Photo Credit: Jewish Press

George Santayana (1863 – 1952), the first and foremost Hispanic-American philosopher, essayist, poet, novelist, critic, and a man of enormous prominence, remains among the most important figures in classical American philosophy.

He had a significant impact on the twentieth century philosophies of naturalism – under which everything arises from natural properties and cause, with supernatural and spiritual explanations excluded – and materialism, under which nothing exists except matter and matter modification.


As one of philosophy’s greatest prose stylists, he was among the first thinkers to view philosophy as literature, and as a man lacking religious faith he nonetheless succeeded in providing a remarkably sympathetic and perceptive account of spiritual life. He is perhaps known as an aphorist, most famously for his (oft-misquoted) remark “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – a quote that is fittingly inscribed on a plaque at Auschwitz.

In this fascinating June 12, 1948 letter to Melvin L. Sommer, M.D. (1916 – 2003), Santayana writes:

Many years ago two Frenchmen, brothers, named Doumic (which the profane pronounced De Micks) made an observation which I always remember about nationalities. Germans and British, they said, were races; but France and the United States were milieux (“social and cultural environments”). Now, my long residence in the United States having been exclusively in Massachusetts, I might almost say, at Harvard, and my friends a special type of Harvard men, I feel the American essence much more in other Americans, who represent the great milieux or active society of the U.S. with its cordiality and ease; whereas the inhabitants of my corner of Boston, though certainly Americans, has a racial and social quality of their own. American topographically, but not American historically. That is what made me say (was it rude?) but are you “real” Americans? I should have said “But did you cross in the Mayflower in 1632?”

As to feeling a difference in Jews, I feel it I think, only if they do; and then it doesn’t signify a preference or the opposite, but only a diversity. My best pupils were Jews, as was my modern “master” in philosophy, Spinoza. But many are not happy, and that is a pity.

Rene Doumic (1860 – 1937) was a French literary critic who edited the Revue des Deux Mondes and served as secretary of the French Academy. A March 6, 1898 article reports that Rene’s (unnamed) brother came with him to the U.S. to study architecture “at the request of the French government.” Max Doumic (1863 – 1940) is the author of Why is our Architecture Decadent? And, as eloquently reflected in our letter, Santayana had great irritation with the smug Protestantism of his Harvard colleagues, their contemptuousness with respect to the Irish Catholics who also lived in Cambridge, and their contempt for the accomplishments of the American worker not privileged to share their high tower.Singer 081117

Perhaps “many were not happy,” as Santayana writes, because his position with respect to the Jews was tainted by a virtually unfathomable prejudice in the man who wrote The Sense of Beauty, arguably the first major work on aesthetics written in the United States, The Life of Reason, and Realms of Being. Though his anti-Semitism obviously never extended to a belief that Jews were intellectually inferior – quite the contrary, as in his letter he notes that “My best pupils were Jews” – he was not at all reticent in expressing his opinion that Jews were aggressive, unnatural, subversive, rapacious, and eternally “other.”

For example, in The Life of Reason, he wrote that the “crime” of the Jews “is to have denied the equal prerogative of other nations’ laws and deities, for this they did, not from critical insight or intellectual scruples but out of pure bigotry, conceit, and stupidity. They did not want other nations also to have a god. . .”

In Reason in Science, he wrote that Judaism “has a tendency to propaganda and intolerance . . . ”

And he sarcastically characterized the “jubilant prosperity” of “three radios, six cars, four refrigerators, and seven telephones in and of the 300,000 Jewish households” as “the new Jerusalem.”

Upon learning of the outbreak of war in Spain, he wrote to George Sturgis on August 12, 1936: “I am thoroughly reconciled to the trasitoriness [sic] of things, even of nations. The Jews, for instance, aren’t in the least like Abraham or King Solomon: they are just sheenies . . . ”

In a letter written to a friend in Rome, he wrote – expressing great surprise – that his Roman doctor had not heard of a particular form of Italian wartime currency “although he is a Jew.”

In a September 23, 1926 anti-racism letter to American bigot John Jay Chapman rejecting his offer of the presidency of The Aryan Society, he could not help adding that “I confess that I don’t like the Jewish spirit, because it is worldly, seeing God in thrift and success.”

In a letter to his friend Harry Abbot, Santayana further disparaged Judaism and Jews:

The Jews had the incredible conceit of believing they had made a covenant with nature, by which the mastery of the earth and all the good things thereof were secured to them in return for fidelity to a certain social and religious organization…. truth dwindles as fictions develop, and so with the Hebrew idea…it waxed into the assertion of an inscrutable inward law with transcendent and imaginary sanctions.

Santayana also had serious reservations about nationalism, specifically including Zionism, which he blamed for “the restlessness, ambition, and obduracy” that brought about World War I. In a November 21, 1921 correspondence to leading Zionist Meyer Kallen, written only 27 years before the birth of Israel, he proved he was neither prophet nor prognosticator:

I can’t imagine Israel [i.e., the Jewish people] industrialized or Palestine (which seems to me a miserable country when I was there) anything but a place of pilgrimage or penance, like Sinai. And would an artificial industry, if it could become self-supporting in that climate, prove compatible with the spiritual function the seat of Judaism should have? I could more easily conceive of Zion like the Vatican, simply a religious centre and nursery for the Diaspora.

In a May 5, 1938 correspondence to one Mrs. Toy, he wrote:

Are the Jews going to repent of being anti’s, for fear that soon there should be nothing left to be anti against? After all, they have made themselves very comfortable in Christendom, and if nothing but an international proletariat remained, it would not offer them such brilliant careers as professors and prime ministers and newspaper proprietors.

When, in response, Mrs. Toy apparently took Santayana to task for his anti-Semitism, he responded: “I ought to love the Jews [implying that he doesn’t], as they seem to be my only friends intellectually, beginning with [Irwin] Edman – not to go back to Spinoza.”

Santayana frequently credited Spinoza not only with being his “master,” as may be seen from our correspondence but, as is evident throughout his writing, he also revered his Jewish master as his “hero”; as the thinker who “laid the foundation of my philosophy”; and as the one who “practiced spiritual discipline” to “survey the world of existence in its truth and beauty.”

Many commentators have maintained that Santayana’s philosophy may only be understood as a complement to Spinoza’s, but the analysis of the similarities and differences of these two great philosophers, though fascinating, is beyond the scope of this column.