George Santayana

From New World Encyclopedia

George Santayana (December 16, 1863 in Madrid, Spain – September 26, 1952 in Rome, Italy), was a philosopher, essayist, poet, critic of culture and novelist. Santayana was born in Madrid, Spain but his mother emigrated to the United States, where he was raised and educated as a student of William James at Harvard. A lifelong Spanish citizen who spent the last 40 years of his life in Europe, he wrote in English and is considered an American man of letters. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1889, Santayana became a professor and, eventually, a central figure in the era now called Classical American Philosophy. His students included the poets T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost, journalists and writers, professors, a Supreme Court Justice, many diplomats, and a university president. He retired at age 48 as he found the university life increasingly incompatible with his pursuit of intellectual freedom and delight in living. Leaving Harvard in 1912, he spent the rest of his life writing and traveling in Europe. In that later period he produced a steady stream of reflective essays and books, some of which gained a wide readership beyond academia.

Santayana's main philosophical works are The Sense of Beauty, The Realms of Being (4 volumes), and The Life of Reason (5 volumes), which is one of the first extended treatments of pragmatism and the source of his often quoted aphorism, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." His more popular writings include Platonism and the Spiritual Life, Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy, The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, and the best-selling novel, The Last Puritan.

Santayana was committed to a naturalist metaphysics, in which human cognition, cultural practices, and institutions are considered to have evolved so as to harmonize with their environment and their value is based on their contribution to facilitating human happiness. He argued that the experience of beauty is the highest value in human life.


Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás was born in Madrid, Spain, on December 16, 1863. His father, Agustín Santayana, was a diplomat, painter, and minor intellectual who studied law and practiced for a short time before entering the colonial service for posting to the Philippines. In 1845, he took over the governorship of Batang, a small island in the Philippines, from the recently deceased José Borrás y Bofarull, whose daughter was Josefina Sturgis (formerly Josefina Borrás y Carbonell). She had been born in Scotland and married George Sturgis (d. 1857), a Boston merchant whose early death left her alone in Manila with three children. During a holiday in Spain, Josefina met Agustín again, and they were married in 1861, when he was fifty years of age and she was probably thirty-five. When Santayana was born, his half-sister, Susan, insisted that he be called “George,” after her American father. Santayana, in turn, always referred to his sister in Spanish, as “Susana.”

The family moved from Madrid to Ávila where Santayana spent his first eight years. In 1869, Santayana's mother left Spain in order to raise the Sturgis children in Boston, keeping a pledge to her first husband. In 1872, realizing that the opportunities for his son were better in Boston, his father followed her with Jorge. Finding Boston inhospitable, puritanical, and cold, the father returned alone to Ávila within a few months. The separation between father and mother was permanent. In 1888 Agustín wrote to Josefina: “When we were married I felt as if it were written that I should be reunited with you, yielding to the force of destiny. Strange marriage, this of ours! So you say, and so it is in fact. I love you very much, and you too have cared for me, yet we do not live together” (Persons and Places, 9). Until his father's death in 1893, Santayana regularly corresponded with his father, and visited him after his first year at Harvard College.

In Boston, Santayana's family spoke only Spanish in their home. Santayana first attended Mrs. Welchman's Kindergarten to learn English from the younger children, then became a student at the Boston Latin School, and completed his B.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard College (1882-1889). This included eighteen months of study in Germany on a Walker Fellowship. At Harvard Santayana was a member of 11 organizations including The Lampoon (largely as a cartoonist), the 'Harvard Monthly' (a founding member), the Philosophical Club (President), and the Hasty Pudding club, a student social group at Harvard.

Santayana received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1889. William James described Santayana's doctoral dissertation on Rudolf Hermann Lotze as the “perfection of rottenness.” Santayana became a faculty member at Harvard (1889-1912) and, eventually, a central figure in the era now called Classical American Philosophy. 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, after witnessing the death of his father, the marriage of his sister Susana, and the unexpected death of a young student, Santayana experienced a metanoia, a change of heart. Gradually he altered his life style form that of a student and professor to a life focused on the imaginative celebration of life. In 1892 he had written to a friend, expressing the hope that his academic life would be "resolutely unconventional" and noting that he could only be a professor per accidens, saying that "I would rather beg than be one, essentially." Santayana began to find university life increasingly incompatible with his pursuit of intellectual freedom and delight in living.

