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George Santayana Life

In 1940, George Santayana looked back on his forty years in America, and remarked morbidly: “If I had been free to choose, I should not have lived there, or been educated there, or taught philosophy there or anywhere else. “1 He had come to Harvard in 1882 when it was in the middle of its most dynamic transformation; he succeeded both academically and socially as an undergraduate, and, in the company of William James and Josiah Royce, he became one of the most prominent and well-recognized participants in perhaps the greatest department of philosophy that ever existed.

Yet Santayana found something horribly wrong with the changing University. He worried that the mass movement towards practicality and specialization, which he equated with President Charles William Eliot’s attempts to make Harvard a nationally-recognized institution, was draining the university of the aestheticism and humanism that had made higher education worth pursuing.

He saw in Harvard’s atmosphere of excessive materialism and utilitarianism an ailment of American society as a whole, an ugly new trend that had separated the national “will” from imagination, and rendered the intellect irrelevant. Unlike most other critics of the new university, the academic and cultural environment was so intolerable to Santayana that he decided to escape it altogether. He left for Europe in 1912, and although he would continue to write about America until his death in 1952, not once did he return. Academia is still not at rest.

The public’s widespread admiration for higher education once prevalent in the postwar era has begun to reverse itself, and between harsh budget cuts on the one hand and Alan Bloom’s vicious denunciation of the university on the other, the future of higher learning in America may look as bleak to the prospective graduate student as it ever has in recent history. Crisis, however, is nothing new to the American university, and Bloom is not the first to warn of the “collapse of the entire American educational structure,”2 which, at last observation, was still standing.

The very revolution in education that gave the university its modern, recognizable form found itself confronting similar forecasts of gloom and doom at the turn of the century. Along with the adoption of the free elective system and specialization of knowledge that came to be the staples of higher learning there emerged a small but vocal force determined to curtail the excesses of utilitarianism and abstract research.

Known as the “advocates of liberal culture,” these men reacted to an institution they believed had lost its sense of purpose, and their opposition, like today’s, was testament to the growing and deeply felt fragmentation of the university. George Santayana was not at the forefront of this opposition. He was warm neither to Josiah Royce’s optimistic Hegelian idealism nor to Abraham Flexner’s call for colleges to meet the “social need.

As a professor he never attempted to lead a movement against the forces that had rendered aesthetic beauty subordinate to the new ideals of utilitarianism and materialism. Yet the figure of George Santayana has come to define the criticisms of the emerging American university at the time and place where the university was changing the most. Charles William Eliot’s Harvard led the revolution in higher education, and Santayana’s thirty-year stay at the university has given historians a first-hand look into the most fundamental changes ever to occur in the institution.

He was not only at the center of this educational revolution as both a student and faculty member, but he was also keenly observant in articulating what the consequences of such a transformation might be. A close examination of Santayana’s life, his philosophy, his academic criticism, and what others made of his dissension reveals not only what the university’s critics believed was being lost, but also why it became increasingly improbable that such critics would ever be reconciled.

Furthermore, the academic experiences of Santayana offer a stunning look at how the relationship between the university and the individual dissenter–whether it be the misunderstood genius or the cultural rebel–changed in accordance to transformations in the social structures of both student life and faculty politics. Finally, Santayana’s own flawed but often brilliant take on the university reveals some of the most insightful views into the foundations of American intellectual tradition itself.

Unfortunately, Santayana was as much a brilliant myth-maker as he was an illuminating writer. He died in 1952, but even if he were alive today, he would doubtlessly do everything he could to dupe historians, admirers, and probably his own biographers into believing he had been a cultural loner since birth. The two autobiographies that he completed when he was eighty years-old–Persons and Places and The Middle Span–do not in themselves accurately explain why he came to feel so alienated from the academic community.

If his personal accounts are taken at face value, Santayana was destined to be a solitary dissenter in whatever social context he might find himself. “The limitations of my Americanism are easily told,” he wrote in 1940, going on to explain: I have no American or English blood; I was not born in the United States; I have never become an American citizen; as soon as I was my own master I spent every free winter and almost every summer in Europe; I never married or kept house or expected to end my days in America.

