George Santayana
George Santayana; drawing by David Levine


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 see from some of the poems he wrote in the late nineteenth century—or indeed those written after—he had little talent for poetry; a typical fragment is, “Lo! even in these days / The world is young. / Life like a torrent flung / For ever wears a rainbow for crown.” An ardent reader of Marius the Epicurean in the Eighties, he took to wearing black capes and suits, and when he later taught at Harvard he wore a piqué vest, kid gloves, and spats.1 His appearance was described by Horace Kallen—a student of Santayana’s, along with Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann, and Felix Frankfurter—as that of a “Murillo madonna with a moustache.”2 One acquaintance saw him wandering about in his “smart, if exotic, European cape and overcoat” at football games, “looking at the game no doubt from a Greek background.”3

Professor Bruce Kuklick, a historian of philosophy, declares, partly on the evidence provided by interviews in 1972 with the philosopher Wilmon Sheldon, then well into his nineties, that some of Santayana’s students believed him to be homosexual,4 and Santayana described himself in his early Harvard years in the same way. It is difficult to know what to say about such claims and confessions. We do not really know whether he ever acted on these impulses; and one feels that to the extent that he had homosexual affiliations they must have lacked enthusiasm—his love poems to early crushes like Warwick Potter are colossally dull. He seems to have maintained his distance from others his own age in Boston, and made himself into something of an outsider. Not only his erotic impulses but his European manners and interests, his aestheticism and Catholicism, and his Spanish citizenship (which he retained all his life) did much to set him apart, then and in the future.


Unlike his friend Pierre la Rose, a Cambridge aesthete who was a printer of fine editions and is described by the editors of the critical edition of Santayana’s autobiography as “a literary critic and decorative and heraldic designer,” or his cousin Howard Sturgis, the girlish novelist and friend of Henry James, Santayana was ambitious and hard, and a sharp critic of his friends and philosophical colleagues. In 1886 he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, and received the traveling Walker Fellowship to study in Germany the same year. (He did not in fact win the fellowship but arranged, not without guile, he tells us, to split it with the winner, his classmate, the philosopher Charles Augustus Strong.) In 1888 he completed a dissertation under Josiah Royce on the nineteenth-century German metaphysician and teacher of medicine Rudolf Lotze, who held that while science alone could provide genuine knowledge of the world, metaphysics could help us to identify and express feelings and values central to our moral lives. The close study of Lotze’s work may have encouraged Santayana to hold one of his distinctive views, that a belief in God and Christian values could be reconciled with the methods and conclusions of empirical science.

He was soon thereafter made an instructor in the Harvard philosophy department—he was not yet thirty—where he remained for many years. The detachment and otherworldliness of his later life had not yet manifested themselves. He was then an articulate and attractive Spaniard who was able to charm his teachers and students; and he had a talent for being able to express, and to feel his way into, the widely different points of view represented by his teachers William James and Royce and to convince them that he had interesting views of his own.

Late in life he told his secretary Daniel Cory that his first book, a treatise on aesthetics entitled The Sense of Beauty and published in 1896, was make-work designed to keep him at Harvard. In it he argued that what we call beauty derives from the feelings of pleasure we take in contemplating an object; we project the feeling onto the object so that it appears to be a property of that object. When I call a piece of music beautiful, for example, the aesthetic qualities I find in the music are in fact a projection of my own feelings. This suggests a flaw in the theory, since if this is so, and the beauty is subjective and not in the object, then the attribution of beauty to the object becomes an extremely common form of mistaken identification. If we assume that the beauty of the music resides in us, then we might be able to stimulate it in us without even playing the music. It also seems incorrect to identify beauty with pleasure in this way, since there are many works of art we should call beautiful but that do not induce pleasurable feelings in us.

Around the same time, Santayana began a lifelong tendency to engage in snobbish liaisons with rich and highborn people. One of these was John Francis Stanley, the second Earl Russell (and the elder brother of Bertrand), who later treated him offhandedly, at one time even forgetting his name and referring to him as “Sargeaunt.” Santayana also spent a good deal of time with Boston hostesses like Mrs. Isabella Gardner, and in later years, McCormick tells us, he formed a “flirtation” with Mrs. John Jacob Astor. In his priggish and fastidious kind of waspishness and instructing manner, he became something of an old Boston lady himself.

In 1907, after he had written the five volumes of his greatest work, The Life of Reason, and the Harvard philosophical faculty advised the university corporation (as it had done before) to promote Santayana to a professorship, the corporation finally did so. Santayana was by now forty-four and had occupied subordinate positions for eighteen years. He now said with false modesty that he had never wanted to be a teacher, that he had nothing to teach, and only wished to be a wandering student. In 1912, at the age of forty-nine, when his mother died and left him with some money, he left for Europe and never returned. He spent the First World War in England, and in 1920 took up life in Italy, where he stayed for the next thirty years. During this time he had no continuous residence but drifted from one luxurious hotel to another—McCormick mentions, among others, the Grand Hotel de Russie et des Îles Brittaniques and the Bristol in Rome, the Trianon Palais in Paris, the Ampezzo and the Miramonti in Cortina d’Ampezzo, the Danielli in Venice, Bertolini’s in Naples.

