ARE AMERICANS NOT SERIOUS ENOUGH? I read some years ago an article by an American lady who had lived for a long period in Greece. She said that Greeks tend not to trust Americans because they smile too much. In their view, a serious, trustworthy man rarely smiles. I thought of that yesterday when I read this review by Thomas Meaney (December 11 Wall Street Journal) of a new edition of two books by George Santayana. Meaney summarizes Santayana as saying that when the Puritans came to America, “their material success outpaced their theological pessimism.” The consequence was that “their certainty about man’s fallen nature gave way to a mild-mannered faith in human progress.” Santayana says: “If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is.” Google books has the quote here (at page 153). Nearby pages have Santayana’s elaboration on the argument, including his assertion on page 152 that “[Americans] remained helpful out of good sense and good will rather than scrupulous adherence to any fixed principles.” Kids, when you see a wise-cracking American in a movie, there is a way in which he (or she) is representative of America and its history.

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  1. Maynard Barnes says:

    Thanks for pointing me to this WSJ review. W.H. Auden says somewhere that American faces aren’t as ravaged by time as European ones — Santayana helps you understand why.

  2. Philip says:

    Thanks. Auden’s comment means more to me because he spent so much time in both England and America and because I think of Auden’s face as ravaged by time.

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