This sense of belonging elsewhere, or rather not belonging to where I lived, was nothing anamalous or unpleasant to me but, as it were, hereditary. “3 This is not to say that his autobiographical sketches fail to offer valuable insight into his unique view of the world, but rather that the elderly Santayana re-conceptualized his own experiences to square with his later philosophy. Santayana’s “Spaniard-ness,” of course, was not totally irrelevant to his detachment. In the history of influential thinkers it would not be surprising that Santayana felt culturally alienated even before he began his academic career.

From John Winthrop’s puritanical mission to erect a utopian “city upon a hill” to Jack Kerouac’s beatnik reaction against mainstream society, some of the most dynamic currents in American intellectual thought have been as much rooted in dissent from a dominant culture as they have been reflective of widely accepted ideology. In Santayana’s case, his autobiography describes him as a product of an unstable marriage, a native Spaniard transported in later childhood to American shores and burdened with the heavy pessimism and emotional detachment of his mother.

Indeed, a brief look at Santayana’s early childhood reveals constant transition and insecurity. Born in 1863 into a deteriorating household in Madrid, Santayana spent his first nine years in Spain before coming to America. His mother, Dona Josefina Borras, was a native of Glasgow who had married George Sturgis of Boston in 1849. In 1862, six years following Sturgis’s death and in the midst of raising three children, Borras married Don Agustin Ruiz de Santayana, a native Spaniard and member of the Spanish civil service.

Yet since the Sturgis family of Boston occupied a higher social standing than Santayana’s in Spain, in 1866 the dominating but despairing Dona Josefina left three-year old Santayana with his father and moved to Boston to raise her other children and earn a better living for the family. The temporary split between Josefina and her second husband became a permanent one; when Agustin brought his son to Boston in 1872, Josefina refused to return to Spain and her husband returned alone.

Thus after having lived in two crumbling households, the nine year-old Santayana settled with his mother in Boston where he would spend most of his next forty years. Under the tutelage of his twenty-one year-old half-sister Susana, he began to learn English with astonishing speed. His uprooted adolescence, said Santayana, made him a product of two different worlds; in the homogenous community of upperclass Bostonians, he was unique: a “child born in Spain of Spanish parents” who came “to be educated in Boston and to write in the English language. Santayana described how his broken childhood and his mother’s passivity left an indelible mark on the young thinker. Pointing to the death of his mother’s first-born child as the source of fundamental despair and deterioration of her once-happy marriage, Santayana portrayed his mother as a source of coldness and emotional indifference: With my mother this event was crucial. It made a radical revolution in her heart.

It established there a reign of silent despair, permanent, devastating, ruffled perhaps by fresh events on the surface, but always dark and heavy beneath, like the depths of the sea. Her husband, with his sanguine disposition and American optimism, couldn’t understand it. 5 Drawing a line to his own mid-life crisis at the age of thirty, Santayana conceded that he “underwent a similar transformation. ” Concluding that external events went beyond his control, he thus attempted to create a philosophy that justified passivity.

In his near-psychoanalysis of Santayana, Bruce Kuklick suggests that in this passage the eighty-year-old philosopher exaggerated his mother’s influence to offer a concrete explanation for his own mid-life crisis, pointing out that leaving a husband and moving to a new country are hardly acts of “passivity. “7 Yet at the same time Santayana had been exposed to a world in which life-determining events seemed to be fundamentally out of human control, and if this upbringing differed from that of the usual Harvard undergraduate, it was further accentuated by his financial standing and unprestigious public school education.

His mother’s connections to the Sturgis family kept the household income far above the impoverished conditions of most of the city’s Irish Catholics, but it languished far beneath the comfortable level of Santayana’s Harvard colleagues. Accordingly, Santayana’s mother could not afford to send him to a private preparatory school, and between public education and polarizing cultural allegiances, Santayana described an environment seemingly destined to turn any immigrant into a solitary dissenter: This education in a public day school, among children of humble parents fortified me in the spirit of detachment and isolation.

Not that the most luxurious of American surroundings–such as I afterwards had some contact with–would ever have made an American of me. America in those days made an exile and a foreigner of every native who had a temperament at all like mine. 8 Furthermore, he recalled that his affinity towards his native religion seemed out of place in his new and traditionally Calvinist surroundings. The exact nature of Santayana’s religion itself was ambiguous because he routinely identified himself as a Catholic and yet never seemed to adhere to any of the fundamental teaching of the Church.

