George Santayana
A line drawing of the face and upper torso of George Santayana as a middle-aged man. He is balding, wearing a suit, and looking away from the viewer to the right.
A 1936 Time drawing of Santayana
Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás

(1863-12-16)December 16, 1863
Madrid, Spain
DiedSeptember 26, 1952(1952-09-26) (aged 88)
Rome, Italy
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Doctoral advisorJosiah Royce
Notable studentsJacob Loewenberg,[1] Conrad Aiken, T. S. Eliot, Horace Kallen, Walter Lippmann, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edward Rand, Alain Locke, Van Wyck Brooks, Learned Hand, Felix Frankfurter, Max Eastman, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens
Main interests
Notable ideas
Signature of George Santayana (1863–1952).png

Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known in English as George Santayana (/ˌsæntiˈænə, -ˈɑːnə/;[2] December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952), was a Spanish-American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. Born in Spain, Santayana was raised and educated in the US from the age of eight and identified himself as an American, although he always retained a valid Spanish passport.[3] At the age of 48, Santayana left his position at Harvard and returned to Europe permanently.

Santayana is popularly known for aphorisms, such as "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it",[4] "Only the dead have seen the end of war",[5] and the definition of beauty as "pleasure objectified".[6] Although an atheist, he treasured the Spanish Catholic values, practices, and worldview in which he was raised.[7] Santayana was a broad-ranging cultural critic spanning many disciplines. He was profoundly influenced by Spinoza's life and thought, and in many respects was a devoted Spinozist.[8]

Early life

Santayana was born on December 16, 1863, in Madrid and spent his early childhood in Ávila, Spain. His mother Josefina Borrás was the daughter of a Spanish official in the Philippines and he was the only child of her second marriage.[9] Josefina Borrás' first husband was George Sturgis, a Bostonian merchant with the Manila firm Russell & Sturgis, with whom she had five children, two of whom died in infancy. She lived in Boston for a few years following her husband's death in 1857; in 1861, she moved with her three surviving children to Madrid. There she encountered Agustín Ruiz de Santayana, an old friend from her years in the Philippines. They married in 1862. A colonial civil servant, Ruiz de Santayana was a painter and minor intellectual. The family lived in Madrid and Ávila, and Jorge was born in Spain in 1863.

In 1869, Josefina Borrás de Santayana returned to Boston with her three Sturgis children, because she had promised her first husband to raise the children in the US. She left the six-year-old Jorge with his father in Spain. Jorge and his father followed her to Boston in 1872. His father, finding neither Boston nor his wife's attitude to his liking, soon returned alone to Ávila, and remained there the rest of his life. Jorge did not see him again until he entered Harvard College and began to take his summer vacations in Spain. Sometime during this period, Jorge's first name was anglicized as George, the English equivalent.


Santayana lived in Hollis Hall as a student at Harvard.
Santayana lived in Hollis Hall as a student at Harvard.

Santayana attended Boston Latin School and Harvard College, where he studied under the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce and was involved in eleven clubs as an alternative to athletics. He was founder and president of the Philosophical Club, a member of the literary society known as the O.K., an editor and cartoonist for The Harvard Lampoon, and co-founder of the literary journal The Harvard Monthly.[10] In December, 1885, he played the role of Lady Elfrida in the Hasty Pudding theatrical Robin Hood, followed by the production Papillonetta in the spring of his senior year.[11] He received his A.B. summa cum laude in 1886 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

After graduating from Harvard[12] in 1886, Santayana studied for two years in Berlin.[13] He then returned to Harvard to write his dissertation on Hermann Lotze (1889).[14] He was a professor at Harvard from 1889–1912,[9] becoming part of the Golden Age of the Harvard philosophy department. Some of his Harvard students became famous in their own right, including Conrad Aiken, W. E. B. Du Bois, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Horace Kallen, Walter Lippmann and Gertrude Stein. Wallace Stevens was not among his students but became a friend.[15] From 1896 to 1897, Santayana studied at King's College, Cambridge.[16]