In 1939, when he was old and ill and could not live alone, he moved into the clinic maintained by the Blue Nuns—they were named after their habit—on the Via Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome, where he spent the years of the Second World War and died in 1952 at the age of eighty-nine. Here he was pleased to act the part of the mandarin and to receive visitors like Ezra Pound and old Boston friends and fellow philosophers. He had always been sympathetic to fascism—he had been a supporter of Franco—although he claimed to have distrusted Mussolini.5 He also allowed a latent distaste for Jews to emerge in the years before and during the war. He said that he “doted” on Céline, and McCormick shows that he took care to underline and mark with approval some passages in Céline’s ugliest anti-Semitic tracts. He wrote to an Englishman who invited him in 1936 to become the president of the “Aryan” Society that “I confess that I don’t like the Jewish spirit, because it is worldly, seeing God in thrift and success, and he let go in letters about “sheenies” and “the Jew critics of New York.” Ironically, he owed his reputation in the United States not only to Dean Woodbridge at Columbia University but in large part to influential New York City Jews like Morris Cohen and Irwin Edman, who were impressed by his eloquence and who admired his detachment and his defense of aesthetic and spiritual values, which they felt were neglected in the urgent and competitive atmosphere of industry and commerce in the United States and in philosophies like the pragmatism of James and Dewey.


Santayana’s European life was bound up for many years in a somewhat ridiculous three-way association with his old classmate Charles Augustus Strong and Daniel Cory, who served at one time or another as a secretary to both older men. Strong, a Baptist theologian’s son who married J.D. Rockefeller’s daughter Elizabeth, was, in Santayana’s words, “very good looking, tall, firm, with curly black hair and noble features,” “slow but accurate” in his thinking, devoted to the truth, with “the memory and solidity of the head boy of the class.” He was “Puritanism personified”:

When you learned that his father and his brother were Baptist clergymen, you recognized at once that he too was a Baptist clergyman by nature and habit, only that some untoward influence had crossed his path and deflected him from his vocation.

Strong was forever trying to demonstrate how consciousness could have arisen out of a nonconscious nature. At one time he was an exponent of panpsychism, which holds that every object in the universe, including stars and stones, has (in varying degrees) a soul or spirit.6 He was also an enthusiast of hotels and spas and had been given enough Rockefeller money to maintain residences both in Fiesole and on the Avenue de l’Observatoire in Paris, where Santayana stayed with him for part of each year for many years.

In later life, Strong was constantly ill with paralysis of the legs and a spinal tumor. Santayana wrote that the two were not “intimate friends,” however, but “more like partners in the same business”: Strong wanted a philosopher to talk to about his research, whereas Santayana “wanted a material pied-à-terre, a place and a person or persons that should take the place of a home; and Strong offered these in a most acceptable form, especially when he lived in Paris.” When Strong was dying in the Florence clinic of the ubiquitous Blue Nuns Santayana wrote to Cory and complained that his “usual bronchial cough and catarrh” prevented him from traveling to Strong’s beside; as when he had run away to Europe as his mother was dying, or stayed away when his sister was dying in Avila, Santayana remained true, in McCormick’s generous explanation, “to a pattern in his behavior when death occurred, protecting himself from mental disruption.”

In 1927, Cory, a student of philosophy who had studied at Columbia and who had written a long exposition of Santayana’s ideas, sent his work to the philosopher, who found it (according to Cory) “the best interpretation of his philosophy he had ever read” and invited Cory to visit him in Rome. He later suggested that Cory become his secretary and help him to arrange his papers. Cory accepted the position and Santayana became his main source of financial support for the rest of his life—his main source of support, that is, when he was not working for Strong, who seems to have grown increasingly jealous of Santayana’s reputation and who competed with him to support and advise the younger man.7

After Santayana died, Cory wrote a book about him that is better written than McCormick’s and that does something to explain the relationship of the three men. According to Cory, Strong seems not only to have resented his Harvard classmate’s success as a writer and philosopher but to have begun fairly early on in the three-cornered friendship to behave like an embittered valetudinarian. He would brusquely turn on radio music while Santayana was expounding a philosophical point—or turn it off when Santayana wanted to listen—and in one instance prevented his servants from giving Santayana a second glass of wine at dinner. For his part, Santayana accused Strong of using him as a “whetstone for his dullness,” and maliciously (and falsely) implied that the reason Strong no longer taught at Columbia University was that he had discovered that no student had enrolled in his course. He described Strong’s personality as “Herculaneum under a thick coating of ashes” and sympathized in his letters to Cory about the miseries of life “du côté de chez Strong.”

Cory’s narrative is often interrupted, and at times nearly overwhelmed, by descriptions of the bickerings between Santayana and Strong, and in the end becomes a rather depressing account of the asperities of old men shuffling around in ghostly grand hotels in slippers and pajamas and shouting at each other from their respective wicker chairs. When one adds to this group of snapping turtles the presence of Bernard Berenson, who lived near Strong in Florence, the picture grows even darker. Berenson described Santayana as “completely without warmth or feeling” and moreover “blind as a bat,” so that he had never properly seen a painting. Santayana, he told a friend, knew as much about aesthetics “as our ancestors knew about the heart of Africa when it was uncharted.” Berenson’s account of an accidental meeting with Santayana in Venice in 1939 is worth recalling to give a sense of the relations between the two men:

We talked for an hour and a half chiefly about himself. The impression he makes is of a man quite satisfied with himself and what his peculiar way of life has brought him. In fact he spoke of himself in the historical present. He laughed a great deal, but nearly always with a snigger, particularly when telling about his most intimate friends.

