|In his life and writings, George Santayana prefigured the dilemma of the faithful skeptic, caught between the appeal of belief and the demands of critical thought and personal integrity.|
Among many other works, Fr. Richard Butler, O.P., is the author of ten articles and two books on George Santayana: The Mind of Santayana and The Life and World of George Santayana, both published by Regnery (Chicago). Holding degrees in philosophy and theology, he was appointed by Pope Paul VI to a permanent Vatican commission to study problems of religious unbelief. He is also executive editor of the Priory Press.
THE phrase “Catholic atheist” may seem to be a contradiction in terms. That depends on what you mean by these two words. There are as many shades of Catholicism as there are of atheism. Few persons define Catholic and atheist in the same way. A few, though rarely, try to combine or blend the two. Such a person was George Santayana (1863-1952).
He was a complex person and he had a confusing family background. Both parents were Spanish and only nominally Catholic (if we define Catholic as indicated by a Catholic form of baptism). The Santayana marriage was a second one for George’s mother, Josefina.
Her early years were spent in the Philippines where her father was assigned by government service. There she met a prosperous Yankee merchant named George Sturgis whom she married in 1849. He died suddenly at the age of forty, leaving her with three surviving children and a failing business enterprise. The Sturgis family in Boston was very wealthy and her brothers-in-law insisted that she and the children “come home” so that George’s desire to bring them up as American citizens would be honored. The forty-year-old widow complied and went to Boston.
They were met by an Uncle James, a local investment broker, who arranged for the purchase of a modest house on Boylston Place and made some sound investments for her with an income. Josefina Sturgis was a restless woman and found her new locale alien and puzzling. She had no friends and isolated herself. After three such years of chronic discontent she took the children and returned to Spain. In Madrid she found an old friend who had married a retired colonial official and had also returned to her native country. Through her, Josefina met another retired colonial administrator, Don Augustin Ruiz de Santayana. Ironically, Josefina and Don Augustin had been on the same ship, the Fearless, on that ninety-day trip from Manila to Boston. Some time in 1862 these two oddly contradicting characters were married and settled down in Madrid with a big start on a family.
He was a crusty bachelor of fifty, a talented student of law and art who had abandoned both pursuits for a more carefree existence. He was a blunt and determined man of fixed convictions who defied conventions or restrictions of any kind. She was a widow with three growing children, a dainty and fastidious lady, a brooding and dolorous figure without a trace of wit or joy in her. She had also committed herself to raising her children in Boston, and her new husband knew that arrangement had been made.
It was a “strange marriage,” his father later recalled, “an idea impossible to entertain.” Josefina’s celebrated son later could not understand what could have brought “these two most rational creatures . . . to think of such an irrational marriage.”
In any case, this unusual couple brought a son into this world on December 16, 1863, and sixteen days later he was baptized in the Church of San Marcos in Madrid. He was named Jorge, anglicized to George when he was brought to America. It was strange, the philosopher later reflected, that two non-practicing, even admittedly unbelieving, Catholics should bring their son to baptism. Only social pressure in a Catholic culture can explain it. Incidentally, George never did receive another sacrament, despite Time magazine describing him as a “fallen-away Catholic” at the time of his death. Stranger still was naming him after his mothers first husband. He bore no resemblance to his namesake, for he was brown-haired and dark-eyed, unmistakenly a Spaniard.
Madrid was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. The family thereupon moved to Avila to enjoy the crisp altitude that was protected from winter winds by mountain walls that surrounded the valley. After a short time there the restless Josefina took her three Sturgis children to fulfill the promise made to her first husband. They got as far as Paris when Don Augustin persuaded them to come home. A second attempt was more successful. In 1869 Josefina left without any intent of returning to her husband again. Only their son remained with the father to spend a few years with him, absorbing the ancient Catholic city of Teresa and John of the Cross. This strange arrangement the father agreed to because of his own “age and impediments.” Yet, he knew that his son would have more advantages in Boston than in Avila. When George was nine his father brought him to Boston to join the others in the family. He later wrote “it was an unhappy compulsion” but that he made the decision for the boy’s own good. The father visited only briefly when he left the boy, and he returned immediately to Avila where he lived in retirement. His son would visit him many times in later years.