During this period he published Lotze's System of Philosophy (dissertation), Sonnets and Other Verses (1894), The Sense of Beauty (1896), Lucifer: A Theological Tragedy (1899), Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), A Hermit of Carmel, and Other Poems (1901), The Life of Reason (five books, 1905-1906), Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe (1910).

In May 1911, Santayana formally announced his long-planned retirement from Harvard. President Lowell asked Santayana, now a highly recognized philosopher, cultural critic, poet, and teacher, to reconsider, and indicated he was open to any arrangement that would allow Santayana the time he required for writing and for travel in Europe. Initially Santayana agreed to alternate years in Europe and the U.S., but in 1912, his desire for retirement overtook his sense of obligation to Harvard. Two major universities were courting him, Santayana’s books were selling well and his publishers were asking for more. At forty-eight, he left Harvard to become a full-time writer and to escape the academic life overgrown with "thistles of trivial and narrow scholarship." He spent the remainder of his life in England and Europe, never returning to the U.S. and rejecting academic posts offered at a number of universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Oxford and Cambridge.

Santayana had always been attentive to his family, visiting his mother weekly, then daily, during his last years at Harvard. As Santayana sailed for Europe, his mother died, apparently of Alzheimer's disease. Santayanad had arranged for Josephine, his half sister, to live in Spain with Susana, who was married to a well-to-do Ávilan. An inheritance of $10,000 from his mother, plus a steady income from his publications and his early savings provided him with the means to travel, write and to freely choose his country of residence. He arranged for his half brother, Robert, to manage his finances with the agreement that upon Santayana's death, Robert or his heirs would receive the bulk of Santayana's estate.

After leaving Harvard, Santayana published a steady stream of books and essays: Winds of Doctrine (1913), Egotism in German Philosophy (1915), Character and Opinion in the United States (1920), Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922), Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), Dialogues in Limbo (1926), Platonism and the Spiritual Life (1927), the four books of The Realms of Being (1927, 1930, 1938, 1940), The Genteel Tradition at Bay (1931), Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy (1933), The Last Puritan (1935), Persons and Places (1944), The Middle Span (1945), The Idea of Christ in the Gospels (1946), Dominations and Powers (1951), and My Host the World (1953, posthumous).

After numerous exploratory trips to several cities in Europe, Santayana decided to settle in Paris. However, World War I broke out while he was in England, and he was unable to return to the mainland. First, he lived in London and then primarily at Oxford and Cambridge. After the war, he became a wandering scholar, spending time in Paris, Madrid, Ávila, the Riviera, Florence, and Rome. By the late 1920s, he had settled principally in Rome, and often retreated to Cortina d'Ampezzo in northern Italy to write and to escape the summer heat. His own financial success as a writer gave him the means to assist friends and scholars when they found themselves in need of financial support. When Bertrand Russell was unable to find a teaching post in the U.S. or England because of his views regarding pacifism and marriage, Santayana made him an anonymous gift of the $25,000 royalty earnings from The Last Puritan, at the rate of $5,000 per year, in a letter to George Sturgis (July 15, 1937). Though he and Russell disagreed radically both politically and philosophically, he respected Russell’s genius and never forgot their earlier friendship.

When Mussolini took power in the 1930s, Santayana originally thought him a positive force who might be able to impose order on a chaotic Italy. But when Santayana tried to leave Italy by train for Switzerland, he was not permitted to cross the border because he did not have the proper papers. His case was complicated by his Spanish citizenship, his age, and the fact that most of his funds came from the United States and England. He returned to Rome, and on October 14, 1941, he entered the Clinica della Piccola Compagna di Maria, a hospital-clinic run by a Catholic order of nuns, which periodically received distinguished guests and cared for them in their old age. He lived there until his death 11 years later. Santayana died of cancer on September 26, 1952. Santayana never married.


