G. Santayana

G. Santayana books and biography


George Santayana

George Santayana
George Santayana

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-misquoted 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-length monograph 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, Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), 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 of the 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 social institutions have evolved so as to harmonize with the conditions present in their environment. Their value may then be adjudged by the extent to which they facilitate human happiness. The alternate title to The Life of Reason, "the Phases of Human Progress", is indicative of this metaphysical stance.

Santayana was an early adherent of epiphenomenalism, but also admired the classical materialism of Democritus and Lucretius (of the three authors on whom he wrote in Three Philosophical Poets, Santayana speaks most favorably of Lucretius). He held Spinoza's writings in high regard, without subscribing to the latter'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 the sisters there.

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 bons 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.

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In his many value judgements and prejudices, many of which do not sit well with present-day fashion, Santayana was aristocratic and elitist, a curious blend of Mediterranean conservative (similar to Paul Valery), cultivated American, Olympian aloofness, and ironic detachment. Russell Kirk discussed Santayana in his The Conservative Mind from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot. Among those writing about American culture and character from a foreign point of view, Alexis de Tocqueville is perhaps his only peer. Among American writers combining philosophy and letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson is his only rival. Even though he declined American citizenship and resided in fascist Italy for two decades, he is a major American writer. Even so, the Hispanic world is gradually recognizing him as one of its own, with Spanish translations of his work proceeding apace.


  • 1979. The Complete Poems of George Santayana: A Critical Edition. Edited, with an introduction, by W. G. Holzberger. Bucknel University Press.

The balance of this edition is published by the MIT Press.

  • 1986. Persons and Places Santayana's autobiography, incorporating Persons and Places, 1944; The Middle Span, 1945; and My Host the World, 1953.
  • 1988 (1896). The Sense of Beauty.
  • 1990 (1900). Interpretations of Poetry and Religion.
  • 1994 (1935). The Last Puritan: a memoir in the form of a novel.
  • The Letters of George Santayana. Containing over 3,000 of his letters, many discovered posthumously, to more than 350 recipients.
    • 2001. Book One, 1868-1909.
    • 2001. Book Two, 1910-1920.
    • 2002. Book Three, 1921-1927.
    • 2003. Book Four, 1928-1932.
    • 2003. Book Five, 1933-1936.
    • 2004. Book Six, 1937-1940.
    • 2005. Book Seven, 1941-1947.
    • 2006. Book Eight, 1948-1952.

Other works by Santayana include:

  • 1905–1906. The Life of Reason: Or, The Phases of Human Progress, 5 vols. Available gratis online from Project Gutenberg. 1998. 1 vol. abridgement by the author and Daniel Cory. Prometheus Books.
  • 1910. Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe.
  • 1913. Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion.
  • 1915. Egotism in German Philosophy.
  • 1920. Character and Opinion in the United States: With Reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and Academic Life in America.
  • 1920. Little Essays, Drawn From the Writings of George Santayana by Logan Pearsall Smith, With the Collaboration of the Author.
  • 1922. Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies.
  • 1923. Scepticism and Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy.
  • 1927. Platonism and the Spiritual Life.
  • 1927–40. Realms of Being, 4 vols. 1942. 1 vol. abridgement.
  • 1931. The Genteel Tradition at Bay.
  • 1933. Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy: Five Essays.
  • 1936. Obiter Scripta: Lectures, Essays and Reviews. Justus Buchler and Benjamin Schwartz, eds.
  • 1946. The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or, God in Man: A Critical Essay.
  • 1948. Dialogues in Limbo, With Three New Dialogues.
  • 1951. Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government.
  • 1956. Essays in Literary Criticism of George Santayana. Irving Singer, ed.
  • 1957. The Idler and His Works, and Other Essays. Daniel Cory, ed.
  • 1967. The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana. Douglas L. Wilson, ed.
  • 1967. George Santayana's America: Essays on Literature and Culture. James Ballowe, ed.
  • 1967. Animal Faith and Spiritual Life: Previously Unpublished and Uncollected Writings by George Santayana With Critical Essays on His Thought. John Lachs, ed.
  • 1968. Santayana on America: Essays, Notes, and Letters on American Life, Literature, and Philosophy. Richard Colton Lyon, ed.
  • 1968. Selected Critical Writings of George Santayana, 2 vols. Norman Henfrey, ed.
  • 1969. Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays of George Santayana. John and Shirley Lachs, eds.
  • 1995. The Birth of Reason and Other Essays. Daniel Cory, ed., with an Introduction by Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr. Columbia Uni. Press.

Works about Santayana include:

  • McCormick, John, 1987. George Santayana: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Jeffers, Thomas L., 2005. Apprenticeships: The Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave: 159-84.
  • Singer, Irving, 2000. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. Yale University Press.


"There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor."

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

"Music is essentially useless, as life is."

"Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality."

"Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the worse appear the better."

"America is a young country with an old mentality."

"Sanity is a madness put to good use."

"The body is an instrument, the mind its function, the witness and reward of its operation."

"The wisest mind has something yet to learn."

"Our an omen of our destiny, and the more integrity we have and keep, the simpler and nobler that destiny is likely to be."

"A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim."

"Only the dead have seen the end of war."[1]

"The family is one of nature's masterpieces."

"Comparison [of values] presupposes a chosen good. Chosen by chance. The function of spirit is not to pronounce which good is the best, but to understand each good as it is in itself in its physical complexion and its moral essence."


  1. ^ George Santayana, Soliloquy #25, "Tipperary", Soliloquies in England, Scribners, 1924, p. 102.

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