George Santayana’s early formative years in Avila developed his sensitivity, his meditative tendencies and his sense of aesthetic appreciation. The young boy loved to visit the cavernous old churches and chapels, with their interesting constructions, stained-glass windows, mosaics and baroque statuary. He vividly recalled, in his memoirs, the exciting pageantry of the Church’s traditional celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi, with its colorful procession that ended with a clerical dignitary holding high a golden monstrance, the precious enwafered Body of Christ protected by a broad, tasseled canopy carried by proud selected men of the community. On Good Friday there would be a more dolorous procession which included a figure of the dead Jesus in a casket, a statue of his Virgin Mother, literally plunged with the seven swords of sorrow and held aloft for all to view, followed by mourning widows in black and preceded by children carrying miniature instruments used in the cruel Passion of the Lord. At the end of the procession was a local brass band playing and replaying a thudding dirge. George Santayana was an imaginative child living in a period centuries before his allotted time.
THE NEW WORLD
At the age of nine, he was catapulted into the commercial hubbub of late nineteenth century America. Boston was big and growing and bustling with activity, a far cry from the quiet, ancient town of Avila. Always dependent on the Sturgis family, a house was provided for them on Beacon Street, later to become the center for Brahmin living in the Back Bay area. Now it was a typical high-studded wood frame neighborhood, old but a decent neighborhood. The Santayanas occupied a tall, narrow house with three floors, comfortable but done in the dull style of the period. George had a difficult time because he had to start in grammar school and learn a new language, one in which he was to excel as a literary giant. He was much bigger than his classmates, an awkward and shy boy who was taunted by other children because he was “different.” This drove him into a life of solitude that would endure for all the years to come.
Solitude was his refuge. While other boys of his age and acquaintance occupied their time with body-building games outside, he remained inside and discovered the rewards of reading. A bookcase downstairs contained musty volumes of classics and a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the dim light of the attic den he devoured these treasures and was soon exploring the Boston Public Library, a storehouse of knowledge and romance, to satisfy his spiritual hunger. His stepsister Susana helped him in his English and in literature. She was keeping company with a young architect who interested George in art and architecture. With this help he quickly advanced through the Brimmer Public Grade School. Thanks to an experiment in taking younger and more intelligent students at the prestigious Boston Latin School, he was admitted to enter one of the best secondary schools in the country, one that offered an excellent college preparatory program that extended to the junior college level. Scholastic ability and interest determined the acceptance of new students. The emphasis was on the classics and the arts, not on athletic competition. The young Santayana had found an academic home and the intellectual challenge he needed.
RELIGIOUS INSTINCT AND MORAL CONFLICT
Meanwhile, a religious and moral conflict was stirring in the sensitive adolescent. His sister Susana was always devout in her Catholic faith. Her mother was, by church attendance, a Unitarian. Boston, at that time, was still a stronghold of Calvinistic Puritanism which identified material prosperity with divine predilection. Catholicism, in such an atmosphere, was considered vulgar, a vestige of medieval superstition still remaining among the ignorant, especially the poor immigrants of the menial class. The Sturgis family was among the reigning class. To please them, Mrs. Santayana brought her children to King’s Chapel regularly. Susana rebelled and at least attempted to sneak her brother and younger sister off to Mass early on Sunday. They soon chose the side of their affluent benefactors.