Berenson also reported that when he told Santayana he was in Venice to look at pictures, Santayana said, “Oh, I thought they had done all they could to advance you along the line of your ambitions.”8

McCormick clearly does not like Cory. He thinks that the younger man had designs on Santayana’s and Strong’s money. Each man had plenty of it, Santayana because his Sturgis money had been wisely invested and because both his novel and part of his autobiography were (to his surprise) Book-of-the-Month Club selections, the novel alone yielding him at one point over $30,000 a year in royalties9 He also thinks that Cory was irresponsible and falsely thought of himself as a philosopher of high order. By way of a good word, however, he thinks that it was brave of Cory to dispatch patch the dying Santayana by administering to him an unusually powerful dose of morphine.

Indeed, the relationship between the two men is difficult to understand. McCormick plausibly speaks of Cory as “a surrogate son to be educated, placed on an allowance, indulged with ‘little presents’ of cash, and altogether spoiled.” But how insufficiently equipped in human psychology McCormick is to comprehend a personality like Santayana’s is made plain by his use, in explaining the relationship between Cory and Santayana, of a stupid generalization: “Like others of homosexual temperament, Santayana seemed to need a cross to bear, and Cory was his cross, his burden, his responsibility.” (In light of this, it seems odd that McCormick would also quote words of Santayana’s that appear to support a different explanation: “I feel a certain responsibility” for Cory, he said, “as it was as my disciple and secretary that he first turned to philosophy; but I never meant to make the connection permanent.” He does not seem here to be in need of a “cross” or “burden” at all.) Actually Cory seems likable, if inconsequential, and he has a charming carelessness, as when, by his own account, he shocked Santayana by lighting his cigar from the perpetual candle that had been placed before a statue of the Madonna in the clinic of the Blue Nuns.


McCormick says not only that Santayana was a “great man,” but also that he has been “unjustifiably neglected” and that we “need him badly”; he even makes the preposterous assertion that among philosophers “only Santayana can make us laugh aloud.” How unwarranted these judgments are becomes clear if we briefly recall the main opinions of Santayana’s philosophy. His career as a philosopher fell roughly into several parts, first an early Harvard period in which he wrote books on aesthetics and religion, including The Sense of Beauty. In the second period he wrote The Life of Reason, which appeared in 1905 and 1906. Santayana’s problem in that book was to define human reason and to describe how it has, and can, contribute to the improvement of our lives and our welfare in such human activities as science, history, law, warfare, industry, religion.

His answers to these questions were an eclectic combination of views, not only those that were influential at the time the book was written but also others drawing on Aristotle and the ancient materialists. Santayana had been influenced, for example, by his teacher William James’s Principles of Psychology and other works that sought to apply Darwinian ideas of natural selection to questions in psychology, logic, law, and social policy, and that stressed experimentalism, the fallibility of human claims to knowledge, and relativism against the metaphysics of idealism and absolutism. To these he added, to the irritation of some, an easy indulgence of religion and in general a somewhat superior attachment to the values of elite culture, as well as a view of human thought that saw it not as an instrumentality to further ends (as many pragmatists held) but as an end in itself.

Santayana in The Life of Reason shows himself to be a materialist and a naturalist—although his materialism is not dogmatically based on any particular conception of matter as, say, made up of atoms or of electrical charges; he does not profess to know what matter is, only that it underlies everything. Human beings, he says, are physical systems, and live in a material world of rocks, trees, animals. Our minds are not, as an ancient philosophical tradition has held, different in metaphysical status from our bodies. Knowing, imagining, dreaming, and other “mental” events or processes are not immaterial (as Descartes had argued) and can—or will eventually—be explained by laws of physics. According to Santayana’s biological theory of knowledge, which owed much to James and resembles in a superficial way the views of modern naturalists like W.V.O. Quine, “thought is a form of life, and should be conceived on the analogy of nutrition, generation and art.”

But in contrast to most modern naturalists, he does not hold that mental events are physical events; according to him, while such events are different from bodily events like the firing of nerves or the formation of cells, and are caused by bodily events, they can nevertheless exert no effect on them. On this view, mental events are causally irrelevant to what takes place in the body or in the rest of the physical world. Only a bodily event—for example, a decayed tooth—and never my “psychological” feelings of pain, could cause me to see a dentist for a toothache.

Santayana tries to use this naturalism to explain our moral as well as mental lives. Human beings act in such a way as to realize what has value for them—what is “good”—and what has value for them is what brings “satisfaction” or fulfills our “preferences.” In much of his writing, Santayana held that moral judgments like “murder is wrong” are empirical in character: the goodness of a state of affairs, the rightness of an action, is always a matter of whether it in fact leads to human satisfaction. In general, conduct that could “not justify itself somehow by the satisfactions secured and the pains avoided would not justify itself at all.” Santayana’s development of this idea is relativist: as he put it years later, “I have become aware that anyone’s sense of what is good and beautiful must have a somewhat narrow foundation, namely, his circumstances and his particular brand of human nature.” But since many conflicting goods—not only ordinary desires but also ideals—can arise in this way, how can their separate claims be adjusted to one another?

