George Santayana: A Biography

by John McCormick

Transaction, 615 pages, $29.95.

Reaching a certain age that rather abruptly presents itself as one’s maturity, I discover a more frequent impulse to reflect on the influences that brought me to this point. “Impulse” is the right word, for there is nothing systematic about such reflection, which is perhaps appropriate to an intellectual formation that has always struck me”and, no doubt, others”as notoriously unsystematic. In my undergraduate years I read, more or less on a whim, George Santayana. I suppose somebody recommended that I do so, or he was declared to be very important in one of the many books that at the time I took to be very important. In any event, I had the idea that Santayana was someone to be read if one aspired to a respectable measure of familiarity with the important thinking of the time. I have a vague recollection that it was Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals that put me on to Santayana, Lippmann being another of the important people to read.

His admirers, such as John McCormick whose huge and absorbing biography George Santayana has just been reissued, suggest that there is something of a Santayana revival underway, and maybe they are right. Certainly, after his death in 1952 at almost ninety years of age, Santayana’s stock went into a precipitous decline. I expect that few today would rank him, or know that he was once ranked, among celebrated thinkers such as William James, Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee, or Alfred North Whitehead, with all of whom he was acquainted. But so he was, although by the time I came to Santayana his reputation was fading. Nonetheless, I have to include him on the list of the many who made a lasting impress upon my mind. In contrast to the other thinkers who seemed like giants at the time, I cannot readily say exactly what I learned from Santayana, what doctrine of his I wrestled with, what new body of thought he alerted me to, what changes he worked in my thinking.

Yet he was an influence, and not an insignificant influence. He proposed to my young mind not a philosophical doctrine, and certainly not a system, but a sensibility and style. He wrote with fetching grace on the really big questions about which clever youth fancies itself deadly earnest”the meaning of life and whether or not history is purposeful, for example”and he did so in a manner that intimated an urbanity and worldly wisdom exceeding my limited experience. Most vividly, I recall reading Character and Opinion in the United States which, as Santayana intended, provided both an introduction to something like an American intellectual tradition and a schooling in its regrettable inadequacies. There were other books” The Sense of Beauty, Reason in Religion , and his one novel, The Last Puritan ”but they did not inspire me to take on hugely ambitious works such as The Life of Reason and his last major project, Dominations and Powers .

Santayana was an astonishingly productive author, writing, revising, and planning new projects up to a month before his death in Rome. At the risk of offending members of the Santayana societies that I’m told meet at places as various as Columbia University and Texas A&M, I early concluded that I had learned what one needed to learn from that great man. He seemed to be for the intellectual tasting, not for lifelong guidance or argument. In any case, he was put aside in favor of thinkers who made a more compelling claim upon my youthful attentions. McCormick’s biography, despite its considerable interest, prompted no regrets about having lingered with Santayana but for a time. Yet it did renew my gratitude for that time.

Santayana is remembered in large part for his aphorisms. Undoubtedly the best known is this: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is usually quoted to the effect that we should learn from history, which is true but trite. The statement occurs in a discussion of the idea of progress in which Santayana contends that progress is more about retentiveness than about change. “When change is absolute,” he wrote, “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.” The result is that instinct learns nothing from experience. That is part of Santayana’s true and not trite response to philosophical positivists in thrall to the religion of Progress. Other aphorisms and maxims reward reflection:

• He was impatient with philosophy’s turn to logical analysis, noting with satisfaction that he had never had a formal course in logic. “The constant whetting of the knife is tedious, if it is not proposed to cut anything with it.”

• “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” A fine line, even if almost exact equivalents are attributed to, among others, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill.

• Rousseau and Walt Whitman exulted in their embrace of elementary and unspoiled humanity, on which Santayana observed, “Nothing is farther from the common people than the corrupt desire to be primitive.”

• Reflecting on the formation of our habits of mind and life, he connects learning and passion. “Half our standards come from our first masters, the other half from our first loves.”

• In 1932 at the University of California he gave what is probably his best-known lecture, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy.” Contrasting the west with the pretensions of Boston and Harvard, where he had endured studying and, later, teaching as a young professor, he observed: “The ‘wild’ west is ‘wild’ on purpose: that is, it is civilization on a holiday”one of the most civilized things possible. But barbarism trying to be ‘cultured’”that is the real horror.”

• Santayana was a skeptic and an atheist, with the former tempering the stridency of the latter. He allowed that his skepticism was something like a dogma, but at least, he claimed, it had the merit of not multiplying dogmas. “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through a long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.”

