The Ascent of Spirit:
Is Santayana's System a
Naturalistic Neo-Platonic Hierarchy?
Spirit, since its essence is to aspire, comes to life at the foot of
the ladder; it lives by contemplation, by knowing the thing above it.1
This essay is a sequel to "Categories and Orders of Santayana's Christian
Neo-Platonism," published a few years ago,2 and I shall not repeat the material
on order and the categories, but shift the focus to ascent of Jacob's Ladder, to
which the initial essay did not refer. The present essay has also the advantage of a
critique which minimizes the Neo-Platonic idea of life as a pilgrimage? My reading
of Santayana puts the spirit at the center, and organizes the other aspects of the
metaphysical system, including naturalism, around this center. This is a reading that is
different, I am told, from others.4 Santayana, when he reflected on his long literary
productivity found this meaning:
In my various books I have discussed things at very unequal removes from the fountain of
spirit within me. But that center was truly philosophical. I can identify my self heartily with
nothing in me except with the flame of spirit itself. Therefore the truest picture of my
inmost being would show none of the features of my person, and nothing of the background
of my life. It would show only the light of understanding that burned within me and, as far
as it could, consumed and purified all the rest.5
This passage from The Idler and his Works presents a crucial problem for American
naturalism. Is Santayana only a "half-hearted realist and less than a half-hearted
American" who celebrated the spirit in man as the flame of the divine? Is he to be
pitied as so old with senses failing and even regarded for these words "pathetically
false to his naturalistic realist friends"?6
Even before we analyze some of the many sources we need to state clearly what
1 George Santayana, Platonism and the Spiritual Life, Charles Scribner's Sons, New
York, 1927, p. 73. Page references of the form (19-20) or (V, 19-20), without further
identification, are to this book. A version of this paper was presented at the American
Philosophical Association, Sheraton-Boston, 29 December 1986, in a series on Neo-Platonism and
2 Paul G. Kuntz, "Categories and Orders of Santayana's Christian Neo-Platonism,"
Overheard in Seville: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 9-21.
3 Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., "Hermes the Interpreter," Ibid. pp. 22-28 (abbreviated as HI).
4 Beth J. Singer, "Naturalism and Generality in Buchler and Santayana," Ibid. p. 37.
5 George Santayana, The Idler and His Works, and Other Essays, Ed. Daniel Cory,
George Braziller, New York, 1957. p. 20.
6 So Herbert W. Schneider rejects what I call the Neo-Platonic or spiritual Santayana in
A History of American Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963, p.