Laughing Heathens


in Blog


For a long time I assumed that atheists had to be angry. Growing up in Austin, Texas in the 1970s, I would listen to two broadcasts on Sunday night: one from an African-American church and one from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who had made my hometown the center of her American Atheist Association. The cadences of the preachers were the same, and the services alternated sermons with readings. But there were no songs in O’Hair’s atheist sermon, and the tone was one of barely-controlled rage.
“Why do the heathen rage?” The quote from Psalm 2:1 used to appear in ads by Protestant fundamentalists placed in the University of Texas student newspaper. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one raging heathen.

Like O’Hair’s creed, the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and others is best understood as a counter-Christianity or counter-Abrahamism. It is defined by what it is against, Abrahamic monotheism, and it fights the enemy by adopting its tactics (and, in the case of O’Hair’s atheist church, its very organization). The very term “atheist” defines the belief system in terms of what it opposes. The philosopher John Gray has even described “evangelical atheism” as a new form of fundamentalism.

At the risk of using the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (no true Scotsman generalizes about Scotsmen!), I would suggest that no true atheist — make that ethical naturalist — lives in a state of perpetual smoldering outrage at the silly beliefs of other people.

I call as my first witness Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher who with Leucippus introduced the idea that the universe is made up of atomic particles. Democritus was known as “the laughing philosopher.” What little is known about him consists largely of humorous anecdotes. Here is the entry from L’Empriere’s Classical Dictionary:

He continually laughed at the follies and vanity of mankind, who distract themselves with care, and are at once a prey to hope and anxiety….He taught his disciples that the soul died with the body; and therefore, as he gave no credit to the existence of ghosts, some youths, to try his fortitude, disguised themselves in a hideous habit, and approached his cave in the dead of night, with whatever noises could create astonishment and terror. The philosopher received them unmoved; and, without even looking at them, desired them to cease making themselves such objects of ridicule and folly.
The same vein of good humor can be found in Epicurus, and, in modern times, in Hume and Voltaire. Even though he was a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, who belongs in this broad tradition, was quite funny. These secular philosophers could not be perpetually angry with humanity, for the simple reason that their expectations of their conspecifics were so low. In the words of George Santayana about a contemporary, “Mr. Lovett does not seem to remember that mankind is a tribe of animals, living by habit and thinking in symbols and that it can never be anything else.”

A Spanish-American who was educated at Boston Latin and Harvard, where he taught for a while, George Santayana (1863-1952) grew so alienated from New England culture that he resigned from Harvard in 1912 and spent the rest of his life in Europe. During his old age he lived in the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome, explaining that he was a Catholic atheist: “There is no God, and Mary is His Mother.” Wallace Stevens wrote a poem about him there, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome.”

Santayana is seldom found in lists of the great modern philosophers. In part that is because, like other ethical naturalists, including Hume and Voltaire and Schopenhauer, he preferred humanist genres like the essay and the aphorism to the academic treatise or the footnoted journal article. One of his aphorisms has lodged in popular consciousness: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (from The Life of Reason (1905-1906).) This choice of rhetorical strategies, I think, is based on observation of the human animal: if you want to teach the public, stories and jokes and conversational talks are more effective than lectures.

Santayana’s rich output included longer philosophical works, as well as a best-selling novel, The Last Puritan (1935), and collections of essays. For those interested in what the world looks like to a remarkably intelligent, serene and sane mind, I recommend the essays to start with.

My favorite essay of Santayana’s is “Marginal Notes on Civilization in the United States,” reprinted in The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana (1967). Because Santayana had denounced “the genteel tradition” in American intellectual life, the editors of the Dial asked him to review a collection of essays by progressive intellectuals including Lewis Mumford and Van Wyck Brooks that appeared in 1922, Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans. The editors and readers may have been surprised by his reaction. Santayana despised snobbish intellectuals, and his takedown of the volume is a masterpiece of snark.

