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George Santayana: 1863-1952: Philosopher Biography

Given Traditional American Education, Published Major Works While At Harvard

George Santayana: 1863-1952: Philosopher.

The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana is popularly known for a single sentence that has entered the stock arsenal of American political rhetoric: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Santayana wrote in his 1905 book Reason in Common Sense. Students of Santayana's work complain that the maxim has been taken out of context: originally it formed part of a theory about how knowledge is acquired rather than being a moral exhortation to pay attention to history, and it has a didactic quality that is foreign to the subtle, paradoxical, and occasionally humorous quality of Santayana's thought.

Yet Santayana's little sentence forms a good introduction to his work in several respects. It is elegant—Santayana was noted among philosophers as an elegant writer, one who addressed himself to the general educated reader rather than primarily to fellow philosophers. And the sentence embodies an interest in how the human spirit constructs an ordered world—though Santayana was in the philosophical sense a materialist who denied the existence of the soul, he nevertheless believed, in the words of Wilfred McClay writing in the Wilson Quarterly, that although the spirit was a mere byproduct of the natural world, "the realm of the spirit was all the more to be cherished because it was the only truly human consolation within the vast indifference of nature."

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