For The Thoughts Of (And a Prayer For) My Favorite “Friendly” Atheist Who Believed in Hell

For The Thoughts Of (And a Prayer For) My Favorite “Friendly” Atheist Who Believed in Hell August 19, 2012

Let me preface this post with an acknowledgement of the fact that philosopher George Santayana died as an atheist. But as an atheist, Santayana put pen to paper on some Catholic ideas that lack only one thing, really. And that one thing is the simple faith of a child in order to believe them.

As minds of adults go, George had an intellect that was top notch. But as Our Lord said,

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

 But Santayana died unapologetically as an atheist, even though he was baptized as an infant. And though he spent his last 14 years on earth under the care of the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary in a convent/hospital in Lazio outside of Rome, he never entered the Church. Fr. Richard Butler, O.P., wrote about the man, his thoughts, his poetry and his death outside the sacramental life of the Church, in a fascinating article published in Sprituality Today back in 1986. I’ll supply the link to it at the end of this post.

If nothing else, you know Santayana because he is the one who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That quote is taken from his book entitled The Life of Reason: Or the Phases of Human Progress, which was published in 1905. Below is the quote in context,

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I could chew on those three sentences for a while, especially the second sentence. But the third, and most famous sentence too. Because actually, those who can remember the past are condemned to repeat it as well. Just ask the inspired writer of Ecclesiastes. And even yours truly. In fact, look in the mirror and you may see someone who sounds like the person in this quote as well.

Santayana, too, is proof of this, as even though he seemingly understood the Church, her mission, and Christ, he stayed on the front porch and never came inside. Let me show you what I mean.

What follows are thoughts from his book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, published in 1900. These thoughts are insightful, even if George himself thought them as being derived from “Christian fiction.” He missed the after dinner chat between Tolkien and Lewis, see. But his mind, as Tolkien had warned Lewis, had to deal with thoughts on Judgement, Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

from Interpretations of Poetry and Religion
by George Santayana (pages 96-105)

Christianity, following in this the Socratic philosophy, rose to the conception of eternal essences, forms suspended above the flux of natural things and expressing the ideal suggestions and rational goals of experience. Each man, for Christianity, has an immortal soul; each life has the potentiality of an eternal meaning, and as this potentiality is or is not actualized, as this meaning is or is not expressed in the phenomena of this life, the soul is eternally saved or lost. As the tree falleth, so it lieth. The finality of this brief and personal experiment, the consequent awful solemnity of the hour of death when all trial is over and when the eternal sentence is passed, has always been duly felt by the Christian.

The Church, indeed, in answer to the demand for a more refined and discriminating presentation of its dogma, introduced the temporary discipline of Purgatory, in which the virtues already stamped on the soul might be brought to greater clearness and rid of the alloy of imperfection; but this purification allowed no essential development, no change of character or fate; the soul in Purgatory was already saved, already holy.

The harshness of the doctrine of eternal judgment is therefore a consequence of its symbolic truth. The Church might have been less absolute in the matter had she yielded more, as she did in the doctrine of Purgatory, to the desire for merely imaginary extensions of human experience. But her better instincts kept her, after all, to the moral interpretation of reality; and the facts to be rendered were uncompromising enough. Art is long, life brief.

To have told men they would have infinite opportunities to reform and to advance would have been to feed them on gratuitous fictions without raising them, as it was the function of Christianity to do, to a consciousness of the spiritual meaning and upshot of existence. To have speculated about the infinite extent of experience and its endless transformations, after the manner of the barbarous religions, and never to have conceived its moral essence, would have been to encourage a dream which may by chance be prophetic, but which is as devoid of ideal meaning as of empirical probability.

Christian fictions were at least significant; they beguiled the intellect, no doubt, and were mistaken for accounts of external fact; but they enlightened the imagination; they made man understand, as never before or since, the pathos and nobility of his life, the necessity of discipline, the possibility of sanctity, the transcendence and the humanity of the divine. For the divine was reached by the idealization of the human. The supernatural was an allegory of the natural, and rendered the values of transitory things under the image of eternal existences. Thus the finality of our activity in this world, together with the eternity of its ideal meanings, was admirably rendered by the Christian dogma of a final judgment.

