As Student and Teacher, Santayana Left Mark on College
At his death, George Santayana '86 is a somewhat ambiguous figure, surround by the usual complement of myth and legend.
Perhaps the final volume of his three-volume autobiography, "Persons and Places," which he did not want published until after his death, will present the philosopher in warmer, if not more definite, tones.
But for the present, his life of solitude for 40 years in Rome--even while he was teaching at Harvard he made himself something of a recluse--his complete intellectual detachment (which provoked Bertrand Russell to call him a "cold fish"), and his unrelenting, uncompromising attacks on many of his associates in the field of philosophy tend slightly to obscure the view of Santayana, or at any rate, to give a rather unsympathetic one.
There are, however, many personal effects and recollections concerning the philosopher that give us another picture than the one of the detached "cold fish," the man renowned for the "coldness. . . the cruelty, of his wit."
Two letters of Santayana's, now in possession of the CRIMSON, are suitable illustrations. A. A. Roback, former instructor in philosophy at Harvard and presently professor of Psychology at Emerson College, received these notes in 1950 and 1952, and gave them to the CRIMSON yesterday. Roback has studied and taught semantics, the psychology of language and literature, and the psychology of character. One of his major interests in the field of philosophy is the Dutch Jew, Benedict de Spinoza. Since Santayana was quite interested in him, and since he was born in the Spanish town of Santillana, close to Spionza's birthplace, Espinosa, Roback addressed an inquiry to Santayana. The philosophy replied as follows: Via Santo Stefano Rotondo, 6 Rome, November 4, 1950
Dear Professor Roback:
. . . My enthusiasm for Spinoza had nothing political or even ethical about it. Nor do I agree with Bertrand Russell in thinking that it is on the side of ethics that Spinoza and I are at our best: only on the relativity of morals to material dispositions and circumstances. It was Spinoza's cosmic elevation and disinterestedness that I admired which removed from morality the tyranny of public tradition of fanaticism. . .
As to a reason for not returning to America. I has none except absence of any reason for going there. I had never felt that it was my natural milieu. Even my second Harvard College life--1884.93--although I enjoyed it heartily, was rather unusual and exotic, and its pleasantness and possibility evaporated with youth. . .
You are very good to offer me one of your books and it is your voluminous "Psychology of Character" (especially it if is critically Freudian) that would tempt men, but I am getting blind and I fear if I accepted so good a present I should not be able to profit by it as it deserves. Let me rather send you my forthcoming book of politics entitled "Dominations and Powers" when it appears, probably in the coming spring.
I have always been a naturalist feeling that the clouds are preeminently and typically a part of nature: but in the book I do not tread them at all, but keep to the earth and its arts. . .
Almost everything that is attributed to me at Harvard or by interviewers is invented of travestied. Myth starts absurdly and spreads incredibly even when the event that contradicts it is hardly passed. Not a word of gossipy biography is to be believed. . . G. Santayana
Particularly interesting are his apparent sensitivity to the attacks on him at Harvard, the false myths that had developed, and his distaste for, or indifference to, America. While he was teaching at Harvard, for example, he lived almost in solitude because Cambridge society bored him as much as a "faculty meeting without any business." Further, he considered Harvard to be "merely genteel."
He was actually a man with no allegiance, national or religious, save perhaps a vague emotional allegiance to Catholicism. Nominally a Spanish citizen, he had as little use for that country as he and for this one.
The second letter from Santayana to Roback is a follows: via Santo Stefano Rotondo, 6 Rome, March 23, 1952
Dear Mr. Roback:
Your book, for which many thanks, has kept me browsing agreeably for a week. I confess that I was more interested in gathering your own opinions than those of the innumerable professional psychologists whom you review and whose theses seem to me almost entirely verbal. In describing or judging a person or his life each epithet we use has slightly different connotations but is there any reason for trying to define exactly what each of these epithets ought to indicate everywhere? I doubt that particular instincts or organs need be found in people for each conventional quality. Still in proposing to limit each to specific function we may make many subtle observations and clarify many a judgment that we should otherwise have left vague. This is the chief interest which has kept me reading your book almost from beginning to end. The chief place that attracted my theoretical attention was where you invoke the organic source and function of character. Two words which as far as I remember you never use are those that come to me most naturally in this matter: the psyche, and idiosyncrasy. The psyche is the life of the body with all its functions more or less combined to evoke consciousness and action; and idiosyncrasy is a name for the marked special habit of any individual. With this literary psychology of men and nations I should be content, if in describing this the observer did not call in any disembodied power to direct either thought or action.
