Wednesday, June 10, 2015



George Santayana (1863-1952), Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1922), pp. 43-45:
Dons are picturesque figures. Their fussy ways and their oddities, personal and intellectual, are as becoming to them as black feathers to the blackbird. Their minds are all gaunt pinnacles, closed gates, and little hidden gardens. A mediaeval tradition survives in their notion of learning and in their manner of life; they are monks flown from the dovecot, scholastics carrying their punctilious habits into the family circle. In the grander ones there may be some assimilation to a prelate, a country gentleman, or a party leader; but the rank and file are modest, industrious pedagogues, sticklers for routine, with a squinting knowledge of old books and of young men. Their politics are narrow and their religion dubious. There was always something slippery in the orthodoxy of scholastics, even in the Middle Ages; they are so eager to define, to correct, and to trace back everything, that they tend to cut the cloth on their own bias, and to make some crotchet of theirs the fulcrum of the universe. The thoughts of these men are like the Sibylline leaves, profound but lost. I should not call them pedants, because what they pursue and insist on in little things is the shadow of something great; trifles, as Michael Angelo said, make perfection, and perfection is no trifle. Yet dry learning and much chewing of the cud take the place amongst them of the two ways men have of really understanding the world—science, which explores it, and sound wit, which estimates humanly the value of science and of everything else.

The function of dons is to expound a few classic documents, and to hand down as large and as pleasant a store as possible of academic habits, maxims, and anecdotes. They peruse with distrust the new books published on the subject of their teaching; they refer to them sometimes sarcastically, but their teaching remains the same. Their conversation with outsiders is painfully amiable for a while; lassitude soon puts the damper on it, unless they can lapse into the academic question of the day, or take up the circle of their good old stories. Their originality runs to interpreting some old text afresh, wearing some odd garment, or frequenting in the holidays some unfrequented spot. When they are bachelors, as properly they should be, their pupils are their chief link with the world of affection, with mischievous and merry things; and in exchange for this whiff of life, which they receive with each yearly invasion of flowering youth, like the fresh scent of hay every summer from the meadows, they furnish those empty minds with some humorous memories, and some shreds of knowledge. It does not matter very much whether what a don says is right or wrong, provided it is quotable; nobody considers his opinions for the matter they convey; the point is that by hearing them the pupils and the public may discover what opinions, and on what subjects, it is possible for mortals to devise. Their maxims are like those of the early Greek philosophers, a proper introduction to the good society of the intellectual world.


Wit the dons often have, of an oblique kind, in the midst of their much-indulged prejudices and foibles; and what with glints of wit and scraps of learning, the soul is not sent away empty from their door: better fed and healthier, indeed, for these rich crumbs from the banquet of antiquity, when thought was fresh, than if it had been reared on a stuffy diet of useful knowledge, or on some single dogmatic system, to which life-slavery is attached. Poor, brusque, comic, venerable dons! You watched over us tenderly once, whilst you blew your long noses at us and scolded; then we thought only of the roses in your garden, of your succulent dinners, or perhaps of your daughters; but now we understand that you had hearts yourselves, that you were song-birds grown old in your cages, having preferred fidelity to adventure. We catch again the sweet inflection of your cracked notes, and we bless you. You have washed your hands among the innocent; you have loved the beauty of the Lord's house.

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