Paganism in William James and George Santayana

By Antonio I. Rionda.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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In Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, George Santayana develops a view in which religions are understood to be a product of imagination, differing from poetry by their practical effects. Religions represent idealizations that are related to experience, but not derived from it. While they cannot be justified by experience, they do develop into traditions that influence how individuals select and justify some experiences over others. Religious traditions emerge in an effulgence of imaginative activity that ultimately wanes. This happened to classical paganism, causing its later adherents to engage in a process of reconstruction that creates a natural theology that is artificial (e.g., Stoicism), or one of reduction, as when the vibrant myths of antiquity became fables in later times.
William James in Varieties of Religious Experience highlights the notion of progress in religious thinking. He limits his subject to experience, particularly that of the most extreme variety as indicative of the most typically religious, and also emphasizes the experiences of the most exemplary in their solitude. For him, the experiences of a St. Teresa are more important and revealing than those of an average Catholic.
For Santayana, James’s reconstruction impoverishes the pagan and Catholic imagination, one that he addresses again in The Last Puritan: a Memoir in the form of a Novel. For Santayana, imagination also means empathy, and this novel can be read as his own variety of religious experience. My paper argues that these two authors may be read most profitably together. Their views on religions represent, sometimes despite their intentions, a reaction against the views of the other. Yet, they remain close in spirit.

Keywords: George Santayana, William James, Protestantism, Paganism, Catholicism, Last Puritan, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, Varieties of Religious Experience, Epicurean, The Will to Believe, Experience, Poetry, Walt Whitman

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.139-148. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 715.095KB).

Dr. Antonio I. Rionda

Graduate Assistant, English Department, University of Miami, Miami, Florida, USA

I specialize in aesthetic theory, 19th and 20th century English and American literature and philosophy, and ethnic studies. Currently I am working on the concept of religion and the religious life in William James, George Santayana, and Henry James.