What Is a Philistine?

George Santayana

This essay appeared in The Harvard Monthly, May, 1892.

If you live in Cambridge, dear Reader, or even in Boston, you may think the word Philistine is necessarily a term of reproach. It is, you may say, a synonym for the not-ourselves. Yet if this were so, and the word meant nothing but what is disliked by the speaker, the vast majority that lives elsewhere, in Seattle or in New York, would use it in turn to designate us, the eccentric minority. But it is notorious that they do not. They may call us dilettanti, Anglomaniacs, snobs, Unitarians, or “damn literary fellows”; they never call us Philistines. This term is not, then, like the word foreign, which means whatever is strange and unintelligible to us, whoever we are; it is rather like the word Irish or Mugwump, which signifies what is opposed or distasteful only to a certain tribe or fellowship of men. Such terms are essentially merely descriptive and geographical. Even Prussian is not necessarily a term of abuse; any one except a Frenchman might use it simply to denote a fact of civil allegiance, and to the ears of a corporal or a school-master it might even have a glorious sound. And so it might be with the word Philistine, were it not as yet too modern and metaphorical to be used by those to whom it applies, who, being of a somewhat conservative and plebian turn of mind, prefer to call themselves “smart” fellows and “bright” girls. But if any of them should do me the honor to read my definition of the ancient and populous Philistine nation, they may henceforth point with pride (as they are apt to do) to its glories as to then-own, and be as happy in being Philistines as they are now in being Americans. Who knows if even you, dear Reader, inhabitant of Cambridge or Boston as you are, may not recognize yourself in my description? Be not hasty, therefore, in condemning the Philistine: haply he is all that you most admire and respect. But even if you are sure that the Philistine is horrid and vulgar, I pray you to be patient with him for a while. I will try to be so myself, for I too secretly dislike the Philistine; but we must forget our tastes for a time, while, happy in the consciousness of our silent sympathy, we proceed to describe the anatomy of the creature as impartially and scientifically as we can. There is such a thing as the Philistine in the economy of nature, and he has, as Emerson would say, as much right to be as Cape Cod or Monadnock. He is a common, an impressive, almost a magnificent phenomenon. He comprises, as we shall see, the greater part of the reading and writing world. And our business is not now to abuse him except incidentally. Our task is to define him, a task more worthy of our own liberal temper. A slight ebullition of humors in the system is enough to inspire the most eloquent invective, but to produce a tolerable definition of any category of mortals requires all the resources of science and reflection.

We first hear of the Philistines in the Bible. They seem to have lived by the sea, a thing not generally favorable to Philistinism. There is a spiritualizing influence in the expanse of waters, which carries the eye and the imagination at once to the clear horizon, and tempts the sailor and the merchant beyond it. Voyaging teaches us comparison, and, by revealing the many diversities of life which are possible in this circumnavigable world, breeds a certain noble humility founded upon self-knowledge, and a certain tender and pathetic patriotism, which is not so much a repulsion for the alien as a returning love for the peaceful, comfortable, and familiar. For there are two stages in patriotism as there are two in love. In the first we are proud of our country or our mistress for what we deem her superlative beauties and unrivalled virtues; in the second, we prefer her to all those who outshine her, simply because she is our own. This is the way Nature has of reconciling us to our necessary limitations, first by the blindness of passion, and afterwards by the power of habit.

But whether it was the unfavorable nearness of the sea, or the prowess of the heroes who judged Israel in those days, the ancient Philistines seem to have been less stubborn than the modern. The jawbone of an ass was then an efficient weapon against them, while now they can scarcely be mollified by all the honey that flows from the mouth of our young lions. It sufficed that a beautiful poet, a pastoral king, should defy their armies for the Philistines of those days to perish by the thousands and the ten thousands. How different it is now! Imagine the champion of our latter-day Philistia, Goliath become the spirit of some great corporation, to come forth with taunts before the army of the chosen people. And imagine some youthful saint, fresh from the unpolluted hills, and confident in the power of reason, to accept the challenge, and say, “Thou comest armed with the weight of five thousand shekels of brass, with a weaver’s beam for a spear, pointed with six hundred shekels of iron, and one bearing a volume of Political Economy goes before thee; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of Beauty, of the God of true and inward Happiness, whom thou hast defied. This day will the Lord deliver thee into my hand, and I will smite thee and take the souls of men away from thee: and I will give the high chimneys of the factories of the Philistines to the fowls of the air, and their deep furnaces to the beasts of the earth, that all the world may know that there is a God in Israel.” Would our intrepid David, after all this bold language, find any smooth stones in the brook, or have any skill with the sling, to smite the forehead of that Goliath? I am afraid the assembly would have reason to laugh at him, and to remain convinced that, in our day at least, it is with the sword and the spear that the Lord saveth.