When George arrived in Boston, Susana found a willing and eager subject for her orthodoxy. He was already accustomed to the more ancient and sacred liturgy of the Church of his early childhood. She taught the enthusiastic novice his catechism and brought him to Mass. In time he would go by himself even earlier on Sundays. He recognized a need for transcendence, an association with divine mystery. He found community worship without mysteries and sacrifice cold and impersonal. He later wrote of his brief encounter with Unitarian worship:
. . . good people in their Sunday clothes, so demure, so conscious of one another, not needing in the least to pray or to be prayed for . . . [came] to hear a sermon like the leading article in some superior newspaper, calculated to confirm the conviction already in them that their bourgeois virtues were quite sufficient and that perhaps in time poor backward races and nations might be led to acquire them.(1)
Even towards the end of his life, in his last book, he spoke of the free Protestant churches as supplying “a nook for quietness and a Sabbath refuge, feeble in thought, null in organization, animated by little more than traditional or censorious sentiment to be applied to current opinion and to the conduct of lay life.”(2)
As for Catholic faith, he never went beyond baptism in his sacramental life and that supernatural life is at the core of Church practice. He would be, at least for most of his life, satisfied with a purely natural life. His attraction to the Church seemed to be superficial, an aesthetic and emotional response. He himself described his position at that time, first about preaching and then about sacraments. He often attended the collegiate church attached to Boston College. “Catholic preachers,” he remarked, “at least are expected to preach the Gospel, and not some message new to the age.” He admired their dialectic and their sentiment, and always remained cognizant of the internal logic of Catholic doctrine. He loved the sensibles and ceremonies in the Church, but never approached the sacraments.
There was always a mixture of longing and sensible satisfaction clashing with a youthful pessimism bred of contact with the harsh realities of life. At sixteen, he composed a poem addressed “To the Host,” which, he said, was “clear in faith’s divine moonlight” and “my only friend”; but then he sighed that his faith was “too much like despair.” He admitted his deep desire for peace, but:
For this purpose the machinery of the sacraments was not needed. I had no wish to go to confession and communion, else I should have done so. My faith was indeed so like despair that it wasn’t faith at all; it was fondness, liking. What in Spanish is called afición; I indulged in it, but only north-north-west, and keeping my freedom. I heartily agreed with the Church about the world, yet I was ready to agree with the world about the Church; and I breathed more easily in the atmosphere of religion than in that of business, precisely because religion, like poetry, was more ideal, more freely imaginary, and in a material sense, falser.(3)
Also, when he was fifteen or sixteen, he composed a sonnet about his chosen position on the border of faith, appropriately entitled “At the Church Door.” This was never published, but in his memoirs written many years later he recalled this quatrain:
Ah, if salvation were a trick of reason
How easily would all the world be saved!
But roses bloom not in the winter season
Nor hope of heaven in a heart enslaved.
This apparent moral conflict with Christian faith was often reflected in his early poetry. He speaks of the cross, “pleading my embrace” but “my sins are loathe to look upon his face.” Once espousing naturalism in his philosophy, he speaks of “coming down from Golgotha to thee” (a reference to Mother Nature).
Pastoral and counseling experience reveal a common basic root of unbelief (lack or loss of faith and/or religious practice). A moral conflict is inevitable when behavior seems to contradict belief. This is a fact of life, the constant struggle between — as St. Paul emphasized — the weakness of the flesh and the sublime aspirations of the Spirit. No one since Adam has avoided the struggle with our defective human condition. George Santayana was not an exception. He was, however, exceptionally sensitive to the anguish of this normal conflict.
THE MAKING OF A PHILOSOPHER
Education, on the level of profound reflection, begins in college. Harvard University was the oldest and perhaps most respected in America. Here, except for brief study abroad, Santayana spent many years as student and then professor. His major concentration, expectedly, was in philosophy, and he graduated summa cum laude in 1886. He received the Walker Fellowship for graduate study abroad. After only a year of study in Germany, he returned to Harvard to work for his doctorate.
Contemporary courses in philosophy are eclectic rather than systematic: brief and not very profound studies of a wide variety of prominent philosophers in history, concentrating on the modern period. Consequently, Santayana studied nearly all of them and looked into all periods of philosophical development. He showed a preference for, and was most influenced by, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Hegel. He read and appreciated Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas too, and he admired the logic of Scholasticism which was favored by many Catholic universities.