Later life

Santayana early in his career
Santayana early in his career
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Santayana never married. His romantic life, if any, is not well understood. Some evidence, including a comment Santayana made late in life comparing himself to A. E. Housman, and his friendships with people who were openly homosexual and bisexual, has led scholars to speculate that Santayana was perhaps homosexual or bisexual, but it remains unclear whether he had any actual heterosexual or homosexual relationships.[17]

In 1912, Santayana resigned his position at Harvard to spend the rest of his life in Europe. He had saved money and been aided by a legacy from his mother. After some years in Ávila, Paris and Oxford, after 1920, he began to winter in Rome, eventually living there year-round until his death. During his 40 years in Europe, he wrote 19 books and declined several prestigious academic positions. Many of his visitors and correspondents were Americans, including his assistant and eventual literary executor, Daniel Cory. In later life, Santayana was financially comfortable, in part because his 1935 novel, The Last Puritan, had become an unexpected best-seller. In turn, he financially assisted a number of writers, including Bertrand Russell, with whom he was in fundamental disagreement, philosophically and politically.

Santayana's one novel, The Last Puritan, is a Bildungsroman, centering on the personal growth of its protagonist, Oliver Alden. His Persons and Places is an autobiography. These works also contain many of his sharper 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 influence of religion on culture and social psychology, all with considerable wit and humor.

While his writings on technical philosophy can be difficult, his other writings are more accessible and pithy. He wrote poems and a few plays, and left ample correspondence, much of it published only since 2000. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Santayana observed American culture and character from a foreigner's point of view. Like William James, his friend and mentor, he wrote philosophy in a literary way. Ezra Pound includes Santayana among his many cultural references in The Cantos, notably in "Canto LXXXI" and "Canto XCV". Santayana is usually considered an American writer, although he declined to become an American citizen, resided in Fascist Italy for decades, and said that he was most comfortable, intellectually and aesthetically, at Oxford University. Although an atheist, Santayana considered himself an "aesthetic Catholic" and spent the last decade of his life in Rome under the care of Catholic nuns. In 1941, he entered a hospital and convent run by the Little Company of Mary (also known as the Blue Nuns) on the Celian Hill at 6 Via Santo Stefano Rotondo in Roma, where he was cared for by the Irish sisters until his death in September 1952.[18] Upon his death, he did not want to be buried in consecrated land, which made his burial problematic in Italy. Finally, the Spanish consulate in Rome agreed that he be buried in the Pantheon of the Obra Pía Española, in the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome.

Philosophical work and publications

Although schooled in German idealism, Santayana was critical of it and made an effort to distance himself from its epistemology.
Although schooled in German idealism, Santayana was critical of it and made an effort to distance himself from its epistemology.

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 vols., 1905–06), the high point of his Harvard career; Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923); and The Realms of Being (4 vols., 1927–40). Although Santayana was not a pragmatist in the mold of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, or John Dewey, The Life of Reason arguably is the first extended treatment of pragmatism written.

Like many of the classical pragmatists, and because he was well-versed in evolutionary theory, Santayana was committed to metaphysical naturalism. He believed that 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, calling him his "master and model."[19]

Although an atheist,[20][21] he held a fairly benign view of religion and described himself as an "aesthetic Catholic". Santayana's views on religion are outlined in his books Reason in Religion, The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, and Interpretations of Poetry and Religion.

He held racial superiority and eugenic views. He believed superior races should be discouraged from "intermarriage with inferior stock".[22]


A green brick wall with a white sign reading "Wer die Vergangenheit nicht kennt, / ist dazu verurteilt, sie zu wiederholden. / (G. Santayana 1863–1953, Philosoph)
Santayana's famous aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is inscribed on a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Polish translation and English back-translation (above), and on a subway placard in Germany (below).

Santayana is remembered in large part for his aphorisms, many of which have been so frequently used as to have become clichéd. His philosophy has not fared quite as well. He is regarded by most as an excellent prose stylist, and John Lachs (who is sympathetic with much of Santayana's philosophy) writes, in On Santayana, that his eloquence may ironically be the very cause of this neglect.

