Character and Opinion in the United States


George Santayana


    Perhaps I should add that I have not been in the United
States since January 1912.  My observations stretched, with
some intervals, through the forty years preceding that date.                                          [footnote from first page of Preface]

                                                ... While the
sentiments of most Americans in politics and
morals, if a little vague, are very conservative,
their democratic instincts, and the force of
circumstances, have produced a system of
education which anticipates all that the most
extreme revolution could bring about; and
while no one dreams of forcibly suppressing
private property, religion, or the family,
American education ignores these things, and
proceeds as much as possible as if they did
not exist.  The child passes very young into
a free school, established and managed by
the municipal authorities; the teachers, even
for the older boys, are chiefly unmarried
women, sensitive, faithful, and feeble; their
influence helps to establish that separation
which is so characteristic of America between
things intellectual, which remain wrapped in
a feminine veil and, as it were, under glass,
and the rough business and passions of life.
The lessons are ambitious in range, but are
made as easy, as interesting, and as optional
as possible; the stress is divided between                                                 p. 44

what the child likes now and what he is going
to need in his trade or profession.  The young
people are sympathetically encouraged to
instruct themselves and to educate one
another.  They romp and make fun like
young monkeys, they flirt and have their
private "brain-storms " like little supermen
and superwomen.  They are tremendously
in earnest about their college intrigues and
intercollegiate athletic wars.  They are fond,
often compassionately fond, of their parents,
and home is all the more sacred to them in
that they are seldom there.  They enjoy a
surprising independence in habits, friendships,
and opinions. Brothers and sisters often
choose different religions. The street, the
school, the young people's club, the magazine,
the popular novel, furnish their mental
pabulum.  The force of example and of
passing custom is all the more irresistible in
this absence of authority and tradition; for
this sort of independence rather diminishes
the power of being original, by supplying a
slenderer basis and a thinner soil from which
originality might spring. Uniformity is estab-
lished spontaneously without discipline, as
in the popular speech and ethics of every                                                 p. 45

nation.  Against this tendency to uniformity
the efforts of a cultivated minority to main-
tain a certain distinction and infuse it into
their lives and minds are not very successful.
They have secondary schools for their boys
in which the teachers are men, and even
boarding-schools in the country, more or less
Gothic in aspect and English in regimen;
there are other semi-foreign institutions and
circles, Catholic or Jewish, in which religion
is the dominant consideration.  There is also
the society of the very rich, with cosmo-
politan leanings and a vivacious interest in
artistic undertakings and personalities.  But
all these distinctions, important as they may
seem to those who cultivate them, are a mere
shimmer and ripple on the surface of American
life; and for an observer who sees things in
perspective they almost disappear.  By a
merciful dispensation of nature, the pupils
of these choice establishments, the moment
they plunge into business or politics, acquire
the protective colouring of their environment
and become indistinguishable from the generic
American.  Their native disposition was after
all the national one, their attempted special
education was perfunctory, and the influence                                            p. 46

of their public activities and surroundings is
overwhelming. American life is a powerful
solvent.  As it stamps the immigrant, almost
before he can speak English, with an un-
mistakable muscular tension, cheery self-
confidence and habitual challenge in the voice
and eyes, so it seems to neutralise every in-
tellectual element, however tough and alien it
may be, and to fuse it in the native good-will,
complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism.
Consider, for instance, the American
Catholics, of whom there are nominally many
millions, and who often seem to retain their
ancestral faith sincerely and affectionately.
This faith took shape during the decline of
the Roman empire; it is full of large dis-
illusions about this world and minute illusions
about the other. It is ancient, metaphysical,
poetic, elaborate, ascetic, autocratic, and
intolerant.  It confronts the boastful natural
man, such as the American is, with a thou-
sand denials and menaces. Everything in
American life is at the antipodes to such
system.  Yet the American Catholic is
entirely at peace. His tone in everything,
even in religion, is cheerfully American ...                                                 p. 47

