The Letters of George Santayana

Philosopher, poet, and otic of the most beautiful stylists of our time, George Santayana resigned from the Harvard faculty in 1912 determined to live in Europe and to write the books which had been pressing for expression. His first work of philosophy, The Sense of Beauty, was published in 1896, and he continued to write until the year of his death, by which time some thirty volumes had appeared under his signature. His ties with America he maintained in a spirited and affectionate correspondence, and from his Collected Letters, edited by DANIEL CORY, we have selected these of particular beauty and significance.

Edited by DANIEL CORY

WHEN I undertook the task of assembling the letters of George Santayana, I was a prey to certain misgivings. In the first place, he had lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, and had been an established writer for over sixty years, so that it Avas obvious the volume of correspondence to be investigated must be considerable. Secondly, Santayana was such an accomplished artist in so many fields — he was a philosopher, a poet, an essayist, a novelist, and an auto biographer—that I wondered if in the more spontaneous role of correspondent he might fall short of the very high standard he had always set himself. I knew that he had never sent anything to his publisher in an untidy condition, but always dressed for a public appearance. Above all, I did not want his friends or critics or general audience to say of him what has unfortunately been said of other distinguished writers: What a pity his letters were ever published.

With the arrival of the first batch of letters, however, most of my anxieties Avere set at rest. The volume of correspondence might prove formidable, and the business of eliminating merely “polite” or trivial letters a bit tricky; but on the other issues — the depth of observation, the quality of writing and therefore literary reputation — there was no occasion for alarm. Although I was Santayana’s closest friend for the last tAvenly-five years of his life, and have read everything he ever wrote, the investigation of this large collection of letters soon proved a fresh and exciting adventure. They are essential as a revelation of his life and mind, and a further confirmation of his literary power.

To WILLIAM JAMES

After his graduation from Harvard in 1886, Santayana had gone to Germany with his friend C. A. Strong. They shared a Walker Fellowship for research work in philosophy. As William James had not heard from Santayana, he wrote to him and mildly scolded him for not reporting on his impressions and work in Germany. In his letter James remarks: “I can imagine no happier phase in an intellectual man’s life than to be, at your age, turned loose into Germany to absorb all he can. And I doubt not you’ll make the most of it. ‘To thine own self be trued”

BERLIN, January 9, 1887
DEAR PROFESSOR JAMES: —
I was delighted to get your letter this morning, and hope you will forgive my not having Avritten. ... I have been having a good quiet time, picking up some German, and finding out which way the philosophical Avind blows in these parts. On the whole, I think this semester has done me good, although I have not carried out the plan about doing laboratory Avork. Strong, to whom I have handed your letter, has probably told you that AVC have taken Professor Ebbinghaus’s psychology and Professor Paulsen’s ethics. These with some public courses I hear go over the ground covered in the philosophical courses at Harvard; and they have served to get my notions in shape and to convince me that it is high time to turn to something less general. . . .
I find it pretty hard to make friends among the Germans, although they are good, simple-hearted people. The Americans are so much more lively that I always find myself going with them. There are a great many here, studying everything and nothing. I have been to some American dinners and kneipes, but otherwise I have poked comfortably at home, reading Goethe, with whom I am in love. I find no difficulty in reading and understanding lectures, but I am helpless when it comes to talk. We still propose to take up physiology, but I am afraid as far as I am concerned I shall do little in that direction. I don’t know how to work. I think apart from the spelling book and the Greek grammar, I have never studied anything except for pleasure and with enthusiasm; and I find it terribly hard to peg at things that I don’t seem to grasp. I recognize that all this is an additional reason for trying to get a feeling for the severe, minute way of handling things, and I shall try to do something in that direction. But my vocation is towards the human, political problems. Even the metaphysical and ethical puzzles appear to me rather as obstacles to be cleared than as truths to be attained. I feel now as if I could pass beyond them into the real world. And as far as the world we live in — I mean the social world - - is to be got at by study, it strikes me it is to be found in history and political economy (not counting literature). It is in this direction that I am drawn. Of course, if one could study everything, it would be very nice to understand the physical world too; but isn’t it a fact that popular and secondhand science, bad as it is, is less treacherous than popular political economy and history? I can better afford to be misled about chemistry or physiology than about free trade or the Reformation. That is why I am anxious to look into these subjects for myself. . . .
I am awfully sorry about your wakefulness. . . . Perhaps your having less to attend to this year is a good thing for it. Looser [Charles A. Loeser, a classmate, and later collector and writer on art] writes me that the philosophical club is much less active now, which I suppose means that '87 has few philosophers in it . I look back on our discussions there with great pleasure. Indeed, Cambridge stands in my mind for everything that’s cosy and homelike. With best regards to Mrs. James, I am,
Most sincerely yours,
GEORGE SANTAYANA

