George Santayana: Spanish-American philosopher, poet and humanist

Jo Pires-O’Brien

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) is regarded as one of the most important thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Santayana studied philosophy at Harvard University and graduated with honours in 1886. In that same year he travelled to Germany with the intention of improving his German and doing a PhD there. He managed to learn enough German to understand lectures and formal conversation, but remained tongue-tied due to lack of conversation opportunities. In the two years he spent in Germany he took time off to visit England and Spain, and that too could have contributed to his failure to learn enough German to write a dissertation. He decided to return to Harvard to complete his PhD dissertation there, on the German philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817-1881). Right after completing his PhD in 1889, Santayana got a teaching position at Harvard, where he stayed until 1912, when he resigned by letter while on a visit to England. Although Santayana’s resignation at the age forty-eight puzzled many people at Harvard, Santayana did it without hesitation. He had always felt ill at ease in America and in the academic culture of Harvard. When he received a letter informing him that his mother had died, he reckoned that the cash inheritance that he would receive plus his savings would allow him enough financial security to give up his job. Now he could live anywhere he wanted, and have plenty of time to reflect upon the things that mattered to him.

One can get a good idea about Santayana’s thoughts from his appraisal of other thinkers. He pointed the incoherence’s in the pragmatism of William James (1842-1910) and Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941). Although Santayana’s philosophy has been described as naturalistic, he refused to identify himself with any philosophical school or movement. However, Santayana’s idea that the role of the state is to protect and to enable the individual to flourish is congruent with the English 18th century liberalism cum conservatism. His individualism put him at odds with the majority of the Western intellectuals, who leaned towards collectivism. Although Santayana has remained out of sight of the general public, there is a segment of the cognoscenti that never lost interest in him. Two years after Santayana’s death, Konstantin Kolenda (1923-1991), a Polish-born American philosopher, delivered a lecture about him at Rice University, in Houston, which was subsequently published by the Rice Institute (republished in this edition of PortVitoria). In 1980, The George Santayana Society (GSS) aimed at promoting the study of his ideas was founded at Indianapolis, Indiana. The year 1987 saw the publication of a consolidated edition of Santayana’s autobiography, as well as of his biography written by John Mccormik. In 2019, the Polish philosopher Katarzyna Kremplewska published Life as Insinuation: George Santayana’s Hermeneutics of Finite Life and Human Self (SUNY Press, 2019).

Here is a little sketch about Santayana for the readers of PortVitoria. He was born on December 16, 1863, in Madrid,  and his name at birth was Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás. He spent his early childhood in Ávila, Spain, but in 1872 he was taken to Boston by his father, so that he could be with his mother who had moved back there with her three older children by her first husband. Santayana’s father was unable to adjust to Boston life and opted to return to Spain, and it was agreed that the boy would be sent there every Summer, to be with him. Santayana studied in Boston and then at Harvard University. In the autumn of 1886 he went to Gottingen, Germany, on a Harvard fellowship, with views of doing postgraduate studies there. From Germany, he travelled to England, Spain and France, and eventually decided that he wanted to do his doctorate at Harvard, and returned to the United States. After completing his PhD in 1889, he was offered a teaching position there. Santayana continued to travel to Europe every summer, returning to his favourite places, and spent two sabbatical years, first in Italy and the ‘East’ (possibly Middle East) and then in France. While on a visit to England in 1912, Santayana received a letter informing him that his mother had died. His reaction to that was to send a letter of resignation of his teaching position at Harvard. Santayana stayed in England, then moved to Paris, but at the outbreak of war he returned to England. After the war he moved back and forth between England and France, and in 1924 he moved to Rome, remaining there until his death in 1952, at the age of  89.

Santayana’s personality was multifaceted. He enjoyed solitude but could be open and sociable. Perhaps the best description of Santayana’s personality is one that came from the man himself: “I was never better entertained when neglected, or busier than when idle.” Santayana had several other interests besides philosophy. He was a poet before he became a philosopher, and his first book, published in 1894, was Sonnets and Other Verses. Santayana was also interested in other philosopher-poets, and in 1910 he published a book about Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. He corresponded with some well known poets such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Robert Lowell. He wrote novels and drama, enjoyed sketching landscapes, but most of all he enjoyed travelling.

Although Santayana enjoyed his own company, he remained close to his parents and his half-brother and half-sisters and cultivated friends from all walks of life. He was a close friend of Frank Russell (1865-1931), the 2nd Earl Russell and the older brother of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), with whom he shared his love of poetry and freedom and his antipathy to falsity. Santayana was in his sixties when he met the American writer and editor Daniel MacGhie Cory (1904-1972), who went on to became his personal secretary and confidant, and who helped to organized his archive after his death in 1952.