According to Santayana, this is the purpose of reason, which he defines as itself an impulse—an impulse to order and harmonize other impulses. The rational man does not surrender himself to the dominant feelings or preferences he may have at a given moment but engages in reflection in order to appraise the claim that all of his present impulses may have on him. Santayana acknowledges that no simple description is possible of the kind of “harmony” among impulses he means; each situation, he seems to say, may call for a different arrangement or ordering of desires and preferences. For example, a judicious person would probably rate the satisfaction of a desire to make money rather differently when choosing a job or an accountant and when choosing, say, a marriage partner; yet the desire may certainly count for something in both cases. Every such arrangement of preferences, he suggests, is a tentative solution to a concrete problem of discovering the most harmonious blend of active feelings and desires.

Santayana went on in The Life of Reason to describe the part reason might play in such diverse aspects of social life as science, art, religion, and government. In each case, these institutions or forms of life are held to be rational to the extent that they further the harmonizing of human desires and impulses, whether those of an individual or of a group. Art, he says, is the rational transformation of the external world into something congenial to our interests. It is not its own justification but is warranted by the human happiness it brings into existence, and this is true both of fine and of industrial arts. One of his best books is Reason in Religion, in which he argues in effect that there is nothing inconsistent in believing in God and being a materialist.

Santayana had the greatest respect for religion as a social institution—far too great a respect in some views. The literal existence of God, he believed, is a superstition. Even if the founders of a religion took such views seriously we must distinguish between the origin and the worth of such a belief; the worth, he thought, of traditional religions does not depend on their literal truth. Religion is “an imaginative achievement, a symbolic representation of moral reality which may have a most important function in vitalising the mind and in transmitting, by way of parables, the lessons of experience.”

The Gospels, for example, “are not historical works”—as some Protestant theologians had argued—“but products of imagination,” he wrote in The Idea of Christ in the Gospels. Christ was “constructed by the imagination in response to moral demands,” he said elsewhere; the story of his birth and death is not factually true but a way of illustrating how sacrifice of oneself can give greater value to the human world. Religion can be valuable because it can generate respect for the sources of our being, for spirituality, resignation, and enlarged sympathy. In Santayana’s own case, an aesthetic element also played a part in the appreciation of religion: “I like to see the enamelled crucifix richly surrounded with scrolls, and encrusted with jewels; without a touch of this pagan instinct the religion of the cross would not be healthy nor just.” Religion becomes a reflection on moral parables and symbols in an aesthetically pleasing setting.

While they are often finely expressed, these views conceal crudities of reasoning and analysis. For example, his idea that mind is just a byproduct of physical events—in the celebrated analogy of Thomas Huxley, like the steam whistle on a locomotive—is a muddle. On this view, decisions, dreams, and other “mental” events cannot be the cause of any physical events, but are often the effects of such physical events as states of the brain or nervous system. What we call “mind” is like the gurgling of a brook or the sparks thrown off by a drill. As I have noted earlier, Santayana’s conception of mental life is not the sophisticated materialism currently explored by philosophers like D.M. Armstrong or Quine, according to which mental events are a kind of physical state, such as brain states. Since brain states can influence, and be influenced by, other physical states, the difficulty of explaining how a mental event can influence a bodily event, or vice versa, is surmounted by this view.

Santayana’s view, on the other hand, seems to suggest that mental states are superfluous, at least insofar as the explanation of human behavior is concerned, since mental events cannot influence the direction or disposition of the body. But it does not seem at all plausible to suggest that the whole history of human creation in art or law or politics could have been what it has been without the intervention of mental life. Whether in such a simple case as a feeling of fear causing me to perspire, or a decision of mine leading to a change in the bodily movements I make, or in more complicated cases such as the effects on the physical world of the creation of a scientific theory or a novel or a social reform or business transaction, “mental events” do seem to influence physical ones. Despite his claims to the contrary, Santayana seems to strip mental life of moral significance by denying it any effects on the physical world.

Santayana wrote that his “naturalism” was not a philosopher’s argument but an “everyday conviction.” He was, he said, only following common sense in asserting the ideas he did. Throughout his philosophical career Santayana would attribute his own conclusions to “common sense” in this way. But he strayed very far from the common sense he prized when he tried to escape criticisms of his curious theory by arguing that words that refer to mental life, like “creation” or “decision” or “reflection,” can in addition to their ordinary meanings refer to the bodily processes that go on when we do these things, bodily processes that no one contests can have a causal effect on other states of the body.

His theory of reason as a harmony among irrational impulses is too vague to tell us very much. If I wish to spend my nights drinking at late-night clubs, but also wish to wake up in the early morning to earn a living, two “impulses” may be said to conflict, and I can harmonize them in different ways. I can, for example, wholly suppress the impulse to earn a living, so that there is no obstacle to staying out all night. Santayana seems to suggest that in a genuine “harmony” of impulses as many of them as possible are retained but modified so that they work together—so that it might be a reasonable solution to my problem to go out drinking only until midnight and then to go home to sleep. He does not suggest how this might be done, however—in my example the drinking that I do might dull my resolve to stop it by midnight. Nor does he indicate what hierarchy of values or preferences should be used to determine what relative weight to give to different impulses in such a harmony. Nor, moreover, does he sufficiently notice that many conflicts of impulse involve situations in which modifications of degree or intensity of an impulse cannot be performed. I may be both a nationalist and a pacifist, and the impulses I feel that correspond to these two sets of convictions may clash absolutely, so that I cannot go to war for the nation I love. Santayana gives a purely formal criterion of rationality. It tells us very little about how we might achieve rationality in our own lives, or even what it consists of in practice.

