George Santayana

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.
To covet truth is a very distinguished passion.

Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known in English as George Santayana (16 December 1863 in Madrid, Spain – 26 September 1952 in Rome, Italy) was a Spanish-American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.


Project Gutenberg;; Hathi Trust
  • On fact, the whole machinery of our intelligence, our general ideas and laws, fixed and external objects, principles, persons, and gods, are so many symbolic, algebraic expressions. They stand for experience; experience which we are incapable of retaining and surveying in its multitudinous immediacy. We should flounder hopelessly, like the animals, did we not keep ourselves afloat and direct our course by these intellectual devices. Theory helps us to bear our ignorance of fact.
    • Pt. III, Form; § 30: "The average modified in the direction of pleasure.", p. 125
  • Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable: what it is or what it means can never be said.
    • Pt. IV, Expression; § 67: "Conclusion.", p. 267
  • Beauty is a pledge of the possible conformity between the soul and nature, and consequently a ground of faith in the supremacy of the good.
    • Pt. IV, Expression; § 67: "Conclusion.", p. 270

Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense

  • [Everything] ideal has a natural basis and everything natural an ideal development.
  • Even the most inspired verse, which boasts not without a relative justification to be immortal, becomes in the course of ages a scarcely legible hieroglyphic; the language it was written in dies, a learned education and an imaginative effort are requisite to catch even a vestige of its original force. Nothing is so irrevocable as mind.
  • Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.
  • That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.
  • Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.
  • Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
    • This famous statement has produced many paraphrases and variants:
      • Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
      • Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.
      • Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.
      • Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.
      • Those who do not know history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
    • There is a similar quote by Edmund Burke (in Revolution in France) that often leads to misattribution: "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors."

Vol. II, Reason in Society

  • The human race, in its intellectual life, is organized like the bees: the masculine soul is a worker, sexually atrophied, and essentially dedicated to impersonal and universal arts; the feminine is a queen, infinitely fertile, omnipresent in its brooding industry, but passive and abounding in intuitions without method and passions without justice.
  • To call war the soil of courage and virtue is like calling debauchery the soil of love.
    • Ch. III: Industry, Government, the peasants
  • It is not society's fault that most men seem to miss their vocation. Most men have no vocation.
    • Ch. IV: The Aristocratic Ideal
  • Injustice in this world is not something comparative; the wrong is deep, clear, and absolute in each private fate.
    • Ch. IV: The Aristocratic Ideal
  • Culture is on the horns of this dilemma: if profound and noble, it must remain rare, if common, it must become mean.
    • Ch. IV: The Aristocratic Ideal
  • In proportion as a man's interests become humane and his efforts rational, he appropriates and expands a common life, which reappears in all individuals who reach the same impersonal level of ideas.
    • Ch. VIII: Ideal Society
  • Most men's conscience, habits, and opinions are borrowed from convention and gather continual comforting assurances from the same social consensus that originally suggested them.
    • Ch. VIII: Ideal Society

Vol. III, Reason in Religion

  • Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon's that "a little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." At the same time, when Bacon penned that sage epigram... he forgot to add that the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them.
    • Ch. I
  • Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.
    • Ch. VI
  • Every moment celebrates obsequies over the virtues of its predecessor.
    • Ch. XIV

Vol. IV, Reason in Art

  • To know how just a cause we have for grieving is already a consolation.
    • Ch. IV.: Music
  • The mind celebrates a little triumph whenever it can formulate a truth, however unwelcome to the flesh, or discover an actual force, however unfavourable to given interests.
    • Ch. IV.: Music
  • Art like life should be free, since both are experimental.
    • Ch. IX.: Justification of Art

