Dialogues in Limbo

by George Santayana. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1925. 8vo. viii+193 pp. $3.00.
THE persons of the dialogues are the shades of Democritus, Alcibiades, Aristippus the Cyrenaic, Dionysius the Younger, once Tyrant of Syracuse, Socrates, and Avicenna, and the spirit of a Stranger still living on earth. The Stranger too would be a shade if he were only dead, for it is quite clear that, in spite of his sympathetic penetration into the mysteries of the Christian faith, his superb mastery of theology, and his equivocal entanglement, when not in the spirit, with a world so confused that ‘events in the long run will falsify any policy and render obsolete any conviction,’ he is fitted neither for Heaven nor for Hell eventually. When his spirit is free, it finds limbo alone congenial. There, in that ‘land of unconquerable mind,’ he sits by the side of Democritus to be instructed in the doctrine of substance, which he already knows, while that ancient sage views the caperings and posings of Alcibiades, Aristippus, and Dionysius with irony and laughter, and yet with a tender sympathy with life’s dreams and illusions, and a wistful memory of tears once shed in youth. He discusses self-government and philanthropy with Socrates; whether right government, resting on the will of the governed, is good government or leads to ‘the tragedy of those who do as they wish, but do not get what they want’; and how philanthropy and charity stand, when brought face to face — philanthropy, which is ‘the love of that beauty and goodness in man which if realized would make his happiness,’and charity, which expects and accepts the defeat of man’s natural desires, yet in the face of defeat brings consolation, the kind of Consolation which the Stranger’s Prophet might bring, who, although a god knowing saint and blackguard at their true worth, became himself incarnate in order to lend them Courage not wholly to despise themselves and to find in him the savior of their souls. He tries to comfort Avicenna, who should be happy in limbo, but who is homesick for the world because Allah has illegally kept him out of the Paradise of the Prophet. And Avicenna, in a happier mood, tells the Stranger the secret of Aristotle, which the Stranger had himself suspected and made, perhaps, the essence of his philosophy.
All this happens in limbo, where conversation — taking this book as a sample of it — is wonderfully lucid, beautiful, and searching, but where the consequences of philosophizing are not practical. Are such its consequences here also? That is a question which some on earth who have not the Stranger’s gift of travel are likely to ask. We are told — and is it the secret of Aristotle? — that ‘it is proper to spirit to be begotten of all other things by their harmonies, and to beget nothing in its turn.’ At that, practical people who are as yet neither shades nor spirits temporarily detached will rebel. They may be right. Yet they may very profitably visit limbo through the pages of this book, to return to business, teaching, preaching, and conversation with a clearer insight into what substance, self-government, philanthropy, charity, the Christian faith, and love of this world mean.