George Santayana

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1603

Article abstract: Combining a deep sense of the enduring and ideal nature of classic Greek culture with a learned sense for the immediate and natural, Santayana produced a series of philosophical and literary works as well as personal commentaries on the life and cultures of his times. He has been deemed the “Mona Lisa” of philosophy.

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Early Life

George Santayana was born December 16, 1863, in Madrid, Spain. His mother, Spanish by birth, was first married to a member of the Sturgis family of Boston, an American merchant in the Philippines, where, until her husband’s death in 1857, she lived and reared three children. Santayana’s father was a friend of the Sturgis family, having served as a civil servant in the Philippines and authored a book on the natives of the Island of Mindanao. In 1862, the couple returned to Spain and were married in Madrid. Shortly thereafter, Santayana’s mother returned to Boston with her older children while Santayana remained with his father in Spain. In 1872, he was brought by his father to Boston.

When Santayana arrived in Boston, he knew no English, and only Spanish was spoken in his home, but he soon picked up English outside the home and from his reading and was able to speak it without a marked accent. He attended Brimmer School, Boston Latin School and Harvard College, where he was graduated summa cum laude in 1886. In 1883, after his freshman year at Harvard, he returned to Spain to see his father. There, he considered a career in either the Spanish army or as a diplomat but decided instead to return to the United States and pursue a career as a writer. His attachment to Europe, however, remained strong.

At Harvard, Santayana had studied with both Josiah Royce and William James. Having already published since 1880 in The Boston Latin School Register, he became a regular contributor of cartoons and literary pieces to the Harvard Lampoon. He helped found The Harvard Monthly and provided it with a continuous flow of poetry and articles.

In physical appearance, Santayana was a gentle looking man of medium size. He had lively eyes, was bald, and for a while wore a handsome beard; later, he wore a mustache. He was fastidious about his clothes, often wearing black.

Life’s Work

Santayana’s first major philosophical work, The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory, was published in 1896 when he was thirty-three. A book of sonnets and a series of pieces of literary criticism were also published that year. This was also the year that Santayana went to study with Dr. Henry Jackson at Trinity College, Cambridge. He undertook careful examination of the works of classical Greece, particularly those of Plato and Aristotle. This experience led to the production of one of Santayana’s major philosophical works, the five-volume The Life of Reason: Or, the Phases of Human Progress (1905-1906). In it, Santayana attempted to present a summary history of the human imagination, a panorama of the whole life of reason and of human ideas as they are generated out of and controlled by man’s animal life and nature. This was Santayana’s first major effort at combining a skeptical naturalism-humanism with a Platonic idealism. A variety of pieces of literary philosophical criticism followed, and in 1914 his famous piece “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” appeared.

In that year, Santayana received news of a legacy. He promptly retired from Harvard at the age of fifty and in January, 1912, he left the United States for Europe, never to return. Santayana had been an extremely gifted teacher, and his sudden departure for Europe astonished his colleagues. Yet, although he was interested in his students, he disliked academic life and wished to devote himself to his writing. Also, his dual Spanish-American heritage, although contributing extraordinary range and perspective to his thinking, awoke in him conflicts from which he was thankful to escape. He went to France, Spain, and England, and finally to Rome, Italy, where he lived for eleven years in the monastery of the Blue Sisters. From there, Santayana produced a number of penetrating pieces on the life and culture of his times, including Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion (1913) and Egotism in German Philosophy (1916), a book much read by the Germans during the war, although it strongly demonstrated his loyalty to the Allied cause. In 1920, he wrote Character and Opinion in the United States. A major philosophical work appeared in 1923, Scepticism and Animal Faith, followed by his magnum opus, the four-volume Realms of Being (1927-1940). In 1935, he produced a novel reflective of his American experience entitled The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel.

