June 9 2010 12:00 AM

An almost-forgotten philosopher left behind many familiar sayings


Along the way, you may have heard some of these aphorisms:

• A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.

• America is a young country with an old mentality.

• Fun is a good thing but only when it spoils nothing better.

• History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.

• The Bible is a wonderful source of wisdom for those who don’t understand it.

If you think those sound like Mark Twain quotes, you are wrong. These sayings are the product of Spanish-American author and philosopher George Santayana, who was noted for the pithy aphorisms he used to describe American culture and character.

Probably his most repeated aphorism is, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But he was much deeper and more complex than the one-liners for which is he is remembered. What would Santayana, who died in 1952, have to say about today’s American culture?

James Seaton, an East Lansing resident and Michigan State University professor of American criticism and culture, has edited a new book on Santayana and his work. “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States” contains four essays by Santayana scholars in an attempt to answer questions about this enigmatic philosopher.

Santayana was born in Spain in 1863 to a Spanish official and an American woman. He came to the U.S. as a young boy and flourished in the educational system, graduating from Harvard in 1886. He would later return to Harvard as a professor and became part of its "golden age" of philosophy. His students included T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, W.E.B. DuBois and Walter Lippmann.

Seaton said that even with his position at Harvard, Santayana always saw himself as an “outsider.”

“Part of that was the way Santayana looked at American culture and the way it defined liberty,” Seaton said.

“He would say that the kind of liberty we have in America is not the liberty to be left alone, but rather it is the liberty of cooperation and the willingness of individuals to cooperate and do so as individuals. He would have said it works.”

Santayana, Seaton said, believed fully that people should be free to live their own lives. “They do not have to have a grand philosophy.”

He believes Santayana would say “that American culture is not poetic, exciting, or beautiful but it works and, as a philosopher, I have to admire it.”

Seaton said that Santayana was often seen as a cop-out for not taking a stand on issues, especially during the Cold War. According to Seaton, that may be one reason he fell out of favor in the U.S. Santayana took on the traditional European aristocratic intellectual, although Seaton says that is exactly what Santayana was.

“He would have looked down on the vulgarity of today’s American culture, but when you talk about his ‘genteel tradition,’ what he is criticizing is precisely the upper-class, academic, highbrow culture he was a part of. Santayana often says in his writings that the ‘vital America’ is great and that he has no criticism of it.”

According to Seaton, Santayana felt American culture didn’t have much to do with the kind of culture he liked, but it still had a lot to offer.

“He didn’t like the idea of condemning,” Seaton said. “He would say, ‘If I am going to be a real philosopher I have to be detached. In modern parlance he would say, ‘I really don’t have any dog in this fight.’”

Santayana became an important part of the pragmatic movement in the United States, which was defined by his extensive fivevolume “The Life of Reason.” However, he is best known for his philosophical work “The Sense of Beauty,” which was the first-ever look at the culture and aesthetics of the United States. He is often quoted in and out of context, and his writing contains bon mots that are oft-repeated and have found their way into everyday speech and writing.

Seaton said Santayana’s philosophical thought is not normally taught in colleges, even though he was such a prominent figure. “To some extent people are reappraising him, but the people who are writing about him are aficionados. He understood that you can’t be disinterested, but he, more than most, came close.”

Santayana called himself an agnostic.

“He greatly admired the Catholic Church, especially in contrast to the reforming zeal of the puritans, but about the church he said, ‘There is no God, and Mary is his mother.’”

He also believed that owning things was a curse. When Santayana left America for Spain, he turned to a monastic way of life, living in a single room in a convent run by the Blue Nuns. If he had lived he would’ve had no problems with the nuns lending their name to a wine.

Seaton said he absolutely believed “there is nothing that is right all the time.”

“His relevance today may be his ‘disintoxification with life’ and that he was a non-believer. He was not one of us, and he told us that with affection and wit.”

James Seaton

and signing “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character
and Opinion in the United States” 7 p.m., Thursday, June 10 Schuler
Books 1982 West Grand River Ave. Meridian Mall, Okemos (517) 349-8840 www.schulerbooks.com