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Santayana, George: 1863-1952: Philosopher

George Santayana: 1863-1952: Philosopher

The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana is popularly known for a single sentence that has entered the stock arsenal of American political rhetoric: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Santayana wrote in his 1905 book Reason in Common Sense. Students of Santayana's work complain that the maxim has been taken out of context: originally it formed part of a theory about how knowledge is acquired rather than being a moral exhortation to pay attention to history, and it has a didactic quality that is foreign to the subtle, paradoxical, and occasionally humorous quality of Santayana's thought.

Yet Santayana's little sentence forms a good introduction to his work in several respects. It is elegantSantayana was noted among philosophers as an elegant writer, one who addressed himself to the general educated reader rather than primarily to fellow philosophers. And the sentence embodies an interest in how the human spirit constructs an ordered worldthough Santayana was in the philosophical sense a materialist who denied the existence of the soul, he nevertheless believed, in the words of Wilfred McClay writing in the Wilson Quarterly, that although the spirit was a mere byproduct of the natural world, "the realm of the spirit was all the more to be cherished because it was the only truly human consolation within the vast indifference of nature."

Given Traditional American Education

Santayana was born in Madrid, Spain, on December 16, 1863. His father was a Spanish diplomat who had served in the Philippines. Santayana's mother was his father's second wife; she was the widow of an American businessman from Boston, and soon after Santayana was born she moved to Boston because she wanted her children from her first marriage to be educated there. Santayana was brought to Boston by his father in 1872, but the father soon returned to Spain.

Though he arrived in Boston speaking almost no English, Santayana excelled at Boston Latin School, then as now one of the most competitive college preparatory institutions in the United States. In 1882 he enrolled at Harvard, where he notched a brilliant record as a student and became involved in such extracurricular activities as the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine even though he felt a certain detachment from Harvard's Anglo-Saxon-Protestant atmosphere and satirized the school in his autobiographical 1936 novel, The Last Puritan. Santayana studied at Harvard with William James, then considered the dean of American philosophers. After his graduation in 1886, he studied in Germany for two years, but returned to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. degree, which he finished in 1889.

At a Glance . . .

Born Jorge Santayana on December 16, 1863, in Madrid, Spain; died on September 26, 1952, in Rome, Italy. Education: Harvard University, BA, 1886, PhD, 1889.

Career: Harvard University, faculty, 1889-1912; author, 1896-1952.

A slot filling in for the overworked James quickly evolved into a full professorship at Harvard for Santayana, who became part of the school's faculty for 23 years. His students there included several who went on to become famous American writers themselves: poets Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot, and political writer Walter Lippmann. Santayana, who never married and whom historians believe to have been an inactive homosexual, still chafed at the atmosphere of repressive New England. "I wonder if you realize," he wrote to James in a letter quoted in the Wilson Quarterly, "the years of suppressed irritation which I have passed in the midst of an unintelligible, sanctimonious, and often disingenuous Protestantism, which is thoroughly alien and repulsive to me." Although an atheist, Santayana maintained a cultural connection to Roman Catholicism.

Published Major Works While at Harvard

In spite of these reactions, Santayana was productive at Harvard. Between 1896 and World War I he produced several works that catapulted him to the top rank of American philosophy occupied by James, John Dewey, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Sense of Beauty was a complete theory of aesthetics, and Interpretations of Poetry and Religion linked those two forms of human endeavor as expressions of a common effort to represent human ideals. The Life of Reason; or The Phases of Human Progress was a giant work exploring the nature and role of reason in human civilization. Santayana also published two books of poetry, a study of the philosophically oriented poets Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, various other works, and numerous essays. Although his works were difficult to grasp in their entirety, they were readable and full of quotable aphorisms, and well-educated readers took to them vigorously. Santayana became part of the American image of what a philosopher should be, and later in his life he even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

In 1912 Santayana's mother died and left him a $10,000 inheritancenot a luxurious sum, but enough to allow Santayana to resign his position at Harvard and devote the rest of his career to living a simple life of the mind. He left the United States permanently, disillusioned by what he called the "genteel tradition" (another phrase that entered the American language) in American thought even though he admired the country's energy and imagination. "The good things" about America, he wrote in a letter quoted in the Wilson Quarterly, "are football, kindness, and jazz bands." Santayana spent years during World War I mostly in England. Between the two world wars, he traveled heavily around Europe, likening himself to a wandering student of the medieval era. He lived in France and Spain before settling in Rome, Italy in the mid-1920s.

Much of Santayana's time in the late 1920s and 1930s was taken up by a mammoth four-volume work entitled The Realm of Being, a systematic summary of his ideas about the nature of being. These volumes introduced Santayana's concept of essencesbasic elements of the structure of existence that humans cannot know, but that nevertheless shape the way humans know, think, and believe. Santayana wrote several highly readable and challenging volumes of memoirs in his later years. During World War II he lived a contemplative life, largely untroubled by the carnage going on around him. Now in his eighties, Santayana was cared for in a convent by a group of English nuns. After the war he penned a bestseller entitled The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; that book, which sold out the day it was published, treated the Passion story as an inspirational legend rather than as literal truth.

The aged Santayana was the subject of a famed poem, "To an Old Philosopher in Rome," written by his former student Wallace Stevens. He continued to write until shortly before his death in Rome on September 26, 1952. Partly owing to an occasional but persistent anti-Semitic strain in his writings, Santayana's reputation declined in the years after his death. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, scholars began to investigate his legacy, publishing new editions of his writings and undertaking studies of his thought. A biography of the philosopher by John McCormick was published in 1987.

Selected writings

The Sense of Beauty, Scribners, 1896.

Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, Scribners, 1900.

The Life of Reason, or, The Phases of Human Progress, Scribners, 1905-06.

Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, Harvard University Press, 1910.

Scepticism and Animal Faith, Scribners, 1923.

Realms of Being, Scribners, 1927-40.

The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel, Scribners, 1936.

Persons and Places, three vols., Scribners, 1944-53 (autobiography).

The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, Scribners, 1946.



Dictionary of American Biography: Supplement 5: 1951-1955, American Council of Learned Societies, 1977.

McCormick, John, George Santayana: A Biography, Knopf, 1987.


Great Thinkers of the Western World, Annual 1999, p. 445.

New Criterion, February 2002, p. 18.

New Republic, May 18, 1997, p. 28.

Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2001, p. 48.


"George Santayana," American Decades CD-ROM, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, (March 28,2003).

"George Santayana," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003; reproduced in Biography Resource Center (March 26, 2003).

James M. Manheim

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