Posts Tagged ‘George Santayana#8217;


The Tragedy of Happiness

Written on December 14, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy

As published on the Wall Street Journal

Revisiting a philosopher's ambivalent thoughts about his prosperous adopted home—America.


Do Americans have a national character? The idea sounds plausible enough—until you try to pin it down.

Are we a nation of individualists pursuing happiness as we each see fit or a country of conformists taking the road most traveled by? The children of Puritans striving to build the city upon a hill or the heirs of Jamestown, driven by the promise of profit? Prudish homebodies or easy riders? Whoever we are, we seem to suffer from a kind of divided personality.

No one could have agreed more than George Santayana (1863-1952). He was once a household name in America: a Spanish-born Harvard professor whose face once graced the cover of Time magazine; a best-selling novelist ("The Last Puritan"), popular essayist and memoir-writer; and an intellectual mentor to the columnist Walter Lippmann and the poet Wallace Stevens. In his later years he became a permanent expatriate who ended his days being tended by Catholic nuns in Italy, an "old philosopher in Rome," as Stevens put it.

Santayana is most remembered today for a single, painfully overquoted sentence: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But in his lifetime he achieved stature as a philosopher for a whole series of books about the nature of human reason, the sense of beauty and the value of religion. His greatest subject was perhaps his adopted homeland. His writings about America still have the freshness of new discoveries, and they are enlivened—like nearly everything he wrote—by sharp turns of phrase and pungent judgments.

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