Remembering Santayana

By McClay, Wilfred M. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Remembering Santayana


McClay, Wilfred M., The Wilson Quarterly


The philosopher George Santayana was an eloquent, contradictory figure--a resolute materialist utterly devoted to the life of the spirit. Little known today, he was a considerable intellectual presence 60 years ago. Our author explains why Santayana deserves to regain a good measure of that lost reputation.

George Santayana (1863-1952) regarded the world with serene detachment. He savored all the tart ironies and bittersweet paradoxes of existence, and he cheerfully faced up to the futility of human striving. The Spanish-born sage would surely be amused to observe how he is remembered today, almost a half-century after his death. His reputation, such as it now is, rests upon a single sentence, a portentous and wise-sounding (though often misquoted or misused) epigram taken from the middle of a paragraph in one of his philosophical works: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

So memorable has the adage proved that we seem condemned rather to hear it repeated endlessly, in sober op-ed pieces, earnest letters to the editor, and bully pulpits of every sort. But the bare sentence does not do Santayana justice. Those who use it rarely know its source or wonder whether, in taking the words out of context, they have altered their meaning. In the 1905 book Reason in Common Sense, where the words first appeared, Santayana clearly seems less concerned with the "lessons of history" than with the basic preconditions for adult, civilized life:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

The irony of ironies is that 11 words praising the faculty of memory form the principal legacy of an otherwise forgotten man. Though Santayana himself might not have been surprised by this fate, such barren obscurity is not a fit end for one of America's most subtle and interesting minds.

Make no mistake about it: Santayana was an abundantly gifted philosopher, a quicksilver-brilliant, prolific, and versatile writer, and an influential teacher. His years on the Harvard University faculty (1889-1912) were squarely at the center of what historians now call "the golden age of American philosophy." In addition to a shelf of distinguished philosophical tomes, he wrote poetry, general and occasional essays, literary and cultural criticism, political and social thought, a superb novel called The Last Puritan (a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1935), and a classic autobiography, the three-volume Persons and Places (1944-53), which is the equal in many respects of The Education of Henry Adams. He was a complete man of letters, and what he wrote was written to last.

It has lasted. Only the poetry falls short of greatness, perhaps because "reason," as his admirer the poet Wallace Stevens once observed, "is a jealous mistress" and insists that "a man whose whole life is thought" not stray too far from his calling. But the prose is another matter. All of it, even hastily tossed-off journalistic pieces, bears the signs of mastery. His was a powerful, supple style--elegant, lucid, spare, and direct--infused with wry and understated humor and made vivid by ingenious and unforced metaphors. In matters of style, Santayana's prose writings leave those of his philosophical competitors (with the exception, perhaps, of his Harvard colleague William James) far behind. Indeed, the best of Santayana's prose deserves comparison with the finest in the language--and of how much philosophical writing can that be said? …

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