• Perhaps piqued by T. S. Eliot’s failure to take public notice of his work, he proffers the acerbic judgment: “The thought of T. S. Eliot is subterranean without being profound . . . . He likes this in Christianity and he dislikes that, and feels a general dismay at the natural course of the world. He dreads and does not understand the radical forces at work in the world and in the church; but he is beautifully sensitive to the cross-lights that traverse the middle distance; and he hopes to set up barriers of custom and barriers of taste to keep mankind from touching bottom or quite seeing the light.” Even admirers of that great poet may acknowledge a measure of justice in that.

• Convinced of the superiority of the Catholicism with which he identified but which he did not accept, Santayana was disdainful of Protestantism in all its forms, but especially of Anglican pretensions to not being Protestant. He befriended the poet Robert Lowell and tried to bear with him through his bouts with mental derangement, but was mystified by Lowell’s apparently brief conversion to Catholicism. “His Catholic piety, though admirable, is not like that of any other Catholic; more like that of some capricious Anglican.”

• Of Descartes and his famous cogito , and the subsequent “turn to the subject,” he wrote: “Descartes who misled the whole chorus of modern philosophers, except Spinoza, by making them fall in love with themselves.”

As I say, my youthful attraction to Santayana was in part related to his urbane disdain”an urbanity that I envied and a disdain to which I was prone”for the American habit of marketing and making popular things that should be rare. This, too, comes through in his essay on the genteel tradition: “Our public is well informed and eagerly responsive to everything; it is ready to work pretty hard, and do its share toward its own profit and entertainment. It becomes a point of pride with it to understand and appreciate everything.” American art, literary and other, suffers accordingly: “It becomes disorganized, sporadic, whimsical, and experimental. The crudity we are too distracted to refine, we accept as originality, and the vagueness we are too pretentious to make accurate, we pass off as sublimity.” That was in 1932, but it might as well be from the current issue of the New Criterion . Pretension was compounded by the most clever of the cultured barbarians who pretended to be above it all. At Harvard, Santayana himself belonged to the Laodicean Club, whose members cultivated the pretension of being indifferent to regnant pretensions. He thought this studied indifference well illustrated by a friend who led the cheering at football games with, “Now, gentlemen, cheer lustily, but not too loud.”

Reason in Religion addressed questions that interested me greatly. Not because I was experiencing any great crisis of faith, for the Christian account of reality seemed to me both true and endlessly fascinating. But the Lutheran construal of that account, at least as I encountered it, was a matter of accepting truth almost exclusively on the basis of authority”the authority of the Bible as refracted through Luther, seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy, and the magisterium of the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod. From as far back as I can remember having what might properly be called a theological thought, that approach struck me as arbitrary and stifling. Santayana, sad to report, was not of much help. I did, however, resonate with his polemic against dogmatisms that settled unsettling questions by citing authorities who declared them to be nonexistent. And I welcomed his critique of those who tailored Christianity to fit currently fashionable notions of what is reasonable.

He had nothing good to say about the “modernist” movement in Catholicism led by the likes of Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell at the turn of the last century. The modernist movement, he wrote, “is not anything precise; but as a general tendency, it consists in accepting all the rationalistic views current or possible in matters of history or science, and then saying that, in a different sense, the dogmas of the Church may still be true.” This, he said, was but another game of “double truths,” whereas truth”or, as he preferred, “the natural””is one. The apprehension of truth is finally aesthetic. “Religion and poetry are identical in essence,” he declared. (“Essence” is a comprehensive, controlling, and, to my mind, somewhat confused concept throughout Santayana’s thought.) The highest poetry, he said, is religion”poetry that is “raised to its highest power . . . . At their point of union both reach their utmost purity and beneficence, for then poetry loses its frivolity and ceases to demoralize, while religion surrenders its illusions and ceases to deceive.”

I was impressed for a time by the elegance of the formulation, but was rudely awakened by the realization that Christianity divorced from a commonsense understanding of “fact” was reduced to a poetry contest. The truth about things, and about everything, is adjudicated by whoever succeeds in giving them highest poetic expression. Such was the magisterium of the aesthetic proposed by Santayana. Years later, I would be tutored by Hans Urs von Balthasar on the part played by the beautiful in the discernment of truth, thus retrieving an element of what was attractive in Santayana and setting it firmly within the structure of faith. But that is a story for another time.