Or consider Santayana’s philosophy of religion, that strange combination of atheism and orthodoxy that was supposed to have led Russell to say that Santayana believed that “there is no God, and Mary is his mother.” Even though he believed that rational religion is a system of symbols, reflection on which could enrich our moral and aesthetic lives, Santayana was not merely advancing the symbolic interpretation of traditional religion associated with liberal Protestant theologians like Tillich. In fact he detested such reformers. He combined a symbolic approach similar to theirs with loyalty and respect for the institutions and practices of orthodox Catholicism and hostility to Protestantism in particular. He supposed that the symbols of Catholicism were somehow more successful than those of other religions in achieving the moral tasks he assigns to rational religion, and he sharply opposed Protestantism for impoverishing these symbols by giving to each person the authority to interpret the Bible and the practices of the church in his own way. He never explained how to justify this or similar judgments, however; they seem to be little more than prejudices on his part.

He is, moreover, too indulgent of some historical religions and too prejudiced against others. Writers from Voltaire to the present day have emphasized how religions like orthodox Catholicism have stood against the progress of science, yet Santayana can say:

We must not blame religion for preventing the development of a moral and rational science which at any rate would seldom have appeared; we must rather thank it for the sensibility, reverence, the speculative insight which it has introduced into the world.

He never fails to chastise the Jews: they had, he says, “no philosophy, and when their national tradition came to be theoretically explicated and justified, they were made to issue in a puerile scholasticism, and a rabid intolerance”; they denied the rights of other nations’ laws and gods and did so out of “pure bigotry, conceit, and stupidity.” He has almost nothing to say, however, about persecutions of Jews encouraged by the leaders of several traditional religions. Indeed he has very little to say about the way religions have practiced cruelty and actively encouraged superstitions—beliefs in ghosts, demons, and angels, possession by spirits, witchcraft and the worship of bones and other relics.

Santayana’s “later” philosophy is even more baffling than his earlier views. By the 1920s he had written such essays as his celebrated oration on the “genteel tradition” in American philosophy, in which he attacked the defense of religion found in the work of his teacher Royce and others. He declared that when the American spirit stood in need of new personal and social philosophies to accommodate changes in industry and technology, some Americans still sought to create a society based not on commerce and competition but on devotion to God, or, like the Transcendentalists, such as Emerson and other Concord thinkers, used a pernicious idealism borrowed from Kant and Coleridge to support their religious apologetics. As he wrote, “The American Will inhabits the skyscraper; the American intellect inhabits the colonial mansion.”

Now in the Twenties he turned as he had before to what was fashionable among philosophers. Even though he was unwilling or unable to make use of the logical formalisms and analytical style adopted by younger philosophers influenced by G.E. Moore and Russell,10 he examined the same problems of ontology (or being) and epistemology (or knowledge)—problems that usually make up philosophy’s dullest and dryest theories—as they did. In the Twenties, many British and American philosophers following the lead of Russell were examining the socalled “foundations” of human knowledge, reviving the skeptical question of whether we can know anything of the “external” world, and providing elaborate answers of the kind found in Russell’s Analysis of Mind and other works. In the United States, Santayana and Strong were leading members of the school of Critical Realism, which also sought to address these skeptical questions of perception and knowledge.

In 1923 Santayana published the first volume of a new system to be called The Realms of Being (though, he added, it was neither his own nor new nor “metaphysical”). In it he asked the traditional question: What is the evidence for our belief in the existence of objects in the world such as mountains or pencils, for the existence of the past and future and indeed of ourselves, memories, perceptions? When I look at a star, for example, there is a lag of time in perceiving it because light rays pass through space with a finite velocity; as a result, the object I take myself to be perceiving is not only far away, it may not even exist anymore. Moreover, the sensory data that I receive cannot be the star itself, since these same rays pass through dust and other distorting media and consequently create varied sensory images—the image of the star is bright at one minute, dark at another, flickering at still another—whereas the star itself does not vary in this way. Considerations like these, and others, such as the existence of hallucinations and illusions, suggest that the data of perception are never physical objects in themselves like stars or oranges but something else related in an as yet unknown way to them—images or representations of them, for example. But what exactly are these intermediaries in perception? And how are they related to the objects we take ourselves to be seeing? This is one way of formulating the skeptical question of whether we can ever know propositions about the “external” world.

On the position taken by Santayana and some other Critical Realists, there is no guarantee that anything about the world can be known for certain, since every factual proposition, such as “I see a star,” is open to such doubts as that I am experiencing an illusion or claiming to see something that no longer exists. But, he goes on, as much as we can doubt that we are seeing an orange, for example, we cannot doubt that we apprehend in our “immediate experience” certain qualities or features—roundness, yellowness, and so on.