He was, of course, influenced by two prominent philosophy professors at Harvard at that time. One was Josiah Royce, a romantic idealist, and the other was William James, the “Father of Pragmatism.” Both Royce and James were basically religious in a natural way. William James even wrote a much-used text called Varieties of Religious Experience; but faithful to their intellectual legacy of rationalism, he denied a personal God who enters history or personally relates to humankind.
Besides excelling in his studies, Santayana also participated in extra-curricular activities that appealed to him: writing for the Lampoon and other literary publications, working with Hasty Pudding Club shows, seminar and social groups. According to his own account, he did not date or become romantically involved. As a dorm proctor, he reduced his expenses, but was amply provided for by the Sturgis family, including a return trip to Avila. The Sturgis investments in the Back Bay area proved to be profitable.
After finishing his graduate studies he was immediately hired by Harvard as an assistant to James and later elevated to a full professorship in philosophy. He taught numerous unrelated courses and was a popular teacher, one with vivacity and intellectual flair. He always insisted he never liked teaching as a profession. He preferred solitary reflection, travel and observation, and writing. He found philosophy unrelated to reality, a mental game for dilettantes, dabblers, and dreamers. He frequently emphasized the subjective nature of philosophy, saying that “philosophy can be communicated only by being evoked.”
He escaped his career entrapment through the publication of a book called The Sense of Beauty, the result of a course he gave. He later called the book “a sham course,” confessing that he had no idea, then or later, what aesthetics might be. But his publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, did well financially with this volume and sixteen other books he authored. He had the release and independence he desired and left Harvard in 1912 to travel and reflect in retreat. Thus began a new career in writing. He was to publish nearly thirty books and as many articles for journals. The boy who learned English at nine became one of the foremost writers in English literature in his time and remains a favorite author.
THE POETIC VISION
Santayana was not, in a technical or scientific sense, a philosopher at all. He was a poet reflecting and commenting on life in the universe as it appeared to him. He did attempt to construct an integral pattern of ultimate concerns with his four-volume summary called Realms of Being, introduced by a treatise entitled Skepticism and Animal Faith; but he denied that this was meant to be a system or even thought of as objective truth. He maturely considered that all systems of reproducing nature are equally subject to limitations and that none can claim to be a carbon copy of the original. No matter how eloquent or profound, they are all soliloquies extrinsic to the drama of natural history, which unfolds without intermission as the spectator defectively describes it in his own terms.
His recorded view of religion, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), set a conclusive theme that religion is a sort of poetry which expresses moral values and reacts beneficently upon life. He identified the two subjects. Poetry, he said, is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry. He knew his basic position in matters of religious faith and expressed it sadly and succinctly:
No, said I to myself, even as a boy: they [the works of human imagination] are good, they alone are good; and the rest — the whole real world — is ashes in the mouth. My sympathies were entirely with those other members of my family who were devout believers. I loved the Christian epic, and all those doctrines and observances which bring it down into daily life: I thought how glorious it would have been to be a Dominican friar, preaching that epic eloquently, and solving afresh all the knottiest and sublimest mysteries of theology …. For my own part I was quite sure that life was not worth living; for if religion was false everything was worthless; and almost everything if religion was true. In this youthful pessimism I was hardly more foolish than so many amateur medievalists and religious esthetes of my generation. I saw the same alternative between Catholicism and complete disillusion: but I was never afraid of disillusion, and I have chosen it.(4)
Ironically, in the midst of his descent from faith in rather final terms, his beloved sister Susana, in her mid-thirties, entered a convent, but after six months she left the novitiate. Boldly he declared,
I understood what she taught me very much better than she did, and I had a much greater affinity than she to a religious life. She tried it and couldn’t bear it; I could have borne it gladly if I had wished to try it ….
