There are many who say things better than I do. It seems to me that I’ve known that forever, and have a long ingrained habit of keeping the thoughts and words of others that I most admire in several thousand books on my library shelves where I can look at them, read the spines, be secure in their presence, much like in the presence of good friends.
Now and more and more the Internet has become for me a kind of digital book shelf, so far without bounds, holding it its possession the thoughts and words of not only the thousands of authors on my shelves, but those of thousands, tens of thousands of others, whom I continue to discover and recognize as kindred souls.
Today I happened to be looking on the web for an entry that would help me to better understand the places of reason and common sense in our lives. For it seemed to me that more and more the two were not only neglected but going their separate ways, whereas at one time, at least in my lifetime, they were together. Our country’s leaders, as I go on trying to show in my blogs, show too little of both reason and common sense in their words and actions. What’s principally wrong with our country may very well be no more than this, that the members of Congress have forgotten that 2 plus 2 is four.
My father was what I would call a “common sense” person. He looked to common sense for answers to the problems of the day, thinking probably mistakenly that he had found them, and he was continually taken aback by the failure of the leaders of the country to display any of what, at least he thought was common sense.
I would call myself, in contrast to my father’s being a common sense guy, a reasonable person, but I too am continually taken aback by the failure of the leaders of the country to display, in this regard, reasonableness in their words or actions
Anyway, while looking for a discussion of reason and common sense on the Web, and the differences, or likenesses between them, I hit upon George Santayana’s “Reason in Common Sense.” Reason in, not and common sense. And although his words weren’t exactly what I was looking for they were words, like those so many other thinkers and writers, that spoke directly to me and that I would try not to forget.
His words, again like those of many others, helped me with my own thinking, perhaps made me more reasonable? Here again (again because it happens often, given the wealth of great ideas on library shelves and in digital data bases) was someone who spoke for me much better than I could speak for myself.
His words, as those of so many of the men and women behind the spines on my bookshelves, provoked thoughts of my own. For example, and almost immediately as I began to read the passage below, I thought of Diane Ravitch and her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and I said to myself that if she had read Santayana, and in particular this quoted passage, before she wrote her book, she may not have written it at all, his thoughts making hers suddenly trivial. Or she would have written a totally different book than the one she did write, the one I wrote about in an earllier ParisTampaBlog.
Now, with no further ado, here is the passage from Santayana’s Reason and Common Sense:
“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.
In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile re-adaptation.
In a moving world re-adaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.
I am not sure that a humanity such as we know, were it destined to exist for ever, would offer a more exhilarating prospect than a humanity having indefinite elasticity together with a precarious tenure of life. Mortality has its compensations: one is that all evils are transitory, another that better times may come.
The human savage craves a freedom and many a danger inconsistent with civilization, because independent of reason. He does not yet identify his interests with any persistent and ideal harmonies created by reflection. And when reflection is absent, length of life is no benefit: a quick succession of generations, with a small chance of reaching old age, is a beautiful thing in purely animal economy, where vigor is the greatest joy, propagation the highest function, and decrepitude the sorriest woe. The value of safety, accordingly, hangs on the question whether life has become reflective and rational.”
OK, that’s it. And as there wasn’t much there about the comparison between reason and common sense that I was looking for I’ll have to go back to surfing the Web. Maybe that will lead to another Blog, Reason and Common Sense, Two.