To ABBOTT LAWRENCE LOWELL

PARIS, June 6, 1912
DEAR MR. LOWELL: —
Your letter about the proposed lectures at some French universities reaches me when I was about to write to you in a wholly different sense. The death of my mother, which occurred shortly after I left. America, has made a great change in my personal situation, leaving me without a home in Boston and with most of my close friends and relations living in Europe. It seems clearly to mark the moment when I should carry out the plan I have always had of giving up teaching, returning to live in Europe, and devoting myself to literary work. Each of these things is an object in itself sufficient to determine me, and the three conspire together. The plan which you kindly proposed and we agreed upon last winter, that I should continue to spend four months of each year at Harvard, certainly had many advantages; but it was a compromise. I hardly think we could have been faithful to it long. I should not have at t ained my object of a change of life, and I should not have left the field open for you to choose my successor. In any case, under the changed circumstances. I could not bring myself to return to Cambridge. I therefore enclose a formal resignation of my professorship, and I hope you will not ask me to reconsider it. This is a step I have meditated on all my life, and always meant to take when it became possible; but I am sorry the time coincides so nearly with the beginning of your Presidency, when things at Harvard are taking a direction with which I am so heartily in sympathy, and when personally I had begun to receive marks of greater appreciation both from above and from below. But although fond of books and of young men, I was never altogether fit to be a professor, and in the department of philosophy you will now have a better chance to make a fresh start and see if Ilarvard can secure t he leadership of the next generation, as it. had that of the last. . . .
Yours,
G. SANTAYANA

To OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES

SEVILLE, January 21, 1914
DEAR MR. HOLMES: —
I need hardly say that it is a great, satisfaction to me to have your letter and to see that my book [Winds of Doctrine] pleased you enough to make you write it. I think that there is a sort of background of agreement among all men, especially those of the same generation, although publicists often obscure rather than represent it, being taken up with party controversies or special causes. 1 am not a great philosopher, but in my separation from the world of action, and now even from the academic world (for I have retired from teaching), I feel that I can distinguish the normal and inevitable lines of human opinion from the modish flourishes that overlay it. This is my solid standing-ground outside and around special systems, of which you speak wit h an insight which goes to my heart. In Winds of Doctrine this fund of human orthodoxy is assumed rather than formulated, but I am trying to give it a more explicit, expression in a book [Realms of Being] on which I am now at work. I daresay you, and most judicious people, would have much to quarrel with and correct in this systematization of common sense which I am attempting; but after all my training has been that of a technical philosopher, and I feel I owe it to my Fachgenossen to put my conclusions into their language, and not retain the unfair advantage of seeming reasonable by not admitting clearly the implications of my suave opinions.
I am now a wanderer, almost without impediments of any sort, and fortune may take me any day to Washington or Boston, where it would be a great pleasure to see you again. My center is supposed to be in Paris, at No. 9, avenue de PObscrvatoire, where the few books are that I have not wished to part with. I am there regularly in the spring and early summer— in ease by any chance you should find yourself there.
It was really very kind of you to write and to give me the encouragement of so much sympathy from so welcome a quarter.
Yours sincerely,
G. SANTAYANA

