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Philosopher and Artist

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

The Middle Span: Persons and Places continued. By George Santayana. Charles Scribncr’s Sons. $2.50.

Standing beside a wrecked German tank on a hill above Anzio, looking down reminiscently on that tragic beachhead after the fighting had moved on. The caption reads, “My God! Here they wuz and there we wuz.” Mauldin knows that in words and pictures that’s about all you can say.

In george santayana, now old and reminiscent in his Roman retreat, are happily combined the philosopher and the artist. One might apply to him, with the change of a word, Matthew Arnold’s remark about Joubert: “The delight of his life he found in truth and in the satisfaction which the enjoying of truth gives to the spirit.” It is of course philosophy, which in one way or another is concerned with truth, that Santayana has delighted in; and aside from the matter, his style, whatever the specific subject may be, has at its best something of enchantment. The philosopher, like all true Platonists, is inevitably the poet.

Though his interest, as he asserts, was always in persons and ideas, in this second volume of his spiritual autobiography (the first was the earlier “Persons and Places”), Santayana has much to say about localities: little Spanish Avila, to which the homing instinct occasionally led him back, Boston and Cambridge, his chief intellectual home, certain German universities where he fitfully studied, and London, where he seems to have felt more at home than anywhere else except at Harvard. With the romantic blood of Spain in his veins, tempered by the last Puritan inheritance from Massachusetts, how could he have avoided restlessness of spirit and proneness to metaphysical, and even mystical, adventure? And so far as he had any religion, it was in the beauty of his Catholic inheritance, The longest sojourn of his active years was in Cambridge, broken by many journeys abroad, and perhaps his most engaging chapters deal with Boston society and his teaching years at Harvard. Some of his acutest comments are in his analyses of these social and intellectual centers. Boston society, he says, “was a clannishness of social affinity and habit: you must live in certain places, follow certain professions, and maintain a certain tone”; the Harvard faculty of his day “was an anonymous concourse of coral insects, each secreting one cell, and leaving that fossil legacy to enlarge the earth.”

One gets the impression from reading these personal memorabilia that Santayana was, though not unsocial, a lonely soul. Many a passing moment he enjoyed to the full and, like Faust, thought it very fair, but he, as an onlooker rather than a hearty participant, hardly wished it to stay, It would have been still more romantic to wish for fresh woods and pastures new, and this he did. Viewing his varied experiences retrospectively, he dissects persons often with a merciless but never bitter irony, and he keeps the reader inwardly smiling with his satiric humor of the mind. One discerns a certain kinship with Henry Adams, that other last but full-blooded Puritan, though Adams is more overtly cynical in his coldly urbane manner. But Santayana, the philosopher and artist, always avidly sensed beauty, whether of theory or speech, and in his thinking attained a serene tolerance of the human scene. Mentally he lived in as many realms as he, did physically—the realm of spirit, the realm of truth, the realms of being—and in his comprehensive “Life of Reason” he attempted to synthesize the phases of human progress in society, religion, art, and science. It is surprising that a man who lived so much of his life in ivory towers should prove so vivid a portrayer of real people and places. His latest book, like some earlier lectures in England, is “a satirical survey, a free reconsideration”; it is a loosely-joined series of impressions which the years have not dimmed.


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