Now I was aware, at first instinctively and soon quite clearly on historical and psychological grounds, that religion, and all philosophy of that kind was invented. It was all conceived and worked out inwardly, imaginatively, for moral reasons; I could have invented or helped to invent it myself, if I had gone in for it; and I could have accepted it and enlarged it by my own insights if, like all original souls, I had fancied myself inspired.(5)
The accidental details of a cloistered life — the seclusion and detachment and opportunities for meditation — attracted him, but the essential basis of religious life, self-sacrifice in the pursuit of a transcendental love, was wholly unacceptable. He found it difficult, indeed impossible, for him to reconcile his naturalism with a life that was professedly supernatural.
To satisfy his keen awareness of the spiritual life of man he had to accept some blind development of spirit from matter. The fundamental problem of modern philosophy after Descartes was to reunite matter and spirit. Following his predecessors, Santayana had to construct a philosophy out of his own perspectives and insights, an admittedly personal accommodation to his own views and experience. It failed to become a public or permanent philosophy for anyone else, nor did he intend it to be. All of his writings sold well, but that was because of his extraordinary craftsmanship. He was popular among literary professionals who admired his talent and, to an extent, among the general reading public. Most people did not understand the intricate dialectic of his philosophy, but if they did not know what he was saying they nevertheless appreciated how he said it. Thus his best works are his poems and essays, and even his single novel, The Last Puritan, which was based on his Harvard and Boston experience, met with wide success.
George Santayana wrote three volumes of autobiography (collectively entitled Persons and Places). Every autobiography, however, is selective in material. The author discloses his background discernably, revealing what he chooses to, which is his privilege. Santayana tells a great deal about himself, not only in his autobiographical books, but also in his poetry and his essays. Any other report, especially about a celebrity of any type, is basically speculative, based more on hearsay than on verifiable fact.
The third and final book of his autobiography, My Host the World, appeared posthumously (at his request) in 1952. It closes on some later years of his residence in Rome, which he called his “center and equilibrium.” A classicist, he felt at home there. After he left Harvard in 1912, he could afford, through his many publications, to become the roamer and recluse he preferred to be. In all, there were thirty-eight transatlantic crossings on long voyages by ship. One suspects that even in the jet age he would find a rare ship still crossing the Atlantic. He divided his time visiting in the United States and spending more of his time in England, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy.
Settling in Rome, he lived for a number of years at the Hotel Bristol on the Piazza Barberoni. The heat of summer in the Eternal City led him to extended stays in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Alps. In Rome he lived simply, even dressing in a rather clerical style — black suit, coat, shoes, and tie. For recreation and exercise he often walked in the Pincio Gardens that overlooked the city. His only regular companion was Daniel Cory, who, as a philosophy student on tour in Italy, met Santayana by his own request and then remained with him for many years as a secretary and, at times, served as an interpreter of the intricate and difficult turns of thought in Santayana’s philosophical writing. Later, in his residence abroad, Santayana lingered at the Bristol busying himself with his writing, avoiding travel altogether during wartime.
Here, unavoidably feeling the tension of the times, he suffered a stroke and was brought to Calvary Hospital, which was under the supervision of the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary. Sister Angela, the only American — a Chicagoan in this English community of nursing nuns, took care of him. She remembers his coming out of a brief coma, looking into her angelic face, framed in a white wimple, and gasping: “My God, is this death?”
He gradually recovered, but he never regained his full health and vigor. He felt his advanced age and weakened condition. He knew that physically he was on the decline, that he should not risk living alone again, and that he needed attentive care. There was a deeper need, one that had never been satisfied, a personal need for the love of a family and the security of a home. He recognized the semblance here, a familial atmosphere, unlike that of ordinary institutions of this kind, and the personal care prompted by Christian charity. He asked to stay. He would pay his way as a regular patient, but perhaps they could arrange quarters for him out of the way of their busy medical routine. The quiet corner was found, the end parlor on the first floor, and Sister Angela was assigned to look after his needs.