To WILLIAM LYON PHELPS

PARIS, September 8, 1920
DEAR PHELPS: —
I am much pleased to have your letter and your review of the Little Essays. All the first part of it makes me feel as if I were reading an obituary notice by anticipation, and I can almost imagine some Phi Beta Kappa orator, in the not very distant future, spreading this sort of roseate sunset glow over my uneventful history and limping personality. I don’t object to the headlines; Harvard in the 1890’s being me, and America Today being you; and I think the view of the Yard has much the same quality of cautious idealization. Yours is not a cubist portrait of your humble servant, nor yet a Dutch inventory of his features and circumstances. I think it is very good and fair, if one allows for the friendly partiality you do not disguise, and also for a certain glamour or pathos of distance that already bathes our memories of youth. The only fact that is wrong is your saying that my mother was an American; she was Spanish —we never spoke English together — but had been first married (in Manila) to one of the Boston Sturgises, so that my half-sisters and half-brother belonged to that once prosperous and always agreeable tribe; and it was in consequence of this connection, and money matters concerned in it, that we went to live in America. A point of interpretation where I feel that you are also somewhat misled, or at least reticent, is in regard to my reasons for leaving Harvard. Weariness had something to do with it, but weariness with lectures and with the “problems” of technical philosophy rather than with college committees, on which I seldom appeared. They knew I was no good at business! But my chief motive was a lifelong desire to live in Europe and —which is only possible here — to be left alone. In respect to higher things, most of what you say pleases and satisfies me greatly, especially your mention of Schopenhauer: that is to hit the nail on the head. There are only two points in which perhaps you don’t understand me: it seems to me unfair to suggest that, unlike the wizened Morley, I am not frank about immortality; a scholar like you ought to know that the platonizing or Spinozistic things I say about it, taken in an ideal sense, are the original motif of this doctrine in the European tradition: the notion of ghosts or of resurrection has been merely confused with it, and it is no compromise or hedging on my part to separate the two views once more. The other point is about liking life, and the poets who relish it. My disgust at Browning is not because he loves life or has it. abundantly, but because he doesn’t love it. (as Dickens does, for instance) for what is good in it, but for what is base, tawdry, and pretentious. I protest against being called a snob; what I love is what is simple, humble, easy, what ought to be common, and it is only the bombast of false ambitions and false superiority that I abhor.
Before the war I was on the point of going to give some lectures at the University of Wisconsin and at. Columbia, but I doubt now whether I shall ever cross the Atlantic again. I have my headquarters here, and go away at intervals. Last winter I was in Italy, now I go to Spain, and I was in England throughout the war. All places, where there is an armchair within and something human to see without, arc much the same, and I lead the same life everywhere. You will find me somewhere on the beaten track whenever you next come to t hose parts.
Yours sincerely,
G. SANTAYANA

To GEORGE LAWTON

When a student of philosophy at Columbia, Dr. Lawton (he is now a practicing psychiatrist) had written to Santayana and strongly urged him to give up “metaphysics” and devote all his energies to literary criticism.

ROME, March 29, 1922
DEAR MR. LAWTON—
It is always pleasant to be urged to do something on the ground that one can do it well; and I have some sympathy with your cry: No more metaphysics. I am nevertheless at work on a book of philosophy (which I do not like to call metaphysics); it will take a year or two; after that I promise you to renounce the subject —except as an ingredient in pleasanter things. . . . But now I come to the part of your advice which I don’t mean to follow at all. Criticism is something purely incidental talk about talk — and to my mind has no serious value except perhaps as an expression of philosophy in the critic. When I have been led to write criticism it has never been for any other reason; and you don’t know me at all if you suppose me capable of reading up Meredith or Thomas Hardy or anyone else who hasn’t come in my way, in order to describe them to other people. If you like that sort of vicarious literary nourishment, read Croce, or any other competent, person who sets out to express the impression which literature has made upon him. But I should advise you to read the originals instead, and be satisfied with the impression they make upon you. You know Plato’s contempt for the image of an image; but as a man’s view of things is an image in the first, place, and his work is an image of that, and the critic’s feelings are an image of that work, and his writings an image of his feelings, and your idea of what the critic means only an image of his writings please consider that you are steeping your poor original tea-leaves in their fifth wash of hot water, and are drinking slops. May not the remarkable sloppiness and feebleness of the cultivated American mind be due to this habit of drinking life in its fifth dilution only? What you need is not more criticism of current authors, but more philosophy: more courage and sincerity in facing nature directly, and in criticizing books or institutions only with a view to choosing among them whatever is most harmonious with the life you want to lead. For as Dryden (or is it Pope?) says, “If you think the world worth winning, think, oh think it worth enjoying.” I accordingly intend to devote such years as may remain to me exclusively to philosophy, although I hope the form in which it will be expressed will not lead you to call it metaphysics.
Yours very truly,
G. SANTAYANA

