George Santayana was born in Madrid, Spain in December of 1863. His full birth name was Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás and he spent the early days of his childhood in Ávilla, Spain. His mother was Josefina Borrás, the daughter of a Spanish official. He was the only child born into her second marriage. She had previously had five children, two of whom died. With the death of her first husband she moved to Madrid where she married Agustín Ruiz de Santayana in 1862. He was a civil servant and a painter.
Early Life and Education
In 1869 Josefina returned to the united States with the children from her first marriage. This was due to a promise she’d made her first husband that the children would be raised in America. Santayana was left in Spain with his father. The two followed Josefina to American in 1872. His father did not like the States and moved back to Spain. Santayana did not see him again until he entered college.
As a young man he attended Boston Latin School and then later, Harvard College. It was here that he studied with philosophers and was deeply involved in school life. He was the founder of a philosophy club and the co-founder of The Harvard Monthly, a literary journal. Santayana even preformed in a dramatic production of Robin Hood. He graduated in 1886 and went on to study in Berlin for two years. He later became know as one of the early followers of epiphenomenalism, although he also respected the classical materials or Democritus and Lucretius.
Years at Harvard
George Santayana returned to Harvard after his years in Berlin and wrote a dissertation on Hermann Lotze, a German philosopher and logician. He also taught philosophy and became part of the Golden Age of the Harvard philosophy department. The years there saw him teach a great number of extremely well-known writers including, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, W.E.B. Du Bois and Gertrude Stein. His first collection of poetry was not published until 1894, it was titled, Sonnets and Other Verses. The next work, The Sense of Beauty Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory, quickly followed. One of his major works, The Life of Reason, consistent of five volumes that was described by the author as a “biography of the human intellect”
Santayana remained at Harvard until 1912 when he moved to Europe. He spent the rest of his life there, moving from Paris to Rome. The first work he published there was Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion. It was followed by Egotism in German Philosophy.
While residing in Europe he wrote more than nineteen books, and refused to take up another teaching position. He was content financially, having saved his entire life.
Later Life and Literary Career
His economic situation was increased after the publication of The Last Puritan. This work became an instant best-seller. The Last Puritan is centred around the protagonist, Oliver Alden. It focuses on this character’s personal growth. The twenties were extremely prolific for Santayana. A number of well-known works, ranging from philosophy to poetic verse, emerged from this period. These include Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, Poems, Scepticism, Animal Faith: Introduction to a System of Philosophy and Dialogues in Limbo. His philosophical writing is known for his complexity but his poems and plays are much more open. They were readily consumed by the public.
In 1925 George Santayana was awarded Royal Society of Literature Benson Medal. It was followed by the Columbia University Butler Gold Medal in 1945.
Death and Legacy
Santayana was known for his generosity in his later years. He often helped other writers in need, such as Bertrand Russel, with whom he disagreed completely. Santayana also left behind a great number of letters. These were published together in 2000. During the last decade of his life he lived at the Convent of the Blue Nuns of the Little Company of Mary. Here he was cared for by the Irish Sisters.
Since his death in September of 1952, he has become very well-known for his aphorisms. These are brief, concise statements that are meant to speak a truth. Many of these have become so popular they are considered cliché. He has been cited by writers such as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens as a great influence.