These qualities Santayana calls “essences”—“the last residuum of skepticism and analysis.” Essences, he says, cannot be located in any particular time or place: as we have seen, a star itself may have ceased to exist, but I still grasp something, the essence, of a star, made up of qualities that make a star what it is. These are abstract qualities, not themselves things that exist in the world of material things. They are universal features that are located in no part of space or time yet may appear in any. The aim of Santayana’s system is to show how essences figure in the different domains or “realms” of reality—how they stand in relation to other essences (as in mathematics), or truthfully represent the world, or act together with matter to make up physical objects.

But if all we grasp in perception are essences, as he claimed, how can we know that they correspond to any existing things in the material world? How can we know that the yellowness and roundness we apprehend belong in some way to an existing orange? Santayana says that we can never know for certain. But he also says that we can break out of the circle of essences by a leap of “animal faith”: even though essences do not exist and can provide no proof that anything in the world of matter does, we assume as a matter of course that many of the essences we grasp are features of real objects. We are creatures who must act, and who live in an uncertain world, and so we are compelled by nature to believe certain things, to posit matter and stars and oranges and even ourselves. “We believe because we act, we do not act because we believe.”

This is a puzzling position. How can universal essences be the only information given in conscious experience? If I feel nauseated by the meal that I have just eaten, how could Santayana claim that what I feel has existed from the beginning of time and persists into the infinite future and may even be experienced by someone else?

Santayana maintains that essences, which are not material, cannot causally affect the physical world, and, conversely, that changes in matter cannot affect abstractions like essences. But this claim presents a complete mystery if we wish to make sense not only of inquiries like empirical science but even of ordinary activities like perception. It seems to ignore, for example, the well-known fact that what I see, hear, or smell is usually causally dependent on nervous, chemical, and other material changes taking place in my body. When I take a drug and hallucinate, seeing a dog with the head of my best friend, I can hardly deny that what I perceive in this state owes something to the physical changes occurring in me. A similar, though less obvious, dependency of my perceptions upon my bodily states is found in the most commonplace instances. Santayana also claims that physical objects are “realizations” of essences. But how do essences like yellowness or roundness collaborate with raw matter to create physical objects like oranges? Santayana fails to provide a clear explanation.

Moreover, because he espouses this confusing philosophy of essences Santayana is driven to accept the peculiar conclusion that our belief in the material world is a case of “animal faith.” But it is simply an abuse of language to say that each time I claim to know that I am so many feet tall or have a mother and father I am engaged in a “leap of faith.” At any rate, if these are instances of such faith, we must distinguish it from the kind of faith an African cultivator has when he believes that his neighbor is a witch or when a Roman Catholic believes in the literal existence of God.

Even the stupendous work on political theory to which he devoted his last years, Dominations and Powers, which professes to be concerned with practical matters of government and political freedom, has an unreality to it. The book is about political questions only in name. In Santayana’s hands, every such question seems to dissolve into an abstract discussion of little or no apparent practical significance. He had never displayed much feeling for the complexities of actual social issues, and he lacked the compatisance and sympathy necessary for balanced political judgment. His political views were founded on his materialism. Just as the impulses of a single human being demand satisfaction and the part of reason is to harmonize them, so rational institutions discipline and order the impulses of human beings living in groups. Nations, he says, also have interests in expansion and in dominance over other nations that demand fulfillment and that cannot be checked except by a superior power. “Fundamentally, every vitally integrated tribe, nation or government,” he writes,

unless in straits, looks on all others as nuisances or dangers, that it would be a relief to get rid of. Their territory ought to be annexed, the inhabitants assimilated, exterminated or reduced to slavery. A treaty of peace or of commerce is a temporary compromise dictated by necessity or minor convenience.

Since Santayana wrote that the ethical criterion of a social policy is happiness, indeed, the “maximum satisfaction possible,” it would seem that a liberal and democratic form of government, and an international social order in which nations are allowed to exist so long as they do not harm other nations, might be congenial to him. But Santayana is strongly opposed to both liberalism and democracy. “I utterly repudiate liberal claims and maxims,” he wrote to Sidney Hook in 1934, “which make events turn on ideas, opinions, votes, majorities, and disembodied moral power.” As in his general philosophy, he believed that only material forces could change other material forces in political life, and he scorned William James and others who, he thought, naively believed that moral ideas could on their own play an important part in history.

Liberalism, he had once written, encourages “culture,” but genuine culture “if profound and noble” must remain rare and “if common it must become mean. These alternatives can never be eluded until some purified and high-bred race succeeds the promiscuous bipeds that now blacken the planet.” He now insists that he is

not a conservative in the sense of being afraid of revolutions, like Hobbes, or thinking order, in the sense of peace, the highest good; and I am not at all attached to things as they are, or as they were in my youth. But I love order in the sense of organized, harmonious, consecrated living; and for this reason I sympathize with the Soviets and the Fascists and the Catholics, but not at all with the liberals.11

His argument against democracy is in part like that of Plato. We should not elect officials to govern us any more than we elect the designer of a bridge or the person who cooks our meals. Only a handful of enlightened people are wise enough or otherwise suited to perform these tasks, and the same is true for good government. Modern democracy, he thinks, is usually a majority despotism.

