Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Triumph of the Cheapest

Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, provides a seemingly endless number of little ten page essays each summarizing the thought of a thinker in the conservative tradition, some well-known and many not so well-known. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book and as a result of reading it I now have a list of a half-dozen authors I want to read of whom I had never heard before or, at least, had never read before. Reading this book gives one the gulitly pleasure of discovering what they never told you in the liberal academy; one feels quite subversive in discovering these thinkers who are so ignored today, such as Orestes Brownson, George Gissing, W. H. Mallock, and Paul Elmer More. George Santayana, of course, with whom this post has to do, is better known but not always appreciated as a conservative.

A native of Spain who lived nearly four decades in the United States, he ended his life living in retirement in Italy. Santayana is an intriguing figure; you have to love the fact that he retrired from his chair at Harvard as soon as he could afford to live independently - his ego was strong enough that he had no need of Harvard to prop it up. A cosmopolitan Catholic, he reminds me of the Canadian philosopher, George P. Grant. in that his main function was to lament the passing of beauty in the world. Kirk writes:

"In the course of a conversation with John D. Rockerfeller, Santayana mentioned Spain's population; and the millionare, after a pause, murmured, 'I must tell them at the office that they don't sell enought oil in Spain.' Here in one sentences leered the ugliness and barrrenness of the modern age. 'I saw in my mind's eye,' adds Santayana, 'the ideal of the monopolist. All nations must consume the same thinge, in proportion to their population. All mankind will then form a perfect democracy, supplied with rations from a single centre of administration, as is for their benefit; since they will then secure everything assigned to them at the lowest possible price.' This utilitarian utopia, prophesied by Henry and Brooks Adams as the triumph of the cheapest, starves the realm of spirit and the realm of art as no other domination can. The culmination of liberalism, the fulfillment of the aspirations of Bentham and Mill, and of the French and American democratic spokesmen, it is also the completion of capitalism. It is communism. Rockefeller and Marx were merely two agents of the same social force - an appetite cruelly inimical to human individuation, by which man has struggled up to reason and art." (p. 445, bolding mine)

"The triumph of the cheapest," this is Santayana's description of modernity. It is telling that both capitalism and socialism lead to the same end, in his opinion. What unites them is their common antipathy to the individual, the local, the acceptance of limits on efficiency, and the placing of human relationships above the acquisition of things. In this Santayana is a true conservative.

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