The Bible tells us no more about the Philistines. We need not wonder at it, for such a beautiful apparition as David was capable, if anything ever was, of making an end of them. And shamed, as it were, by his life and his song, Philistia disappeared from the earth for several thousand years, to reappear at last in modern Germany. For although the modern Philistine is not necessarily Teutonic, yet it was the German imagination and learning that first noted the similarity between certain elements of modern society and the ancient enemies of Samson and David. In those idyllic days when the Fatherland was happy with the empire of the air, the German student, tender, unpolitical stripling that he was, delighted to quaff his beer and ogle his lass under the trellises of a rural inn, or to sit all night in the vaulted Rathskeller of his university town, where his idealistic soul glowed with genial enthusiasm, and the ruddy image of Gambrinus, astride upon a barrel, leered at him from the painted wall. As his imagination kindled with the fumes of the malt mingled with the inspirations of genius, he saw in his expanding consciousness the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. And when he was awakened at last by the necessity, perhaps, of paying his bill, he spontaneously gave to his fleshly and unsympathetic host the name of Philister, as being his natural enemy, and the chief earthly obstacle to the infinite fulfilment of his dreams.

From the blameless inn-keeper, who doubtless understood nothing of the student’s cant, the epithet was extended to all shop-keepers, towns-men and merchants, until we hear Heine dividing the population of Göttingen into students, professors, Philistines, and kine. These classes, he is careful to add, are not mutually exclusive; but even with this qualification his classification is now out of date. No one would think of drawing a distinction now-a-days between the Philistines and the professors of Germany. The ordinary German professor is, with the possible exception of the German parson, the most contented dweller in Philistia Felix. Full of reverence for the state of which he is the organ, and for the lexicons and monographs which he devours and brings forth with physiological regularity, he rejoices in the consciousness of being a normal and well-regulated cell in the organism of modern society and of modern science. If you asked him what he or any other cell gained thereby, he would look upon you with astonishment, and reply: My living! How should it be an expense of spirit in a waste of shame to write dull and unnecessary books, when these enlarge the “literature” of science and are placed upon the shelves of libraries? And as for the student, with his Notizen and his hourly odoriferous slice of sour Butterbrod; of what are his dreams but of a Kneipe or a degree, a low debauch or an ordentliche Professur? Both masters and pupils are excellent examples of that unquestioning subordination of mind to matter and of ends to means which is the essence of Philistinism.

If Heine could now revisit his native country the class that he would contrast with Philistines would be musicians. They alone, with a small retinue of painters and poets, and other lovers of decaying arts, constitute Bohemia, and inherit the spiritual freedom of the former student. Music is the most exclusively aesthetic and unutilitarian of the arts, and by a sort of sarcasm of fate, or by the tendency of a restless and disorganized society to run into extremes, is the one now most passionately and successfully pursued. The musician lives, if not by ideas, at least by emotions, and in his enthusiasm for beauty, in his capacity for rapture, in his unfettered life, he shows the blithe spirit of an angel, too often combined, alas! with the habits of a pig. For musical susceptibility is a thing by itself, easily separable from every other element of culture; and in this fact we have, perhaps, the true cause of the present preëminence of music, since the less beauty we are able to see in external things the more we fall back upon the pure beauty of sensation. But cultivation in general and cleanliness in particular were never necessary to spirituality; and in spite of his unpleasant neglect of the body, the musician is all over the world, and especially in Germany where he most abounds, the champion of the soul, who like his patron the Psalmist defies the hosts of the Philistines.

It is in England, however, and in this country, that we are wont to think the Philistine most at home. Everybody knows Mr. Matthew Arnold’s division of the English into barbarians, Philistines, and rabble, and also his subsequent remark that America is the paradise of Philistinism. It is obvious from these sayings, as well as from that of Heine already quoted, that the Philistines must be many and heterogeneous. They are not to be easily described except by exclusion; the other classes contrasted with them are all more definite and describable. For we all know what a musician is, and students and professors we have always with us. Kine and rabble are a distinct and well-known estate, happily not yet numerous in this New World. They are that species of animal which, although externally human, is without family, arts, or religion. And the barbarians we also know, or wish to, for they are the aristocracy. They are the country gentlemen and club men, who hunt, cruise, shoot, bathe, dress, and go upon the grand tour; men who love their horses, their hounds, their parks, and their dinner, and who regard a poet and a scholar, like Mr. Arnold, as something intermediate between a pedagogue and a comedian,— a subtle person fed and clothed at the expense of society for the delight and amusement of the lords of the earth. And the men of culture a class too insignificant in numbers to be included in the general division are such as Mr. Arnold himself, and occupy in England the place held by the musicians in Germany. The Englishman is of course immensely superior in civilization, but he lives in a society grossly barbarian, and catches some of the traits of the ruling caste; he washes and he dines at eight o’clock, and he is not wholly without snobbery.

