Santayana is seldom found in lists of the great modern philosophers. In part that is because, like other ethical naturalists, including Hume and Voltaire and Schopenhauer, he preferred humanist genres like the essay and the aphorism to the academic treatise or the footnoted journal article. One of his aphorisms has lodged in popular consciousness: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (from The Life of Reason (1905-1906).) This choice of rhetorical strategies, I think, is based on observation of the human animal: if you want to teach the public, stories and jokes and conversational talks are more effective than lectures.
…The naturalism of Santayana, like that of Democritus and Epicurus and Hume, proves that a secular worldview need not assume the form of a militant, evangelical counter-religion. It shows as well that a certain kind of worldly hedonism, by privileging simple pleasures, paradoxically can be a kind of asceticism. You cannot be disenchanted with humanity and the world if you were never enchanted in the first place — that is the greatest lesson of the laughing philosophers.
Santayana has been hovering at the fringe of my awareness for some time, one of those gentlemen too polite to shove and shoulder his way to the front of the line and demand attention. But I aim to rectify that. I’m currently reading a small book of his essays, with a few more on my wish list. This selection from one of his books, in which he offers up one of the more incisive criticisms of Nietzsche I’ve ever seen, puts his rich literary style on full display.