Although Santayana was neither a public intellectual nor a celebrity, he was well regarded by other thinkers, and it is through their citations that the name of Santayana became known among the public at large, especially his aphorisms, such as: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”  extracted from the essay ‘Reason in Common Sense’, in volume 1 of The Life of Reason (1905).

Selected poems of George Santayana


Before a Statue of Achilles

George Santayana


Behold Pelides with his yellow hair,

Proud child of Thetis, hero loved of Jove;

Above the frowning of his brows of wove

A crown of gold, well combed, with Spartan care.

Who might have seen him, sullen, great, and fair,

As with the wrongful world he proudly strove,

And by high deeds his wilder passion shrove,

Mastering love, resentment, and despair.

He knew his end, and Phoebus’ arrow sure

He braved for fame immortal and a friend,

Despising life; and we, who know our end,

Know that in our decay he shall endure

And all our children’s hearts to grief inure,

With whose first bitter battles his shall blend.


Who brought thee forth, immortal vision, who

In Phthia or in Tempe brought thee forth?

Out of the sunlight and the sap full earth

What god the simples of thy spirit drew?

A goddess rose from the green waves, and threw

Her arms about a king, to give thee birth;

A centaur, patron of thy boyish mirth,

Over the meadows in thy footsteps flew.

Now Thessaly forgets thee, and the deep

Thy keeled bark furrowed answers not thy prayer;

But far away new generations keep

Thy laurels fresh; where branching Isis hems

The lawns of Oxford round about, or where

Enchanted Eton sits by pleasant Thames.


I gaze on thee as Phidias of old

Or Polyclitus gazed, when first he saw

These hard and shining limbs, without a flaw,

And cast his wonder in heroic mould.

Unhappy me who only may behold,

Nor make immutable and fix in awe

A fair immortal form no worm shall gnaw,

A tempered mind whose faith was never told!

The godlike mien, the lion’s lock and eye,

The well-knit sinew, utter a brave heart

Better than many words that part by part

Spell in strange symbols what serene and whole

In nature lives, nor can in marble die.

The perfect body itself the soul.

Source: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993)


Cape Cod

George Santayana

The low sandy beach and the thin scrub pine,

The wide reach of bay and the long sky line,—

O, I am sick for home!

The salt, salt smell of the thick sea air,

And the smooth round stones that the ebbtides wear,—

When will the good ship come?

The wretched stumps all charred and burned,

And the deep soft rut where the cartwheel turned,—

Why is the world so old?

The lapping wave, and the broad grey sky

Where the cawing crows and the slow gulls fly,

Where are the dead untold?

The thin, slant willows by the flooded bog,

The huge stranded hulk and the floating log,

Sorrow with life began!

And among the dark pines, and along the flat shore,

O the wind, and the wind, for evermore!

What will become of man?

Source: Sonnets and Other Verses (1894). Also in: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993)


I would I might forget that I am I

George Santayana

Sonnet VII

I would I might forget that I am I,

And break the heavy chain that binds me fast,

Whose links about myself my deeds have cast.

What in the body’s tomb doth buried lie

Is boundless; ’tis the spirit of the sky,

Lord of the future, guardian of the past,

And soon must forth, to know his own at last.

In his large life to live, I fain would die.

Happy the dumb beast, hungering for food,

But calling not his suffering his own;

Blessed the angel, gazing on all good,

But knowing not he sits upon a throne;

Wretched the mortal, pondering his mood,

And doomed to know his aching heart alone.

Source: Sonnets and Other Verses (1894)


There may be chaos still around the World

George Santayana

There may be chaos still around the world,

This little world that in my thinking lies;

For mine own bosom is the paradise

Where all my life’s fair visions are unfurled.

Within my nature’s shell I slumber curled,

Unmindful of the changing outer skies,

Where now, perchance, some new-born Eros flies,

Or some old Cronos from his throne is hurled.

I heed them not; or if the subtle night

Haunt me with deities I never saw,

I soon mine eyelid’s drowsy curtain draw

To hide their myriad faces from my sight.

They threat in vain; the whirlwind cannot awe

A happy snow-flake dancing in the flaw.


The Poet’s Testament

George Santayana

I give back to the earth what the earth gave,

All to the furrow, nothing to the grave.

The candle’s out, the spirit’s vigil spent;

Sight may not follow where the vision went.

Additional Note. Below is a part of the poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne that Frank Russell read to George Santayana on the day they met in Harvard, Cambridge, in 1886. See the article Santayana and his friendship with Frank Russell in this edition of PortVitoria.

