by George Santayana (1922)

They say the sun is a very small star, and the thing is plausible enough in itself, without the proofs which presumably the astronomers can give of it. That which nature produces she is apt to produce in crowds; what she does once, if she has her way, she will do often, with a persistency and monotony which would be intolerable to her if she were endowed with memory; but hers is a life of habit and automatic repetition, varied only when there is some hitch in the clockwork, and she begins hurriedly beating a new tune. Accordingly, what any creature calls the present time, the living interest, the ruling power, or the true religion is almost always but as one leaf in a tree. The same plastic stress which created it creates a million comparable things around it. Yet it is easy for each to ignore its neighbours, and to be shocked at the notion of loving them as itself; for they all have their separate places or seasons, and bloom on their several stems, so that an accident that overwhelms one of them may easily leave the others unscathed. But for all that, they are as multitudinous and similar as the waves of the sea. Take any star at random, like our sun, or any poet, or any idea, and whilst certainly it will be the nearest and warmest to somebody, it is not at all likely to be the greatest of its kind, or even very remarkable.

Nevertheless, in a moral perspective, nearness makes all the difference; and for us the sun is a veritable ruling deity and parent of light; he is the centre and monarch of our home system. Similarly each living being is a sort of sun to itself; this spark within me, by whose light I see at all, is a great sun to me; and considering how wide a berth other spiritual luminaries seem to give me, I must warm myself chiefly by my own combustion, and remain singularly important to myself. This importance belongs to the humour of material existence, visible when I look at my seamy side; it vanishes in so far as my little light actually bums clear, and my intent flies with it to whatever objects its rays can reach, no matter how distant or alien. Yet this very intelligence and scope in me are functions of my inward fire: seeing, too, is burning. An atomic and spark-like form of existence, prevalent in nature, is absolutely essential to spirit; and I find it very acceptable. It is a free, happy, and humble condition. I welcome the minute bulk, the negligible power, the chance quality and oddity of my being, combined as it is with vital independence and adequate fuel in my small bunkers for my brief voyage. On a vaster scale, I think the sun, for all his littleness, has a splendid prerogative, and I honour Phoebus as a happy god. The happiest part of his condition and his best claim to deity lie in this: that he can irradiate and kindle the frozen or vaporous bodies that swim about him; he can create the moonlight and the earthlight, much more powerful than the moonlight. This earthlight, if we could only get far enough from the earth to see it, would seem strangely brilliant and beautiful; it would show sea-tints and snow-tints and sand-tints; there would be greens and purples in it reflected from summer and winter zones, dotted with cinder scars and smoke-wreaths of cities. Yet all these lights are only sunlight, received and returned with thanks.

Nor is this surface shimmer, visible to telescopic observers, the only benefit gained: something is kept back and absorbed; some warmth sinks into the substance of the earth and permeates its watery soil, initiating currents in the sea and air, and quickening many a nest of particles into magnetic and explosive and contagious motions. This life which arises in the earth is an obeisance to the sun. The flowers turn to the light and the eye follows it, animal bodies imbibe it, and send it forth again in glad looks and keen attention; and when dreams and thoughts, even with the eyes shut, play within us like flamelets amongst the coals, it is still the light of the sun, strangely stored and transmuted, that shines in those visions. Certainly intelligence in its cognitive intent is radically immaterial, and nothing could be more heterogeneous from vibrations, attractions, or ethereal currents than the power to make assertions that shall be true or false, relevant or irrelevant to outlying things; but this so spiritual power is profoundly natural; it plainly exhibits an animal awaking to the presence of other bodies that actually surround him, resenting their cruelty or warming to their conquest and absorption. Apart from its roots in animal predicaments, spirit would be wholly inexplicable in its moods and arbitrary in its deliverance. The more ecstatic or the more tragic experience is, the more unmistakably it is the voice of matter. It then obviously retraces and makes incandescent the silent relations of things with things, by which its weal or woe is decided. Sometimes it simply burns in their midst and moves in their company like the sun amongst the stars he ignores; sometimes it gilds in its highly coloured lights the surface of things turned in its direction. Were not the distances between bodies spanned by some universal gravitation (which we are now told may be a sort of light), we may be sure that sense and fancy, which are profoundly vegetative things, would never leap from their source and discount their images in the heroic effort to understand the world. But the fire of life casts its passionate illumination on the dead things that control it, and raises to aesthetic actuality various poetic symbols of their power. Dead things possess, of course, in their own right, their material and logical being, but they borrow from the adventitious interest which a living creature must needs take in them their various moral dignities and all their part in the conscious world. It is intelligible that moralists and psychologists should be absorbed in those reflections of their attention which reach them from things distant or near, and that they should pronounce the whole universe to be nothing but their experience of it, a sort of rainbow or crescent kindly decorating their personal sky. On the same principle the sun (who, being a material creature, would also be subject to egotism) might say that the only substance in the universe was light, and that the earth and moon were nothing but ethereal mirrors palely reflecting his own fire. It would seem absurd to him that the earth or its inhabitants should profess to have any bowels. Inextinguishable laughter and self-assurance would seize him at the report that any dark places existed, or any invisible thoughts. He would never admit that, in all this, he was himself thinking; what we should call his thoughts he would maintain (without thinking!) were evident meteors moving and shining on their own account.

Such are the cross-lights of animal persuasion. Things, when seen, seem to come and go with our visions; and visions, when we do not know why they visit us, seem to be things. But this is not the end of the story. Opacity is a great discoverer. It teaches the souls of animals the existence of what is not themselves. Their souls in fact live and spread their roots in the darkness, which embosoms and creates the light, though the light does not comprehend it. If sensuous evidence flooded the whole sphere with which souls are conversant, they would have no reason for suspecting that there was anything they did not see, and they would live in a fool's paradise of lucidity. Fortunately for their wisdom, if not for their comfort, they come upon mysteries and surprises, earthquakes and rumblings in their hidden selves and in their undeciphered environment; they live in time, which is a double abyss of darkness; and the primary and urgent object of their curiosity is that unfathomable engine of nature which from its ambush governs their fortunes. The proud, who shine by their own light, do not perceive matter, the fuel that feeds and will some day fail them; but the knowledge of it comes to extinct stars in their borrowed light and almost mortal coldness, because they need to warm themselves at a distant fire and to adapt their seasons to its favourable shining. When we are on the shady side of the earth we can, as a compensation, range in knowledge far beyond our painted atmosphere, and far beyond that little sun who, so long as he shone upon us, seemed to ride at the top of heaven; we can perceive a galaxy of other lights, no less original than he, to which his glory blinded us; we can even discover how he himself, if his hot head of burning hair would only suffer him to notice it, lives subject to their perpetual influence. Beautiful and happy god as Phoebus may be, he is not a just god nor an everlasting one. He is a lyric singer; he is not responsible save to his own heart, and not obliged to know other things. He lives in the eternal, and does not need to be perpetual. And he is often beneficent in his spontaneity, and many of us have cause to thank and to love him. There is an uncovenanted society of spirits, like that of the morning stars singing together, or of all the larks at once in the sky; it is a happy accident of freedom and a conspiracy of solitudes. When people talk together, they are at once entangled in a mesh of instrumentalities, irrelevance, misunderstanding, vanity, and propaganda; and all to no purpose, for why should creatures become alike who are different? But when minds, being naturally akin and each alone in its own heaven, soliloquize in harmony, saying compatible things only because their hearts are similar, then society is friendship in the spirit; and the unison of many thoughts twinkles happily in the night across the void of separation.

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