Noting that he never had any “unquestioning faith in any dogma,” he explained that his religion was a “matter of sympathy and traditional allegiance, not of philosophy. “9 This kind of balancing act between the life he imagined to have come from and the one he subsequently confronted put the young Santayana in a kind of perpetual limbo between the two worlds he would later visit in his famous “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy. ” Santayana looked back at how quickly and successfully he moved through the Boston Latin School and concluded that his Spanish origins made him forever incompatible with the modern American world.

In his mind, external events that lay beyond his control had placed him in this cultural paradox. His roots lay in a tradition he had never fully experienced, and yet his past made his American surroundings equally alienating. In addition, he found that opening up to American culture meant distancing himself from that of his native homeland. Writing in 1930 about his first return to Spain after his freshman year in 1883, he recalled: “I felt like a foreigner in Spain, more acutely so than in America, and for more trivial reasons: my Yankee manners seemed outlandish there, and I could not do myself justice in the language.

Failing to reconcile the world of his Spanish heritage with the world of his American upbringing, said Santayana, he consequently felt welcome in neither, and the gap between the two could only be widened by his experiences at any academic environment, even at one as relatively open as Harvard. It is surprising, then, that what becomes apparent from looking at Santayana’s undergraduate years is not how much he passively withdrew from the university, but the extent to which he actively participated in campus life.

He drew cartoons for the Lampoon, co-founded the Monthly, contributed to the Crimson, starred as the “leading lady” in a Hasty Pudding spring play, and served as the colonel of the school battalion. At the same time he functioned as a member of the Everett Anthenaeum, the O. K. , the Shakespeare Club, the Philosophy Club, the Art Club of 1873, and the Chess Club, and at the end of his four years he was still able to obtain the high academic distinction of graduating summa cum laude.

These are not the credentials of an inner-directed solitary youth estranged from his surroundings; on the contrary, the undergraduate Santayana comes across as the ideal well-rounded and active “college man” modern universities still seek. Obviously the young Santayana was not as socially alienated as his later autobiographical sketches would lead one to imagine. Sometime between his undergraduate years and the time he openly declared his cultural secession from the United States, Santayana not only underwent a change of self-conceptualization but also formulated a reinterpretation of his younger years to fit his own later philosophy.

That the academic environment around him was changing rapidly is no coincidence; it was precisely the structural difference between the Harvard of 1882 and the Harvard of Santayana’s professorship that transformed him from an eager and active undergraduate into a withdrawn and bitter dissenter. As Eliot’s Harvard wrestled to find a purpose to replace the old and fallen banner of “mental discipline,” Santayana was forced to decide whether or not to embrace the new institutional changes that had rendered his own days as a leisured college gentlemen obsolete.

In essence, Santayana underwent a personal identity crisis at a time when the university was resolving its own. Although he was an active participant in college life, the roots of what Santayana would later develop into a full-fledged philosophical disassociation with things American can be found in his undergraduate writings, particularly in those submitted to the Harvard Monthly. Santayana entered Harvard just as intellectuals disillusioned with politics and religion began to decry the cultural poverty they believed had stagnated American society.

As a result, they began to construct the notion of a cultural hierarchy. In High Brow, Low Brow, Lawrence Levine links the emergence of this sentiment to the influence of the Englishman Matthew Arnold. Arnold had given such dissenters something to fill the void when, in 1867, he redefined “culture” as “the best that has been thought and known in the world. “12 Liberal Republican “Mugwumps” like Henry Adams and E. L. Godkin sought to enlighten the whole of American society through the bastions of “high culture,” a fine, universal standard to which all human beings were to aspire.

These self-designated “apostles of culture” hoped to elevate ordinary persons to a higher spirituality and morality by encouraging them to undergo the process of coming to appreciate this new standard. While such growing sentiment would ultimately result in the mass building of “cultural cathedrals” to uplift the populace and surround them in an atmosphere of “sweetness and light,” Arnold himself brought the storm to campus when he visited Harvard in Santayana’s sophomore year.

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