THE POOR OLD MAN
Here Santayana stayed to the end of his life, comfortable and cared for, respected by the staff as “the professor.” He was loved by the Blue Sisters as “the poor old man” who lived in their midst in a sort of spiritual isolation, admiring but not sharing the faith that inspired them.
It was here that I met “the professor” in the fall of 1950. I had been sent after my ordination for higher studies. The Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Angelicum University suggested I do a doctorate study of George Santayana because the philosopher was popular in both the United States and Britain and he was now retired right here in Rome. I called and made an appointment with him and went to visit him at the hospital on nearby Via San Stefano Rotondo. From that time, a friendship developed and endured through the last two years of his life. We met weekly for over an hour each visit. I used his own annotated set of books and I had the unusual experience of writing on a living subject who actually tutored me in my project, a unique scholarly and personal experience.
He was an affable man and gracious to those people he enjoyed, brusque and, curt with those who came merely to see a celebrity and use the visit for their own status. He showed a particular disdain for the late Max Eastman, a frequent contributor to American magazines. He came twice and I was present on both occasions. The sessions were painful. Santayana’s hearing was weak, but also selective. In every exchange between them I had to act as a relay interpreter. Whatever other information Eastman obtained, he had to rely on indirect sources or his own imagination.
As a result of these meager pickings, Max Eastman wrote two full-length articles for American Mercury magazine. The first, entitled “Philosopher in a Convent” (November, 1951), repeated the stable and erroneous impression that Santayana was walled up in a cloistered convent of nuns. Referring to his “five or six visits” with the philosopher, Eastman embroidered an elaborately imaginative account of these sessions. In this article (p. 38) he reported: “Sometimes the high theologians of the Vatican come in and try to convert him to an existential belief in these dogmas that he loves.” I first read this statement in Santayana’s presence and asked him who these high theologians of the Vatican were. He smiled sourly and said: “That’s you, I guess.”
Eastman wrote another article about these “visits.” It was a cheap, sensational piece about Santayana’s inferred effeminacy based on ridiculous evidence, such as his playing female roles in Hasty Pudding shows while he was a student at Harvard. Santayana was saddened by these articles (later included in a book called Great Companions). Santayana’s visitors were immediately limited to Cory and myself.
GOD AND SANTAYANA
I read all of Santayana’s books (his own annotated copies), even his final volume of memoirs, separately titled My Host the World; as it remained in manuscript and not published until a decade later. He wrote his two last books in the hospital. One was a commentary on The Idea of Christ in the Gospels (1946) which showed many brilliant insights, despite his personal religious perspective contained in the introduction. His last effort was perhaps a mistake for publication in this democratic period, a book called Dominations and Powers (1951). His political views were classical and aristocratic, an unpopular stance which was highly criticized in the poor reviews that followed publication.
During the last two years of his life, Santayana seemed to me ambiguous about his positions both philosophical and religious. He appeared to be less certain of his previous convictions in both of these areas. Once when I returned two of his books he said rather drearily, “There’s nothing in them worthwhile, is there.” It was more of a statement than a question. He was well aware of our fundamental differences, both in philosophy and religion. He encouraged me in my written critique of his philosophical views and on the night of my public defense of my doctoral dissertation he called me at the University to wish me well. We discussed many points in my visits, but never argued emotionally. Our friendship transcended our divisions and we respected each other as persons.
Only on the question of his religious position did he lend a note of strong feeling, and yet he held his position more as a published commitment than a personal conviction. Once, from my own sense of obligation, Christian and sacerdotal, I did approach the touchy subject bluntly. Even then he simply replied: “I have committed myself. It’s all down on paper, in my writings.” My appeal had been dismissed mildly. A distant young relative visiting from Spain did not do as well. When the young man got down on his knees and implored the old philosopher to return to God, Santayana, visibly shaken, expelled the boy from his room and instructed Sister Angela never to permit his entrance again. He rejected a similar but less heated intervention by Jacques and Raissa Maritain during a car ride in the countryside and insisted the subject of conversation be changed or he would get out of the car and walk home. That happened, of course, in earlier years.