Santayana’s Persons and Places (1944-1953), a kind of autobiographical travelogue, captures much of the spirit of all of Santayana’s writing. It presents him as a traveler who, however appreciative or critical of the places and people encountered, is always a stranger, catching glimpses of people and places and recomposing these images as an artist would a painting. Santayana, in his work, too, conveys a constant sense of detachment, reflecting his reclusive spirit. Yet his works of speculative philosophy, with precision, depth, and coherence, elucidate complex ideas with what has been described as “luminous succinctness.”

Santayana’s life ended with characteristic ambiguity. Although he considered himself Catholic and lived among the nuns for eleven years, he did not officially return to the Roman Catholic Church and he did not receive the Sacraments on his deathbed. He died in September, 1952, a few months before his eighty-ninth birthday. He was buried in Rome, on ground reserved for Spanish nationals.


To many Americans, George Santayana was a great man of letters, a civilized hermit, an isolated sage. His works were eloquent and penetrating but always a bit of a mystery. Santayana spent forty years in the United States and wrote eleven books as well as numerous other works. Yet he left the United States in 1912 never to return. As Santayana himself noted, however, his intentional detachment from America must be balanced by the fact that he was detached from every other place as well. He never did have a sense of home, yet he clearly believed that “it was as an American writer he was to be counted.”

Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Santayana was essentially concerned with the conditions of life, with the bearing of events on men, and with the emergence of values and the possibilities for happiness. His account of the many sides of human experience, ethical, social, artistic, and religious, shows an interweaving of themes normally kept separate in modern philosophy and is expressed in prose that is polished to great beauty. Although his philosophy was much influenced by classical culture, it also contains much of the dynamic, fresh, naturalistic aspects of American culture. Santayana’s profound belief in the life and power of the human mind and imagination and in the creativity and freedom of the human spirit produced a series of truly noteworthy works which expressed the American spirit at its best.


Cory, Daniel. Santayana: The Later Years. New York: George Braziller, 1963. This book presents a collection of recollections by Santayana’s close friend. Contains also various letters from Santayana and gives an excellent personal picture of the man and his thoughts.

Howgate, George W. George Santayana. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1938. This book deals with the various aspects of Santayana as a person and professional, namely, the poet, the critic, the moral philosopher, the writer, the metaphysician. Using abundant quotes from Santayana’s writings, Howgate traces the influences that have shaped his thought and tries to show the interrelationships and underlying unity of various aspects of Santayana’s personality and thought. The author also frequently takes issue with some of Santayana’s opinions.

Munson, Thomas N. The Essential Wisdom of George Santayana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. This is an exposition of Santayana’s philosophical positions, primarily from the viewpoint of neo-Thomist philosophy. The book is interesting in this respect and also because its appendices contain several letters from Santayana to the author raising critical questions about Munson’s interpretations.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. The Philosophy of George Santayana. Vol. 2. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1940. In this volume, the writings of Santayana are scrutinized and evaluated by eighteen of his philosophical contemporaries. Almost every aspect of Santayana’s work is covered. Further, Santayana has written an Apologia Pro Mente Sua, in which he replies to his critics. The volume also contains Santayana’s autobiography and a complete bibliography of Santayana’s writings from 1880 to October, 1940.

Singer, Beth J. The Rational Society. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970. This book focuses on Santayana’s social thought and depicts him as a metaphysician of human experience and culture. Professor Singer gives primary attention to two of Santayana’s works, Reason in Society, a volume of The Life of Reason, and Dominations and Powers (1951). A critical and analytical study directed primarily to professional philosophers.

Singer, Irving. Santayana’s Aesthetics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. This book presents Santayana’s aesthetics and philosophy of art as seen in the light of his later writings on ontology and metaphysics. It also uses Santayana’s work to suggest some new approaches to traditional problems in the fields of aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

Sprigge, Timothy L. S. Santayana: An Examination of His Philosophy. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974. A detailed examination of Santayana’s philosophy, treating such topics as skepticism, animal faith, the doctrine of essence, spirit and psyche, and the material world. It also gives an outline of Santayana’s philosophical development.

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