Santayana is not deterred from holding these views by the well-known fallacies they contain. He appears not to notice that the wise can be corrupted by power. Nor does he take into account in his argument for government by experts that you do not have to have specialized knowledge of how to produce a given result in order to tell whether it is satisfactory—you do not have to be a shoemaker to tell if a shoe fits or a good cook to tell if a meal is good; and expert shoemakers or cooks are not necessarily wiser in this respect than the consumers they serve. Nor does he sufficiently emphasize that experts often disagree with one another on ethical and political questions as much as those who are not experts. Santayana’s own political judgment seems to have been saturated with a cynically low estimate of human capacity and reason, and even of the institutions that he had hoped in his earlier work could harmonize conflicting human impulses and contribute to human happiness. As McCormick shows, his reactions to the political events of his day were unfailingly supercilious and frequently deplorable.

In 1914, for example, he praised the Germans for “carrying out a brave and heroic determination to be the masters of Europe and to rule by force of arms, industry and character”; then one or two German actions during the war surprised and offended him, and he joined the war effort against the Huns and wrote a book of uneven quality—disfigured by caricatures of the positions he discussed—attacking the philosophical foundations of German culture. By the end of the first war he wrote Bertrand Russell that he “rather liked Lenin”—not “that fatuous Karensky” [sic]—because he had “an ideal he is willing to fight for, and it is a profoundly anti-German ideal.” He added the thought that “as far as deaths and loss of capital, I don’t care much. The young men killed would grow older if they lived, and then they would be good for nothing.”12

Many of his judgments have this same quality of lack of concern for human beings; he seems to have early discovered a justification for indifference to human suffering in a brutal materialist political philosophy not unlike that of Thrasymachus but expressed in his own delicate Pateresque formulations. He found “entertainment” in Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, in which Ethiopian tribesmen carrying spears were shot down with machine guns and bombed by planes. He wrote to Ezra Pound in 1940, “how much pleasanter this war is, seen from Italy, than the other one, seen, as I saw it, from England.” He lived long enough to convey to a visiting American philosopher, who condemned the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because innocent people were killed, the cruelly fatuous idea that these bombings were “disasters, no doubt. But so is the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius a disaster.” This assimilation of human warfare, deliberately undertaken by statesmen and military men, to the forces of “nature” is only one of many instances in McCormick’s book of Santayana’s celebrated detachment and sagesse.


McCormick tries to describe Santayana’s ideas, but does not make much progress. He has a brief discussion of the volumes on religion and society, The Life of Reason, for example, and then gives a disproportionately long and occasionally unreadable account of the volume on art. McCormick probably feels best suited to describe this at length, but as a result there is no balanced discussion of Santayana’s masterpiece in McCormick’s biography.

What has happened, one fears, is that McCormick’s lack of training in philosophy, together with an uncritical admiration for his subject—evident in such implausible discoveries as that Santayana “never addressed wounding personal remarks to another human being”—has led him not only to exaggerate the quality of Santayana’s prose but to imitate it, as if it were not obscure enough already. The effect of his exposition of Santayana’s thought, which makes excessive use of the philosopher’s own formulations, is therefore not unlike that of one fog overlaying another. Nor does McCormick devote much time to critical appraisal of Santayana’s ideas, which he says we “need” so badly. And he sometimes misleads us, as when he claims that “Santayana gave years of thought to elucidating his conception of the ideal, and it was not until he had worked through to his theory of essences that it became lucid and convincing”; or that without this theory, “his system was a house without a roof.” This may be what Santayana himself thought. But it is not true that his early naturalistic work needs the bewildering theory of essence to complete it; it is independent of it and to me seems intelligible only without it.

It is true that Santayana is in several respects a considerable figure—learned, facile and eloquent, prudent and judicious. His poetic naturalism and respect for science are often admirably expressed. He could be amusingly malicious, as in his description of John Dewey’s book A Common Faith, a philosophy of religion in which the word “God” stood for faith in the validity of ethical ideals, as “a common faith indeed”; and he had the good humor to accept the motto the French translator of his book on German philosophy placed on its title page: “Je suis, donc tu n’es pas.” He was a skillful rethinker of the views, not only of ancient philosophers but also of his contemporaries, as can be seen in his critical essays on Russell, Bergson, and Dewey. But he was not a great original philosopher. He tended too much to state his own preferences and then combine them, not always taking care to render them consistent. He never argued very much for his views, and though he admitted that “I detest disputation and distrust proofs and disproofs,” he never gave at any length good reasons in support of this attitude.

Nor is he a great writer, as so many have urged. It is true that the atmosphere pervading his work is beautiful and cold. But everything that he writes is so barnacled with literary effect, so packed with portentous implication, so multiply allusive, that it is often impossible to make out what he is saying without having to reread him. His prose calls too much attention to itself; it produces a kind of purple philosophy, fussy and overembellished, as when he writes such things as “nature is drawn like a sponge, heavy and dripping, from the waters of sentience.” Aldous Huxley observed that the “exquisitely good writing” of Santayana is “only another kind of bad writing.”13 It has the quality that you can read it again and again without quite following it and yet at the same time feeling both impressed by it and increasingly cloyed. There is a good deal to what C.S. Peirce wrote in a review of The Life of Reason.14 Santayana’s style, he said, is “highly polished, in a medium more glittering than lucid.” The books, he added, “are all that Boston has of most précieux.”