... Not only had the mind of the nation been
originally somewhat chilled and impoverished
by Protestantism, by migration to a new
world, by absorption in material tasks, but
what fine sensibility lingered in an older
generation was not easily transmitted to the
young. The young had their own ways,
which on principle were to be fostered and
respected; and one of their instincts was to
associate only with those of their own age and
calibre.  The young were simply young, and
the old simply old, as among peasants.
Teachers and pupils seemed animals of
different species, useful and well-disposed
towards each other, like a cow and a milkmaid;
periodic contributions could pass between                                               p. 52

them, but not conversation. This circum-
stance shows how much American intelligence
is absorbed in what is not intellectual.   Their
tasks and their pleasures divide people of
different ages; what can unite them is ideas,
impersonal interests, liberal arts.  Without
these  they  cannot  forget  their  mutual
    Certainly those four college years, judged
by any external standard, were trivial and
wasted; but Americans, although so practical
in their adult masculine undertakings, are
slow to take umbrage at the elaborate play-
fulness of their wives and children.  With
the touching humility of strength, they seem
to say to themselves, " Let the dear creatures
have their fling, and be happy: what else
are we old  fellows slaving for?"  And
certainly the joy of life is the crown of it;
but have American ladies and collegians
achieved the joy of life?   Is that the
summit ?
    William James had a theory that if some
scientific widower, with a child about to learn
to walk, could be persuaded to allow the
child's feet to be blistered, it would turn out,
when the blisters were healed, that the child                                             p. 53

would walk as well as if he had practised and
had many a fall; because the machinery
necessary for walking would have matured in
him automatically, just as the machinery for
breathing does in the womb.  The case of
the old-fashioned American college may serve
to support this theory.  It blistered young
men's heads for four years and prevented
them from practising anything useful; yet
at the end they were found able to do most
things as well, or twice as well, as their con-
temporaries who had been all that time
apprenticed and chained to a desk.  Man-
hood and sagacity ripen of themselves; it
suffices not to repress or distort them.  The
college liberated the young man from the
pursuit of money, from hypocrisy, from the
control of women.  He could grow for a time
according to his nature, and if this growth
was not guided by much superior wisdom or
deep study, it was not warped by any serious
perversion; and if the intellectual world did
not permanently entice him, are we so sure
that in philosophy, for instance, it had any-
thing to offer that was very solid in itself,
or humanly very important? At least he
learned that such things existed, and gathered                                          p. 54

a shrewd notion of what they could do for a
man, and what they might make of him...                                                 p. 55

                    ... in philosophy, as in letters
generally, polite America has continued the
common tradition of Christendom, in paths
closely parallel to those followed in England;
and that modern speculation, which is so very
sensitive to changed times, is quite indifferent
to distinctions of place.
    Perhaps; but I say advisedly polite
America, for without this qualification what
I have been suggesting would hardly be true.
Polite America carried over its household
gods from puritan England in a spirit of con-
secration, and it has always wished to remain
in communion with whatever its conscience
might value in the rest of the world. Yet
it has been cut off by distance and by revolu-
tionary prejudice against things ancient or
foreign; and it has been disconcerted at the
same time by the insensible shifting of the
ground under its feet: it has suffered from
in-breeding and anaemia.  On the other hand,
a crude but vital America has sprung up
from the soil, undermining, feeding, and
transforming the America of tradition.
This young America was originally com-
posed of all the prodigals, truants, and ad-
venturous spirits that the colonial families                                                 p. 140

produced: it was fed continually by the
younger generation, born in a spacious, half-
empty world, tending to forget the old
straitened morality and to replace it by
another, quite jovially human.  This truly
native America was reinforced by the miscel-
lany of Europe arriving later, not in the hope
of founding a godly commonwealth, but only
of prospering in an untrammelled one.  The
horde of immigrants eagerly accepts the
external arrangements and social spirit of
American life, but never hears of its original
austere principles, or relegates them to the
same willing oblivion as it does the constraints
which it has just escaped--Jewish, Irish,
German, Italian, or whatever they may be.
We should be seriously deceived if we over-
looked for a moment the curious and complex
relation between these two Americas...                                                    p. 141