Yet, when the old hospital chaplain, a man who had been close to Santayana, died rather suddenly, the friendly “professor” attended the funeral mass in the hospital chapel and gave a large sum of money to the Mother Superior and asked her to arrange for a number of requiem masses to be offered for his friend. I recall an afternoon when I entered Santayana’s room and found him fretfully disturbed. My curiosity was aroused to the point of questioning his unusual manner. A boy had come, he explained, with a package that required payment. When he opened his desk drawer and reached for the amount needed, a wad of bills fell to the floor. Unable to stoop without difficulty, he asked the lad to pick up the money for him. After the boy had left, Santayana discovered that a considerable part of the money was missing. “Am I responsible for his theft by providing him with the occasion?” he asked. He was not asking a speculative question; he was sincerely concerned.
Another occasion occurred on a late fall afternoon. We were standing at the open French doors leading to the balcony and observing the color change in some nearby foliage. Through some conversational connection, we began to speak of Henri Bergson. Santayana was enthusiastic in his praises of the French philosopher, “the only great philosopher I knew personally.” He had attended some of Bergson’s lectures in Paris and had incorporated some elements of Bergsonian philosophy into his own system. At least there is a strong correspondence of thought — the flux of matter warring against the spirit, the prejudice of intellect in interpreting that flux, the preference of intuition, which alone can grasp the essences of things.
“Above all,” said Santayana, “is his keen notion of la fonction fabulatrice, the creative function of the imagination that is capable of supplying all that a man needs and lacks in reality.” Santayana’s eyes sparkled playfully as he added the phrase “such as the fabric of revelation that can make gods of men.”
I wondered if he knew about the report of Bergson s religious conversion; anyway, I could not resist a reply making mention of it. His reaction was one of shock and incredulity. He was stunned momentarily, then asked for more details. I promised to do the requested research.
My time with him came to an end when I finished my work and study and prepared to return to the United States. On my final visit I noticed how frail he looked, a shriveled figure in a frayed, brown robe. With his permission, I took a photo of him on his small balcony and then we made our sad farewells. His rapidly declining health and general condition were evident. Stomach cramps and chronic indigestion had increased and brought him manifest pain. I do not know when, if ever, his physician Dr. Sabbatucci disclosed to him that he was suffering from terminal cancer. A cataract was forming on his right eye, and his left eye was failing. He began to worry that his last resort, reading, would be lost to him. “I am afraid,” he confided, “afraid I will be bored.”
My last direct contact with George Santayana was a letter he wrote to me on July 20, 1952. Apparently, this was the last letter he ever wrote, with the exception of a few brief notes to Cory and one to a relative who sent occasional packages of foodstuff. This was a remarkable letter in many ways. Enclosed in a large, rust-colored envelope, the message was written on thin strips of white paper which were pasted, like the words of a telegram, onto a lined sheet of notebook paper. The opening words — “I am getting weaker and my eyes have failed me” — explained the strange composition. Only by guiding a pen along such paper strips could a weakened and blinded writer keep his words on an even line. My correspondent was a fastidious man.
He told me he had read only sixty pages, merely the introduction, of my dissertation. As I feared, he was unable to read any of the critical study.(6) Nor was he able to read the two gift books I had left with him. Knowing his adamant philosophical position, I never expected to change his way of thinking, but I did hope that my own tenets could be clarified and better appreciated in his mind.
In late June he took a cab to the Spanish Consulate to renew his passport. Leaving the building, he fell down the steps and suffered some minor bruises; but the physical shock of this accident took its toll. Confined to his bed, he slipped in and out of coma, and, when conscious, frequently mumbled in Italian, recited verses of poetry, and occasionally spoke coherently.
