George Santayana

George Santayana (December 16, 1863, Madrid – September 26, 1952, Rome), was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist.

A lifelong Spanish citizen, Santayana was raised and educated in the United States, wrote in English and is generally considered an American man of letters, even though, of his nearly 89 years, he spent only 39 in the U.S. He is perhaps best known as an aphorist, and for the oft-misquoted remark, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it," from Reason in Common Sense, the first volume of his The Life of Reason.


Originally Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruíz de Santayana y Borrás, he spent his early childhood in Ávila, Spain. His father, Agustín Ruíz de Santayana, was a colonial civil servant, painter, and minor intellectual. His mother, Josefina Borrás, was the daughter of a Spanish official in the Philippine Islands. Jorge was the only child of his mother's second marriage. She had previously been the widow of George Sturgis, a Boston merchant by whom she had five children, two of whom died in infancy. She lived in Boston following her husband's death in 1857, but in 1861 went with her three surviving Sturgis children to live in Madrid. There she again encountered Agustín Santayana, an old friend from her years in the Philippines and married him in 1862. The family lived in Madrid and Ávila until 1869 when Santayana's mother returned to Boston with her three Sturgis children, leaving Jorge, then five, with his father in Spain. Jorge and his father followed her in 1872, but his father, finding neither Boston nor his wife's attitude to his liking, soon returned alone to Ávila, where he remained for the rest of his life. Jorge did not see him again until summer vacations while he was a student at Harvard. Thus from the time he was five, Jorge's parents lived apart. Sometime during this period Jorge became George, the English equivalent.

He attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University, studying under William James and Josiah Royce, whose colleague he subsequently became. After graduating from Harvard in 1886, he studied for two years in Berlin, returning to Harvard to write a thesis on Rudolf Hermann Lotze and teach philosophy, thus becoming part of the Golden Age of the Harvard philosophy department. Some of his Harvard students became famous in their own right, including T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Walter Lippmann, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Harry Austryn Wolfson. From 1896 to 1897, he studied at King's College, Cambridge.

In 1912, his careful savings added to a legacy from his mother allowed him to resign his Harvard position and spend the rest of his life in Europe. After some years in Ávila, Paris and Oxford, he began, after 1920, to winter in Rome, eventually living there year-round until his death in 1952. During his 40 years in Europe, he wrote 19 books and declined several prestigious academic positions. Many of his visitors and correspondents were Americans, including his assistant and eventual literary executor, Daniel Cory. In later life, Santayana was financially comfortable, in part because his 1935 novel, The Last Puritan, had become an unexpected best-seller. In turn, he assisted financially a number of writers including Bertrand Russell, with whom he was in fundamental disagreement, philosophically and politically. Santayana never married. For a biography, see McCormick (1987).


Santayana's main philosophical work consists of The Sense of Beauty (1896), his first book-length monograph and perhaps the first major work on aesthetics written in the United States; The Life of Reason (5 volumes, 1905-6), the high point of his Harvard career; Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923); and The Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927-40). Although Santayana is not a pragmatist in the mold of William James, Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, or John Dewey, The Life of Reason arguably is the first extended treatment of pragmatism ever penned.

Like many of the 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 social institutions have evolved so as to harmonize with the conditions present in their environment. Their value may then be adjudged by the extent to which they facilitate human happiness. The alternate title to The Life of Reason, "the Phases of Human Progress", is indicative of this metaphysical stance.

Santayana was an early adherent of epiphenomenalism, but also admired the classical materialism of Democritus and Lucretius (of the three authors on whom he wrote in Three Philosophical Poets, Santayana speaks most favorably of Lucretius). He held Spinoza's writings in high regard, without subscribing to the latter's rationalism or pantheism. Although an atheist, he described himself as an "aesthetic Catholic", and spent the last decade of his life at the Convent of the Blue Nuns on the Celian Hill in Rome, cared for by the sisters there.

Man of letters

Santayana's one novel, The Last Puritan, is a Bildungsroman. His Persons and Places is an autobiography. These works also contain many of his tarter opinions and bons 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 considerable wit and humor. While his writings on technical philosophy can be difficult, his other writings are far more readable, and all of his books contain quotable passages. He wrote poems and a few plays, and left an ample correspondence, much of it published only since 2000.

In his temperament, judgments and prejudices, many of which do not sit well with present-day fashions, Santayana was very much the Castilian Platonist, cold, aristocratic and elitist, a curious blend of Mediterranean conservative (similar to Paul Valéry) and cultivated Anglo-Saxon, aloof and ironically detached. Russell Kirk discussed Santayana in his The Conservative Mind from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Santayana observed American culture and character from a foreigner's point of view. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, he wrote philosophy in a literary way. Even though he declined to become an American citizen and happily resided in fascist Italy for decades, he is usually considered an American writer by Americans. He himself admitted to being most comfortable, intellectually and esthetically, at Oxford.

His materialistic, skeptical philosophy was never in tune with the Spanish world of his time. In the post-Franco era he is gradually being recognized and translated. Ezra Pound includes Santayana among the many cultural references in The Cantos, notably in Canto LXXXI and Canto XCV. Chuck Jones used Santayana's description of fanaticism as "redoubling your effort after you've forgotten your aim" to describe the cartoons starring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.


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

Other works by Santayana include:

Works about Santayana include:

External links

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