                ... social contagion or pressure--
something immensely strong in democracies.
The luckless American who is born a con-
servative, or who is drawn to poetic subtlety,
pious retreats, or gay passions, nevertheless
has the categorical excellence of work, growth,
enterprise, reform, and prosperity dinned
into his ears: every door is open in this
direction and shut in the other; so that he
either folds up his heart and withers in a
corner - in remote places you sometimes find
such a solitary gaunt idealist - or else he flies
to Oxford or Florence or Montmartre to save
his soul--or perhaps not to save it.
    The optimism of the pioneer is not limited
to his view of himself and his own future:
it starts  from  that;  but  feeling  assured,
safe, and cheery within, he looks with smil-
ing and most kindly eyes on everything
and everybody about him. Individualism,
roughness, and self-trust are supposed to go
with selfishness and a cold heart; but I
suspect that is a prejudice.  It is rather
dependence, insecurity, and mutual jostling
that poison our placid gregarious brother-
hood; and fanciful passionate demands
upon people's affections, when they are dis-                                            p. 170

appointed, as they soon must be, breed ill-
will and a final meanness.  The milk of
human kindness is less apt to turn sour if
the vessel that holds it stands steady, cool,
and separate, and is not too often uncorked.
In his affections the American is seldom
passionate, often deep, and always kindly.
If it were given me to look into the depths
of a man's heart, and I did not find goodwill
at the bottom, I should say without any
hesitation, You are not an American.  But
as the American is an individualist his good-
will is not officious.  His instinct is to think
well of everybody, and to wish everybody
well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship,
expecting every man to stand on his own
legs and to be helpful in his turn.  When he
has given his neighbour a chance he thinks
he has done enough for him; but he feels it
is an absolute duty to do that.  It will take
some hammering to drive a coddling socialism
into America.
   As self-trust may pass into self-sufficiency,
so optimism, kindness, and goodwill may
grow into a habit of doting on everything.
To the good American many subjects are
sacred: sex is sacred, women are sacred,                                                 p. 171

children are sacred, business is sacred,
America is sacred...                                                                                 p. 172

... The American is wonderfully alive; and
his vitality, not having often found a suit-
able outlet, makes him appear agitated on                                                 p. 178

the surface; he is always letting off an
unnecessarily loud blast of incidental steam.
   Yet his vitality is not superficial; it is
inwardly prompted, and as sensitive and
quick as a magnetic needle.  He is in-
quisitive, and ready with an answer to any
question that he may put to himself of his
own accord; but if you try to pour instruc-
tion into him, on matters that do not touch
his own spontaneous life, he shows the
most extraordinary powers of resistance and
oblivescence; so that he often is remarkably
expert in some directions and surprisingly
obtuse in others. He seems to bear lightly
the sorrowful burden of human knowledge.
In a word, he is young.
   What sense is there in this feeling, which
we all have, that the American is young?
His country is blessed with as many elderly
people as any other, and his descent from
Adam, or from the Darwinian rival of Adam,
cannot be shorter than that of his European
cousins.  Nor  are  his  ideas  always very
fresh.  Trite and rigid bits of morality and
religion,  with  much  seemly  and  antique
political lore, remain axiomatic in him, as in
the mind of a child; he may carry all this                                                   p. 179

about with an unquestioning familiarity
which does not comport understanding.  To
keep traditional sentiments in this way
insulated and uncriticised is itself a sign of
youth.  A good young man is naturally
conservative and loyal on all those subjects
which his experience has not brought to a
test; advanced opinions on politics, mar-
riage, or literature are comparatively rare
in America; they are left for the ladies to
discuss, and usually to condemn, while the
men get on with their work. In spite of
what is old-fashioned in his more general
ideas, the American is unmistakably young;
and this, I should say, for two reasons: one,
that he is chiefly occupied with his immediate
environment, and the other, that his re-
actions upon it are inwardly prompted,
spontaneous, and full of vivacity and self-
trust. His views are not yet lengthened;
his will is not yet broken or transformed.
The present moment, however, in this, as
in other things, may mark a great change in
him ; he is perhaps now reaching his majority,
and all I say may hardly apply to-day, and
may not apply at all to-morrow. I speak
of him as I have known him; and whatever                                               p. 180

