Victor Nuovo: George Santayana faced the unknown

35th in a series

“How came a child born in Spain of Spanish parents to be educated in Boston and to write in the English language?” With this question, the philosopher George Santayana begins a short biographical essay. Jorge Augustín Nicolás Ruiz De Santayana, was born in Madrid, Spain, on December 6, 1863, to Josephina Borras and Augustín Santayana. He was Josefina’s first and only child from her second marriage. She had been married before to an American businessman, George Sturgis. They had five children. Sturgis died in 1857, and Josefina returned to Spain where she met and married her second husband, a Spanish diplomat. However, shortly before his death, George Sturgis asked Josefina to promise him that she would educate their children in Boston, and Josefina was determined to keep her promise. In 1871 she moved to Boston, taking George with her; Augustín followed but did not remain. Thus, along with all the Sturgis children, Santayana was educated in Boston. He attended Boston Latin School, and Harvard University, where he was an undergraduate and a graduate student. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1889, he became a member of the faculty. Among his students were the poets Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. Santayana also wrote poetry.

Santayana found academic life too limiting; academic freedom was not free enough for him. In 1912 he left Harvard. By that time, he had already gained international renown as a philosopher and as a writer. Income from his publications brought him enough to live on.

Also in 1912, he left the United States never to return. He wandered about in Europe until finally settling in Rome. In 1940, he entered a retirement-nursing home run by The Blue Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, an order of Irish nuns, and he remained there until his death. The poem by Wallace Stevens “To an old philosopher in Rome,” which is dedicated to Santayana, represents him there in thought, “The human end in the spirit’s greatest reach/The extreme of the known in the presence/Of the great unknown.”

So what thoughts did Santayana think? Unlike William James, with whom he studied, he was able to develop his thoughts into a system. Indeed, he did so twice: in 1905-6 he published “The Life of Reason” in five volumes; in 1927, he published the first volume of “The Realms of Being;” three volumes would follow in successive years. They are complementary works. Santayana described “The Life of Reason” as an autobiography of the progress of human civilization in terms of its guiding principle: reason. “Realms of Being” describes the scope and meaning of this progress. If you are looking for something to read that explains the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything,” a “hitchhiker’s guide,” here it is. (By the way, the answer is not 42!)

But, to assist his readers in grasping the point of these works, he wrote an introduction, “Skepticism and Animal Faith.” It is not an easy book to read; it must be read more than once, some parts many times; but an honest effort to understand it will not go unrewarded, and the reward will be great. The key to understanding lies in grasping the meaning of these two terms, “skepticism” and “animal faith.” Skepticism is the philosophical disposition that regards knowledge as unattainable. It is also a philosophical method, which is employed to clear away the rubbish of presumptive knowledge. The classic instance is René Descartes who put himself through a rigorous exercise of philosophical doubt until he was able to reach knowledge that was indubitable to him, viz. his own existence. This is Santayana’s purpose. But the grounds of certainty that he discovered differ very much from the merely logical basis of Descartes, which is an incapacity to doubt one’s own existence as long as one is thinking.

For Santayana, the ground of certainty is animal faith. And what is this?  To begin with, he acknowledged that we humans are animals. And, like all animals, we are mortal and earthbound. Our survival depends on how we relate to our environment; in the stream of life, this requires an ability to negotiate the rapids, or in an obstacle course, knowing how to climb or leap over the barriers, always at the ready to take on some unexpected obstacle. This capacity is not philosophical knowledge; it is more like common sense, innate, yet able to be refined and perfected. It is the art of living, repeatedly challenged by experience and the force of circumstance. Animal faith is the substance of this art, possessed by us all, hence, common sense, known by us all, yet rarely if ever examined or considered. Animal faith is self-reliance. It is the presupposition of human experience, of human striving, the common wisdom by which we live when we live well.

There is no better theme for a system of philosophy than this, indeed, when you think of it, there is none other. But the substance of animal faith is not waiting in the ground of our consciousness to be discovered and revealed. It must be brought to light through the exercise of philosophical doubt, which questions all things. So we must all become philosophers, and do as Santayana did, situate ourselves at “the extreme of the known in the presence/Of the great unknown” and engage ourselves in a search for the meaning of existence. This is his legacy.

Postscript: “Skepticism and Animal Faith” is available in paperback, published by Dover. Also there is a fine collection in “The Essential Santayana,” published by Indiana University Press. Visit your local bookshop.

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