Vol. V, Reason in Science

  • History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. It might almost be said to be no science at all, if memory and faith in memory were not what science necessarily rest on. In order to sift evidence we must rely on some witness, and we must trust experience before we proceed to expand it. The line between what is known scientifically and what has to be assumed in order to support knowledge is impossible to draw. Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.
    • Ch. 2 "History"
  • When Socrates and his two great disciples composed a system of rational ethics they were hardly proposing practical legislation for mankind...They were merely writing an eloquent epitaph for their country.
  • Oblivious of Democritus, the unwilling materialists of our day have generally been awkwardly intellectual and quite incapable of laughter. If they have felt anything, they have felt melancholy. Their allegiance and affection were still fixed on those mythical sentimental worlds which they saw to be illusory. The mechanical world they believed in could not please them, in spite of its extent and fertility. Giving rhetorical vent to their spleen and prejudice, they exaggerated nature's meagreness and mathematical dryness. When their imagination was chilled they spoke of nature, most unwarrantably, as dead, and when their judgment was heated they took the next step and called it unreal.
    • Ch. 3 "Mechanism"

Introduction to The Ethics of Spinoza (1910)

  • Let a man once overcome his selfish terror at his own finitude, and his finitude is, in one sense, overcome.
  • Perhaps the only true dignity of man is his capacity to despise himself.
  • Miracles are propitious accidents, the natural causes of which are too complicated to be readily understood.

The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy (1911)

By their mind, its scope, quality, and temper, we estimate men, for by the mind only do we exist as men, and are more than so many storage-batteries for material energy. Let us therefore be frankly human.
  • To covet truth is a very distinguished passion.
    • p. 48
  • Professional philosophers are usually only apologists: that is, they are absorbed in defending some vested illusion or some eloquent idea. Like lawyers or detectives, they study the case for which they are retained.
    • pp. 48-49
  • No system would have ever been framed if people had been simply interested in knowing what is true, whatever it may be. What produces systems is the interest in maintaining against all comers that some favourite or inherited idea of ours is sufficient and right. ** p. 49
  • Our dignity is not in what we do, but in what we understand.
    • p. 50
  • To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.
    • p. 51
  • In Walt Whitman democracy is carried into psychology and morals. The various sights, moods, and emotions are given each one vote; they are declared to be all free and equal, and the innumerable commonplace moments of life are suffered to speak like the others. Those moments formerly reputed great are not excluded, but they are made to march in the ranks with their companions—plain foot-soldiers and servants of the hour.
    • p. 53
  • Eternal vigilance is the price of knowledge.
    • p. 58
  • The pint would call the quart a dualist, if you tried to pour the quart into him.
    • p. 60
  • Because the peculiarity of man is that his machinery for reaction on external things has involved an imaginative transcript of these things, which is preserved and suspended in his fancy; and the interest and beauty of this inward landscape, rather than any fortunes that may await his body in the outer world, constitute his proper happiness. By their mind, its scope, quality, and temper, we estimate men, for by the mind only do we exist as men, and are more than so many storage-batteries for material energy. Let us therefore be frankly human. Let us be content to live in the mind.
    • p. 64
  • Whenever a nation is converted to Christianity, its Christianity, in practice, must be largely converted to paganism.
    • p. 35
  • Persons who feel themselves to be exiles in this world—and what noble mind, from Empedocles down, has not had that feeling?—are mightily inclined to believe themselves citizens of another.
    • pp. 39-40
  • No doubt the spirit or energy of the world is what is acting in us, as the sea is what rises in every little wave; but it passes through us, and cry out as we may, it will move on. Our privilege is to have perceived it as it moves.
    • p. 199
  • Our dignity is not in what we do, but in what we understand. The whole world is doing things.
    • p. 199

Little Essays (1921)

  • The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it.
    • p. 107

Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)

Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies at
  • England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies, and humors.
    • "The British Character"
  • Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.
    • "The British Character"
  • The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.
    • "Dickens"
  • There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.
    • "War Shrines"
  • To the mind of the ancients, who knew something of such matters, liberty and prosperity seemed hardly compatible, yet modern liberalism wants them together.
    • "The Irony of Liberalism"
  • Prosperity, both for individuals and for states, means possessions; and possessions mean burdens and harness and slavery; and slavery for the mind, too, because it is not only the rich man's time that is pre-empted, but his affections, his judgement, and the range of his thoughts.
    • "The Irony of Liberalism"
  • Liberal philosophy, at this point, ceases to be empirical and British in order to become German and transcendental. Moral life, it now believes, is not the pursuit of liberty and happiness of all sorts by all sorts of different creatures; it is the development of a single spirit in all life through a series of necessary phases, each higher than the preceding one. No man, accordingly, can really or ultimately desire anything but what the best people desire. This is the principle of the higher snobbery; and in fact, all earnest liberals are higher snobs.
    • "The Irony of Liberalism"
  • It is not politics that can bring true liberty to the soul; that must be achieved, if at all, by philosophy;
    • "The Irony of Liberalism"
  • Liberalism has merely cleared a field in which every soul and every corporate interest may fight with every other for domination. Whoever is victorious in this struggle will make an end of liberalism; and the new order, which will deem itself saved, will have to defend itself in the following age against a new crop of rebels.
    • "The Irony of Liberalism"
  • I like to walk about amidst the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty.
    • "The Irony of Liberalism"
  • Only the dead have seen the end of war.
    • "Tipperary"
  • My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests.
    • "On My Friendly Critics"
  • The living have never shown me how to live.
    • "On My Friendly Critics"
  • Profound skepticism is favorable to conventions, because it doubts that the criticism of conventions is any truer than they are.
    • "On My Friendly Critics"
  • Friendship is almost always the union of a part of one mind with the part of another; people are friends in spots.
    • "Friendships"
  • Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.
    • The Works of George Santayana p. 65
  • [The empiricist] thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.
    • "Objections to Belief in Substance", p. 201

Dialogues in Limbo (1926)

  • Philosophers are as jealous as women. Each wants a monopoly of praise.
    • P. 30
  • The soul, too, has her virginity and must bleed a little before bearing fruit.
    • "Normal Madness," Ch. 3, P. 56
  • The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool.
    • Ch. 3, P. 57
  • All living souls welcome whatsoever they are ready to cope with; all else they ignore, or pronounce to be monstrous and wrong, or deny to be possible.
    • Ch. 3, P. 62
  • Religion in its humility restores man to his only dignity, the courage to live by grace.
    • Ch. 4

Character and Opinion in the United States (1920)

  • American life is a powerful solvent. As it stamps the immigrant, almost before he can speak English, with an unmistakable muscular tension, cheery self-confidence and habitual challenge in the voice and eyes, so it seems to neutralize every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse it in the native good-will, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism.
  • All his life he [the American] jumps into the train after it has started and jumps out before it has stopped; and he never once gets left behind, or breaks a leg.

Persons and Places (1944)

  • At midday the daily food of all Spaniards was the puchero or cocido, as the dish is really called which the foreigners call pot-pourri or olla podrida. This contains principally yellow chick-peas, with a little bacon, some potatoes or other vegetables and normally also small pieces of beef or sausage, all boiled in one pot at a very slow fire; the liquid of the same makes the substantial broth that is served first.
    • p. 14
  • ... I once shook hands with Longfellow at a garden party in 1881; and I often saw Dr. Holmes, who was our neighbor in Beacon Street: but Emerson I never saw.
    • p. 50
  • Animals are born and bred in litters. Solitude grows blessed and peaceful only in old age.
    • p. 61
  • In solitude it is possible to love mankind; in the world, for one who knows the world, there can be nothing but secret or open war.
  • I was still “at the church door”. Yet in belief, in the clarification of my philosophy, I had taken an important step. I no longer wavered between alternative views of the world, to be put on or taken off like alternative plays at the theatre. I now saw that there was only one possible play, the actual history of nature and of mankind, although there might well be ghosts among the characters and soliloquies among the speeches. Religions, all religions, and idealistic philosophies, all idealistic philosophies, were the soliloquies and the ghosts. They might be eloquent and profound. Like Hamlet's soliloquy they might be excellent reflective criticisms of the play as a whole. Nevertheless they were only parts of it, and their value as criticisms lay entirely in their fidelity to the facts, and to the sentiments which those facts aroused in the critic.
    • p. 169