Santayana’s relation with Catholicism challenges easy summary. Born in Catholic Spain and pointedly carrying a Spanish passport until his death in 1952, he had no doubt that he was on the Catholic side of the great divide of the modern era. Protestantism, he declared, is the national plague of America, and the diluted Protestantism of American intellectuals fell pitifully short of the faith of their Puritan forebears who at least had the intellectual courage of their errors. Despite the support of friends and his success in obtaining a professorship at an early age, it is not too much to say that Santayana despised Harvard and the America of which it was presumably the best. The Harvard of his day, he believed, was cursed by its Calvinistic formation, which resulted in teachers of philosophy guiding lost souls “as if they had been clergymen; and it made no less acute their moral loneliness, isolation, and forced self-reliance because they were clergymen without a church, and not only had no common philosophic doctrine to transmit but were expected not to have one.” Santayana, by way of contrast, held himself accountable, in his way, to a tradition both Platonic and Catholic. If he were to think of himself as a clergymen, which he did not, he would not be without a church.

He was on friendly terms with his older colleague William James, but he recognized that James was on the other side of the great divide. James wrote in 1880, “I doubt whether the earth supports a more genuine enemy of all that the Catholic Church inwardly stands for than I do” écrasez l’infâme is the only way I can feel about it.” Santayana also recognized that James’ Varieties of Religious Experience , with its individualistic exploration of the extraordinary, was quintessentially Protestant in conception and execution. The study was not about what the Catholic Santayana understood religion to be: “Normal religious experience is the assurance that is living in the world, the economy of which is authoritatively known, so that conduct, sentiment, and expectation have a settled basis.” It is not evident how this normal religious experience relates to religion as the highest poetic expression celebrated by the aesthetically privileged, but one suspects that Santayana assumed, although he did not say, that such poetry must be tethered to a communal tradition lived under an authority that he did not himself accept.

He was sure, however, that nothing religiously or philosophically authentic could come from Protestantism. In this light one can understand his spectacularly wrongheaded essay, “The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare.” In Santayana’s telling, Shakespeare joined northern heathenism to Protestantism without passing through Catholicism. Protestantism, he wrote, was fatally obsessed with novelty.

My philosophy is normal orthodox philosophy, such as has come down from the Indians through the Greeks, to Spinoza. It is simply not Protestant philosophy. The problems of Protestant philosophy do not exist for me: I regard them as products of a confusion of thought, of a heresy. Catholic philosophy differs from the normal only in that it accepts sacred history as well as the true account of the facts: but when the facts are agreed upon, one way or another, philosophy has no real difficulty in discovering what to say. It has said everything essential already. To invent a philosophy would be not to have understood.

In this way, the philosophical canon of modernity, including Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and a host of other lapsed Lutherans, was simply declared beside the point. Catholic to the core though Santayana understood himself to be, he would never confess the faith. In his last decade in Rome he lived in a home run by the Blue Nuns, an Irish order so called because of the color of their habit. He was ever alert to their desire to reclaim a lost sheep and left explicit instructions to his executors that, even if in his dying moments he might nod acceptance and be given the last rites, they should understand that he nodded only to get the nuns and their priests to stop pestering him. In no way should his acquiescence be misconstrued as a deathbed conversion.

Shortly afterward, Robert Lowell wrote “For George Santayana,” which includes these lines:

. . . you died
near ninety,
still unbelieving, unconfessed, and unreceived,
true to your boyish shyness of the Bride.

McCormick calls these “fine lines in affirmation of Santayana’s atheism.” Lowell’s intentions aside, others are not so sure of the state of Santayana’s soul at the time of his death or, for that matter, during most of his very long life. It is noted that in later years he expressed regret about his earlier and frequently harsh judgments on religious faith. He died unconfessed, or at least unabsolved, but perhaps not unreceived, since he was baptized and never definitively left. And, while he may have been boyishly shy, there is no doubt about his loving the Bride, in his manner.

Of course we cannot know Santayana’s spiritual disposition in the moments before he fell into a coma and his friend Daniel Cory pulled the trigger on the morphine overdose. If what he sometimes called his “stoic epicurean” doctrine is to decide the question, Santayana was and is totally indifferent to what we think of his final destiny. In that case, death has nothing to do with him: if he is alive, he is not dead, and, if he is dead, he is not, and therefore death is a matter of indifference. On the other hand, one may in charity be permitted to hope that he is on his way to heaven or in heaven, in which case, if he knows what is happening here, he surely would not want us to think he is in the other place. Yet, if in fact he is in the other place, would it increase or diminish his suffering to know that we imagine him to be in heaven? Such are the imponderables facing those who have a philosophical or religious stake in being sure about Santayana’s spiritual disposition at the end. Better, I think, to pray him the best and leave the matter to higher authority.

