Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography
John McCormick’s biography of George Santayana—a long and detailed account of a slow and rather uneventful life—is part of a recent effort to revive, or exhume, the thought and reputation of the philosopher, whose autobiography, Persons and Places, was republished last year. One senses that this effort may be an uphill struggle. While we are told in older textbooks and histories of philosophy that Santayana was a literary genius and sage, the author of a famous novel, The Last Puritan, and in some ways an important philosopher, no one seems to know quite how to describe what his genius consisted in, or where to place him today. His philosophy of nature—at once materialist and Platonist—and his unsentimental views of human nature and politics were once prized not only by young aesthetes and opponents of pragmatism but also by hard-nosed political realists and enemies of do-goodism. They are no longer widely read. Something in Santayana’s work does not communicate with us anymore; and when we read it today, we find again and again that it does not have those profuse reverberations we associate with philosophy and literature of the first rank.
George Santayana’s life is thoroughly, if somewhat gravely and tediously, reported by McCormick; even so, it is useful to supplement it with other sources if one wants to understand Santayana’s personality. He was born in 1863 in Madrid, the unloved child of a bad marriage. His mother’s father had been a member of the Spanish colonial service, posted as the governor of Bataan in the Philippines; he brought his daughter there, where she met Augustin Santayana, who was to be George’s father, but she did not marry him then. She instead traveled to Manila, where she met and married George Sturgis, a rich Bostonian, and bore five children, two of whom died in infancy. When Sturgis also died, his family helped to support her—handsomely, it seems, since she was apparently able to buy and free a slave, who became her servant and traveled with her—and she went back to Spain, where she once more encountered Augustin Santayana and this time married him. When their son George was five years old, she left her husband and son in Avila and moved to Boston to fulfill a promise to Sturgis to raise his surviving children there. In 1872 young Santayana followed his mother, and left his father behind. He grew up thereafter in a house on Beacon Street with his Boston half brother and half sisters—one of whom, Susana, was destined, he wrote, to play the psychological part of mother and wife to him. After attending the Boston Latin School, in 1882 he entered Harvard, where he acquired the manners and the emotional and intellectual outlook that were to stay with him throughout his life.
As a young man, Santayana wrote, he wanted to be a poet, or to enter the army or foreign service, but as one can …