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date: 07 December 2019

Santayana, Georgefree

(16 December 1863–26 September 1952)
  • Herman J. Saatkamp

George Santayana.

Oil on canvas, 1950, by Harry Wood, Jr..

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Santayana, George (16 December 1863–26 September 1952), philosopher and writer, was born in Madrid, Spain, the son of Agustín Ruiz de Santayana, a Spanish diplomat, and Josefina Sturgis (formerly Josefina Borrás y Carbonell), the daughter of a Spanish diplomat. His mother had previously married a Boston merchant, George Sturgis, who died in 1857. Santayana was christened Jorge Agustín Nicolás, but his half sister Susana insisted that his name not be the Spanish Jorge, but George, after her father. A permanent resident of Spain only during 1863–1872, he retained his Spanish citizenship throughout his life and frequently returned to visit family and to write.

In 1869 Santayana’s mother left Spain, fulfilling a pledge to her first husband to raise their children in Boston. In 1872 Santayana’s father brought George to Boston and after a few months returned alone to Spain. The separation between father and mother was permanent. In Boston, Santayana attended a kindergarten to learn English. He later completed his B.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard College (1882–1889), including eighteen months of study in Germany. Santayana regularly corresponded with his father, and after his first year at Harvard, Santayana lived with or visited him in Spain for portions of each year until his father’s death in 1893.

Santayana’s juvenilia include Un matrimonio (A married couple), the poem of an eight-year-old describing the trip of a newly married couple who meet the queen of Spain; a poetic parody of the Aeneid; “A Short History of the Class of ’82”; and “Lines on Leaving the Bedford St. Schoolhouse.” At Harvard he was active as a member of eleven organizations, including the Lampoon (largely as a cartoonist), the Harvard Monthly (a founding member), the Philosophical Club (president), and the Hasty Pudding.

Several scholars have concluded that Santayana led an active homosexual life from his student days on, but their evidence is drawn largely from allusions in Santayana’s early poetry (McCormick, pp. 49–52) and supported by the known homosexual and bisexual orientations of several of Santayana’s friends and associates. Santayana never married, and he provides no clear indication of his sexual preferences. Attraction to both women and men seems evident in his correspondence. The one documented comment about his homosexuality was made when he was sixty-five. Following a discussion of A. E. Housman’s poetry and homosexuality, Santayana remarked, “I think I must have been that way in my Harvard days—although I was unconscious of it at the time” (Cory, Santayana, p. 40).

As a faculty member at Harvard University (1889–1912), Santayana was hesitant about academic life from the start. His father had hoped he would return to Spain either to pursue a diplomatic career or to become an architect. Although Santayana chose scholarship and teaching, he continued at first to live more as a student. He found faculty meetings, committees, and governance structures largely empty, their discussions mostly partisan heat over false issues, and the general corporate and businesslike adaptation of universities not conducive to intellectual curiosity, development, and growth. In a letter to a friend in 1892, Santayana expressed the hope that his academic life would be “resolutely unconventional” and noted that he could only be a professor per accidens, saying, “I would rather beg than be one essentially” (letter to H. W. Abbot, 15 Feb. 1892).

Santayana, along with William James and Josiah Royce, was a central figure in an era now called Classical American Philosophy. He became a popular teacher, and his students included poets (Conrad Aiken, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens), journalists and writers (Walter Lippmann, Max Eastman, Van Wyck Brooks), professors (Samuel Eliot Morison, Harry Austryn Wolfson), a Supreme Court justice (Felix Frankfurter), many diplomats (including his friend Bronson Cutting), and a university president (James B. Conant).

In 1893 Santayana underwent a change of heart. He gradually altered his mode of living and eventually began to plan for his early retirement. Three events preceded what he called his metanoia: the unexpected death of a young student, witnessing his father’s death, and the marriage of his sister Susana. Santayana’s reflections on these events led to a festive conclusion: “Cultivate imagination, love it, give it endless forms, but do not let it deceive you. Enjoy the world, travel over it, and learn its ways, but do not let it hold you. … To possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare” (Persons and Places, pp. 427–28). For Santayana, this conclusion was liberating; it was the ancient wisdom that acceptance of the tragic leads to a lyrical release.