But there was another moral truth which was impressed upon the believer by that doctrine and which could not be enforced in any other way without presupposing in him an unusual philosophic acumen and elevation of mind. That is the truth that moral distinctions are absolute. A cool philosophy suffices to show us that moral distinctions exist, since men prefer some experiences to others and can by their action bring these good and evil experiences upon themselves and upon their fellows. But a survey of Nature may at the same time impress us with the fact that these goods and evils are singularly mixed, that there is hardly an advantage gained which is not bought by some loss, or any loss which is not an opportunity for the attainment of some advantage.

While it would be chimerical to pretend that such compensation was always adequate, and that, in consequence, no one condition was ever really preferable to any other, yet the perplexities into which moral aspiration is thrown by these contradictory vistas is often productive of the desire to reach some other point of view, to escape into what is irrationally thought to be a higher category than the moral. The serious consideration of those things which are right according to human reason and interest may then yield to a fanatical reliance on some facile general notion.

It may be thought, for instance, that what is regular or necessary or universal is therefore right and good; thus a dazed contemplation of the actual may take the place of the determination of the ideal. Mysticism in regard to the better and the worse, by which good and bad are woven into a seamless garment of sorry magnificence in which the whole universe is wrapped up, is like mysticism on other subjects; it consists in the theoretic renunciation of a natural attitude, in this case of the natural attitude of welcome and repulsion in the presence of various things.

But this category is the most fundamental of all those that the human mind employs, and it cannot be surrendered so long as life endures. It is indeed the conscious echo of those vital instincts by whose operation we exist. Levity and mysticism may do all they can — and they can do much — to make men think moral distinctions unauthoritative, because moral distinctions may be either ignored or transcended. Yet the essential assertion that one thing is really better than another remains involved in every act of every living being. It is involved even in the operation of abstract thinking, where a cogent conclusion, being still coveted, is assumed to be a good, or in that aesthetic and theoretic enthusiasm before cosmic laws, which is the human foundation of this mysticism itself.

It is accordingly a moral truth which no subterfuge can elude, that some things are really better than others. In the daily course of affairs we are constantly in the presence of events which by turning out one way or the other produce a real, an irrevocable, increase of good or evil in the world. The complexities of life, struggling as it does amidst irrational forces, may make the attainment of one good the cause of the unattainableness of another; they cannot destroy the essential desirability of both.

The niggardliness of Nature cannot sterilize the ideal; the odious circumstances which make the attainment of many goods conditional on the perpetration of some evil, and which punish every virtue by some incapacity or some abuse, — these odious circumstances cannot rob any good of its natural sweetness, nor all goods together of their conceptual harmony. To the heart that has felt it and that is the true judge, every loss is irretrievable and every joy indestructible. Eventual compensations may obliterate the memory of these values but cannot destroy their reality. The future can only furnish further applications of the principle by which they arose and were justified.

Now, how utter this moral truth imaginatively, how clothe it in an image that might render its absoluteness and its force? Could any method be better than to say: Your eternal destiny is hanging in the balance: the grace of God, the influences of others, and your own will reacting upon both are shaping at every moment issues of absolute importance. What happens here and now decides not merely incidental pains and pleasures — which perhaps a brave and careless spirit might alike despise — but helps to determine your eternal destiny of joy or anguish, and the eternal destiny of your neighbor. In place of the confused vistas of the empirical world, in which the threads of benefit and injury might seem to be mingled and lost, the imagination substituted the clear vision of Hell and Heaven; while the determination of our destiny was made to depend upon obedience to recognized duties.

Now these duties may often have been far from corresponding to those which reason would impose; but the intention and the principle at least were sound. It was felt that the actions and passions of this world breed momentous values, values which being ideal are as infinite as values can be in the estimation of reason — the values of truth, of love, of rationality, of perfection — although both the length of the experience in which they arise and the number of persons who share that experience may be extremely limited. But the mechanical measure of experience in length, intensity, or multiplication has nothing to do with its moral significance in realizing truth or virtue.