Santayana influenced those around him, including Bertrand Russell, whom Santayana single-handedly steered away from the ethics of G. E. Moore.[23] He also influenced many prominent people such as Harvard students T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Horace Kallen, Walter Lippmann, W. E. B. Du Bois, Conrad Aiken, Van Wyck Brooks, Felix Frankfurter, Max Eastman, Wallace Stevens. Stevens was especially influenced by Santayana's aesthetics and became a friend even though Stevens did not take courses taught by Santayana.[24][25][26]

Santayana is quoted by the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman as a central influence in the thesis of his famous book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Religious historian Jerome A. Stone credits Santayana with contributing to the early thinking in the development of religious naturalism.[27] English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead quotes Santayana extensively in his magnum opus Process and Reality (1929).[28]

Chuck Jones used Santayana's description of fanaticism as "redoubling your effort after you've forgotten your aim" to describe his cartoons starring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.[29]

Along with Wendell Phillips and John F. Kennedy, Santayana is quoted on a military plaque at Veterans Memorial Park in Rhome, Texas.
Along with Wendell Phillips and John F. Kennedy, Santayana is quoted on a military plaque at Veterans Memorial Park in Rhome, Texas.

In popular culture

Santayana's passing is referenced in the lyrics to singer-songwriter Billy Joel's 1989 music single, "We Didn't Start the Fire".[30]

The quote "Only the dead have seen the end of war." is frequently attributed or misattributed to Plato; an early example of this misattribution (if it is indeed misattributed) is found in General Douglas MacArthur's Farewell Speech given to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in 1962.[31][32]

The aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is quoted as "unattributable" in Dan Abnett's novel Prospero Burns.



Santayana's Reason in Common Sense was published in five volumes between 1905 and 1906 (this edition is from 1920).
Santayana's Reason in Common Sense was published in five volumes between 1905 and 1906 (this edition is from 1920).

Posthumous edited/selected works

The Works of George Santayana

Unmodernized, critical editions of George Santayana's published and unpublished writing. The Works is edited by the Santayana Edition and published by The MIT Press.

