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by Bamber Gascoigne

George Santayana - in full Jorge Agustín Nicolás de Santayana (1863-1952)


Spanish-American philosopher, poet and humanist. George Santayana's principal concept was that all ideals have a natural basis. The only reality is matter itself and that all else arises from man's experience of, and response to, matter. Santayana's complex commitment to artistic beauty and reason is seen in such works as The Sense of Beauty (1896) and Reason in Art (1903), in which he states that "art in general is a rehearsal of rational living..."

"To have imagination and taste, to love the best, to be carried by the contemplation of nature to a vivid faith in the ideal, all this is more, a great deal more, than any science can hope to be. The poets and philosophers who express this aesthetic experience and stimulate the same function in us by their example, do a greater service to mankind and deserve higher honor than the discoveries of historical truths." (in The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana, 2004, p. 11; originally published 1896)

George Santayana was born in Madrid, but he spent the first years of his life in Ávila, the medieval town in old Castile. His mother, Josefina Borrás y Carbonell, was Spanish. She married a Boston merchant, George Sturgis, and after his death, Augustin Ruiz de Santayan y Reboiro, Santayana's father. When Santayana was nine, his family moved to the United States, and settled in Boston. On arrival he did not speak English, though he made it his literary language. In his new home country Santayana considered himself only an observer. He never became an American citizen and he always maintained a certain distance from the American culture.

Santayana studied at Boston Latin School, and Harvard University, Cambridge (1882-86). In 1888 he was Walker Fellow in Germany and England, and in 1889 he received his Ph.D. At Harvard, Santayna was first Willim James's student, then his colleague. It has been often said, that they didn't like each other and they were different in their philosophical thought, but Santayna appreciated James's intellectual honesty, his vitality and imagination. Santayana himself was socially aloof, and he felt more comfortable in the company of students than fellow professors. "He laughed not with his lips only, but with his whole face," recalled the daughter of his colleague. "His was a laugh to delight a child's heart, the laugh of Peter Pan, brimming over with pure merriment." (William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson, 2006, p. 286)

Santayana's dissertation, which Santayna wrote in his mother's house in Roxbury, was on the German philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze; originally he planned to write on Arthur Schopenhauer, whose bleak view of the world had much in common to that of his own. In 1896-97 he studied at King's College, Cambridge. Santayana taught at Harvard University from 1889-1912, where his students included T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Walter Lippmann.

Although Santayana was a popular lecturer, his professional career proceeded slowly. He rarely attended faculty meetings and he did not get along well with the powerful Harvard president, Charles William Eliot, who said of him, "The withdrawn, contemplative man who takes no part in the everyday work of the institution or of the world, seems to me to be a person of very uncertain future value. His does not dig ditches, or lay bricks, or write school-books, his product is not of the ordinary, though humble kind. What will it be?" (Glimpses of the Harvard Past by Bernard Bailyn, Donald Fleming, Oscar Handlin, Stephan Thernstrom, 1986, p. 67) At the beginning of his academic career, Santayana was notoriously bad teacher. Upon the publication of The Life of Reason; or, The Phases of Human Progress (1905-06) Santayana was promoted from assistant to full professor, and in 1909 he was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

His early poems Santayana published in The Harvard Monthly. Sonnets and Other Verses came out in 1894, and the verse drama Lucifer: A Theological Tragedy in 1899, but after A Hermit of Carmel and Other Poems (1901), his final volume of verse, Santayana concentrated on writing prose. In 1905-06 he was Hyde Lecturer at Sorbonne, Paris. His lectures on the philosophy of history formed the foundation of The Life of Reason, a five-volume response to Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind and an interpretation of the role of reason in manifold activities of the human spirit. Santayana argued that happiness is the good for humankind and is best secured by the harmonization of our various interests by the use of reason. From this basis he asked in the 'Introduction:' "In which of its adventures would the human race, reviewing its whole experience, acknowledge a profress and a gain."Santayana focused his survey on society, religion, art and science. Abstract or non-objective art he viewed with suspicion.

Exhausted by "thistles of trivial and narrow scholarship" and intellectual conformism, Santayana stated that "To covet truth is a very distinguished passion. Every philosopher says he is pursuing the truth, but this is seldom the case." ('The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy (1911),' in The Essential Santayana: Selected Writings by George Santayana, edited by The Santayana Edition, Compiled and with an Introduction by Martin A. Coleman, 2009, p. 532) Santayana lived in America until he was 50 years old, and then started his life as a "wandering scholar."

In 1912, after the death of his mother, Santayana moved to Europe, living three years in England, then in France, and moving finally to Rome (1925-52). While in Paris, he favored prior to 1914 a hotel near the palace de la République. During the twenties, he usually stayed with his friend, the American psychologist and philosopher Charles A. Strong, at 9 avenue de l'Observatoire or took a room at the Trianon Palace Hôtel on rue de Vaugirard. Santayana's closest friend and literary  secretary and assistant during the last decades of his life was Daniel MacGhie Cory. He became  Santayana's literary executor. After Daniel's death his wife Margot (Margaret Cory) succeeded her husband as the literary executrix.