To HENRY WARD ABBOT

ROME, December 12, 1923
DEAR HARRY: —
Someone has sent me a clipping from the Boston Transcript — what an odor of old maid comes from those words! — in which you resuscitate some old memories of ours and incidentally supply your address. There has long been a suppressed impulse in my nervous system — not strong enough to produce any Freudian phenomena — to write to you, and ask what has become of you in these thirty years. . . .
As to me, you know all that can be told and probably can guess the rest. My health is good, and I manage to avoid most of the troubles that most people bring upon one another, by keeping to the life of a wandering student, which has been my ideal from my earliest days. I do nothing that seriously disturbs my digestion or my agreeable isolation; and I read and write when the impulse comes, and not under pressure. Sometimes my literary projects become something of an incubus, and I ask myself whether I shall live to carry them out; but what does it matter? I have already had my say, although I confess that I am still young and enthusiastic enough to feel that what I have in petto is far better than anything 1 have yet done, and that it must see the light. You may be surprised to hear that the most lively of these embryos is a novel! I began it [The Last Puritan] long, long ago — in the early ‘90s — as a story of college life. That part has now receded into a mere incident; not that my heroes have become much older, since on the contrary I have gone back to their childhood and parentage, but that the scene has widened, and the fable — it is all a fable — has become more organic, knit more closely around the central motif, which is Puritanism repenting, but unable to reform.
Haven’t you written any novels? It is the only living art, and now il seems possible to print what in earlier days we hardly ventured to whisper. Your old friend,
G. SANTAYANA

To VAN WYCK BROOKS

ROME, May 22, 1927
DEAR MR. BROOKS: —
Although I am not sure whether I owe the pleasure of reading your book, Emerson and Others, to your initiative or that of your publishers, I would rather thank you personally for it, because I have one or two things which I should like to say, as it were, in private. Your pictures of Emerson are perfect in the way of impressions — not that I knew him (he was dead, I think, when I first reached America, aged eight), but that, whether true to the fact or not, they are convincing in their vividness. But just how much is quoted, and how much is your own? Am I to believe — I who haven’t read the Journal and know little of the facts — that Emerson was such a colossal egotist and so pedantic and affected as he seems on your pages 39 and 40? Or have you maliciously pul things together so as to let the cat out of the bag? Sham sympathy, sham classicism, sham universality, all got from books and pictures! Loving the people for their robust sinews and Michelangelesque poses! And for the thrill of hearing them swear! How different a true lover of the people, like Dickens!
You apologize because some of your descriptions applied to the remote America of 1919. I who think of America as I knew it in the 1890’s (although I vegetated there for another decade) can only accept what I hear about all these recent developments. On the other hand, when you speak of the older worthies, you seem to me to exaggerate, not so much their importance, as their distinction. Wasn’t this Melville (I have never read him) the most terrible ranter? What, you quote of him doesn’t tempt me to repair the holes in my education. The paper I have most enjoyed — enjoyed immensely — is the one on the old Yeats. His English is good: his mind is quick.
One more little protestation. Why do the American poets and other geniuses die young or peter out, unless they go and hibernate in Europe? What you say about Bourne (whom again I haven’t read) and in your last chapter suggests to me that it all comes of applied culture. Instead of being interested in what they are and what they do and see, they are interested in what they think they would like to be and see and do; it is a misguided ambition, and moreover, if realized, fatal, because it wears out all their energies in trying to bear fruits which are not of their species. A certain degree of sympathy and assimilation with ultra-modern ways in Europe or even Asia may be possible, because young America is simply modernism undiluted; but. what Lewis Mumford calls “the pillage of the past” (of which he thinks I am guilty too) is worse than useless. I therefore think that art, etc., has a better soil in the ferocious 100 per cent America than in the intelligentsia of New York. It is veneer, rouge, aestheticism, art museums, new theatres, etc., that make America impotent. The good things are football, kindness, and jazz bands.
Yours sincerely,
G. SANTAYANA

