George Santayana


George Santayana (1863-1952)

In his time George Santayana was placed alongside Emerson, William James, and John Dewey as one of the foremost American philosophers. He was also a novelist, a poet, and although he wrote academic works, he was also a pioneer in blurring the line between philosophy and literature, thus making it accessible to a wider public. He always wrote in English, and considered himself fated to be an American writer. Yet he never relinquished his Spanish citizenship. It was this paradox between his close relation with America, and his constant sense of being an outsider in a strange land that informs his work, always characterized by a spiritual restlessness.

George Santayana, was born in Spain in 1863. He was christened Jorge, and spent the first eight years of his life in Madrid and later Ávila, the Castillian home of the great Catholic mystic Saint Teresa. His mother Josefina had children living in Boston from a marriage to her first (deceased) husband, the Boston Merchant John Sturgis. She had promised her husband that she would raise her children as Americans in Boston. So in 1872 she rejoined her children in Boston and brought her second husband, and son Jorge along with her. From rural and Catholic Spain, the young Jorge now found himself in a mostly Protestant country, and in a progressive rapidly industrializing city. His step sister taught him his catechism and sneaked him off to mass from time to time against his mother’s wishes, who made sure he attended to King’s chapel, the church of the Boston elite. Despite these conflicts, Santayana, now called George, assimilated into the new culture quickly. He went back to Kindergarten to learn English from children younger than him, and then excelled at Boston Latin school, and Harvard where he received his B.A. and Ph.D. At Harvard he was a founding member of the “Harvard Monthly,” a cartoonist for the Lampoon, and a member of the Hasty Pudding club. Easily assimilated into Harvard as a student, he soon became a professor after receiving his Ph.D. He was a popular teacher. T.S. Eliot and W.E.B. DuBois among other notable Harvard students attended his lectures, and he was a friend and colleague of William James and Josiah Royce. Despite his success however, academic life at Harvard began to disillusion him. On one level he was too much of a dreamer to be able to stand the mundane faculty meetings and other requirements of the job that kept him from his thinking and writing. On a deeper level however, he was uncomfortable with what American society was becoming, and how Harvard’s administration seemed to play into these values, attempting to shape its students into business and political leaders, focused on material success, as opposed to celebrating the the pure joy of learning and the classical ideal of self-realization. In 1912, at 48 years old, Santayana resigned his post and left America for Europe, never to return. There he lived the life of an itinerant writer, living in France, England, Spain, and finally in Rome, where he died in 1952. These last forty years of his life were his most productive. He wrote numerous works on philosophy, developing his ideas that blended his own sense of naturalism, and the pragmatism that he picked up in America, with spiritual idealism. Even though he spent the last half of his life in Europe, his time in America never stopped influencing him. Along with memoirs, and reflections, he also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, “The Last Puritan,” a coming of age story inspired partly by his time at Harvard as a student. The novel details many of his own spiritual conflicts, and the tragedy, as he saw it of the divide between America’s traditional idealism versus its materialistic society. Although it is not widely read today, the book was a best-seller when it was published in 1935, ranking second only to “Gone with the Wind.”

Today Santayana is remembered primarily for his quotes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” and “Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” Beyond his aphorisms however, Santayana left a large body of philosophical writing, letters, poetry, and fiction that bore witness to America and the world as it came into the 20th century from the unique viewpoint of someone who was never quite at home, and yet was too rooted to ever fully be an outsider.