in The Nature of Love as being akin to that of Virgil and Dante in another three-volume work, The Divine Comedy. Throughout The Nature of Love, Santayana helps to guide Singer, and comments upon the many fascinating but flawed personages who come into Singer’s view. But ultimately they reach a point at which they must part company, a point at which Santayana can go no further. Once Singer begins to explore the notion of bestowal, Santayana, true to his own empiricism, must drop behind. The inability to achieve a deep and lasting personal relationship with another was Santayana’s limbo – a concept which an atheistic Catholic like himself would no doubt appreciate. I close then with the ending of Canto XXVII in the Purgatorio, on the threshold of the earthly paradise, where Virgil bids adieu to Dante:

My son, you’ve seen the temporary fire
And the eternal fire; you have reached
The place past which my powers cannot see.
I’ve brought you here through intellect and art;
From now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
You’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.

Purgatorio, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Bantam Books, p.242.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2011

Tim Madigan teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College and is editor of Promethean Love (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006).

• For a full exploration of Singer’s connections with this important philosopher, one should read his George Santayana: Literary Philosopher (Yale U.P., 2000). And for a recent overview of Singer’s own views, I highly recommend his Philosophy of Love: A Partial Summing-Up (MIT Press, 2009).

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