MOST of us are familiar with the expression: ‘Those who cannot remember past history are condemned to repeat it’.
The same man who is credited with that famous quote also said: ‘History is a pack of lies about events that never happened, told by people who weren’t there…’ To be sure, these sayings are perplexing and bewildering contradictions. But such was the life of the incredible man who penned those sayings. His name was George Santayana and his connection to Spain and the Spanish character tells a much larger story. Consider the man and his enigmatic life…
He was born (1863) Jorge Augustine Ruiz de Santayana in Madrid, and spent his early childhood in nearby Avila. He was a bright, precocious child and wrote his first novel, Un Matrimonio, aged eight. The following year, his family moved to Boston, USA.
The language barrier was never a problem for young George (he preferred ‘George’ to ‘Jorge’), as he soon spoke perfect English in school but continued speaking Spanish at home. He excelled in his studies, was very popular, and participated in many social activities.
At 18, he entered Harvard University where he wrote cartoons and edited the popular satirical magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. He founded the literary journal The Harvard Monthly, was President of The Philosophical Club, and acted in campus theatrical groups. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, later gaining a PhD, and stayed on as full professor at Harvard, perhaps America’s most prestigious university. Many of his students – T.S.Eliot, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Walter Lippmann, William James – became world-famous in their own right.
Santayana’s notoriety and popularity extended well beyond the confines of Harvard, however. He became a central figure in an era known as The Classical American Philosophy Movement.
Surprisingly, at the apex of his academic prowess, he left America and Harvard, never to return – not out of animosity but because he found the American gospel of work, progress and individualism to be excessive. Santana left Harvard after 40 years because for him academia had become ‘a world of partisan heat over false issues that nurtured trivial and narrow scholarship’.
In 1912, he moved to Oxford and Cambridge where, free from ‘academic confinement’ (his words), he found the time to travel throughout Europe as a ‘traveling scholar and a wandering observer’. His circle of friends (e.g. Bertrand Russell, Ezra Pound) was impressive and many encouraged him to write in different genres that covered a vast spectrum of subject matter. He wrote a wide range of plays, poetry and philosophical treatises. His novels became best-sellers and Book-of-the Month Club favourites. His novel, The Last Puritan, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and in February 1936, he was on the cover of Time Magazine as the man of his generation.
Yet in spite of his real-time fame, Santayana consciously avoided the spotlight and was unimpressed with his new-found wealth. ‘Wisdom comes from disillusionment’, he claimed. He was a complex man who was able to appreciate the virtues of both sides of many perspectives. He loved America and Spain but claimed, ‘I have a certain fond attachment to my native lands but my love of them is manifested by living there as little as possible’.
He was an avowed pacifist yet he admitted there were such things as necessary ‘chivalrous wars’. During the Spanish Civil War, he saw Franco as excessively autocratic, and the opposing Republicans as ‘tragically naïve’. He was horrified at the Catholic Church’s strident doctrine, yet he visited a church nearly every day to pray to his own God. ‘The Bible is literature not dogma,’ he often claimed.
Santayana loved the chaos of Italian culture yet hoped (for a time, anyway) that the fascist Mussolini would get trains to run on time. On teaching, he said, ‘lecturing and imparting knowledge is secondary to giving a good acting performance adapted to a captive audience’. Teaching, he said, was ‘less to instruct than to evoke’.
George Santayana died in Rome in 1951. He is buried in a Spanish expatriate cemetery there, as per his wish. He retained Spanish citizenship throughout his life and credited his ‘Spanishness’ for his unique ability to embrace the ‘interval between birth and death’. He once said: “All true Spaniards know that all conditions are bearable and wisdom is simply the gift of making the best of whatever is thrust upon us.”
In these troubled times of La Crisis, these words hold particular resonance for our Spanish friends, and for those of us who embrace Spanish culture. Rest in peace, George.