There is a lot not to like about George Santayana. He affected, or truly held to, a delicately refined superiority to the common run of the follies of mankind. He spent World War I in England and after that lived in Italy, with occasional trips to his native Spain. The Spanish Civil War, two World Wars, and the Cold War were not his business. He expressed admiration for the smart uniforms of the Nazis, was “much impressed” by Stalin, found the jingoism of Churchill distasteful, and approved of Mussolini’s success in making the trains run on time. To a friend who was anxious about atom bombs and the death of the innocent, Santayana said that he had read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He allowed that they were “disasters, no doubt. But so is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius a disaster.” One may be permitted a measure of uneasiness about a philosophy that yields as its final wisdom the observation that things happen.

In the preface to Dominations and Powers , he expressed his prejudice in favor of “harmony in strength” as a form of aesthetic perfection, however short-lived. “The gods love and keep in their memories the rare beauties that die young. I prefer the rose to the dandelion; I prefer the lion to the vermin in the lion’s skin. In order to obtain anything lovely, I would gladly extirpate all the crawling ugliness in the world.” In the age of Hitler and Stalin, to speak of “harmony in strength,” “vermin,” and “extirpation” exhibited an astounding moral obtuseness that cannot be excused by pleading Santayana’s old age, since they displayed the ripeness of sentiments held over a lifetime.

Then there was his anti-Semitism, to which McCormick devotes a full chapter. Santayana said and wrote (usually in private correspondence) all the usual ugly things: Jews are aggressive, money-grubbing, irredeemably alien and subversive, and altogether in bad taste. Santayana was an Anglophiliac and pandered shamelessly to aristocrats and the smart set. In those circles, McCormick emphasizes, anti-Semitism, or at least a pronounced aversion to Jews, was more or less assumed, and, to make the point, he cites unpleasant statements by Trollope, Meredith, Eliot, Harold Nicolson, and Virginia Woolf, among others. There is an evil maxim applied to England, but it could as well be applied to several, perhaps most, countries: “The English definition of an anti-Semite is someone who dislikes Jews more than is necessary.”

Measured by what his crowd deemed necessary, Santayana was an anti-Semite. Jews were not beautiful, which in his scheme of things meant they were unnatural”“natural” being the preferred term for truth and beauty. Even Bernard Berenson, who at I Tatti (his exquisite villa near Florence) beautifully worshiped the beautiful, was decidedly not to Santayana’s taste, and it had everything to do with Berenson’s being a Jew. The more offensive Jew is the Jew who so insidiously disguises his Jewishness. Worse than their not being like us is their affecting to be like us. The anti-Semite is adept at penetrating the disguise.

What is admired in Santayana is disturbingly entangled with what is repugnant. There is much to be said for treating one’s life as a work of art. Thinkers as diverse as Balthasar and Abraham Joshua Heschel have written persuasively to that effect. Santayana wrote, “The good is the perfection of life for each creature according to its kind.” For him, perfection is measured preeminently by reference to the beautiful. There is, one might observe, truth in the aesthetic, but truth defined by the aesthetic easily descends into sickly aestheticism. With part of his mind, Santayana knew that, and he made a point of distancing himself from the likes of Walter Pater, the nineteenth-century romantic apostle of the beautiful. The younger Santayana was drawn to Pater, especially to his 1885 novel Marius the Epicurean . McCormick writes: “In that text Santayana found a fashionable post-Darwinian pessimism, aestheticism of course, and asceticism upheld as an idea, but countered by a pale, peek-a-boo eroticism. It is not the comparatively healthy decadence of Lionel Johnson & Co., but decadence nevertheless and in disguise. ‘Paganism’ is at once admired and countered by Christian overtones, and the whole indigestible salad is seasoned with a puritanical form of carpe diem : seize the day, but seize it perfectly.”

The eroticism was, of course, homoeroticism. Lionel Johnson was a poet who died young and beautiful and alcoholic, leaving us the haunting “Dark Angel,” containing lines such as:

Dark Angel, with thine aching lust

To rid the world of penitence:

Malicious Angel, who still dost

My soul such subtile violence!

. . . .

Through thee, the gracious Muses turn
To Furies, O mine Enemy!
And all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.
. . . .

