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  • The Life of Reason: Reason in Religion by George Santayana
  • Robert S. Corrington
The Life of Reason: Reason in Religion (1905). George Santayana. Vol. 7, book 3 of The Works of George Santayana, critical edition. Coedited by Marianne S. Wokeck and Martin A. Coleman with an introduction by James Gouinlock. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014. 337 pp. $75 cloth.

In the history of religious naturalism, Santayana’s 1905 Reason in Religion, the third book of The Life of Reason, stands as a foundational text and is also among the most important texts that Santayana ever wrote. In it he lays out his highly unique conception of the religious life on the other side of traditional religious belief and creates an agnostic, even atheistic, perspective that yet finds a key place for the sheer poetry and transforming power of religion in personal life. His own history made him deeply attuned to the ritual and poetry of the Roman Catholic traditions, and he had an almost inverse hostility to or at least distain for the Northern Protestant traditions.

Some of his most delicious and caustic passages in Reason in Religion concern his arch critique of the forms of Protestantism with which he grew up in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts:

It boasts, not without cause, of its depth and purity; but this depth and purity are those of any formless and primordial substance. . . . It accordingly [End Page 99] mistakes vitality, both in itself and in the universe, for spiritual life. . . . It is sentimental, its ritual is meager and unctuous, it expects no miracles, it thinks optimism akin to piety, and regards profitable enterprise and practical ambition as a sort of moral vocation.


Protestantism is a Teutonic invention that drains all of the mystery and poetry out of religion and comes up short when compared to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic traditions. Eventually Protestantism will devolve itself into the sciences and cease to have a specifically religious function, especially insofar as it rejects any use of a shaping yet rational mythology for grounding human experience of the ineffable.

For Santayana, the history of naturalism, at least of the variety he finds most congenial, goes back primarily to Aristotle and Spinoza, the latter of whom he considered the greatest philosopher of the modern (post-Cartesian) era. In Aristotle he saw the careful student of physical and biological nature patiently framing descriptive categories of nature itself. In Spinoza he saw a fellow naturalist who radically broadened our conception of nature to include god within it, or even to be commensurate with it. Spinoza was his model of the philosopher truly living the life of reason, free from ersatz revelations, inherited religious dogmas, or a priori theological commitments. Spinoza was a thinker who showed that a free religious life without traditional metaphysical commitments was possible.

On the positive side, there is the life of spirit that enjoys all of the riches of religion insofar as they can be rendered into nonliteral symbols and powers that play their roles in the life of the imagination. For Santayana, the faculty of the imagination is among the most important that the human creature has, as it opens out the realm of speculative richness that lifts the self beyond the routine and the blindly instrumental. For it is the vivid imagination that keeps religious symbols alive and creative in the religion of reason.

The spirit is fully human and not a metaphysical power as envisioned by tradition. Santayana’s concept of the spirit is unique and a bit difficult to grasp, as it seems to be a serious demotion compared to the traditional idea of the spirit as a mighty power that is part of the divine trinity. In contrast, for Santayana, the spirit is unique to each individual and is a product of that individual’s physical and mental psyche. It is a very late evolutionary product and is fragile in makeup, as its very existence depends upon the health and well-being of the host psyche. Note that for Santayana the spirit is not in any way analogous to Plato’s notion of the soul. For Santayana the spirit ceases to exist when the...


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pp. 99-103
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