George Santayana

Many Nations in One Empire




This text appeared in September, 1934, in an ephemeral review called The New Frontier. It is interesting to find in this article that George Santayana was in favour of aterritorial governance as a way to solve problems of cohabitation amongst different cultural groups. Unfortunately the reality that has dominated social organization, especially during the 20th century, has been characterized by what might be called national apartheid, where every national group has tried to become the exclusive master of a territory and has ruled (by way of control, exploitation, expulsion, or even extermination) on every minority group that happened to live in that territory. This situation must now change unless we are prepared to accept the worst consequences of never-ending wars, with the use of the most terrible weapons at the disposal even of small groups of people.



A fatal difficulty for the law-giver wishing to establish a perfect society lies in the treacherous character of his material, which is a nondescript mass of human beings inhabiting a given territory.

Not all these beings can possibly be of one mind; not all can possibly sincerely aspire to the same virtues, or recognise the same hierarchy of excellences. There will not only be sluggishness or error in doing one’s part, there will not only be ineradicable vices ; there will also be ineradicable virtues and aspirations contrary to the prevalent public ways. The legislator will therefore be assuming the character of an odious tyrant, in respect to these natural heretics and virtuous rebels; and unless he can thoroughly suppress them or banish them for ever (which is difficult in this crowded world) he will find his work always spoilt and poisoned at its roots, by the existence of that contrary drift in the souls of his people ; while they, the discontented minority, will regard his exemplary discipline as sheer oppression, and themselves as martyrs.

So insidious is this native treachery in human nature that even if a few chosen saints were conveyed to some uninhabited island, and there established a sacred city, in which all heartily rejoiced, yet in the next generation trouble would begin. Some of those children, so strictly nurtured, would be atavistic; they would put their thumbs to their noses at those holy things; and the very need of correcting, or at least insulating, such wickedness would corrupt the original regimen, which had come to fulfill human nature and not to suppress it.

A solution to this difficulty suggests itself at once: Why not divorce moral societies from territorial or tribal units, so that membership in these moral societies, as in a free Church, should be voluntary, adopted only by adults with a full sense of their vocation for that special life, and relinquished, without any physical hindrance, as soon as that vocation fagged, or gave place to some other honest resolution ?

The case of free Protestant Churches shows how such voluntary association is possible, and may foster an inner life not without sweetness and depth, and not without notable influence on the community at large. At the same time we see that in becoming free, in abandoning theocratic ambitions, these bodies have become marginal and secondary even for their most zealous members ; for they supply only a nook for quietness and a Sabbath refuge, feeble in thought, null in organisation, animated by little more than traditional or censorious sentiment to be applied to current opinion and in the conduct of lay life. This yields us, then, a moralising society, but not a moral one: the world is to be served and if possible purified; but it is the world, and not the free conventicle, that remains the home and training ground for the spirit, and the real moral society to which the free Christian belongs.

This illustration suggests the difficulty, but does not exhibit it in its nakedness, because in a Protestant household there may be as strict a discipline and as stifling an incubus of authority as in an ancient Roman family or in a convent school. A Baptist minister will not christen his children until they are grown up and have experienced a personal conversion ; but he will have brought them up in the wav they should go, and the shadow of those withering parental disapprovals and precise expectations may remain all their lives long a cause of secret constraint and unhappiness. So that in reality the influence for good or evil exercised by a free Church is due to the absence of freedom within it. That influence is strong only because a definite austere tradition has been imposed by Authority. Had there been simply spiritual liberty and a rational concurrence of adult minds, all that moralising force, would have vanished.

Even Royal Academies and Masonic Lodges, if they are more than convenient clubs, exist to dominate the mind and not to express it. We know beforehand in what direction all those sheep will be shepherded. A liberal regimen requires many such voluntary associations to perform the social functions not assumed by a liberal government. These associations arise and disappear easily ; they fill many an afternoon with meetings. Meetings of Societies having ancestral traditions and substantial backing may keep alive a certain moral and social rigidity; but in general they are entertainments rather than powers. The waters that the conduit of official authority rejected waste themselves in this sand.

Spirit has and can have no other consistency than that of its organ: if the organ is fluid or ephemeral, the thought and feeling that belong to it will drift like a cloud. When, on the contrary, the organ finds a firm lodgement in the body politic, when the free association takes root in society, the government may disregard the thing officially, but the private body will become in fact a second government, a part of that officious social order which really dominates mankind. If the free organism is harmless, and can cohabit with the legal establishment, the latter need not take alarm, although its importance and authority will be diminished. So with the many colleges privately founded in the United States; so too, everywhere, with sports in the last half century: they have become the chief free and spontaneous interest of the young and have even enlisted a sort of mock patriotism, very like that required for waging wars. If on the contrary, the free organism seems a rival or enemy of the ruling system, like the Catholic Church in France during the Third Republic, the ruling system may feel obliged to forget its principles in order to maintain its existence, and many proceed to stamp out the liberties it professes to favour. Thus, in the face of free organisations, a government must daily become either less and less dominant or less and less liberal.

Another way of making room, in a great nondescript empire, for various definite moral bodies, was accepted long ago in the East and may have a great future. A Cyrus might conquer vast regions; he would upset only their rulers, substituting his own satraps and slender garrisons ; but this domination remained superficial, and little more than tribute levied, and perhaps richly repaid, in view of the protection secured against further invasion or tyranny. The Romans adopted the same system, and afterwards the British in their conquests, as distinct from their settlements.

Under such a Roman Peace, as we call it, a further development is possible. Not only may each nation, within its territory, preserve its language and laws and religion under the imperial insurance, but where different nations have intermingled, as often happens in great cities or in provinces vaguely open to any immigrant, each may preserve all its moral idiosyncrasy, its speech, dress, and domestic life, side by side with the most alien races. Far from mingling, these different nations may abound in hatred and contempt for one another ; and they would undoubtedly come to blows till at last only one should remain in the field. But the imperial forces impose peace; and perhaps some division into quarters or villages, each pure, renders it possible for the orthodox of every sect to meet in the market place without contamination.

The Jews are a most wonderful instance of a people preserving its moral identity for two thousand years without any territorial possessions. Their fate has been hard, and the sentiment they have aroused in their gentile neighbours has not been kindly. The prejudice against them, however, has been religious rather than political ; and even the difficulty they have encountered in establishing a « National home » in Palestine was due largely to the fact that their Holy City is also a Holy City for Christians and Moslems, with the two latter in possession, and at first alone disposing of military force.

But suppose these circumstances had been different. Nothing would have then prevented the Israelites, scattered all over the world, from maintaining everywhere their religion and language, and preserving in Jerusalem a sanctuary where all the ceremonies of their Law might have been carried out. Round this sacred nucleus of race and religion, a complete body of arts and sciences, manners and domestic laws might then have grown up ; and this without army or navy or police or local jurisdiction. It would have sufficed that the common law, in whatever other countries they lived, should have allowed them possession, as private property, of enough land for their synagogues and dwelling houses ; and especially licence to educate their children in their own schools, in their own language, up to the highest studies which they should wish to pursue. And I do not think a truly imperial authority, preserving a Roman Peace all the world over, would have any reason for denying any nation these moral liberties.


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