The real trouble with Santayana, one feels, is that he is shut off, concealed and concealing and emotionally airless. He has little sense of social and historical events, and even when he addresses himself to the problems of human beings he uses them as a pretext for ascending to an abstract formulation that one cannot take seriously, as in many of his views on government and politics, in which he accepted with an eager alacrity too much that is distasteful in human beings as inevitable accompaniments of “human nature.” There is indeed something repellent about his composure and sagacity, since one feels that it is sham, not based on contact with other human beings but on refusal to take the trouble to know them. It is easy to agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said that while he agreed with much in Santayana’s philosophy, he has a “patronizing tone—as of one who saw through himself but didn’t expect others to.”15

The account of Santayana’s life in his autobiography is among the most eloquent and selective we have of any writer. His real autobiography, one might say, is his finely written “memoir in the form of a novel,” The Last Puritan. The novel describes the life of Oliver Alden, the son of a decadent New England drug addict, Peter Alden. He is unloved by his family, assigned to the care of a German governess, and becomes a moral perfectionist—dutiful, priggish, analytical, a good athlete, and critical of self and of his society. He hates pleasure and is comfortable only with abstractions, “a spiritual man,” as Santayana said, “incapacitated to be anything else, like Christ, who couldn’t be a soldier or athlete or lover of women or father of a family.” He is attracted to his opposites—to the companion of his father, Jim Darnley, an unscrupulous hedonist, and especially to his cousin Mario, a refined, courteous, cultured dilettante who was educated at Eton and who cannot share Oliver’s stern morality and constant striving for perfection, but who admires him.

In the course of the novel, Oliver gradually becomes less effective in the practical world the more he seeks spiritual improvement. He falls in love with Jim’s sister but she does not return his affection and prefers the more sensuous Mario. In the end he becomes increasingly troubled by self-questioning and his inability to make his way in the world, and finally is killed in an accident in France. He is the “ultimate Puritan,” according to Santayana, who has discovered that the dialectical outcome of accepting Puritanism is rejecting it. The reflective Puritan, he wrote, must conclude that “it is wrong not to live naturally, not to tell the truth about important things, as well as about trifles, and not to make hay while the sun shines.” But Oliver, he goes on, “is very much too fine in texture and feeling to be happy in his world, or to succeed in the things…which it expects him to attempt; and so he peters out.”

The novel may also be read, Santayana said, as an imaginative rendering of “potential personalities” within himself. His affinity to Mario is clear: he, too, was a Latin who possessed what he called the “Epicurean contentment”; he was an Anglophile who would have been pleased to have been educated at Eton and to absorb the manners of English aristocrats; he liked grand hotels, good food, and the comforts that could be provided by wealthy friends, so much so that he felt compelled to defend himself in his autobiography against the impression that “all my life I have been ‘sponging’ on my rich friends, or even that I have sought rich friends for that purpose.” On the other hand, he unmistakably admires Oliver. Despite his criticism of the genteel tradition, Santayana had acquired respect for the seriousness of the Puritan mind in his Boston years and developed close associations as well, of course, with actual people who resembled Oliver. He liked Puritans like Strong and the kind of society—“organized, harmonious, consecrated”—the older Puritans wished to create. When he writes that Oliver is “superior to his world but not up to his own standard” one is reminded that he confessed at the age of twenty-four that he had “always felt an unsatisfied longing” to be a hero-worshiper, but “could find no hero.”

The novel shows that these “potential personalities” in Santayana could not be combined. An analogous problem arises in his philosophy: as we have seen, the epicureanism of The Life of Reason, which seeks to increase human happiness through trial and error and rational social institutions, gives way in his career to a philosophy of resignation and contemplation. Santayana never brought into clear relation to one another the naturalism of his early work and the essences and disinterested spirituality of his later thought. He seemed in his later years to enter a kind of emotional hibernation and to withdraw gradually from life, by continually stepping outside his social and personal situation—leaving Harvard, living impersonally in hotels, separating himself more and more from Strong, running away from illness and death and dangerous entanglements of friendship or love. His philosophy ceased to be a philosophy of human beings living in society and became that of a man living alone and seeking consolation in figments. His last philosophical works have the kind of understanding of human beings that one might get by watching them from an air balloon.

He learned to live on his own, without close association with others, and to explain everything to himself in a continuous philosophical soliloquy. One feels that like Oliver he tried to suppress erotic and imaginative impulses and to seek happiness in an illusory freedom of contemplation. One feels, too, that he could not have been entirely successful in this, so that he must have suffered a constant inner pressure from these desires, whose lack of consummation probably made him even more inhuman and superior and ironical. He grew to regard the world with a “resignation” that he falsely supposed to be essential to the attitude of a philosopher, renaming his self-imposed loneliness a kind of spirituality. In his thought, he made his own personal situation into that of all philosophers by defining the philosopher’s “mission” to “pilot himself, or at most a few voluntary companions, who may find themselves in the same boat.” On this wrong-headed and literary conception, the philosopher seeks a steady contemplation of all things in their order and worth.” It is not easy, he adds, for the philosopher to “shout, or address a crowd; he must be silent for long seasons; for he is watching stars that move slowly and in courses that it is possible though difficult to foresee; and he is crushing all things in his heart as in a winepress, until his life and their secret flow out together.”

This Issue

March 31, 1988