George Santayana (December 16, 1863, Madrid – September 26, 1952, Rome), was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist.
A lifelong Spanish citizen, Santayana was raised and educated in the United States, invariably wrote in English, and is considered an American man of letters. He is perhaps best known for the oft-quoted remark, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," from Reason in Common Sense, the first volume of his The Life of Reason.
Born Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana, he spent his early childhood in Ávila, Spain. His father was a diplomat, painter, and minor intellectual. His mother was the daughter of a Spanish official in the Philippine Islands. Jorge was the only child of his mother's second marriage. She was the widow of George Sturgis, a Boston merchant by whom she had five children, two of whom died in infancy. She lived in Boston following her husband's death in 1857, but in 1861 went with her three surviving Sturgis children to live in Madrid. There she again encountered Agustin Santayana, an old friend from her years in the Philippines and married him in 1862. The family lived in Madrid and Ávila until 1869 when Santayana's mother returned to Boston with her three Sturgis children, leaving Jorge, then five, with his father in Spain. Jorge and his father followed her in 1872, but his father, not finding Boston to his liking, soon returned alone to Ávila, where he remained for the rest of his life. Jorge did not see his father again until summer vacations while he was a student at Harvard. Hence from the time he was five, Jorge's parents lived apart. Sometime during this period Jorge americanized his name to George, its English equivalent.
He attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University, studying under William James and Josiah Royce, whose colleague he subsequently became. After graduating from Harvard in 1886, he studied for two years in Berlin, then returned to Harvard to write a thesis on Rudolf Hermann Lotze and teach philosophy, thus becoming part of the Golden Age of Harvard philosophy. Some of his Harvard students became famous in their own right, including T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Walter Lippmann, and Harry Austryn Wolfson.
In 1912, an inheritance from his mother allowed him to retire from Harvard and spend the rest of his life in Europe. After some years in Paris and Oxford, he began to winter in Rome starting in 1920, eventually living there year-round until his death in 1952. During his 40 years in Europe, he wrote 19 books and declined several prestigious academic positions. Most of his friends and correspondents were Americans, including his valuable assistant and eventual literary executor, Daniel Cory. The aged Santayana was comfortable, in part because his 1935 novelized memoir, The Last Puritan, sold well. In turn, he assisted financially a number of writers including Bertrand Russell, with whom he was in fundamental disagreement, philosophically and politically. Santayana never married. For a biography, see McCormick (1987).
Santayana's main philosophical work consists of The Sense of Beauty (1896), his first book and perhaps the first major work on aesthetics written in the United States, The Life of Reason (5 volumes, 1905–6), the high point of his Harvard career, and The Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927–40). Although Santayana is not a pragmatist in the mold of William James, Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, or John Dewey, The Life of Reason arguably is the first extended treatment of pragmatism ever penned. Like many classical pragmatists, and because he was also well-versed in evolutionary theory, Santayana was committed to a naturalist metaphysics, in which human cognition, cultural practices, and institutions evolved so as to harmonize with their environment. Their value was the extent to which they facilitated human happiness. He was an early adherent of epiphenomenalism, but also admired the classical materialism of Democritus and Lucretius. He held Spinoza's writings in high regard, without subscribing to Spinoza's rationalism or pantheism. Although an atheist, he described himself as an "aesthetic Catholic", and spent the last decade of his life at the Convent of the Blue Nuns on the Celian hill in Rome, cared for by nuns.
The man of letters
Santayana's one novel, The Last Puritan, is perhaps the greatest Bildungsroman in American letters. Among American autobiographies, his Persons and Places deserves to be put on the same plane as The Education of Henry Adams. These masterworks of his also contain many of his tarter opinions and bon mots. He wrote books and essays on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy of a less technical sort, literary criticism, the history of ideas, politics, human nature, morals, the subtle influence of religion on culture and social psychology, all with considerable wit and humor, and pervaded with a good feel for the subtlety and richness of the English language. While his writings on technical philosophy can be difficult, his other writings are far more readable, and all of his books contain quotable passages. He wrote poems and a few plays, and left an ample correspondence, much of it published only since 2000.