Your RDA of Irony

Happy Birthday Professor Santayana

December 16th

Today is the birthday of George Santayana…whom you always meant to look up. Well, I am saving you the trouble. George Santayana (1863-1952)–philosopher. He should be remembered for saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to misquote me.” And you certainly have heard all of the variations….

Those who do not learn history…
Those who do not remember history…
Those who think I captured the Alamo and sang “Black Magic Woman”…

Santayana actually said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” His appreciation of the past may be derived from the fact that he was born in Europe, where history is usually interesting. Had Santayana been born in New Madrid, Missouri rather than the old one in Spain, he would never have warned us to remember the details of Benjamin Harrison.

Indeed, he seemed to regard Americans as a nation of enthusiastic, affable dolts; we put the super in superficial. Writing in 1920 of America’s emergence on the world stage, he explained our character to the European reader, “American life is a powerful solvent. It seems to neutralize every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse in the native good will, complacency, thoughtlessness and optimism.” Of course, he waited until he was back in Europe before he published that!

His impression of Americans as affable oafs is mystifying because he was not exactly mingling with the masses. Santayana spent 26 years teaching philosophy at Harvard–where his students included T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Walter Lippmann. Maybe Gertrude could have been a linebacker for Radcliffe, but Tom and Wally would not have won any barroom brawls; and none of them was the least affable.

While we know Santayana for only that one quote, Bartlett’s dedicates an entire page to him. Here is a sampling of the professor’s wit and wisdom:

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

“The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.”

And finally this–perfect for a birthday: “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

  1. SwanShadow says:

    I’m a great admirer of Santayana. Except when his winds blow through southern California.

  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    “Those who do not remember he was a professor are doomed to think he was an above-average baseball player.”

    And what’s with finding fault with New Madrid?

  3. Peggles says:

    Those who cannot rem…wait a minute, I forgot.

  4. Richard Greb says:


    He’d have loved the outgoing administration as a hotbed of support for his observations.

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