George Santayana Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1603 words.)