To WILLIAM LYON PHELPS

HOTEL BRISTOL., ROME, February 16, 1936
DEAR BILLY: —
Your letter about The Last Puritan was one of the first that reached me, but I have put off thanking you for it until others began to come, so that I could have a certain background on which to place your judgment, other than my own necessarily internal or a priori view; because the hardest thing for an author, especially when he has lived as long as I have with his characters — forty-five years — is to conceive how they will seem to other people, when conveyed to them only by words. I have pictures, quite as distinct as memories; and my characters speak to me, I don’t have to prompt them. This doesn’t contradict the fact which you mention, and I point to in the Epilogue, that these characters speak my language, and are in some sense masks for my own spirit. On the contrary, that makes, or ought to make, them more living, since they are fetched from an actual life, and only dressed, as an actor on the stage, for their social parts. And I think you are partly wrong, like so many other critics, when you suggest that my characters are ghostly and not “living.” Even the admitted literary character of their talk is not incompatible, as poetry is not incompatible in the drama, with individuality in tone and temper. Of course, I don’t always succeed; yet I think, if you drop all preconceptions or cliches, you will find that there is a good deal of individuality in the way my characters talk, within the frame of what you might call my metre. It is my writing, but it is their sentiment. Only the book is very long, it can’t leave distinct images if not allowed to settle. The great point is, as with poetry, to get the mind docile and free for suggestion, and then the dramatic spell will work. At least, that is what I can’t help feeling, and what is confirmed by various witnesses. One notices Mrs. Darnley’s special speech; another tells me he can hear Rose talk; and the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden at once recognized her late husband [the second Earl Russell, the elder brother of Bertrand Russell] in Jim: “whose person and conversation,” she writes, “are somehow curiously familiar.” And surely Irma and Mrs. Alden are not echoes of myself.
However, that isn’t the point that matters most in the book or in your letter. You say I don’t love life and that faith is necessary. Very true: I don’t love life unconditionally; but I enjoy the “mere living” (as Browning has it) when I am in good health, which is most of the time; and I enjoy the episodes, unless I am rudely prevented from doing so. If you have my Dialogues in Limbo, and will look at pages 156-161, you will find Socrates and me defining the matter exactly. It was Oliver, not I, who didn’t love life, because he hadn’t the animal Epicurean faculty of enjoying it in its arbitrariness and transiency, He was a spiritual man, incapacitated to be anything else, like Christ, who couldn’t be a soldier or athlete or lover of women or father of a family (or even, though I don’t say so in the book, a good believing Christian). Now that is a tragic vocation, like the vocation of the poet; it demands sacrifice and devotion to a divine allegiance; but poor Oliver, ready for every sacrifice, had nothing to pin his allegiance to. He was what the rich young man in the Gospel would have been if he had been ready to sell his goods and give to the poor, but then had found no cross to take up and no Jesus to follow. Faith, as you say, is needed; but faith is an assurance inwardly prompted, springing from the irrepressible impulse to do, to fight, to triumph. Here is where the third sloppy wash in the family teapot is insufficient. And without robustness an imposed intellectual faith wouldn’t do: it would only make a conventional person. You say you can’t understand how I seem to hold my own in the world without faith, and almost without the world. It is quite simple. I have the Epicurean contentment, which was not far removed from asceticism; and besides I have a spiritual allegiance of my own that hardly requires faith—that is, only a humorous animal faith in nature and history, and no religious faith; and this common-sense world suffices for intellectual satisfaction, partly in observing and understanding it, partly in dismissing it as, from the point of view of spirit, a transitory and local accident. Oliver hadn’t this intellectual satisfaction, and he hadn’t that Epicurean contentment. Hence the vacancy he faced when he had “overcome the world.” Basta. Thank you a thousand times for your friendship.
G. SANTAYANA

These letters should also serve to dispel some current misconceptions about Santayana. What was his precise position in relation to the Catholic Church? His letter to Father Hoehn is the official answer. What did he really think of Mussolini, and was he in any sense a neo-Fascist? The letter to Corliss Lamont should settle that issue. Let us hope it. is still possible (even in America) for a man to be a conservative without being branded a Fascist, or a liberal without being labeled a Communist..

To the REV. MATTHEW HOEHN, O.S.B.