Santayana never returned to the United States. In 1923 he published Scepticism and Animal Faith, which was acclaimed as the greatest contribution of critical realism to epistemology. According to Santayana, all rational processes are expressions of animal compulsion to believe certain things, such as the existence of matter. We have an irresistible urge ("animal faith") to believe that there exists an external world. Further, Santayana distinguishes between existence and being – the latter has four realms: essence, matter, truth and spirit. Matter is external to consciousness, and all existence is grounded in matter. Spirit and body are realizations of the same fact in incomparable realms of being. Santayana's Platonist as well as materialist system of philosophy is set out in the comprehensive 4-volume Realms of Being (1927-40). In its last volume, The Reals of Spirit (1940), Santayana concluded that spirit, too, is material.

Santayana' style was ornate but eloquent, full or metaphors, similes and irony. Experimentation is the arts he viewed with suspicion. He despised idealism and its spiritual home, Germany, and especially Hegel's philosophy. Generally disillusioned about progress, Santayana's political conservatism had also a skeptical foundation. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is his most famous aphorism. (The Life of Reason, or, The Phases of Human Progress by George Santayana, 1917, p. 284; original edition published 1905) He felt that no system of thought is to be trusted, and wrote that "Mind does not come to repeat the world but to celebrate it." ('A General Confession (1940),' in The Essential Santayana: Selected Writings by George Santayana, edited by The Santayana Edition, Compiled and with an Introduction by Martin A. Coleman, 2009, p. 22) In Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) Santayana stated that human imagination compensates for the limitations of understanding – art arises in response to our need for entertainment through our senses and imagination. 

From 1920 on, Santayana spent many winters in Rome, and then went to Cortina d'Ampezzo to escape the hot summers. He admired Mussolini and felt contempt for the British statesman Anthony Eden, calling him "an odious tyrant" and compared him to President Charles William Eliot. Moreover, he referred to the League of  Nations as "these mad people at Geneva." ('Preface,' in The Letters of George Santayana: Book Five, 1933-1936, Edited and with an Introduction by William G. Holzberger, 2003, p. xxii) After the outbreak of WWII, Santayana stayed in Italy, like the American poet Ezra Pound, with whom he formed a literary friendship. Economically he was relatively comfortable. He lived on the small inheritance from his mother, and on his earnings as a writer, but due to the war, he was cut off from his source funds in the United States.

During the final years of his life, Santayana was tended by the English sisters of the Little Company of Mary. However, he was never a practicing Catholic. Santayana died in Rome on September 26, 1952. Only a small group was present at the burial.  Margot Cory read aloud Santayana's poem 'The Poet's Testament' in which he wrote: "I give back to earth what the earth gave, / All to the furrow, nothing to the grave." ('Preface,' in The Letters of George Santayana: Book Eight, 1948-1952, Edited with an Introduction by William G. Holzberger, 2008, pp. xxxviii-xxix)  Santayana, a latent homosexual, had a disdain for heterosexuality – he called it "breeding." Santayana's autobiographical work, Personsa and Places (1944-53), became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Edmund Wilson compared it to The Education of Henry Adams (1907), Yeats's memoirs and Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27).

Santayana wrote poems, a great deal of literary criticism, and the bestselling novel The Last Puritan (1935). At the time of its appearance he was already seventy. The story of the tragic fate of a sincere and intelligent man struggling against Boston gentily was written over twenty years. It arose from Santayana's dislike of what he found most antipathetic in American life: Calvinism and Transcendentalism. The hero is Oliver Alden, a heir of the wealthy New England family. He and his mother are abandoned by his hedonistic drug addict-father, who wanders about the world in his yacht. Oliver joins at the age of 17 him for a cruise and meets Jim Darnley, a young male paid companion. Oliver turns into a handsome and athletic critic of his decadent surroundings. His father commits suicide. After graduation Oliver visits the Darnleys in England and falls in love with Jim's sister Rose, who falls in love with Mario, Oliver's European cousin. Oliver, who has become neurotic and febrile, follows Marios example and enters the army at the outbreak of World War I. He leaves for France and is killed there.

