The Sense of Beauty

by George Santayana

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana deals with the nature of aesthetics in terms of its value, substance, form, and other attributes. Several prominent literary and historical figures are mentioned in the book.


Achilles was a Greek hero who played a crucial role in the Trojan War; he is mentioned by Santayana as an example of an idealized man whose actions stem from a strength of character and soul that is greater than the combination of salient attributes found in most people. Santayana states that any character endowed with the beauty and virtue of Achilles can easily be deified and mythologized and can come to be viewed as a manifestation of the divine.

John Keats

John Keats was an English Romantic poet. He died young, at the age of twenty-five, but his odes and sonnets have remained popular for the past two hundred years.

Santayana says that the senses of taste and smell cannot be as easily objectified and categorized as the sense of sound—for example, music can be appreciated through notations and the choice of instruments. Yet poets have always been drawn to presenting beauty as an attribute of taste and smell. He cites lines from Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” as an example. Here, the poet invokes sensual pleasures by writing about candied apple, cinnamon-flavored syrups, and spiced delicacies arriving from Samarkand and Lebanon.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest playwright in the English language. The author mentions Shakespeare’s works to buttress his point that works of great beauty are characterized by an eye for detail, definite style, and an attempt at perfection. He says that Shakespeare’s nuanced characterizations are an example of the precision that must be present in all great art. According to Santayana, Shakespeare provided his characters with an individuality that was often beyond the requirements of the plot of the play.


Tacitus was a Roman historian of great merit and is also remembered for his witty lines. Santayana states that Tacitus possessed a particularly Latin trait of condensing meaningful insight into only a few words and writes that reality cannot always be represented through dry reason alone; rather, it also needs fluidity of thought and a sympathetic mind. These are the attributes that a witty person must possess, as they allow the witty person to exalt one situation or thing and belittle another, and present the two contrasts intelligently and humorously, with minimum verbosity.

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