All these various classes of the non-Philistine are comparatively easy to recognize and to define roughly. But what characteristics shall we say are distinctive of the vast remainder, which by common consent we call the Philistines? Well, we may begin by saying without much fear of contradiction that one essential trait of the Philistine is conventionality. We have all heard that the English middle class is eminent for dullness and stupidity. The English Philistine is a man of narrow, wholly practical interests, rigid and verbal principles, stubborn contempt for what is alien or new, and not less dogged attachment to what is authoritative and homespun. But this description does not apply to the emancipated middle class: it does not at all apply to the American, who is also a Philistine. The conventionality we mean must be carefully distinguished from Toryism. To be a Tory is at least to have affections and prejudices which in their very irrationality seem to have something un-Philistine about them. Toryism is an instinctive if not a reasoned avowal of the value of a social ideal; it is attachment to the hierarchy in church and state, and to the rural life of England. To get Philistinism pure and unalloyed we must turn to the prosperous shop-keepers and merchants who dwell in towns, compared with whom your country Tory is a figure of romance. For the prosperous business man, who is a radical, has prejudices without affections, and his thoughts are governed by insistence on a doctrine rather than by loyalty to an institution. His mind is empty without being free. And it is, I should say, of the essence of the Philistine mind to have rigidity without substance. However narrow a life may be, however ignorant of the wide world of nature and thought, if it is governed by some true perception, if it has hold upon some immediate and vital good, it escapes conventionality. For that reason neither a saint nor a voluptuary can be a Philistine; they know too well what they are living for, and its intrinsic worth. Nor was that woman a Philistine whom Sir Edwin Arnold makes to say:

“My heart
Is little, and a little rain will fill
The lily’s cup that hardly moists the field.
It is enough for me to feel life’s sun
Shine in my Lord’s grace and my baby’s smile.
Pleasant my days pass, filled with household cares
From sunrise when I wake to praise the gods
And set my housemaids to their tasks, till noon
When my Lord lays his head upon my lap
Lulled by soft songs and wavings of the fan.
And so to supper time at quiet eve
When by his side I stand and serve the cakes.
But if death called Senani, I should mount
The pile, and lay that dear head in my lap
My daily way, rejoicing when the torch
Lit the quick flame and rolled the choking smoke.
For it is written if an Indian wife
Die so, her love shall give her husband’s soul
For every hair upon her head a crore
Of years in Swerga. Therefore fear I not.”

Such a woman would hardly have been what we call a woman of culture; she would not have enjoyed Wordsworth or Ruskin even in a translation. But it is her quiet indifference to both translations and originals, her perception of the primary things in life, and her repose in them, that makes her noble. No one who leads the simple life of the senses and the affections can be called a Philistine. To reach that condition there must supervene a certain sophistication, and the mind must lose its perception of primitive facts in its attention to conventional maxims. Philistinism is life at second hand.

Nothing, for instance, is so Philistine as the habit of asking the money value of everything, and of talking, as our newspapers do, of a thousand-dollar diamond and a ten-thousand-dollar fire. A man whose eye was single would tell you how much the one sparkled and the other blazed. But the Philistine’s senses are muffled by his intellect and by his habit of abbreviated thinking. His mental process is all algebra, a reckoning that loses sight of its original values and is over without reaching any concrete result. Now the price of an object is an algebraic symbol; it is an abstract term, invented to facilitate our operations, which remains arid and unmeaning if we stop with it and forget to translate it again at the end into its concrete equivalent. It is vulgar to esteem things for their cost, but not vulgar to esteem them for the qualities which make them costly. I believe the economists count among the elements of the value of an object the rarity of its material, the labor of its manufacture, and the distance of the country from which it is brought. Now all these qualities, if attended to in themselves, appeal greatly to the imagination. We have a natural interest in what is rare and affects us with unusual sensations. What comes from a far country carries our thoughts there, and gains by the wealth and picturesqueness of its associations. And that on which human labor has been spent, especially if it was a labor of love and is apparent in the product, has one of the deepest possible claims to admiration. So that the standard of cost, the most vulgar and Philistine of all standards, is such only when it remains empty and abstract. Let the thoughts wander back and consider the elements of value, and our appreciation, from being verbal and commercial, becomes real and poetic.