Apples of ashes, golden bright;
Waters of bitterness, how sweet!
O banquet of a foul delight,
Prepared by thee, dark Paraclete!

Santayana was much taken with, although also critical of, G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica , published in 1903. At Cambridge, Moore was a member of the secret society known as the Apostles, which included, inter alia, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, most of whom, with the notable exception of Russell, were homosexual in varying degrees of explicitness. Santayana would come to know most of them. The great contribution of Moore’s Principia , as some viewed it, was to separate moral predilection from ethical thought, proposing a fundamental challenge to “conventional” ideas such as “good” and “right.” McCormick, unlike some who have written on Santayana, delicately says no more than what can be known for sure about how, if at all, he acted upon his homoerotic sensibilities.

In his book The Realm of Truth Santayana would write that “the nerve of moral judgment is preference: and preference is a feeling or an impulse to action which cannot be false or true.” Elsewhere he writes that when we are repulsed by dishonorable conduct, by lies and filth, our reaction “is essentially aesthetic, because it is not based on reflection and benevolence, but on constitutional sensitiveness.” Certainly it is not based on the truth of moral principles, religious or otherwise. Indeed, for Santayana, the Platonic triad of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful becomes the Natural, the Good, and the Beautiful. The latter two are, in turn, encompassed in the first, for, again, the goal is “perfection of life for each creature according to its kind.”

Santayana’s favored term for his philosophy was “naturalism.” To inquire into the whence or wherefore of life is futile; it is enough that it is and is to be lived in its intensity. That is to live spiritually. “I understand by ‘spirit’ only the awakened inner attention that suffuses all actual feelings and thoughts, no matter how scattered they may be and how momentary, whether existing in an ephemeral insect or in the eternal omniscience of God. Spirit so conceived is not an individual but a category: it is life insofar as it reaches pure actuality in feeling or in thought.” At the end of the day, or so it would seem, Santayana was not very far from Walter Pater’s counsel: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

Santayana’s books were through most of his life, and especially after the publication of The Last Puritan , immensely popular among genteel Americans eager to understand and appreciate everything. An admiring reviewer described him as “a citizen of the world, as well as its benefactor.” To which Santayana objected, “It is misleading to call even a good writer or philosopher a benefactor ; and in my case there was no such motive. I write for fun or by impulse. At best it is art, not benevolence.” For fun or by impulse, he was until the last month of his very long life busily revising old books and planning new ones. For whose judgment was he so determined to make himself unmistakably clear? Santayana provides no answer, recognizing only the obligation and desire to actualize his perfection. It would seem to have been a life completely folded in upon itself. The Cartesian way, it seems, is not the only way for philosophers to fall in love with themselves. In such convoluted manner was a philosophy of narcissism in conflict with one who could not be a complete narcissist. A narcissist does not so adamantly insist upon being understood, or let himself be taken hostage to the judgment of the future. His life and work were intended to no other end than as a witness to a self perfectly actualized, but a witness requires witnesses, and in this was the implicitly intended benefaction and dependence on others”and perhaps on an Other”that his philosophy did not permit him to acknowledge.

By the end of McCormick’s biography, I had recalled what I knew of Santayana and had learned much more than I knew before. I appreciated again the urbanity, the erudition, the critique of intellectual pretensions, the sardonic and still pertinent observations on our genteel tradition. But, in the end, I sensed neither need nor desire to go back and read him again. What to a young man seemed, for a moment, to be an opening to a larger and more sophisticated world now seemed small, cramped, and fetid. Perhaps I sensed that then, which made it easier to put Santayana’s books aside, and put him largely out of mind.

His, it seems to me now, was a sad life; not tragic but sad. No family, no children, no country, no cause, no Church. He was personally kind and generous to the friends who adorned his determinedly singular existence. His was a studied aloofness from the great political, social, and moral dramas of his time. As for the sufferings of victims beyond numbering, what were they to him or he to them? Catholicism was, in affirmation and negation but never in commitment, essential to his identity. He lived from but never for the Church. She would be sustained by the faith of others, and he was displeased when they did not believe as he thought they should. In the indeterminate fluxations of a cosmos in which “things happen” and it is futile to ask about whence or wherefore, he accepted responsibility for nothing except the poem he aspired to be. Poetry at its highest pitch, he had said, is true religion. At times along the way, and in the final moments of consciousness, I would like to think he knew better. He is buried in Rome, in the huge Campo Verano Cemetery, in a section reserved for Spaniards away from home. George Santayana, requiescat in pace .

Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things .