on 5 April 2014
I have owned the Modern Library edition of George Santayana's "The Sense of Beauty" for by far most of my life, having purchased it as a young teenager. Santayana and Kierkegaard early on became my favourite philosophers, but of the two Santayana is by far the easier to read. Of course, I read Kierkegaard's "Either/Or" in English translation; despite being part Scandanavian, my ability to read any Nordic language while still that young was zilch. Years afterwards, I still can only struggle with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, only when in graduate school at Kent State University having attained enough skill to use it, haltingly but adequately, in my graduate assistant's work! Thus, while I feel confident assessing the quality of Santayana's English, I cannot judge how well a translation into English can render Kierkegaard's Danish. (Neither my undergraduate nor my graduate studies were as a major in philosophy, which in my case is a non-specialist pleasure.)
Santayana, amazingly, wrote his philosophical works in English, even though he was a native Spaniard; atop that, Sanatayana wrote in English that is surpassingly fine, cogent, and outrightly elegant, which makes reading his philosophy a literary pleasure, not just a philosophical chore. Santayana's mastery of the English language and the lucidity of his thinkingwas such that he almost never had to revise his first drafts; he also could lecture in English of equal elegance and cogency, something indeed very remarkable.
Santayana was, essentially, a Catholic humanist, who drifted into secular convictions but who still held to a kind of attenuated Catholic intellectualism and sense of values. That, too, was in the context of Harvard University's then prevailing (late 19th century) "Calvinist hangover" towards which he always felt himself to stand in contrast and antipathy. That discomfort with New England eventually drove him back to his native Spain, onwards after that to Italy. There is a wonderful warmth and nobility to Santayana's aesthetics. Although Santayana rejected all divinely-oriented notions that Beauty is some God-bestowed endowment upon what seems in Creation (natural or man-made) to hold fairly universal appeal for humans as being lovely and appealing, he held that what attracts men and women to what they consider to be beautiful is attributable to any natural or man-crafted object's inherent qualities which happen to exert such appeal. This contrasts to reductionists of his own and especially of later times who would regard beauty as completely subjective to one's individual mind rather than to the sensibilities of the human species in general.
Santayana partook of the "genteel" mood of his times, but in an intelligent rather than in a merely conformist way. That gentility, it would seem to me, affects his unsatisfying understanding of the comic, the grotesque, and the downright ugly, all of which, to Santayana, evoke pain, which, being disagreeable, limits the aesthetic potention of what is not more serious art, as he views that. In the realm of the comic, Santayana only only regards Wit to be inherently aesthetic, whereas the comic, imbued with elements of discomfort or some degree of pain, even in masterworks of the comic genre, never have the advantage that more elevated, sublime, or, for that matter, merely pleasurable "serious" works of art can be said to have far more fully. That verdict on the comic would seem dubious not only to me but to many others nowadays (or even in the past!). Since Santayana turns his attention to The Comic at the end of his work, compared to the deep insights of what had preceded in the book, his discussion of what is comic (and related thereto) brings the book to an end that does not compare to the pleasures and more valid insights which had preceded. However, READ THIS BOOK! It is wonderful in a way that has become all too rare since Santayana's own times.