Cloud Castles

by George Santayana (1922)

The heavens are the most constant thing we know, the skies the most inconstant. Even the Olympian expanse, when blue and cloudless, is an aspect of terrestrial atmosphere in a holiday mood, a sort of gay parasol which the Earth holds up when she walks in the sun, and takes down again when she walks in the shadow; while clouds are veils wrapped more closely about her, and even more friendly to her frailty. Nor are these feminine trappings less lovely for being easily blown about, and always fresh and in the latest fashion. It is a prejudice to suppose that instability must be sad or must be trivial. A new cloud castle is probably well worth an old one; any one of them may equal in beauty the monotonous gold and black vault which it conceals from us, and all of them together certainly surpass that tragic decoration in spiritual suggestion. Something in us no doubt regrets that these airy visions vanish so quickly and are irrecoverable; but this is a sort of fleshly sentimentality of ours and not reasonable. In nature, what disappears never narrows the range of what is yet to be. If we were immortally young, like the atmosphere, the lapse of things would not grieve us, nor would inconstancy be a vice in ourselves. Nobody's future would be blighted by his past; and this perhaps explains the morals of the gods. Change to us is an omen of death, and only in the timeless can we feel secure; but if we were safe in our plastic existence, like nature and the gods of nature, fidelity to a single love might seem foolish in us; being and possessing any one thing would not then be incompatible with sooner or later being and possessing everything else. Nature and substance are like the absolute actor with an equal affinity for every part, and changing sex, age, and station with perfect good grace.

A great principle of charity in morals is not to blame the fishes for their bad taste in liking to live under water. Yet many philosophers seem to have sinned against this reasonable law, since they have blamed life and nature for liking to change, which is as much as to say for liking to live. Certainly life and nature, when they produce thought, turn from themselves towards the eternal, but it is by a glance, itself momentary, that they turn to it; for if they were themselves converted into something changeless, they could neither live, think, nor turn. In the realm of existence it is not sinful to be fugitive nor in bad taste to be new. Accordingly cloud castles have nothing to blush for; if they have a weak hold on existence, so has everything good. We are warned that the day of judgement will be full of surprises: perhaps one of them may be that in heaven things are even more unstable than on earth, and that the mansions reserved for us there are not only many but insecure. Cloud castles are hints to us that eternity has nothing to do with duration, nor beauty with substantial existence, and that even in heaven our bliss would have to be founded on a smiling renunciation. Did Mohammed, I wonder, misunderstand the archangel Gabriel in gathering that celestial beauties (unlike the lights and voices of Dante's paradise) could be embraced as well as admired? And in promising that our heavenly brides would daily recover their virginity, did he simply clothe in a congenial metaphor the fact that they would be different brides every day, and that if we wished to dwell in a true paradise, and not in a quarrelsome and sordid harem, we must never dream of seeing any of them a second time?

Fidelity is a virtue akin to habit and rooted in the inertia of animal life, which would run amok without trusty allies and familiar signals. We have an inveterate love of The Same, because our mortal condition obliges us to reconsider facts and to accumulate possessions; by instinct both the heart and the intellect hug everything they touch, and to let anything go is a sort of death to them. This spirit of pathetic fidelity in us would certainly reproach those ethereal visions for being ephemeral, and Cupid for having wings and no heart; but might not the visiting angels in turn reproach us for clownishness in wishing to detain them? They are not made of flesh and blood; they are not condemned to bear children. Their smile, their voice, and the joy they bring us are the only life they have. They are fertile only like the clouds, in that by dissolving they give place to some other form, no less lovely and elusive than themselves; and perhaps if we took a long view we should not feel that our own passage through existence had a very different quality. We last as a strain of music lasts, and we go where it goes. Is it not enough that matter should illustrate each ideal possibility only once and for a moment, and that Caesar or Shakespeare should figure once in this world? To repeat them would not intensify their reality, while it would impoverish and make ridiculous the pageant of time, like a stage army running round behind the scenes in order to reappear. To come to an end is a virtue when one has had one's day, seeing that in the womb of the infinite there are always other essences no less deserving of existence.

Even cloud castles, however, have a double lien on permanence. A flash of lightning is soon over, yet so long as the earth is wrapped in its present atmosphere, flashes will recur from time to time so very like this one that the mind will make the same comment upon them, and its pronouncements on its past experience will remain applicable to its experience to come. Fleeting things in this way, when they are repeated, survive and are united in the wisdom which they teach us in common. At the same time they inwardly contain something positively eternal, since the essences they manifest are immutable in character, and from their platonic heaven laugh at this inconstant world, into which they peep for a moment, when a chance collocation of atoms suggests one or another of them to our minds. To these essences mind is constitutionally addressed, and into them it likes to sink in its self-forgetfulness. It is only our poor mother Psyche, being justly afraid of growing old, who must grudge the exchange of one vision for another. Material life is sluggish and conservative; it would gladly drag the whole weary length of its past behind it, like a worm afraid of being cut in two in its crawling. It is haunted by a ghostly memory, a wonderful but not successful expedient for calling the dead to life, in order, somewhat inconsistently, to mourn over them and be comforted. Why not kiss our successive pleasures good-bye, simply and without marking our preferences, as we do our children when they file to bed? A free mind does not measure the worth of anything by the worth of anything else. It is itself at least as plastic as nature and has nothing to fear from revolutions. To live in the moment would indeed be brutish and dangerous if we narrowed to a moment the time embraced in our field of view, since with the wider scope of thought come serenity and dominion; but to live in the moment is the only possible life if we consider the spiritual activity itself. The most protracted life, in the actual living, can be nothing but a chain of moments, each the seat of its irrecoverable vision, each a dramatic perspective of the world, seen in the light of a particular passion at a particular juncture. But at each moment the wholeness of mind is spiritual and aesthetic, the wholeness of a meaning or a picture, and no knife can divide it. Its immortality, too, is timeless, like that of the truths and forms in which it is absorbed. Therefore apprehension can afford to hasten all the more trippingly in its career, touching the facts here and there for a moment, and building its cloud castles out of light and air, movement and irony, to let them lapse again without a pang. Contemplation, when it frees itself from animal anxiety about existence, ceases to question and castigate its visions, as if they were mere signals of alarm or hints of hidden treasures; and then it cannot help seeing what treasures these visions hold within themselves, each framing some luminous and divine essence, as a telescope frames a star; and something of their inalienable distinction and firmness seems to linger in our minds, though in the exigencies of our hurried life we must turn away from each of them and forget them.

Monadnock Valley Press > Santayana