One characteristic of the Philistine mind, then, is its resting in the merely conventional. It is in a hurry and deals in abbreviations. Dexterity in the use of symbols and respect for the instruments of calculation make it forget the vision of the real world and the primitive source of all value in the senses and the affections. It used to be a doctrine of philosophers that the world was made for man and everything in it designed for his comfort and salvation. That belief is now impugned, and people think that the universe may have other purposes, if it has any purpose at all, than one which is so disproportionate to its extent and which it is so slow in accomplishing. But I know not whether it is on account of this new philosophy, or on account of ancient habits and practical impulses, that we have got into a way of living as if not only the aim of Nature, but also the aim of man and of society, lay beyond man himself. We have multiplied our instruments, and forgotten our purposes; and, what is still worse, we have made of ourselves instruments for the production of changes in Nature, and consented to regard our consciousness as a device for the better making and doing of things. We have forgotten that there is nothing valuable or worthy in the motion, however rapid, of masses, however great, nor in the accumulation of objects, however numerous and complicated, nor in the organization of societies, however great and powerful, unless the inward happiness of men is thereby increased or their misery diminished. This idolatry, that subordinates the life of man, his thoughts and his actions, to the production of external effects in the world, is the religion of Philistia; and nothing so much arouses the inspired rage of the true prophet; witness the cry of Leopardi:

       Age in which I was born,
Thou fool that, heaping treasure for the morrow,
Unto each sad today but addest sorrow,
       I hold thy pride in scorn!

But if blindness to the elemental and immediate is one condition of Philistinism, indifference to the supreme and ultimate is another. Our Indian woman not only perceives the intrinsic sufficiency of simple joys, she also conceives of a highest duty and consolation, she forms an idea of her place in the universe, and has a religion. Now a Philistine may be very religious in his gregarious way, his faith may be orthodox and his conduct irreproachable. But he would cease to be a Philistine if he had instinctive piety and an inward, imaginative appreciation of his faith. For these things require a certain wealth of emotion and scope of imagination; they involve what we call unworldliness. To be unworldly is to look upon the judgment of society, its prizes and its pleasures, with the serenity and sadness of one whose treasure is elsewhere and whose eyes have beheld the vision of better things. It is to live in the sight of the ideal,

Ayant devant les yeux, sans cesse, nuit et jour,
Ou quelque saint labeur ou quelque grand amour.

It matters not what the sacred passion or what the work of love may be: the infinite surrounds us in every direction, and all who at any time have caught a glimpse of it have something in common. They have for a moment escaped convention and felt the relativity and possible indifference of all earthly goods. That is what the Philistine has never done. He has never shaken off his vulgar passions nor felt the weight of original sin; his life, like that of a beast of burden, has not been either a revel or a sacrifice, but a stolid response to successive stimulations.

If this be the sad condition of the Philistine, we need hardly ask why he has another quality, which many people may think the most essential to him, namely, indifference to the beauties of art. For art appeals to the vividness of sensation and to the sweep of fancy; it charms by clearness of form and by infinity of suggestion. But we have seen how the Philistine can never repose in sense, since every sensation is to him merely a sign and symbol, a signal that something is to be done. And he is equally incapable of attaining to imagination, for what he sees and hears suggests to him facts, and facts in turn suggest to him nothing. So that if you set a Philistine before a picture, he will be inevitably bored. He can do nothing to the picture except buy it, and that is soon accomplished. He is too active and industrious a man to stand gaping at it, pretending he enjoys the harmony of its color, the balance of its design, or the richness of its light and shade. And he is too honest to say that the picture represents anything more than a man’s face, or a pretty view, or whatever else the subject may be. If the reproduction is accurate, as far as his perception goes, he will be pleased to notice the fact. But how the image of a face can represent anything besides, or the copy of a landscape be more beautiful than the original, he can never conceive. The comprehension of that depends on the awakening of many dim and profound suggestions, on the creation in the beholder’s mind of some ideal of beauty or of happiness, on the quick passing of some infinitely tragic and lovely vision. And such things are not engendered in the Philistine brain.

With this, dear Reader, I take my leave. If by my description you have found that you are a Philistine yourself, do not be too much troubled. I have said hard things of you, and I cannot retract them, for I believe them to be true. But I may add another, no less true, which may serve for your consolation. The time will come, astronomers and geologists assure us, when life will be extinct upon this weary planet. All the delights of sense and imagination of which I have been speaking will then be over. But the masses of matter which you have transformed with your machinery, and carried from one place to another, will remain to bear witness of you. The collocation of atoms will never be what it would have been if your feet had less continually beaten the earth. You have the happiness of knowing that, when nothing I value endures, the earth may still sometimes, because of you, cast a slightly different shadow across the craters of the moon.

1 “Having before one’s eyes, constantly, night and day, / Either some saintly work or some great love.”