Naturalism and the lyrical cry of human imagination became the focal points of Santayana’s life and thought, and they set him apart from his colleagues in the Harvard philosophy department. His naturalism had its historical roots in Aristotle and Benedictus de Spinoza and its contemporary background in James’s pragmatism and Royce’s idealism. But the focus on and celebration of creative imagination in all human endeavors (particularly in art, philosophy, religion, literature, and science) is one of Santayana’s major contributions to American thought.

The beginning of Santayana’s philosophical career was “resolutely unconventional.” His first book was Sonnets and Other Verses (1894), a book of poems, not philosophy. And until the turn of the century, much of his intellectual life was directed toward the writing of verse and drama. He was a principal figure in making modernism possible, although he cannot be considered a modernist in poetry or literature. His naturalism and emphasis on constructive imagination influenced both Eliot and Stevens: Eliot’s notion of the “objective correlative” is drawn from Santayana, and Stevens follows Santayana in his refined naturalism by incorporating both Platonism and Christianity without any nostalgia for God or dogma.

Santayana also had a major effect in transforming the American literary canon. He was among the Harvard intellectuals who helped displace the dominant canon of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William Cullen Bryant. Santayana’s essay “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (presented to the Philosophical Union of the University of California in 1911) greatly affected Van Wyck Brooks’s America’s Coming-of-Age (1915), a book that set the tone for modernism. Brooks drew directly on Santayana’s essay, adapting Santayana’s idea of two Americas to fit his notion of an American split between highbrow and lowbrow culture.

By the turn of the century Santayana’s philosophical interests exceeded his poetical ones, but he never abandoned poetry. The trench warfare and casualties of World War I inspired some of his most moving work: “A Premonition: Cambridge, October, 1913”; “The Undergraduate Killed in Battle: Oxford, 1915”; “Sonnet: Oxford, 1916”; and “The Darkest Hour: Oxford, 1917.” Throughout his life, even near death, he would recite long fragments of Horace, Racine, Leopardi, and others.

His philosophical writings during his Harvard years extended the development of his pragmatic naturalism and his literary interests. The Sense of Beauty (1896) remains a primary source for the study of aesthetics. Philip Blair Rice wrote in the foreword to the 1955 Modern Library edition, “To say that aesthetic theory in America reached maturity with The Sense of Beauty is in no way an overstatement.” In the introduction to the 1988 critical edition, Arthur Danto notes that Santayana brings “beauty down to earth” by treating it as a subject for science and giving it a central role in human conduct, in contrast to the preceding intellectualist tradition of aesthetics. In Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) Santayana develops his view that religion and poetry are celebrations of life, but if either is taken for science, that art of life is lost along with the beauty of poetry and religion. The impact of Santayana’s view was significant, and Henry James (after reading Interpretations of Poetry and Religion) wrote that he would “crawl across London” if need be to meet Santayana.

The five books of The Life of Reason: or the Phases of Human Progress (1905–1906) marked Santayana as a major force in the philosophy of the new century. This work became almost canonical for naturalists such as Frederick Woodbridge, Irwin Edman, John Randall, Erskine, Cohen, and Lamont. A survey of the religions, societies, arts, and sciences of the Western world, The Life of Reason deciphers intellectual policies consistent with reasonable action. From this work comes the often-quoted warning to those who do not remember the past: they are condemned to repeat it (Reason in Common Sense, p. 284). Morris R. Cohen noted that it “is the only comprehensive, carefully articulated, philosophy of life and civilization which has been produced on these shores” (American Thought, p. 311).

Three Philosophical Poets (1910)—Santayana’s analysis of Lucretius, Dante, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—unites his philosophical and poetic interests. According to John McCormick, one of Santayana’s biographers, it is “a classical work and one of the few written in America to be genuinely comparative in conception and execution, for its absence of national bias and its intellectual, linguistic, and aesthetic range” (p. 193).

Santayana announced his retirement in May 1911, but Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell asked him to wait and agreed to give Santayana as much free time as he needed. After he initially assented, the resolve to retire overtook Santayana’s sense of obligation to Harvard. His mother had died, leaving him a small inheritance. The legacy plus the steady income from publications made retirement easier, and Santayana arranged for his half brother to manage his finances. Hence, in January 1912, at forty-eight, Santayana was free to write, free to travel, free to choose his residence and country, and free from the constraints of university regimen and expectations.

