An ornately conceived, sometimes elliptical, but comprehensive and insightful examination of the work of philosopher George Santayana.
Singer (Meaning in Life, 1991, etc.) structures his book succinctly, to “unpack” the different layers of a philosopher whose life and work, closely intertwined, are less discussed today yet were hugely influential in their time: in his day, Santayana (1863–1952) was a prolific intellectual who made tremendous strides in merging philosophical and fictive writing. Singer defines his discussion by linking eight discrete long essays, each offering particular examinations, such as “Santayana as Literary Critic” (a fascinating entree to his then-radical attempts to glean clear philosophical stances and ethical qualities from the poetry and fiction of Dante, Shelley, and Dickens) or “Idealization: Santayana versus Freud” (an examination of these thinkers’ sharply divergent views on the human pursuit of unattainable objects). Singer also presents a well-executed analysis of Santayana’s “essayistic” novel The Last Puritan, a 1935 bestseller of broad scope that Santayana asserted was based upon philosophical notions developed over 45 years. Somewhat racier ground is covered in a surprising chapter on “Santayana’s Philosophy of Love,” where Singer maintains that, in “insisting upon the interrelation between ideals and natural processes” and contemplating the instinctual human drive towards “erotic bonding” for purposes of pleasure, Santayana implicitly laid directions toward the sexually explicit schools of thought that exploded a decade past his lifetime. Two concluding chapters approach Santayana’s ideas more actively, in relation to cultural stimulus: they address “Greatness in Art” in terms of the harmonic unity of form, material, and “significant world outlook” he required, and the relevant roles of aesthetic and moral criticism. Overall, one receives less of a sense of Santayana the man, and more of his immense interrelated body of ideas.
Singer is a graceful writer, but one who seems most comfortable addressing an academic readership. Nonetheless, committed lay readers will also find this to be a sound introduction to Santayana’s broad sphere of philosophic influence.