George Santayana – The Poet Philosopher on Beauty and Love

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George Santayana says there is no source of all things, just a succession of different complexities. Image by: User talk:Óðinn

Santayana (1863-1952) whose full name was Jorge Agustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana y Borras was a Spanish-born philosopher who made an enormous impact on American philosophical thinking. Despite this, his entire persona seems to be riddled with contradictions.

Tim Madigan in Philosophy Now describes Santayana as an atheistic philosopher, which seems, at first glance, a contradiction in terms.

Santayana, the Catholic – Santayana the Atheist

How is it possible for a philosopher to be both an atheist and a Catholic? Is it possible that two such strong doctrines could get along together? Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy, explains that Santayana was drawn to religion from aesthetic and historical viewpoints, but he did not appreciate it as a moral inspiration.

Simply put, he disbelieved the dogma, but if other people believed it, that was fine with Santayana, who enjoyed and appreciated what he regarded as the Christian myth.

This apparent instability in his logic attracted a great deal of criticism from his peers, and William James described his doctoral thesis as “the perfection of rottenness,” says Russell.

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Understandably, the the two philosopher did not get along, and Santayana never came to terms with James’ rubbishing of his thesis. Bertrand Russell explains that William James was deeply offended by Santayana’s free-thinking, which he regarded as immoral.

Philosophers Should Celebrate What Makes Life Worth Living

Santayana’s approach embraces and links together literature, religion and philosophy. His scope is wide-ranging, encompassing poetry, novel-writing, essay-writing and literary criticism.

He believes that creativity inspires human endeavour and that there is a natural basis for all things. Santayana proposes four major realms of being, which are essence, matter, spirit and truth. Matthew Caleb Flamm, in his article George Santayana, defines essence as equivalent to ideals, while matter is the natural ground for the ideals.

“Knowledge,” explains Jeremy Harwood in 100 Great Thinkers, “was a compound of conviction, animal faith and intuitive essence.”

In Santayana’s world, the usefulness of beliefs depends on how much they add to human happiness, while culture must be in harmony with the environment. A true sceptic, he is always doubting. Harwood quotes Santayana: “Perhaps there is no source of things at all, the simple form from which they are evolved, but only an endless succession of different complexities.

Most importantly, Santayana is a naturalist, and believes that it is the task of the philosopher to celebrate whatever gives value to our lives and makes them worth living.

Hermann Saatkamp and Martin Coleman quote Santayana in their article “George Santayana” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Cultivate imagination, love it, give it endless forms, but do not let it deceive you. Enjoy the world, travel over it, and learn its ways, but do not let it hold you …”

Santayana on Beauty and Love

In 1896, Santayana published his work Sense of Beauty based on a series of lectures he delivered as a Harvard professor between 1892 and 1893. This work is a history of both theory and aesthetics. The article “George Santayana” published by The Poetry Foundation, explains: “….his intent is to demonstrate the relationship between human judgements and developed taste.” 

Santayana believes that beauty exists only in perception and not in the thing itself. “…beauty is an emotional element, a pleasure of ours, which nevertheless we regard as a quality of things.” 

kiss statue

The ideal of love never keeps its promise. Image by Clarita.

In his article, Tim Madigan quotes from Santayana’s work Reason in Society, which is the second volume of The Life of Reason. It begins by asserting the difficulty of expressing the intensity of the emotion “love” for a poet, and even more, for a philosopher who cannot call on dramatisation or metaphor like the poet:

 “Even a poet… can give of love but a meagre expression, while the philosopher, who renounces dramatic representation, is condemned to be avowedly inadequate.

Love’s Polar Opposites

Madigan explains that according to Santayana,  love has two polar opposites which further complicates rational thought; those of animal lust and of romantic idealisation.

Although he never married or had children, Santayana is open about sexual matters, and his term for sexual love is “frank love.” For Santayana, the sexual drive is a kind of artistic expression, while the ideal side of love only offers an abstract possibility, because perfection cannot be achieved and, therefore, whoever seeks it is destined for disappointment.

Santayana says:

“Love, to the lover, is a noble and immense aspiration; to the naturalist it is a thin veil and prelude to the self-assertion of lust. This opposition has prevented philosophers from doing justice to the subject. Two things need to be admitted by anyone who would not go wholly astray in such speculation: one, that love has an animal basis; the other, that it has an ideal object. Since these two propositions have usually been thought contradictory, no writer has ventured to present more than half the truth, and that half out of its true relations.” (Quoted by Tim Madigan.)

Santayana – the Anti-Idealist

Tragically, therefore, the neoplatonic (ie: idealistic)  idea of love can never be satisfied. Despite this, love must always have an ideal object.  A single quotation of Santayana’s in Madigan’s article, succinctly explains his logic: “…all beauties attract by suggesting the idea then fail to satisfy by not fulfilling it.”  

Tim Madigan presents this example from a very male perspective to describe this unrealised ideal, and it would not be difficult to apply it to a number of other things:

“If a man falls in love with a fair-haired woman, he does so because his heart has been captured by the ideal of a perfect blonde. It is this ideal object, not the woman ‘in her unvarnished and accidental person,’ that the man truly loves.”

The frustration of not finding satisfaction in the love object can result in a number of alternative substitutes for sex, for example, religion, philanthropy, keeping and fondling pets, and passionate enjoyment in nature and the arts. All these, Santayana regards as an escape from the world where the idealisation of love has proved inadequate.

Aesthetics Versus Human Values

The main difficulty with Santayana’s theory about the ideals of love is that they fail to recognise that people can love each other for their kindnesses, their understanding, their like-mindedness, even their flaws. While beauty may be desirable because we are visual creatures, it is not the answer to everything.

A beautiful but empty human vessel could hardly satisfy another human being for a lifetime. We value each other for many, many reasons. No one, after all, remains physically beautiful forever, but they may still remain contented in a happy and fulfilling marriage or partnership until the end of their lives.

When we truly love, we do not love the person for being an ideal – we love them for themselves, whatever that may be.

Santayana, perhaps sadly, spent his whole life searching for this perfect ideal in his prolific body of writings, by looking for meaning and ways to establish value through the relationship between the individual and his/her environment

Legacy of Santayana

Santayana taught at Harvard and in 1889 both T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein were among his students and were influenced by his teaching. In 1912 he came into a large inheritance when his mother died. At this point, he went to live in Rome and met Robert Lowell, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams.

Santayana’s key works were: The Sense of Beauty; (1896) The Life of Reason; (5 books, 1905/06) Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and The Realms of Being (4 books, 1927 – 1940). He wrote many other works of philosophy, as well as books of poetry and novels.

The Poetry Foundation quotes from the Dictionary of Literary Biographies by John K. Roth:

“Santayana thought that nature is ultimately man’s source and destiny and that nature manifests itself in man in his urge to make existence as reasonable and beautiful as possible… he believed that his own philosophy had universal roots and that his work expressed qualities of shared experience that cut across cultural lines.”

In spite of his great influence of American philosophical thinking, Santayana never relinquished his Spanish nationality. He died in Rome in 1952 at the age of 89 years.

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  1. Never doubt that a man as deeply cultured, with an almost timeless virtuosity and incomparable brilliance
    to his writings, as Santayana, ever failed to acknowledge both the irresistible and total naturalness of a “spirit’
    enveloped by physical love. One need only read, “The Last Puritan” to sense Santayana’s courage on this