As to what you wish to call character, I am interested but not able to join you in giving to that special virtue any exclusive or supreme respect. You know perhaps that I am not a dogmatist in ethics, aesthetics, or politics. What you admire is stoical and certainly imposing, when genuine; but a thousand Combinations of other virtu arise in the world which appeal to me more. At least you select personages as occasional examples of the "highest" character who do not figure in my personal pantheon. But you know what our friend Spinoza says to the effect that Peter's idea of Paul expresses the nature of Peter better than that of Paul; and I see especially in your last pages, that you are a champion of the spirit of your time ("my" time was rather the secure 1890's) and that your ideal of the "highest" character is precisely that which the coming days seem to demand. With renewed thanks, yours sincerely G. Santayana
Ralph, Barton Perry, Edgar pierce Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, was a student and colleague of Santayana's for more than 16 years, and shared a place with him in Harvard's--and America's--Golden Age of Philosophy, the years when William James and Josiah Royce also taught at the college.
Perry recalled that: "I saw Santayana some years ago in Fiesoli, where he was visiting his fiend, Charles A. Strong. Santayana was, at that time, living in a hotel in Rome, and I remember his saying, with some pride, that months would pass without his speaking to anyone except the headwaiter. It was evident that he prided himself on his solitude.
"He was my teacher from 1896 to 1899, and colleague in the department of Philosophy from 1902 until he left Harvard in 1912. I remember his as a brilliant teacher who gave polished lectures but also enjoyed informal meeting with his students in the rooms which he than occupied on the corner of Brattle and Hilliard Streets. When he left Cambridge I inherited the pulpit desk before which he was accustomed to stand when he wrote.
"He always took a somewhat Olympian view of human affairs, refusing himself to engage in the struggle between opposing ideologies. He was, in my judgment, one of the half-dozen most distinguished thinkers of his day, and one who knew how to make literature out of philosophy."
During his undergraduate days Santayana worked for the Lampoon and "The Harvard Monthly," a literary periodical. He was elected to the humor magazine on the basis of two cartoons he had submitted at the start of his freshman year. One of them depicts two young ladies depositing their luggage in Holyoke House (then a dormitory), and reprimanding the "clerk," a Harvard senior, for inefficient service in "this hotel." He never did ay writing for the Lampoon, because, he remarked, his style was"too literary, too ladylike, too correct."
While he was on the 'Poon staff, Wil- liam Randolph Hearst '88 became business manager. According to Santayana, many students resented Hearst's habit of smoking long cigars while strolling through the Yard; they considered it a tasteless exhibition and a showing off of his wealth. Hearst did, however, provide the Lampoon with a luxurious new building, and Santayana notes that "he could sell ads."
Taste for Puns
Santayana appears to have had a taste for puns, not always of the most hilarious sort. One of his cartoons shows an undergraduate and a young lady sitting primly on a couch; the student is telling his girls, "If I look a little sheepish Miss Roseleaf, and all my friends tell me I do, it is because my clothes are all wool."
In another of his drawings a mother and daughter are staring at a handsome young minister walking down the street; the mother says, "Rosalie, don't you think Mr. Aureole is a real ministering angel?" Her daughter replies, "No, mamma, but I think he's a real angelic minister."
A bit of slang is used in one of his cartoons in the 'Poon's 1885 volume, which depicts a matronly woman pointing with pride to a portrait of a sanctimonious-looking minister. She is saying to the young man with her. "And this is my son the canon." The young man "becoming a bit bored," replies, "Ah yes, I have always heard there were a great many big guns in your family."
Perhaps the most famous of Santayana's Lampoon drawings is one which appeared as the lead cartoon in one issue. Entitled "Catechism Modernized," it shows a stern teacher testing a boy of about eight on his catechism. The dialog runs:
Teacher: What is the difference between the body and soul?
Johnny (vacantly): The body is mortal and material, the soul --
Teacher (impatiently): Yes, and the soul?
Johnny: The soul is immortal and immaterial.
For the Monthly Santayana's main contribution was in the form of verse, most of it sonnets. In the main they were of a vaguely romantic nature, as epitomized by the following sonnet.
Love not as do the phantom-driven men whose dreams are of harlot's bought caress.
Or even of a maiden's tenderness
Whom they love only that she loves again;
For it is but thyself thou lovest then.
Or what thy heart would glory to possess;
But love thou nothing thou wouldst love the less
If henceforth ever hidden from they ken,
Love but the formless and eternal whole,
From whose effulgence one unheeded ray,
Breaks on a prism of dissolving clay
Into the flickering colors of the soul.
These flash and vanish; woo them not to stay.
For wisdom brightens as they fade away.
For the second volume of the Monthly, issued in the spring of 1886, he wrote an article on "The Ethical Doctrine of Spinoza," and a sonnet, the later an early example of his non-conventional spirituality. It ends:
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but a step ahead
Across a vied of mystery and dread,
Bid then the gentle light of faith to shine
By which alone the human heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.
Among his teachers, and later his associates, were George Palmer, James, and Royce-all of whom he vigorously criticized; this criticism continued after he was elevated to a professorship in Philosophy in 1907.
When Santayana was first appointed to a teaching position at Harvard, the eminent historian Henry Adams cautioned him: "I tried to teach history there, but I couldn't. You can't teach anything there."
Santayana evidently shared Adams' belief, for after 23 years of the scholarly life in Cambridge, he withdrew from the world to his convent in Rome