During World War I he resided first in London and then primarily at Oxford and Cambridge. After that, his principal locales were Paris, Madrid, Ávila, the Riviera, Florence, Cortina d’Ampezzo, and Rome. Harvard attempted to bring Santayana back as a professor as early as 1917 and as late as 1929 offered him the Norton Chair in Poetry, one of Harvard’s most respected faculty positions. In 1931 he turned down an invitation from Brown University, and Harvard later tempted him to accept for only a term a newly established honorary post, the William James Lecturer in Philosophy. But Santayana never returned to America. In 1932 he delivered two public addresses celebrating the tricentennial of the births of Spinoza and John Locke: “Ultimate Religion,” presented in The Hague, and “Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense,” presented to the Royal Society of Literature in London.

Becoming a full-time writer led to remarkable productivity. In retirement, Santayana published sixteen works, including Winds of Doctrine (1913), Character and Opinion in the United States (1920), Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), the four books of The Realms of Being (1927, 1930, 1938, 1940), The Last Puritan (1935), The Idea of Christ in the Gospels (1946), and Dominations and Powers (1951). Santayana appeared on the cover of Time on 3 February 1936 in conjunction with his bestselling novel, The Last Puritan. The novel and his 1944 autobiography, Persons and Places, were each for several months at the top of the Book-of-the-Month Club selections.

In Character and Opinion in the United States, Santayana offers his principal reasons for leaving the United States. The English emphasis on social cooperation and personal integrity are corrupted in America so that “[y]ou must wave, you must cheer, you must push with the irresistible crowd; otherwise you will feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast, a deserted ship high and dry on the shore” (p. 211).

Santayana’s mature philosophical naturalism is introduced in Scepticism and Animal Faith. With Spanish irony Santayana structured the book after René Descartes’s Meditations while arriving at the opposite conclusion. Genuine doubt ends in a meaningless “solipsism of the present moment,” and philosophy must begin in medias res with an instinctive, arational belief in the natural world. This natural belief Santayana called “animal faith.” By focusing on animal action Santayana displaced privileged mentalistic accounts with his pragmatic naturalism. This challenge to American and English philosophy is carried forward in his four-volume Realms of Being, which focuses on distinguishable characteristics of our knowledge of the world: matter, essence, spirit, and truth. Santayana’s antifoundationalism, pragmatic naturalism, emphasis on the spiritual life, and view of the philosophy of literature anticipated many developments in philosophy and literary criticism that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century and served as a challenge to the more humanistic naturalism of John Dewey.

The Last Puritan, Santayana’s only novel, was an international success that was favorably compared with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Walter Pater’s Marius, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Essentially, it is about the life and early death of an American youth, Oliver Alden, who is sadly restricted by his puritanism. Santayana draws a sharp contrast with the European Mario, who delights in all matters without a narrow moralism.

In October 1941, having failed in his efforts to leave Rome before World War II, Santayana entered the Clinica delle Piccola Compagna di Maria, a hospital clinic run by an order of Catholic nuns, where he lived until his death eleven years later. He is buried in the Panteon de la Obra Pia espanola in Rome’s Campo Verano cemetery.

The fear that Santayana’s autobiography would be lost or destroyed during World War II led Scribner’s, the publisher, to conspire with the U.S. Department of State, the Vatican, and the Spanish government to bring the manuscript of the first part (Persons and Places) out of Rome sub rosa, despite the Italian government’s refusal to allow any mail to the United States. The manuscript for the second part (The Middle Span, 1945) also was conveyed surreptitiously to New York. The third part (My Host the World, 1953) was published after Santayana’s death.

Throughout Santayana’s life he displayed both intellectual and financial generosity. In 1937, when Bertrand Russell was unable to find a teaching post in the United States or England, Santayana provided significant financial support, although their philosophical and political outlooks conflicted. Both his financial and his personal generosity are reflected in his correspondence, which provides some of the greatest insights into his person and intellect. Lionel Trilling said he could think of no collection of letters comparable in their sustained quality except those of Keats.

There is no question that Santayana was politically conservative; in short, he believed that freedom derived from order and not order from freedom. Hence, he developed many criticisms of democratic liberalism that began with his youthful assessments of his father’s political inclinations and ended with Dominations and Powers. He viewed human behavior as natural, an outgrowth of material heritage and environment, and as subject to the “authority of things.” Believing that suffering is the worst feature of human life, he focused more on the dilemmas of individuals than on broader social inequalities. This focus and his institutional pragmatism (a view that all institutions, including governments, are inextricably rooted in their culture and background) partially explain why Santayana held that particular views of social inequality could not be transferred easily from one culture to another. His hesitancy in the area of social justice led to criticism from American philosophers, including John Dewey and Sidney Hook, but his consistent “Latin” perspective caused him to look with considerable suspicion toward Anglo-Saxon outlooks forcing their way on other cultures.

