In his autobiography, George Santayana says that The Life of Reason had its origin in a course he gave at Harvard University entitled “Philosophy of History.” It drew heavily from Plato and Aristotle, but also from Francis Bacon, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine. Other influences evident in the work are those of Arthur Schopenhauer, who was the subject of Santayana’s doctoral dissertation, and his professor William James, whose biologically oriented psychology left a strong impression on Santayana.
For Santayana, the philosophy of history implies no providential plan of creation or redemption but is simply “retrospective politics”; that is to say, an interpretation of humanity’s past in the light of its ideal development. It is the science of history that deals with events inferred from evidence and explained in terms of causal law. However, not content with a mere knowledge of what has happened, humans have a strong propensity toward trying to find meaning in events as if history were shaped to some human purpose. Admittedly, history is not; still, the exercise is profitable, for it is one of the ways in which we discover the goals we wish to pursue in the future. The failures and successes of our forebears, as their acts will appear when measured by our ideals, can help us appraise our standards and to enlighten us with respect to how far they can be attained. However, it can serve its function only if we remember that it is ideal history—an abstract from reality made to illustrate a chosen theme—rather than a description of actual tendencies observable in the world.