Idiosyncratic and paradoxical, George Santayana has been a largely neglected figure among modern philosophical essayists for several reasons: he had no homeland with colleagues and a following (though he taught for many years at Harvard); his essays on aesthetics (for which he is probably best remembered) are in some cases difficult and in many ways elusive, if not obscure; and, finally, his deliberate failure to create anything like a complete system of thought has perhaps kept a dedicated coterie or school of
“Santayanans” from forming. Nonetheless, Santayana is a fascinating essayist with challenging insights, a beautiful (if at times florid) writing style, a disarming honesty (which is the source of certain contradictory facets of his thought), and on occasion an ability to penetrate to the very depth of wisdom.
Born in Madrid (his mother was Scottish, his father Spanish), Santayana came to the United States when he was nine. He spoke no English on arrival and continued to converse in Spanish at home even after he learned the new language, though he was to become a master stylist in it and all of his books would be written in English. He lived in the United States for 40 years and taught there until he was 50 years old, yet he never admitted being more than an alien in the United States and (at times) a friendly observer.
Santayana once commented that his Americanism (discussed, among other places, in his volume of essays Character and Opinion in the United States, 1920) was two-sided—one involuntary and one voluntary. The first of these was due simply to the fact that he was sent to the U.S. and lived there not through free choice. The second, voluntary side, he said was due to his American friendships, which were more numerous, loyal, and sympathetic than any others of his life.
The spirit of Santayana’s philosophy was summarized in his earliest book, The Sense of Beauty (1896), when he writes: “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 discoverers of historical truth.”
This is clearly the purpose and meaning of all his later work.
He emphasized on numerous occasions that his primary concern was with values, both ethical and aesthetic, and believed that such areas were too complex and difficult for any one theory or system to explain. He insisted that there is no “snug” universe, not even a rational one in any simple sense. Rejecting all orthodoxies, Santayana regarded philosophy as an art of sorts whose practice is valued as life-enhancing and significant; and while he felt that no system of thought is to be trusted, all systems may be used if they produce a degree of understanding. Further, he argues in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) that the human mind has five senses providing data, a moderate power of understanding to interpret the sensory data, and “A passionate fancy to overlay that interpretation.” This “passionate fancy” is the human imagination, which compensates for the limitations of understanding by opening up vistas and filling in outlines.
In the essay “A General Confession” (1940), Santayana also proclaims that critical reflection has freed him from “the horrid claim” of his ideas having literal truth. He comments: “Mind does not come to repeat the world but to celebrate it” and “All is a tale told, if not by an idiot, at least, by a dreamer; but it is far from signifying nothing.” Thus, as Santayana explains in The Sense of Beauty, art arises in response to our need for entertainment through our senses and imagination. Here he emphasizes that the pleasure accompanying sensuous and/or imaginative activity is real and basic. Humans gain positive and immediate pleasure when experiencing certain objects, associating pleasure with these objects. Santayana believed this association is the ground for attributing beauty to the objects experienced instead of recognizing that the term “beauty” has its origin in the experiences themselves, in a person’s senses and feelings. Beauty is most accurately described as “objectified pleasure”; Santayana explained that aesthetic pleasure takes us directly to the object at the same time as the bodily organ is stimulated.
He thus writes, “Beauty is an emotional element, a pleasure of ours, which we nevertheless regard as a quality of things.”
The most significant aspect of Santayana’s philosophical essays is clearly his enthusiastic emphasis on the value of art, beauty, imagination, and human creativity. He once commented that the arts “are employments of our freedom after the work of life is done and the terror of it is allayed”—but clearly he did not see the enjoyment of art and the appreciation of beauty as an escape from life. On the contrary, they are essential elements in any life but the most spiritually and culturally impoverished. Without the development of aesthetic taste, our experiential lives will become nothing but, as he puts it, “drowsy reverie relieved by nervous thrills.”
Born Jorge Agustin Nicolas de Santayana, 16 December 1863 in Madrid. Moved to the United States, 1872. Studied at Boston Latin School, from 1874; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1882–86, A.B., 1886, A.M. (Walker Fellow in Germany and England), 1888, Ph.D., 1889; King’s College, Cambridge, 1896–97. Taught at Harvard University, 1889–1912.; Hyde Lecturer, the Sorbonne, Paris, 1905–06. Moved to Europe, 1912, living in England, France, then primarily in Rome, 1925–52. Spencer Lecturer, Oxford University, 1923. Awards: Royal Society of Literature Benson Medal, 1928;
Columbia University Butler Gold Medal, 1945; honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin. Member, American Academy. Died in Rome, 26 September 1952.
Essays and Related Prose
Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 1900
Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, 1910
Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion, 1913
Egotism in German Philosophy, 1916; as The German Mind: A Philosophical Diagnosis, 1968
Character and Opinion in the United States, 1920
Little Essays, edited by Logan Pearsall Smith, 1920
Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, 1922
Dialogues in Limbo, 1925; enlarged edition, 1948
The Genteel Tradition at Bay, 1931
Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays, 1933
Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays, and Reviews, edited by Justus Buchler and Benjamin Schwartz, 1936
The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or, God in Man: A Critical Essay, 1946
Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government, 1951
Essays in Literary Criticism, edited by Irving Singer, 1956
The Idler and His Works, and Other Essays, edited by Daniel Cory, 1957
The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays, edited by Douglas L.Wilson, 1967
Animal Faith and Spiritual Life: Previously Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, edited by John Lachs, 1967
George Santayana’s America: Essays on Literature and Culture, edited by James Ballowe, 1967
Selected Critical Writings, edited by Norman Henfrey, 2. vols., 1968
The Birth of Reason and Other Essays, edited by Daniel Cory, 1968
Santayana on America: Essays, Notes, and Letters on American Life, Literature, and Philosophy, edited by Richard C.Lyon, 1968
Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays, edited by John and Shirley Lachs, 1969
Other writings: the novel The Last Puritan (1935), poetry, many books on philosophy (including The Sense of Beauty, 1896; The Life of Reason, 5 vols., 1905–06; Reason and
Art, 1922; Sceptidsm and Animal Faith, 1923; Realms of Being, 4 vols., 1927–40),
correspondence, and three volumes of autobiography (1944–53).
Collected works editions: Works (Triton Edition), 15 vols., 1936–40; Works, edited by William G.Holzberger and Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., 4 vols., 1986–94 (in progress).
Saatkamp, Herman J., Jr., and John Jones, George Santayana: A Bibliographical Checklist 1880–1980, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Philosophy
Documentation Center, 1982.
Arnett, Willard E., Santayana and the Sense of Beauty, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955
Cory, Daniel, Santayana: The Later Years: A Portrait tvith Letters, New York: Braziller, 1963
McCormick, John, George Santayana: A Biography, New York: Knopf, 1987
Schilpp, Paul Arthur, editor, The Philosophy of George Santayana, La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1971 (original edition, 1940)
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