Santayana played a towering role in classical American philosophy, the equal of Dewey and James; as an American literary figure his total production is matched perhaps only by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His early retirement left him without graduate students and colleagues to advance his philosophical and literary work, and his influence and reputation waned following his death. The centennial celebrations of Santayana’s birth refocused attention on his philosophy, and Hilary Putnam later remarked, “If there has been less attention paid to Santayana’s philosophy than to that of Royce or Charles Peirce, this is in large part because his philosophical mood and philosophical intuitions were actually ahead of his time. In many ways he anticipated some of the dominant trends of American philosophy of the present day” (“Santayana Restored” [1985], Massachusetts Institute of Technology brochure for The Works of George Santayana).

Santayana presents a remarkable synthesis of European and American thought. His Hispanic heritage, shaded by his sense of being an outsider in America, captures much of the apprehension and concern that are apparent as Americans find their milieus fragmented. His naturalism and emphasis on constructive imagination were harbingers of important intellectual turns on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a naturalist before naturalism grew popular; he accepted multiple perfections before multiculturalism became an issue; he thought of philosophy as literature before it became a theme in American and European scholarly circles; and he managed to naturalize Platonism, update Aristotle, fight off idealisms, and provide a striking and sensitive account of the spiritual life without being a religious believer.


Major collections of Santayana’s papers are at Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Texas, and the University of Waterloo (Canada). A sampling of letters is in The Letters of George Santayana, ed. Daniel Cory (1955), and Santayana: The Later Years, a Portrait with Letters, ed. Cory (1963). Works of Santayana not mentioned in the text include Egotism in German Philosophy (1915), Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922), Dialogues in Limbo (1926), Platonism and the Spiritual Life (1927), The Genteel Tradition at Bay (1931), and Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy (1933). George Santayana: A Bibliographical Checklist, 1880–1980 (1982) is a comprehensive bibliography compiled by Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., and John Jones. MIT Press is publishing a twenty-volume critical edition of The Works of George Santayana with Saatkamp (general editor) and William G. Holzberger (textual editor) that includes Santayana’s published volumes and some unpublished material: Persons and Places, vol. 1 (1986); The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory, vol. 2 (1988); Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, vol. 3 (1990); and The Last Puritan, vol. 4 (1994). Essays and previously unpublished material may also be found in George Santayana’s America, comp. James Ballowe (1967); Santayana on America, ed. Richard C. Lyon (1968); Physical Order and Moral Liberty, ed. John Lachs and Shirley Lachs (1969); and The Complete Poems of George Santayana, ed. Holzberger (1979). Overheard in Seville: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, ed. Angus Kerr-Larson and Saatkamp, publishes critical essays, previously unpublished material, and updated bibliographical information. Biographies include John McCormick, George Santayana: A Biography (1987); Bruno Lind, Vagabond Scholar (1962); and George W. Howgate, George Santayana (1938). David Carter, George Santayana (1992), is a children’s book in the Chelsea House Hispanics of Achievement series. Scholarly accounts of Santayana’s thought include Jacques Duron, La Pensée de George Santayana: Santayana en Amérique (1950); Irving Singer, Santayana’s Aesthetics (1957); Alonso Gamo, Un español en el mundo: Santayana, poesia y poética (1966); Willard Arnett, Santayana and the Sense of Beauty (1955); Timothy Sprigge, Santayana: An Examination of His Philosophy (1974); Lois Hughson, Thresholds of Reality: George Santayana and Modernist Poetics (1977); John Lachs, George Santayana (1988); Anthony Woodward, Living in the Eternal (1988); Nynfa Bosco, Invito al pensiero di George Santayana (1989); Pedro García Martín, El sustrato abulense de Jorge Santayana (1989); and Henry Samuel Levinson, Santayana, Pragmatism, and the Spiritual Life (1992). Critical essays on Santayana are in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of George Santayana (1940); John Lachs, ed., Animal Faith and Spiritual Life (1967); Southern Journal of Philosophy: Special Issue on Santayana (Summer 1972); and Kenneth M. Price and Robert C. Leitz, eds., Critical Essays on George Santayana (1991). Obituaries are in Time, 6 Oct. 1952, and Indice, 15 Oct. 1952.