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Santayana on liberalism and other matters of interest

Santayana’s distance from involvement was a leitmotif of his character. By disposition, he was homosexual, though it is not clear that he was ever sexually involved with anyone. Reflecting on a meeting he had with A. E. Housman, Santayana mused to Cory that “I think I must have been that way in my Harvard days -- although I was unconscious of it at the time.”

Santayana’s biographer, John McCormick, regarded that as deliberately coy, but supplied no evidence to gainsay it. Santayana regarded sex the way he regarded emotional entanglements generally, as temptations to be avoided. “Carnal pleasures,” he wrote, “are but welcome pains, [they] draw the spirit inwards into primal darkness and indistinction.” Perhaps it was fortunate that Santayana was, or made himself, unsusceptible to such pleasures. “Love has never made me long unhappy, nor sexual impulse uncomfortable,” he wrote in a letter of 1924. Burdens, responsibilities, emotional ties: these sutures of ordinary life are among the chief evils in the Epicurean’s lexicon. Disturbing tranquility, they remind us of our essential poverty, our lack of self-sufficiency. But of course such entanglements are also our most reliable sources of joy. I suspect that this is something that Santayana understood, even if he refrained from indulging it. “It takes patience to appreciate domestic bliss,” he wrote in The Life of Reason; “volatile spirits prefer unhappiness.”

Santayana did not at all prefer unhappiness. But he was reluctant to wager on a bliss burdened with the imperfections of the domestic. In a letter of 1924, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., put his finger on something essential about Santayana. “In a general way,” Holmes wrote, “his thinking more than that of other philosophers coincides with mine. But he has a patronizing tone -- as of one who saw through himself but didn’t expect others to.”