See also


  1. ^ John R. Shook (ed.), The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Continuum, 2005, p. 1499.
  2. ^ "the definition of Santayana". Archived from the original on November 23, 2018. Retrieved May 7, 2016.
  3. ^ George Santayana, "Apologia Pro Mente Sua", in P. A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of George Santayana (1940), 603.
  4. ^ George Santayana (1905) Reason in Common Sense, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason
  5. ^ George Santayana (1922) Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, number 25
  6. ^ "Beauty as Intrinsic Pleasure by George Santayana". Archived from the original on April 26, 2018. Retrieved June 15, 2016.
  7. ^ Lovely, Edward W. (September 28, 2012). George Santayana's Philosophy of Religion: His Roman Catholic Influences and Phenomenology. Lexington Books. pp. 1, 204–206.
  8. ^ See his letters and works (such as Persons and Places; Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies)
  9. ^ a b "George Santayana" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archived February 16, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved April 25, 2021
  10. ^ Parri, Alice Two Harvard Friends: Charles Loeser and George Santayana[1] Archived September 25, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Garrison, Lloyd McKim, An Illustrated History of the Hasty Pudding Club Theatricals, Cambridge, Hasty Pudding Club, 1897.
  12. ^ [2] Archived August 29, 2019, at the Wayback Machine and he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa student fraternity Who Belongs To Phi Beta Kappa Archived January 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Phi Beta Kappa website, accessed October 4, 2009
  13. ^ "Santayana, George". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 1555.
  14. ^ George Santayana, Lotze's system of philosophy, Ph.D., 1889
  15. ^ Lensing, George S. (1986). Wallace Stevens: A Poet's Growth. LSU Press. 313 pp. ISBN 0807112976. pp. 12–13.
  16. ^ "Santayana, George (SNTN896G)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  17. ^ Saatkamp, Herman; Coleman, Martin (January 1, 2014). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on March 18, 2019. Retrieved April 8, 2017 – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  18. ^ "George Santayana, 88, Dies in Rome" Archived November 16, 2016, at the Wayback Machine Harvard Crimson death notice of September 29, 1952
  19. ^ The Letters of George Santayana: Book Eight, 1948–1952 By George Santayana p 8:39
  20. ^ "My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe, and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests." George Santayana, "On My Friendly Critics," in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, 1922 (from Rawson's Dictionary of American Quotations via Accessed August 1, 2008.
  21. ^ "Santayana playfully called himself 'a Catholic atheist,' but in spite of the fact that he deliberately immersed himself in the stream of Catholic religious life, he never took the sacraments. He neither literally regarded himself as a Catholic nor did Catholics regard him as a Catholic." Empiricism, Theoretical Constructs, and God, by Kai Nielsen, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 54, No. 3 (July 1974), pp. 199–217 (p. 205), published by The University of Chicago Press.
  22. ^ Santayana, George (November 26, 2015). "The Life of Reason: Human Understanding".
  23. ^ Michael K. Potter. Bertrand Russell's Ethics. London and New York: Continuum, 2006. Pp. xiii, 185. ISBN 0826488102, p.4
  24. ^ Lensing, George S. (1986). Wallace Stevens: A Poet's Growth. LSU Press. 313 pp. ISBN 0807112976. p.12-23.
  25. ^ "Stevens, Wallace". Archived from the original on July 25, 2013. Retrieved January 7, 2014.
  26. ^ Saatkamp, Herman, "George Santayana Archived December 2, 2013, at the Wayback Machine" The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  27. ^ Religious Naturalism Today, pp. 21–37
  28. ^ Whitehead, A.N. (1929). Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology. Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927–1928, Macmillan, New York, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
  29. ^ See the sixth paragraph, That's Not All, Folks! "Of course you know this means war." Who said it?, by Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2003, (Archived at WebCite).
  30. ^ We Didn't Start the Fire Archived May 6, 2021, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
  31. ^ SUZANNE, Bernard F. "Plato FAQ: Did Plato write :"Only the dead have seen the end of war"?". Archived from the original on October 18, 2018. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
  32. ^ "Who Really Said That?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 16, 2013. Archived from the original on June 25, 2018. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
  33. ^ "The Benson Medal". Archived from the original on September 18, 2013. Retrieved January 7, 2014.
  34. ^ George Santayana; William G. Holzberger (Editor). (2006). The Letters of George Santayana, Book Seven, 1941–1947. (MIT Press (MA), Hardcover, 9780262195560, 569pp.) (p. 143).
  35. ^ "University Lectures – Secretary of the Faculty". Archived from the original on September 28, 2013.

Further reading

  • W. Arnett, 1955. Santayana and the Sense of Beauty, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
  • H. T. Kirby-Smith, 1997. A Philosophical Novelist: George Santayana and the Last Puritan. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Jeffers, Thomas L., 2005. Apprenticeships: The Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave: 159–84.
  • Lamont, Corliss (ed., with the assistance of Mary Redmer), 1959. Dialogue on George Santayana. New York: Horizon Press.
  • McCormick, John, 1987. George Santayana: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. The biography.
  • Padrón, Charles and Skowroński, Krzysztof Piotr, eds. 2018. The Life of Reason in an Age of Terrorism, Leiden-Boston: Brill.
  • Saatkamp, Herman 2021, A Life of Scholarship with Santayana, edited by Charles Padrón and Krzysztof Piotr Skowroński, Leiden-Boston: Brill.
  • Singer, Irving, 2000. George Santayana, Literary Philosopher. Yale University Press.
  • Skowroński, Krzysztof Piotr, 2007. Santayana and America: Values, Liberties, Responsibility, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Flamm, Matthew Caleb and Skowroński, Krzysztof Piotr (eds), 2007. Under Any Sky: Contemporary Readings of George Santayana. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Miguel Alfonso, Ricardo (ed.), 2010, La estética de George Santayana, Madrid: Verbum.
  • Patella, Giuseppe, Belleza, arte y vida. La estética mediterranea de George Santayana, Valencia, PUV, 2010, pp. 212. ISBN 978-84-370-7734-5.
  • Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. Tongue Ties: Logo-Eroticism in Anglo-Hispanic Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Moreno, Daniel. Santayana the Philosopher: Philosophy as a Form of Life. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2015. Translated by Charles Padron.
  • Kremplewska, Katarzyna. George Santayana's Political Hermeneutics. Brill, 2022.

Archived August 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine