Durant 1926: Biographical (George Santayana)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 1.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. GEORGE SANTAYANA

1. Biographical

Santayana was born at Madrid in 1863. He was brought to America in 1872, and remained here till 1912. He took his degrees at Harvard, and taught there from his twenty-seventh to his fiftieth year. One of his students describes him vividly:

Those who remember him in the class room will remember him as a spirit solemn, sweet, and withdrawn, whose Johannine face by a Renaissance painter held an abstract eye and a hieratic smile, half mischief, half content; whose rich voice flowed evenly, in cadences smooth and balanced as a liturgy; whose periods had the intricate perfection of a poem and the import of a prophecy; who spoke somehow for his hearers and not to them, stirring the depths in their natures and troubling their minds, as an oracle might, to whom pertained mystery and reverence, so compact of remoteness and fascination was he, so moving and so unmoved.

He was not quite content with the country of his choice; his soul, softened with much learning, and sensitive as a poet’s soul must be (for he was poet first, and philosopher afterward), suffered from the noisy haste of American city-life; instinctively he shrank back to Boston, as if to be as near to Europe as he could; and from Boston to Cambridge and Harvard, and a privacy that preferred Plato and Aristotle to James and Royce. He smiled with a little bitterness at the popularity of his colleagues, and remained aloof from the crowd and the press; but he knew that he was fortunate to have found a home in the finest School of Philosophy that any American university had ever known. “It was a fresh morning in the life of reason, cloudy but brightening.”

Santayana was poet first, and philosopher afterward. He remained rather aloof from the crowd and the press.

His first essay in philosophy was The Sense of Beauty (1896), which even the matter-of-fact Munsterberg rated as the best American contribution to esthetics. Five years later came a more fragmentary, and more readable, volume, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. Then, for seven years, like Jacob serving for his love, he worked silently, publishing only occasional verse; he was preparing his magnum opus, The Life of Reason. These five volumes (Reason in Common Sense, Reason in Society, Reason in Religion, Reason in Art, and Reason in Science) at once lifted Santayana to a fame whose quality fully atoned for what it lacked in spread. Here was the soul of a Spanish grandee grafted upon the stock of the gentle Emerson; a refined mixture of Mediterranean aristocracy with New England individualism; and, above all, a thoroughly emancipated soul, almost immune to the spirit of his age, speaking as if with the accent of some pagan scholar come from ancient Alexandria to view our little systems with unwondering and superior eye, and to dash our new-old dreams with the calmest reasoning and the most perfect prose. Hardly since Plato had philosophy phrased itself so beautifully; here were words full of a novel tang, phrases of delicate texture, perfumed with subtlety and barbed with satiric wit; the poet spoke in these luxuriant metaphors, the artist in these chiseled paragraphs. It was good to find a man who could feel at once the lure of beauty and the call of truth.

Santayana was a man who could feel at once the lure of beauty and the call of truth.

After this effort Santayana rested on his fame, contenting himself with poems and minor volumes.* Then, strange to say, after he had left Harvard and gone to live in England, and the world presumed that he looked upon his work as finished, he published, in 1923, a substantial volume on Scepticism and Animal Faith, with the blithe announcement that this was merely the introduction to a new system of philosophy, to be called “Realms of Being.” It was exhilarating to see a man of sixty sailing forth on distant voyages anew, and producing a book as vigorous in thought, and as polished in style, as any that he had written. We must begin with this latest product, because it is in truth the open door to all of Santayana’s thinking.

* These are, chiefly: Three Philosophical Poets (1910)—classic lectures on Lucretius, Dante and Goethe: Winds of Doctrine (1913); Egotism in German Philosophy (1916); Character and Opinion in the United States (1921); and Soliloquies in England (1922). All of these are worth reading, and rather easier than the Life of Reason. Of this the finest volume is Reason in Religion. Little Essays from the Writings of George Santayana, edited by L. P. Smith. and arranged by Santayana himself, is an admirable selection.

Even at the age of sixty Santayana produced a book as vigorous in thought, and as polished in style, as any that he had written.

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