For further reading: The Philosophy of George Santayana, ed. P.A. Schilpp (1940); Vida y Pensamiento de Jorge Santayana by L. Farré (1953); Santayana and the Sense of Beauty by Willard E. Arnett (1955); Santayana: The Later Years by Daniel Cory (1963); The Philosophy of George Santayana, ed. by Paul Arthur Schillp (1971, orig. ed. 1940); Santayana, an Examination of His Philosophy by T. Sprigge (1974); George Santayana: A Biography by John McCormick (1987); Critical Esays on George Santayana, ed. K. Price (1991); George Santayana by D. Carter (1992); Santayana by H.S. Levinson (1992); Santayana and America: Values, Liberties, Responsibility by Krysztof Piotr Skowroñski (2007); George Santayana's Philosophy of Religion: His Roman Catholic Influences and Phenomenology by Edward W. Lovely; foreword by Robert S. Corrington (2013); Santayana the Philosopher: Philosophy as a form of Life by Daniel Moreno; translated by Charles Padrón (2015); A Life of Scholarship with Santayana: Essays and Reflections by Herman J. Saatkamp Jr.; edited by Charles Padrón and Krzysztof Piotr Skowroński (2021).

Selected works:

  • Sonnets and Other Verses, 1894
  • The Sense of Beauty; Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory, 1896
  • Lucifer: A Theological Tragedy, 1899
  • Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 1900
  • The Hermit of Carmel, and Other Poems, 1901
  • Reason in Art, 1903
  • The Life of Reason, or, The Phases of Human Progress, 1905-06 (5 vols.)
  • Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, 1910
  • Winds of Doctrine; Studies in Contemporary Opinion, 1913
  • Egotism in German Philosophy, 1916
  • Character & Opinion in the United States, 1920 (with reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and academic life in America)
  • Little Essays Drawn from the Writings of George Santayana, 1920 (edited by Logan Pearsall Smith, with the collaboration of the author)
  • Soliloquies in England and Later Sololoquies 1922
  • Reason and Art, 1922
  • Scepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy, 1923 - Epäily ja usko: Johdatus filosofiseen järjestelmään (suom. Kaj Kauhanen, 1967)
  • Poems, 1923 (selected by the author and revised)
  • The Unknowable; The Herbert Spencer Lecture Delivered at Oxford, 24 October, 1923, 1923
  • Dialogues in Limbo, 1925
  • Platonism and the Spiritual Life, 1927
  • Realms of Being, 1927-40 (4 vols.: The Realm of Essense, 1927; The Realm of Matter, 1930; The Realm of Truth, 1938; The Realm of Spirit, 1940)
  • The Genteel Tradition at Bay, 1931
  • Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays, 1933
  • The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, 1935
    - Viimeinen puritaani: muistelma romaanin muodossa (suom. Aune Brotherus, 1938)
  • Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews, 1936 (ed. Justus Buchler and Benjamin Schwartz)
  • The Philosophy of Santayana, 1936 (edited, with an introductory essay, by Irwin Edman)
  • Works of George Sanrayana, 1936-40 (15 vols.)
  • Persons and Places, 1944-53 (3 vols.)
  • The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or. God in Man: A Critical Essay, 1946
  • Atoms of Thought; an Anthology of Thoughts, 1950
  • Dominations and Powers; Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government, 1951
  • The Poets Testament: Poems and Two Plays, 1953
  • The Letters of George Santrayana, 1955 (edited by Daniel Cory)
  • Essays in Literary Criticism, 1956 (ed. Irving Singer)
  • The Idler and His Works, and Other Essays, 1957 (edited by Daniel Cory)
  • The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana, 1967 (ed. Douglas L. Wilson)
  • George Santayana’s America; Essays on Literature and Culture, 1967 (collected and with an introd. by James Ballowe)
  • Animal Faith and Spiritual Life, 1967 (edited by John Lachs)
  • Selected Critical Writings of George Santayana, 1968 (2 vols., edited by Norman Henfrey)
  • Physical Order and Moral Liberty; Previously Unpublished Essays of George Santayana 1969 (eds. John and Shirley Lachs)
  • Poems of George Santayana, 1970 (selected by Robert Hutchinson)
  • Lines on Leaving the Bedford St. Schoolhouse, 1971
  • Lotze's System of Philosophy, 1971 (ed. Paul Grimley Kuntz)
  • The Complete Poems of George Santayana: A Critical Edition, 1979 (ed. W. G. Holzberger)
  • The Works of George Santayana, 1986-2008 (8 vols., ed. Marianne S. Wokeck et al.)
  • The Birth of Reason and Other Essays, 1995 (ed. Daniel Cory)
  • The Letters of George Santayana, 2001-2006 (8 vols., ed. William G. Holzberger et al.)
  • The Essential Santayana, 2009 (introduction by Martin A. Coleman)
  • The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy; and Character and Opinion in the United States, 2010 (edited by James Seaton)
  • George Santayana’s Marginalia: A Critical Selection, 2011 (2 vols., edited and with an introduction by John McCormick)
  • The Life of Reason, or, The Phases of Human Progress, 2011- (co-edited by Marianne S. Wokeck and Martin A. Coleman; introduction by James Gouinlock)
  • Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, 2019 (coedited by Kellie Dawson and David E. Spiech; with an introduction by James Seaton)

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