On one of these occasions, Sister Angela, who had quietly served him and prayed for him for more than a decade, felt obliged in charity to say the obvious: “You are dying. You should see a priest and make your peace with God.” A spark of determination shone in his eyes. “Say no more of this,” he rasped. “I shall die as I have lived.”
About seventy years before this deathbed declaration, the young poet had speculated on his final stand on the ultimate issue that is inevitable to the wayward Christian. A single verse from “Easter Hymn” expressed the frank wonder of uncertain youth:
Perchance when Carnival is done,
And sun and moon go out on me
Christ will be God, and I the one
That in my youth I used to be.
Once again his eyes flickered brightly and Sister Angela asked him, “Are you suffering?” He replied, “Not physically, but mentally.” When she asked him what he meant, he answered with one word, “Desperation.” A few days later, on September 26, 1952, sun and moon went out on him. Perhaps before it was over, Christ was God for him and he did return to his time of innocence.
With characteristic ambiguity, he had expressed his wish to be buried in neutral (unblessed) ground in a Catholic cemetery. After some conflict with the well-known St. Paul’s Protestant Cemetery director, who wanted him to be placed near the lots of Keats and Shelley, his request was honored. On the thirtieth day of September, 1952, George Santayana was laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery of Rome in a plot reserved for Spanish nationals.
According to a United Press story dated October 1, “A handful of dignitaries of the Spanish Embassy and Consulate, half a dozen American friends and an Italian admirer, attended the simple nonreligious ceremony.” Thus ended the life of a man who seemed always to be in conflict between some degree of Catholicism and some degree of atheism. He was not alone with this condition, so common in modern times.
THE WOULD-BE ATHEIST
A pure and unadulterated atheist is hard to find. Even the Executive Secretary of the American Humanist Association once told me over dinner that he was once an altar boy and he suggested that we make a retreat together at a desert mission in Arizona. Then there was the case of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, President of the American Atheist Association, who influenced the Supreme Court (in a famous case over school prayer) to allow for the unbelief of her young son — who later became a Born-again Christian, much to his mother’s chagrin and embarrassment. She later resigned after a proposed national convention of atheists failed to produce enough members to pay for the conference rooms reserved in a Chicago hotel.
On the other hand, no one professes to be a perfect Christian. Every saint, knowing his or her missed opportunities for grace, has insisted on claiming to be the worst of sinners. I once met Mother Teresa and was flabbergasted when she gripped my hand and asked me to pray for her, a petition I had intended to make to her. As there are degrees of grace, so there are degrees of belief. Surely, too, there are degrees of unbelief.
Atheism is not popular today. The unbeliever prefers the label “agnostic.” The agnostic does not absolutely deny the existence of God. He simply claims that neither he nor perhaps anyone else can have any certain knowledge of God. The word “agnostic” is of relatively recent origin, first used in a speech by the renowned biologist, Thomas Huxley, in 1869. Agnosticism is still common among some academics who prefer not to deny the existence of God (which is considered somewhat unpatriotic and out of harmony with “the American way’). They are skeptics and shrug off the God-question as unanswerable and irrelevant to so-called scientific inquiry. It is an intellectually snobbish position adopted and often displayed ostentatiously by some university professors. Among their student disciples, it is often an “in” attitude.
George Santayana presents the classic case of the confused skeptic who hesitatingly stands (in his own words) “at the church door.” Like him, many today are at the same stage of their spiritual life.
- Persons and Places (New York: Scribners, 1944), p. 171.
- Dominations and Powers (New York: Scribners, 1951), p. 450.
- Persons and Places, p. 173.
- “A General Confession” in The Philosophy of Santayana, The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. II, 1930, pp. 7-8.
- Persons and Places, p. 92.
- This study, The Mind of Santayana, was published in 1955 by Henry Regnery Co. of Chicago, and Routledge & Kegan Paul of London.