Other works

  • O world, thou choosest not the better part!
    It is not wisdom to be only wise,
    And on the inward vision close the eyes,
    But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
    Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
    Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
    To trust the soul's invincible surmise
    Was all his science and his only art.
  • In the Gospels, for instance, we sometimes find the kingdom of heaven illustrated by principles drawn from observation of this world rather than from an ideal conception of justice; ... They remind us that the God we are seeking is present and active, that he is the living God; they are doubtless necessary if we are to keep religion from passing into a mere idealism and God into the vanishing point of our thought and endeavour.
  • Although a poem be not made by counting of syllables upon the fingers, yet "numbers" is the most poetical synonym we have for verse, and "measure" the most significant equivalent for beauty, for goodness, and perhaps even for truth. Those early and profound philosophers, the followers of Pythagoras, saw the essence of all things in number, and it was by weight, measure, and number, as we read in the Bible, that the Creator first brought Nature out of the void.
    • Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), p. 251
  • There is nothing impossible in the existence of the supernatural: its existence seems to me decidedly probable.
    • The Genteel Tradition at Bay (1931)
  • They [the wise spirits of antiquity in the first circle of Dante's Inferno] are condemned, Dante tells us, to no other penalty than to live in desire without hope, a fate appropriate to noble souls with a clear vision of life.
    • Obiter Scripta (1936)
  • Skepticism, like chastity, should not be relinquished too readily.
    • George Santayana, as quoted in Quotations for Our Time (1977) edited by Laurence J. Peter
  • I leave you but the sound of many a word
    In mocking echoes haply overheard,
    I sang to heaven. My exile made me free,
    from world to world, from all worlds carried me.
  • The idea of Christ is much older than Christianity.
    • The Idea of Christ in the Gospels (1946)
  • A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.


  • Religions are not true or false, but better or worse.
    • This statement is presented in quotes in The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta (2008) by Arvind Sharma, p. 216, as a "Santayanan point", but earlier publications by the same author, such as in A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion‎ (2006), p. 161, state it to be a stance of Santayana without actually indicating or in any ways implying that it is a direct quotation.
  • The earth has music for those who listen.
    • This statement is commonly associated with Santayana, but no source or attribution can be found in his works or correspondence. *UPDATE: This quote is appropriately attributed to Reginald Vincent Holmes (1955, Fireside Fancies, Edwards Brothers Inc.)


  • The working of great administrations is mainly the result of a vast mass of routine, petty malice, self-interest, carelessness and sheer mistake. Only a residual fraction is thought.
The famous George Santayana quote: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s the thing, though. None of us have forgotten. Darned if we’re not repeating it anyway... ~ Mark Bradley (22 June 2020)

Quotes about Santayana

  • I revelled in the keen analysis of William James, Josiah Royce and young George Santayana.
    • The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)
  • But what a perfection of rottenness in a philosophy!
    • William James, of Santayana's The Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), in a letter to George H. Palmer (1900), as quoted in George Santayana : A Biography (2003) by John McCormick
  • "In America literary reputations come and go so swiftly," I complained, fatuously. [Santayana's] answer was swift. "It would be insufferable if they did not."
  • "There is no God, and Mary is his mother." Often, almost certainly incorrectly, attributed to Santayana himself. More plausibly attributed to Robert Lowell, as a sardonic description of Santayana's philosophy.
    • Paul Mariani, "Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell" (1994), p. 159
  • Santayana, indeed, is the Moses of the new naturalism, who discerned the promised land from afar but still wanders himself in the desert realms of being.
    • John Herman Randall, "The Nature of Naturalism", epilogue to Naturalism and the Human Spirit (1944)
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