Therefore the difference in dignity between the satisfactions of reason and the satisfactions of sense is fittingly rendered by the infinite disproportion between heavenly and earthly joys. In our imaginative translation we are justified in saying that the alternative between infinite happiness and infinite misery is yawning before us, because the alternative between rational failure or success is actually present. The decisions we make from moment to moment, on which the ideal value of our life and character depends, actually constitute in a few years a decision which is irrevocable.

The Christian doctrine of rewards and punishments is thus in harmony with moral truths which a different doctrine might have obscured. The good souls that wish to fancy that everybody will be ultimately saved, subject a fable to standards appropriate to matters of fact, and thereby deprive the fable of that moral significance which is its excuse for being. If every one is ultimately saved, there is nothing truly momentous about alternative events: all paths lead more or less circuitously to the same end.

The only ground which then remains for discriminating the better from the worse is the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the path to salvation. All moral meanings inhere, then, in this life, and the other life is without significance. Heaven comes to replace life empirically without fulfilling it ideally. We are reduced for our moral standards to phenomenal values, to the worth of life in transitory feeling. These values are quite real, but they are not those which poetry and religion have for their object. They are values present to sense, not to reason and imagination.

The ideal of a supervening general bliss presents indeed an abstract desideratum, but not the ideal involved in the actual forces of life; that end would have no rational relation to its primary factors; it would not be built on our instinctive preferences but would abolish them by a miraculous dream, following alike upon every species of activity. Moral differences would have existed merely to be forgotten; for if we say they were remembered, but transcended and put to rest, we plunge into an even worse contradiction to the conscience and the will.

For if we say that the universal bliss consists in the assurance, mystically received, that while individual experiences may differ in value they all equally conduce to the perfection of the universe, we deny not merely the momentousness but even the elementary validity of moral distinctions. We assert that the best idea of God is that least like the ideal of man, and that the nearer we come to the vision of truth the farther we are from the feeling of preference. In our attempt to extend the good we thus abolish its essence. Our religion consists in denying the authority of the ideal, which is its only rational foundation; and thus that religion, while gaining nothing in empirical reality, comes to express a moral falsehood instead of a moral truth.

If we looked in religion for an account of facts, as most people do, we should have to pass a very different judgment on these several views. The mechanical world is a connected system and Nature seems to be dynamically one; the intuitions on which mysticism feeds are therefore true intuitions. The expectation of a millennium is on the other hand quite visionary, because the evidence of history, while it shows undeniable progress in many directions, shows that this progress is essentially relative, partial, and transitory. As for the Christian doctrine of the judgment, it is something wholly out of relation to empirical facts, it assumes the existence of a supernatural sphere, and is beyond the reach of scientific evidence of any kind.

But if we look on religion as on a kind of poetry, as we have decided here to do, — as on a kind of poetry that expresses moral values and reacts beneficently upon life, — we shall see that the Christian doctrine is alone justified. For mysticism is not an imaginative construction at all but a renunciation or confusion of our faculties; here a surrender of the human ideal in the presence of a mechanical force that is felt, and correctly felt, to tend to vaguer results or rather to tend to nothing in particular. Mysticism is not a religion but a religious disease. The idea of universal salvation, on the other hand, is the expression of a feeble sentimentality, a pleasant reverie without structure or significance. But the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments is, as we have tried to show, an expression of moral truth, a poetic rendering of the fact that rational values are ideal, momentous, and irreversible.


Here is the link to the article written by Fr. Butler. As you read it, keep in mind Santayana’s word’s from the beginning of the extract above: “As the tree falleth, so it lieth.”  You may recall that I said a prayer for Dracula once. Well, if I could do that for Vlad Dracul, I can certainly do it for George Santayana.

The Catholic Atheist by Fr. Richard Butler, O.P.

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