But the irony is that the genteel tradition need not be genteel, i.e. polite, refined, circumspect. Today, for example, the genteel tradition in American academic and cultural life thrives by repudiating those very virtues. It is an irony that Santayana would have savored even as he would have disapprobated the behavior and attitudes that made the irony so pointed. As the historian Robert Dawidoff noted in a perceptive essay on “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana “would have been amused but unsurprised that . . . the genteel ended up endorsing free-speech relativism, obscenity, and anti-social behavior (and many other things) in its helpless pursuit of cultural control through misapplied moralizing.” The indispensable thing about the genteel tradition turns out to be the moralizing pressure toward conformity, not the substance of the governing strictures.
Although Santayana thrived on such vertiginous reversals, he did so quietly, with the utmost discretion. Santayana never hectored. Indeed, he rarely even bothered to argue. Instead, he observed; he described; he slyly took readers into his confidence. This is not to say that there isn’t a didactic side to Santayana’s philosophy. There is. It is just that, like all the best teachers, Santayana understood that arguments are a less effective catechism than a vision of the world. (“Men,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “are guided by type, not by argument.”) Most modern philosophy puts a premium on argument and analysis. But the Australian philosopher David Stove was right when he noted that “Some of the best philosophers never argue, or even pretend to. Santayana, for example. He simply tells you how he thinks the world is, and delicately makes fun of some other philosophers, almost always unnamed, who think there is more to the world, or less, than he does.”
Santayana was a curiously amphibious creature. He tarried more as a guest than a citizen in institutions, in countries, even in the world at large. He titled the last section of Persons and Places, his posthumously published memoir, “My Host, the World.” What does that tell us? In the Fall of 1911, Santayana traveled to California to gaze upon the Pacific and deliver his famous lecture on the genteel tradition at Berkeley. The following year, he left for Europe and never set foot in the United States again. Santayana was not without affection for America — he endeavored, he said, to understand it “as a family friend . . . who has a different temperament” — but he liked to say that his love for it, like his love for Spain, was “manifested . . . by living there as little as possible.”
Santayana enjoyed aspects of college life. He liked the semi-cloistered existence, the intellectual intimacy with burgeoning young minds, the easy proximity to handsome young faces. But he always loathed the academic industry. Indeed, no sooner had he started teaching than he began plotting his escape. Being a teacher, he remarked in Persons and Places, was forced upon him by the necessity of earning a living, “but being a student was my vocation.” He lived frugally, saved diligently, and was finally able to announce his departure in 1912, just shy of fifty, when his mother died leaving him a legacy of $10,000 (more than $200,000 today). At Harvard, too, he was always more a tourist than a citizen. The university, Santayana thought, had been ruined by people like Charles Eliot, the ambitious president from 1869-1909, who strove to transform Harvard College into a great modern — which meant Germanic — university. Eliot and Santayana were like oil and water. Early in his teaching career, Santayana chanced to encounter the president; asked about the progress of his classes, Santayana explained that he had finished with Plato and was moving on to Aristotle. “No, no, Santayana,” Eliot said, “what I mean by my enquiry is, how many students have enrolled for your lectures?”
It wasn’t just a matter of administrative expansionism that bothered Santayana, though. The very discipline of academic philosophy rubbed him the wrong way. “That philosophers should be professors is an accident,” he wrote, “and almost an anomaly. Free reflection about everything is a habit to be imitated, but not a subject to expound; and an original system, if the philosopher has one, is something dark, perilous, untested, and not ripe to be taught, nor is there much danger anyone will learn it.”