Atlanta in Calydon

Algernon Charles Swinburne

Before the beginning of years

There came to the making of man

Time, with a gift of tears;

Grief, with a glass that ran;

Pleasure, with pain for leaven;

Summer, with flowers that fell;

Remembrance fallen from heaven,

And madness risen from hell;

Strength without hands to smite;

Love that endures for a breath:

Night, the shadow of light,

And life, the shadow of death.

Selected aphorisms of George Santayana

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Life of Reason (1905)

Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado, están condenados a repetirlo.

Aqueles que não conseguem lembrar o passado estão condenados a repeti-lo.


We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.

Debemos dar la bienvenida al futuro, recordando que pronto será el pasado; y debemos respetar el pasado, recordando que una vez fue todo lo que fue humanamente posible.

Devemos acolher o futuro, lembrando que em breve será o passado; e devemos respeitar o passado, lembrando que já foi tudo o que era humanamente possível.


Friendship is almost always a union of a part of one mind with the part of another; people are friends in spots.

La amistad es casi siempre la unión de una parte de una mente con la parte de otra; La gente es amiga en lugares.

A amizade é quase sempre uma união de uma parte de uma mente com a parte de outra; as pessoas são amigas em pontos.


Sanity is a madness put to good uses. The Essential Santayana: Selected Writings

La cordura es una locura de buenos usos.

A sanidade é uma loucura colocada em bom uso.


Never build your emotional life on the weaknesses of others.

Nunca construyas tu vida emocional sobre las debilidades de los demás.

Nunca construa sua vida emocional sobre as fraquezas dos outros.


It takes patience to appreciate domestic bliss; volatile spirits prefer unhappiness.

Se necesita paciencia para apreciar la felicidad doméstica; Los espíritus volátiles prefieren la infelicidad.

É preciso paciência para apreciar a felicidade doméstica; espíritos voláteis preferem a infelicidade.


To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

Estar interesado en el cambio de estaciones es un estado mental más feliz que estar perdidamente enamorado de la primavera.

Estar interessado nas mudanças das estações é um estado de espírito mais feliz do que estar irremediavelmente apaixonado pela primavera.


To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.

Para ser feliz debes haber tomado la medida de tus poderes, haber probado los frutos de tu pasión y haber aprendido tu lugar en el mundo.

Para ser feliz, você deve ter tomado a medida de seus poderes, provado os frutos de sua paixão e aprendido seu lugar no mundo.


Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

El fanatismo consiste en redoblar tus esfuerzos cuando has olvidado tu objetivo.

O fanatismo consiste em redobrar seus esforços quando você se esquece do seu objetivo.


Beauty is an emotional element, a pleasure that is ours and, nevertheless, we consider it as a quality of things. The sense of beauty (1900)

La belleza es un elemento emocional, un placer que es nuestro y, sin embargo, lo consideramos como una cualidad de las cosas.

A beleza é um elemento emocional, um prazer que é nosso e, no entanto, a consideramos como uma qualidade das coisas.


Life is an exercise in self-government. Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)

La vida es un ejercicio de autogobierno.

A vida é um exercício de autogoverno.


When the golden thread of pleasure intertwines with that web of things that our intelligence is always laboriously weaving, it gives the visible world that mysterious and subtle charm we call beauty. The sense of beauty (1900)

Cuando el hilo dorado del placer se entrelaza con esa trama de cosas que nuestra inteligencia está siempre tejiendo laboriosamente, otorga al mundo visible ese encanto misterioso y sutil que llamamos belleza.

Quando o fio de ouro do prazer se entrelaça com aquela teia de coisas que nossa inteligência está sempre tecendo laboriosamente, dá ao mundo visível aquele encanto misterioso e sutil que chamamos de beleza.


Only the dead have seen the end of the war. Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)

Sólo los muertos han visto el final de la guerra.

Apenas os mortos viram o fim da guerra.


A totally simple perception, in which there was no awareness of the distinction and relationship of the parts, would not be a perception of a form; it would be a sensation. The sense of beauty (1900)

Una percepción totalmente simple, en la que no hubiera conciencia de la distinción y relación de las partes, no sería una percepción de una forma; sería una sensación.

Uma percepção totalmente simples, na qual não havia consciência da distinção e relacionamento das partes, não seria uma percepção de uma forma; seria uma sensação.


Nonsense is so good only because common sense is so limited.

Las tonterías son tan buenas solo porque el sentido común es muy limitado.

O absurdo é tão bom apenas porque o senso comum é tão limitado.