Essay: Santayana’s Philosophy of Travel

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Enjoy the world, travel over it, and learn its ways but do not let it hold you … . To possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare (from Persons and Places)

George Santayana, (actually Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) was born in Madrid in 1863.   Santayana moved with his mother to the US at the age of ten.  After completing his education (including periods in Berlin and Cambridge) he began a career teaching philosophy at Harvard University where his students included TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein.  Resigning his position in 1912, Santayana returned to Europe, spending time in Spain, France, England and Italy.  Santayana died in 1952.  

In addition to his naturalist philosophy, Santayana is remembered for his aphorisms including, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim”, (from The Life of Reason).  

In the Philosophy of Travel, published posthumously in 1968 in the collection The Birth of Reason, Santayana considers travel, which “lends a great beauty to strangers, and fills remote places and times with an ineffable charm.”

Observing that a “search for the picturesque is the last and idlest motive of travel” Santayana examines different styles of traveller.  Beginning with those who travel “on more pressing errands and in some distress” such as migrants, exiles and colonists, he goes on to consider explorers, inveterate travellers, those who travel for sport and those who travel for commerce or other mercantile reason.  Finally, Santayana turns to the tourist, “the latest type of traveller”, at who Santayana explains, he will throw “no stones.” 

With his gift for aphorisms, the Philosophy of Travel naturally contains quotable travel wisdom such as “[w]e need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what” (quoted in Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel) and “[t]here is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour” which is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s famous travel quote.

Taking us from the roots and rootedness of plants to the possibility of travel lending “meaning to the images of the eye and the mind” so that it might be said that animals and man “owe their intelligence to their feet” and on through the mechanical age of mass travel, Santayana returns, at the end of this thoughtful essay, to the roots we all have and the realisation that what we return with from travel should not be material but insight and understanding;  an idea later explored by one of his students, TS Eliot, in Four Quartets:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others
[…] 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

One comment

  1. Short, punchy and to the point. Did not know that he taught TS Eliot whose Four Quartetes has been a longstanding favourite of mine. Look forward to reading more on this excellent site.

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