10 OVERHEARD IN SEVILLE
knowledge. To be sure, since these types of psychology use essences native only to
spirit, one must be careful to see these essences as expressive of the psyche and not
themselves dynamic forces in nature. But even here we might think the danger is not
too great for, if Santayana is correct, "even when the derivation of a feeling is obscure
we have but to study its meaning, allowing it to tell us what it is interested in, for a
roundabout path to lead us safely back to its natural basis" (LR5 159).
University of Toronto
The Notion of the Tragic
in Santayana's Thought
I am sure that the very title of this paper stirs the memory of some of you here
tonight. Exactly eighteen years ago to the day, John McCormick read a paper
entitled "Santayana's Idea of the Tragic" to the Santayana Society in Baltimore.
It is the first formal work treating the tragic and Santayana specifically.
Subsequently, in his authoritative biography of Santayana published in 1987,
McCormick would include passages directly relating the tragic to the subject of his
book. The greater part of these thoughts are found in his chapter in The Last Puritan
(Chapter 23, "The Life and Death of Oliver Alden"). In no way whatsoever does the
tragic frame his understanding and subsequent assessment of Santayana the man or
Santayana the thinker. Thus his use of the word "idea" would suggest, rather, his
characterization of Santayana's thought about the tragic. Understood thus, it was
merely one among literally hundreds of ideas (or concepts) that Santayana explored
and wrote about throughout his reflective life.3
In my reflections on Santayana over the past ten years I have come to a different
comprehension as how to wed Santayana to the tragic: Santayana's very being was
tragic, his outlook on and attitude towards the sphere of human institutions,
interpersonal relationships (including familial ones), events, occurrences,
developments, spawned by humans or any other material force — all were tragic.
Even that ironic smile of his which his onetime pupil Walter Lippmann described as
"Mona Lisa furnished with a beard," was tragic, not as an indication of some
pathological vulnerability hiding itself, but as a courageous response to the
metaphysical given of the tragic. In short, both his evolution from infant to eighty-
nine year old man dying in a convent in Rome, coupled with the evolution as
philosopher from student to professor to unattached "vagabond scholar,"4 were, as I
will argue in this paper, tragic.
3 This paper was presented to the Santayana Society at its annual meeting in New York on
4 This term was first used by Bruno Lind in his Vagabond Scholar: A Venture into the Privacy of
George Santayana. (New York: Bridgehead Books, 1962).