Santayana wrote all of his works in English, and is appreciated as a writer, poet, and critic of culture and literature, as well as a philosopher. Santayana's one novel, The Last Puritan, perhaps the greatest Bildungsroman (novel that traces the personal development of a main character) in American literature, and his autobiography, Persons and Places, contained many pointed observations on life and bon mots. He wrote books and essays on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy of a less technical sort, literary criticism, the history of ideas, politics, human nature, morals, the subtle influence of religion on culture, and social psychology, all with wit and humor, making full use of the subtlety and richness of the English language. Though his writings on technical philosophy were sometimes complex, his other writings were far more readable, and all of his books contained quotable passages. He wrote poems and a few plays, and numerous letters, many of which have been published only since 2000.

At Harvard, Santayana’s Spanish heritage, Catholic upbringing, and European suspicion of American industry, set him apart. The value judgments and prejudices expressed in his writing showed him to be aristocratic and elitist, a blend of Mediterrranean conservative and cultivated American. He maintained an aloofness and ironic detachment, writing about American culture and character from a foreign point of view. Though he declined American citizenship and resided outside the United States for 40 years, he is considered an American writer, and has only recently begun to be also recognized as a Hispanic writer.


Santayana's main philosophical work comprises The Sense of Beauty (1896), his first book and perhaps the first major work on aesthetics written in the United States, The Life of Reason (5 volumes, 1905–1906), the high point of his Harvard career, and The Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927–1940).

The Sense of Beauty argued that the experience of beauty was the highest value in human life. Beauty was defined as the pleasure of contemplating an object and was conceived as a quality of the object itself. The ability to experience this pleasure was a natural faculty of man’s animal nature.

Although Santayana was not a pragmatist in the mold of William James, Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, or John Dewey, The Life of Reason arguably was the first extended treatment of pragmatism ever written. Like many classical pragmatists, and because he was also well-versed in evolutionary theory, Santayana was committed to a naturalist metaphysics, in which human cognition, cultural practices, and institutions evolved so as to harmonize with their environment. Their value was the extent to which they facilitated human happiness.

The Realms of Being elaborated on four realms of “being” distinguished by Sanataya. The realm of essence encompassed the character of any part of the physical world at any moment, including any possible characters that might present themselves to the imagination. The realm of matter consisted of material substance spread out through space and constantly changing in response to laws of nature. The realm of spirit constituted emanations from certain processes in the physical world. Santayana did not believe that all reality was physical, but he believed that only the physical realm was causal. The fourth realm was the realm of truth, “the total history and destiny of matter and spirit, or the enormously complex essence which they exemplify by existing.”

Santayana was an early adherent of epiphenomenalism, but also admired the classical materialism of Democritus and Lucretius. He developed a form of Critical Realism—in contrast to both naïve realism, which holds that a perceived physical object is in direct contact with our conscience, and indirect realism, which holds that we infer the existence of physical objects from the presence of certain sense-impressions. Critical Realism suggested that what is directly present to the conscience is the essence of a known object. The actual presence of the object is a physical experience reacted to by the physical body, rather than an experience of the mind, while evaluating its nature is an act of the intellect.

Santayana believed that absolute and certain knowledge of something was impossible, but that man should adopt a practical system of beliefs based on experience and gained in a reliable manner. Truth existed as an objective reality, far surpassing any possible knowledge, and could be grasped only as mostly symbolic fragments by human beings. Santayana especially deplored any suggestion that the world, reality or truth was somehow a human construction. He regarded self-centered egotism as a flaw of modern pragmatism and idealism, and an unrealistic glorification of human power. He considered himself a naturalist, believing that man depended on a greater, non-human cosmos, and held Spinoza's writings in high regard, without subscribing to Spinoza's rationalism or pantheism. Although an atheist, he described himself as an "aesthetic Catholic," and spent the last decade of his life in a Roman Catholic convent, cared for by nuns. His appreciation of human creative imagination in all aspects of life, but particularly in art, philosophy, religion, literature and science, was one of Santayana’s major contributions to American thought.


