Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Play Is Always Going On, And the Play's the Thing

Yet that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to; we must all strut and roar. We must lend ourselves to the partisan earnestness of persons and nations calling their rivals villains and themselves heroes; but this earnestness will be of the histrionic German sort, made to order and transferable at short notice from one object to another, since what truly matters is not that we should achieve our ostensible aim (which Hegel contemptuously called ideal) but that we should carry on perpetually, if possible with a crescendo, the strenuous experience of living in a gloriously bad world, and always working to reform it, with the comforting speculative assurance that we never can succeed. We never can succeed, I mean, in rendering reform less necessary or life happier; but of course in any specific reform we may succeed half the time, thereby sowing the seeds of new and higher evils, to keep the edge of virtue keen. And in reality we, or the Absolute in us, are succeeding all the time; the play is always going on, and the play's the thing.

— George Santayana, "Josiah Royce", Character and Opinion in the United States

The danger of utopianism is well-known by now. The less-known danger of its milder relative, meliorism, is the same one that attends any overarching ideal whose conclusion disappears over the temporal horizon. People have always yearned to submit to a "higher" logic, to weave their identities into an inevitable, irresistible, preordained pattern of events, to shrug off the tiresome burden of weighing, judging, measuring, considering...and doubting. A personality which delights in the thought of a ceaseless task, which requires a harness and yoke to channel its energies, is one in danger of forgetting how to live in any other way. People who depend upon righteous crusades to define themselves have a vested interest in maintaining a steady supply of enemies. A revolutionary with clear, attainable goals will soon have to settle down into the boring, tame business of governance. Better to stay a Lost Boy in Neverland and continue fighting pirates forever.