CORTINA AMPEZZO, August 10, 1939
DEAR FATHER I FOEHN: —
I was christened in the Church and profess no other religion, so that from the point of view of the census-taker I am unmistakably a Catholic. My Protestant and Jewish critics also discover a good deal of Catholicism in my writings; but I have never been a practicing Catholic, and my views in philosophy and history are incompatible with belief in any revelation. It would therefore be wholly misleading to classify me among “Catholic Authors.”
This is a sufficient answer to your inquiry, for the purpose of your book of biographies, in which I ought not to be included. Yet I may add, in case you are at all interested in my real relation to the Faith, that a well-grounded Catholic student might find my philosophy useful (like that of some of the ancients) in defending the moral, political, and mystical doctrines of the Church. I think that all religious ideas are merely symbolical; but I think the same of the ideas of science and even of the senses: so that the way is cleared for faith, in deciding which set of symbols one will trust.
Sincerely yours,
G. SANTAYANA

To CORLISS LAMONT

VIA SANTO STEFANO ROTONDO, 0
ROME, December 8, 1950 DEAR MR. LAMONT: —
Besides your letter of Nov. 21st, I have one from Mr, Runes regarding a new preface or note to the coming edition of your Humanism as a Philosophy in which you quote and comment upon a letter of mine about the different quality of your naturalism and mine, and end by placing that difference* just, as I should, in the difference between your militancy in ethics and politics and my lack of it. That this is what distinguishes (very naturally, ii you consider our respective backgrounds and interests) will become even more evident to you if you read my forthcoming book, Dominations and Powers, where I make “The Militant Order of Society” a special section of the whole work, in contrast to the “Generative” and the “Rational” order of it. And it is precisely this distinction that determines the nature of my “Fascism” (as it existed or exists, so far as it does so at all) and the “Fascism” which seems to you and to Joel Bradford positively immoral. Because you really agree with him and not with me about this; only that as you are not willing to think me a criminal you try to deny that I am a Fascist, even in the somewhat hesitating way in which Bradford seems to call me one. And I think that your defense of me is unconvincing, because you say I am a good fellow instead of proving, as you wish, that I can’t be a Fascist.
Of course I was never a Fascist in the sense of belonging to that Italian parly, or to any nationalistic or religious partly. But considered, as it is for a naturalist, a product of the generative order of society, a nationalist or religious institution will probably have its good sides, and be better perhaps than the alternative that presents itself at some moment in some place. That is what I thought, and still think, Mussolini’s dictatorship was for Italy in its home government. Compare with the disorderly socialism that preceded or the impotent party chaos that has followed it. If you had lived through it from beginning to end, as I have, you would admit this. But Mussolini personally was a bad man and Italy a half-baked political unit; and the militant foreign policy adopted by Fascism was ruinous in its artificiality and folly. But internally Italy was, until the foreign militancy and mad alliances were adopted, a stronger, happier, and more united country than it is or had ever been. Dictatorships are surgical operations, but some diseases require them, only the surgeon must be an expert, not an advent urer.
Let me in turn put this question to you. Can a Humanism that is a complete philosophy be naturalistic? Can human nature be the ruling force or universal moral criterion for the universe? Can the universe have any moral basis? Isn’t morality the proper hygiene for a reasoning animal?
This brings me back to the point you raise at the end of your letter to me about the “eulogistic” use of the word “eternal” for certain temporal states of reasoning creatures. But to attribute an everlasting existence to any state of mind would not be eulogistic: it would be nonsense, because a state of mind is a process of thought, a perception or a conception that, has to be called up, rearticulated, and propounded. Now, the eternity of a truth, say of the perfection of some action, or the reality of some affection, is a quality of its form, not the length of its duration; and it is not the state of mind that is eternal but the truth which it discovers. There is no doubt a regrettable play of words in this matter when “eternal” is understood to mean everlasting or self-repeating for ever. That would be tedium in excels is. But sympathy with ideal qualities rather than with variations in one’s own condition is the “life of reason”; the human side of animal life.
I had not meant to write such a long letter, but the subject is an old favorite of mine. Spinoza is the clearest philosopher on the “eternal,” but Aristotle is quietly sound about it. Plato too often shows that his heart is in the right place, but his political preoccupations make him lean more and more, as he grows old, to popularize his myths into dogmas.
Yours sincerely,
G. SANTAYANA