The Santayana Edition. A critical edition meeting the standards of the Modern Language Association.

The text of the critical edition on Intelex CD-ROM published by MIT Press. With links to Web-based search & reference tools. Retrieved September 25, 2007.

  • 1979. The Complete Poems of George Santayana: A Critical Edition.. Edited, with an introduction, by W. G. Holzberger. Bucknell University Press.

The balance of this edition is published by the MIT Press.

  • 1986. Persons and Places Santayana's autobiography, incorporating Persons and Places, 1944; The Middle Span, 1945; and My Host the World, 1953.
  • 1988 [1896]. The Sense of Beauty.
  • 1990 [1900]. Interpretations of Poetry and Religion.
  • 1994 [1935]. The Last Puritan: a memoir in the form of a novel.
  • The Letters of George Santayana. Containing over 3,000 of his letters, many discovered posthumously, to more than 350 recipients.
    • 2001. Book One, 1868-1909.
    • 2001. Book Two, 1910-1920.
    • 2002. Book Three, 1921-1927.
    • 2003. Book Four, 1928-1932.
    • 2003. Book Five, 1933-1936.
    • 2004. Book Six, 1937-1940.
    • 2005. Book Seven, 1941-1947.
    • 2006. Book Eight, 1948-1952.

Other works by Santayana include:

  • 1905–1906. The Life of Reason: Or, The Phases of Human Progress, 5 vols. Available gratis online from Project Gutenberg. 1998. 1 vol. abridgement by the author and Daniel Cory. Prometheus Books.
  • 1910. Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe.
  • 1913. Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion.
  • 1915. Egotism in German Philosophy.
  • 1920. Character and Opinion in the United States: With Reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and Academic Life in America.
  • 1920. Little Essays, Drawn From the Writings of George Santayana by Logan Pearsall Smith, With the Collaboration of the Author.
  • 1922. Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies.
  • 1923. Scepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy..
  • 1927. Platonism and the Spiritual Life.
  • 1927–1940. Realms of Being, 4 vols. 1942. 1 vol. abridgement.
  • 1931. The Genteel Tradition at Bay.
  • 1933. Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays.
  • 1936. Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews. Justus Buchler and Benjamin Schwartz, eds.
  • 1946. The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or, God in Man: A Critical Essay.
  • 1948. Dialogues in Limbo, With Three New Dialogues.
  • 1951. Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government.
  • 1956. Essays in Literary Criticism of George Santayana. Irving Singer, ed.
  • 1957. The Idler and His Works, and Other Essays. Daniel Cory, ed.
  • 1967. The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana. Douglas L. Wilson, ed.
  • 1967. George Santayana's America: Essays on Literature and Culture. James Ballowe, ed.
  • 1967. Animal Faith and Spiritual Life: Previously Unpublished and Uncollected Writings by George Santayana With Critical Essays on His Thought. John Lachs, ed.
  • 1968. Santayana on America: Essays, Notes, and Letters on American Life, Literature, and Philosophy. Richard Colton Lyon, ed.
  • 1968. Selected Critical Writings of George Santayana, 2 vols. Norman Henfrey, ed.
  • 1969. Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays of George Santayana. John and Shirley Lachs, eds.
  • 1995. The Birth of Reason and Other Essays. Daniel Cory, ed., with an Introduction by Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr. Columbia Univ. Press.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cardiff, Ida. Wisdom of George Santayana. Philosophical Library, 1964. ISBN 9780802214812
  • Jeffers, Thomas L. Apprenticeships: The Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 9781403966070
  • Lachs, John. George Santayana. Twayne Pub, 1988. ISBN 9780805775174
  • McCormick, John. George Santayana: A Biography. Transaction Publishers, 2003. ISBN 9780765805034
  • Singer, Irving. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN 9780300080377

External links

All links retrieved May 21, 2024.

General Philosophy Sources


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