“The list of the thirty American authors of this book, and the three foreigners, makes me tremble,” he joked. “…I foresee that I am to hear the complaints of superior and highly critical minds, suffering from maladaptation; and that I shall learn more about their palpitating doubts than about American civilization.”

His review takes the form of excerpts, followed by his comments.

Page 23. “The average congressman…is…not only incompetent and imbecile, but also incurably dishonest.” Why exaggerate? “His knowledge is that of a third-rate country lawyer…his intelligence is that of a country-newspaper editor, or evangelical divine. His standards of honour are those of a country banker…” Why not? Shouldn’t a representative be representative? A reformer, a prophet, an expert, a revolutionary committee sitting in enlightened New York would not be a fair vehicle of popular government. Isn’t democracy built on the experience and the conviction that superior people are dangerous, and that the instinct of the common people is a safer guide? But what surprises me more than disbelief in democracy, is this hatred of the countryside. Is agriculture the root of evil? Naturally, the first rays of the sun must strike the east side of New York, but do they never travel beyond?
A century ago as now, American intellectuals lamented advertising as a symbol of excessive commercialism. Santayana would have none of it:

Page 395. “Outdoor advertising…should be removed from sight with all possible haste.” A truly radical view….Imagine the change in speed, if you were reduced to consulting your inner man before buying anything or going anywhere, and to discovering first whether you really wanted anything, and what it was! And imagine, when your inner need had become clear and peremptory all of itself, having to inquire of some shy official, or of some wise stranger, whether just the suit of clothes, or the play or the tour which your soul dreamt of could possibly be brought anywhere into the realm of fact, or must remain a dream for ever!
Santayana also had fun with the book’s section on “Journalism”:

Page 43. “I fail to find any evidence of widespread disgust with the newspaper as it is.” Is it worse than the gossip diffused in the old days by barbers and porters? A racy popular paper is like the grave-digger in Hamlet, and I don’t blame the people for paying a penny for it.
Pages 45-48. “All newspapers are controlled by the advertising department…Business is behind government and government is behind business…It is a partnership of swindle.” Would it be better if government strove to ruin business and business to discredit government? And if government is stable and business prosperous, how is the nation swindled?
Despite his mockery of the American intelligentsia, the expatriate philosopher was neither a philistine nor a conservative. He agreed with an essay in the collection that denounced American business for “the effort to create new and extravagant wants.” Santayana wrote: “Admirable summary; inventions and organization which ought to have increased leisure, by producing the necessities with little labour, have only increased the population, degraded labour, and diffused luxury.”

Santayana disliked the residual Calvinist guilt and obsession with activity he found in many aspects of American life. He would have despised the modern “educational reformers” for whom education is mere vocational training to produce drones with useful skills:

Page 116. “The American undergraduate is representative of the American temper at its best…As he thinks and feels, all America would think and feel if it dared and could.” Yes, and what an immense improvement that would be…! I wish reformers, instead of trying to make the colleges more useful and professional, would try to make the world more like the colleges. The things that the world might find worth doing for its own sake would perhaps be nobler than those that appeal to the undergraduate, though I am far from confident of that; but in any case, means would no longer be pursued as ends. The world would then shine with what is called honour, which is allegiance to what one knows one loves.”
Santayana sums up his naturalist view of life, when, in comments on “Sport and Play,” he writes that “essentially sport has no purpose at all, it is an end in itself, a part of that free fruition of life which is the purpose of other things, when they are good for anything, and which, when present, can make a long life better than a short one. Its possible uses are incidental, like those of the fine arts, religion, or friendship. Not to see this is to be a barbarian.”

The naturalism of Santayana, like that of Democritus and Epicurus and Hume, proves that a secular worldview need not assume the form of a militant, evangelical counter-religion. It shows as well that a certain kind of worldly hedonism, by privileging simple pleasures, paradoxically can be a kind of asceticism. You cannot be disenchanted with humanity and the world if you were never enchanted in the first place — that is the greatest lesson of the laughing philosophers. • 16 March 2015