happy unison belongs rather to the dawn of
national life, when similar tasks absorb all
individual energies.  If it is to be maintained
after lines of moral cleavage appear, and is
to be compatible with variety and distinction
of character, all further developments must
be democratically controlled and must re-
main, as it were, in a state of fusion. Variety
and distinction must not become arbitrary
and irresponsible. They must take direc-
tions that will not mar the general harmony,
and no interest must be carried so far as to
lose sight of the rest.  Science and art, in
such a vital democracy, should remain popu-
lar, helpful, bracing; religion should be
broadly national and in the spirit of the
times.  The variety and distinction allowed
must be only variety and distinction of
service.  If they ever became a real distinc-
tion and variety of life, if they arrogated to
themselves an absolute liberty, they would
shatter the unity of the democratic spirit
and destroy its moral authority.
    The levelling tendency of English liberty
(inevitable if plastic natures are to co-operate
and to make permanent concessions to one
another's instincts) comes out more clearly                                              p. 208

in America than in England itself.  In
England there are still castles and rural
retreats, there are still social islands within
the Island, where special classes may nurse
particular allegiances.  America is all one
prairie, swept by a universal tornado.
Although it has always thought itself in an
eminent sense the land of freedom, even
when it was covered with slaves, there is no
country in which people live under more
overpowering compulsions.  The prohibi-
tions, although important and growing, are
not yet, perhaps, so many or so blatant as
in some other countries; but prohibitions
are less galling than compulsions.  What
can be forbidden specifically-bigamy, for
instance, or heresy--may be avoided by a
prudent man without renouncing the whole
movement of life and mind which, if carried
beyond a certain point, would end in those
trespasses against convention.  He can in-
dulge in hypothesis or gallantry without
falling foul of the positive law, which indeed
may even stimulate his interest and ingenuity
by suggesting some indirect means of satis-
faction.  On the other hand, what is exacted
cuts deeper; it creates habits which overlay                                             p. 209

nature, and every faculty is atrophied that
does not conform with them.  If, for in-
stance, I am compelled to be in an office
(and up to business, too) from early morning
to late afternoon, with long journeys in
thundering and sweltering trains before and
after and a flying shot at a quick lunch
between, I am caught and held both in soul
and body; and except for the freedom to
work and to rise by that work--which may
be very interesting in itself--I am not
suffered to exist morally at all.  My evenings
will be drowsy, my Sundays tedious, and
after a few days' holiday I shall be wishing
to get back to business. Here is as narrow
a path left open to freedom as is left open
in a monastic establishment, where bell and
book keep your attention fixed at all hours
upon the hard work of salvation--an infinite
vista, certainly, if your soul was not made
to look another way.  Those, too, who may
escape this crushing routine--the invalids,
the ladies, the fops--are none the less pre-
vented by it from doing anything else with
success or with a good conscience;  the
bubbles also must swim with the stream.
Even what is best in American life is com-                                               p. 210

pulsory--the idealism, the zeal, the beautiful
happy unison of its great moments. You
must wave, you must cheer, you must push
with the irresistible crowd; otherwise you
will feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast, a
deserted ship high and dry on the shore.
In America there is but one way of being
saved, though it is not peculiar to any of
the official religions, which themselves must
silently conform to the national orthodoxy,
or else become impotent and merely orna-
mental.  This national faith and morality
are vague in idea, but inexorable in spirit;
they are the gospel of work and the belief
in progress.  By them, in a country where
all men are free, every man finds that what
most matters has been settled for him
beforehand...                                                                                          p. 211

Expanded version  for scholars.

Prepared for the web by Thomas Pollock AKA Spartacus, Editor of   The Men's Tribune.