There was a time when Santayana’s work was part of the normal furniture of educated discourse. His poetry, essays, and wide-ranging philosophical writings were eagerly read and digested, flowering in turn in the sentiments and opinions of several generations of readers. At Harvard, where he taught from 1889 until 1912, Santayana’s official and unofficial students included Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Witter Bynner, Walter Lippmann, Wallace Stevens, Scofield Thayer, Max Eastman, Van Wyck Brooks, Felix Frankfurter, and James B. Conant, many of whom (conspicuously excepting Eliot) registered their profound debt to his teaching. Until yesterday, it seems, Santayana’s influence was woven into the living tapestry of intellectual life. In our amnesiac day, his influence seems to have been reduced to the literary equivalent of a geometric point: a single epigram, to wit, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Not a great deal else survives from Santayana in the chapbook of public memory. More’s the pity, for he is deliciously quotable, nowhere more piquantly than in Character and Opinion in The United States:
The milk of human kindness is less apt to turn sour if the vessel that holds it stands steady, cool, and separate, and is not too often uncorked.
In a hearty and sound democracy all questions at issue must be minor matters; fundamental must have been silently agreed upon and taken for granted when the democracy arose.
The romanticist thinks he has life by virtue of his confusion and torment, whereas in truth that torment and confusion are his incipient death, and it is only the modicum of harmony he has achieved in his separate faculties that keeps him alive at all.
Santayana was often at his most memorable not in his “official” philosophical works — the five-volume Life of Reason, for example, or Scepticism and Animal Faith — but in more avocational endeavors: the poignant Soliloquies in England, say, or The Last Puritan, his “memoir in the form of a novel.” Santayana’s letters — he was a tireless and engaging correspondent — also sparkle with that dry but tonic light. Character and Opinion and “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” belong to this exalted company. If they lack the sweep and political urgency of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, they make up for it in charm and mental buoyancy. Together, they stand as one of our most penetrating reflections on what is American about the American spirit.
As far as I have been able to determine, Santayana never met the English aesthete Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947). But he would have delighted in Madan’s observation that “Americans go deeply into the surface of things.” But where Madan would have meant it to sting, Santayana would have extracted an element of compensating commendation. Only a very shallow person, Oscar Wilde once observed, doesn’t judge things by appearances. A typical Wildean quip, true, but how loaded with wisdom!
Hegel said that Minerva’s owl flew only with the coming of the dusk. But Santayana’s America — he lived here from 1872, when he was nine, until 1912 — was (is it still?) a country of the morning. Morning may be a time for thoughts, but few second-thoughts, which is where Minerva comes in. “Until yesterday,” Santayana wrote in Character and Opinion, America “believed itself immune from the hereditary plagues of mankind.” Tocqueville had long before noted that Americans paid less attention to philosophy than any civilized country in the world. Yet nowhere, he said, were the precepts of Descartes more widely applied. What Tocqueville had in mind was less the speculative than the practical side of Descartes. Not “cogito ergo sum” but that simple yet powerful method that would render man “the master and possessor of nature.” How much thought, and how much deliberate thoughtlessness, must be taken on board to prosecute such a plan? In America, Santayana wrote, “Every system was met with a frank gaze. ‘Come on,’ people seemed to say to it, ‘show us what you are good for. We accept no claims; we ask for no credentials; we just give you a chance. Plato, the Pope, and Mrs. Eddy shall have one vote each.’”