(Review) George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe.

Lane Cooper, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Jul., 1911), pp. 443-444.

This volume, the first in the series of Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, contains the substance of six lectures which were delivered by Professor Santayana a year ago at Columbia University, and later at the University of Wisconsin, but which trace their origin to one of the regular courses in Harvard University. The circumstances of its growth may explain, if not excuse, an occasional lapse from the purity and elevation of style that one might look for in the opening number of such a series, — as when the author broaches an idea by which he sets some store — ‘that poetry is essentially short-winded’; or when he speaks of Lucretius, with his usual ‘smack of reality,’ ‘painting death to the life,’ and of the ‘brave arguments’ which Lucretius offers us if we ‘ still fear death instinctively, like a stuck pig ‘ ; or when he says that the thought of Goethe, who ‘was the wisest of mankind,’ ‘voiced the genius and learning of his age.’

We also wonder a little at the kind of apology which we read in the Preface of a work that is to usher in a scholarly series. Though the phrase ‘comparative literature’ has no precise meaning, and does not seem to be good English (as littérature comparée may be good French), such a title nevertheless would lead us to expect a form of literary criticism based upon the method of observation and comparison of details both small and great which has been followed by every critic of importance from Aristotle and Longinus to Sainte-Beuve. Professor Santayana, however, calls himself ‘an amateur,’ disclaims the function of a learned investigator, and indeed seems to imply that scholarship and pedantry are the same thing — an amateurish but often ruinous mistake. When one is familiar with the writings of Munro and Bailey, for example, on Lucretius, it is painful to be told that an American book dealing with this poet ‘is no learned investigation,’ but ‘only a piece of literary criticism’ — as if literary criticism could be founded upon something short of a first-hand knowledge.

As a matter of fact, however, Professor Santayana’s obligation to scholarship, for instance in the case of Dante, is not inconsiderable, or without discrimination. And his exposition of all three poets is more luminous than would be possible had he not turned to account the ‘facts’ and ‘hypotheses about these men’ which are ‘at hand in their familiar works, or in well-known commentaries upon them.’ He is, to tell the truth, more successful as an interpreter than as a critic, yielding himself up in turn to each of his chosen authors, until the students who attended his attractive lectures must have been successively convinced that each of these poets ‘was the wisest of mankind.’

As a critic, since he recognizes no permanent and decisive standards, and has been willing not to carry his private researches to the point of making himself ‘a specialist in the study of Lucretius,’ or ‘a Dante scholar,’ or ‘a Goethe scholar,’ he is less convincing. ’Tis a noble Lepidus, who loves Goethe as the Jupiter of men, yet he loves Dante, too, and finally leaves us with a hazy notion that he has an instinctive, though no rational, preference for the Arabian bird of the Divine Comedy. To mention but one promising avenue of research, it might be that a systematic inquiry into Goethe’s Neoplatonism, and his affinity in classical literature for Euripides rather than Sophocles,[1] would stamp him as an Alexandrian rather than the exponent of the loftiest Hellenism which so many Germans take him to be. Such a procedure might enable us to place him rightly in that scale of better and worse which the sentiment of humanity is bound to demand of the critic, and which the regulated impulse of the true critic is bound to furnish. Professor Santayana has a number of suggestive remarks upon the subject of Goethe’s demonology, which is Neoplatonic; but Professor Goebel’s study in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology is more to the point.

I am convinced that the class of students for which these lectures were designed is more in need of clear distinctions and rational standards of judgment than of anything else which a teacher can directly impart; that the late Arthur John Butler, a specialist on the subject of Dante, but a universal scholar and a writer of well-nigh infallible taste, was justified in affirming of the Divine Comedy: “It is not too much to say that there is no one work of human genius which can equal it as an instrument of education, intellectual and moral;” and that, in spite of many fascinating passages by Professor Santayana in all of his lectures (such as that on the Vita Nuova in the middle of page), it is desirable to refer an immature reader to other essays upon the three poets here considered, in order that there may be no doubt in such a reader’s mind as to the essential superiority of the great mediaeval Christian poet over the melancholy bard of Rome, or the belated pagan of Germany. From the mass of interpretative literature, one may venture to single out the Introduction to the rendering of Lucretius by Cyril Bailey; the appreciation of Dante by Dean Church; and the remarkable essay on “Goethe and his Influence” by Richard Holt Hutton.


[1] See the references in Goethe’s Gespräche (e.g., Gespräche, ed. von Biedermann, 8:114); if these references show a theoretical preference for Sophocles, we must nevertheless remember that Goethe actually translated and imitated Euripides to a much greater extent.

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