December 16

George Santayana (1863)

It was on this date, December 16, 1863, that American philosopher George Santayana was born in Madrid, Spain, to freethinking parents who, nonetheless, sent him to Catholic school. In 1871, in his eighth year, the family moved to the US, and Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, who was destined to be called George, was reared by his mother after his father returned to Spain without her. Santayana corresponded with his father instead.

Perhaps best know today for his quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,"[1] Santayana became professor of philosophy at Harvard University from 1889, but he eventually found the academic's life unsatisfactory and he left it for Europe in 1912. He never taught again, but along the way Santayana published many popular works, establishing himself not only as a philosopher, but as poet, critic of culture and literature, and best-selling novelist, as well: Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), The Last Puritan, a novel (1935), The Life of Reason a series of five books on Reason in Common Sense, Society, Religion, Art, and Science (1905-1906), among others.

Santayana rejected the Christian creed:

Christianity persecuted, tortured, and burned. Like a hound it tracked the very scent of heresy. It kindled wars, and nursed furious hatreds and ambitions. It sanctified, quite like Mohammedanism, extermination and tyranny.... Man, far from being freed from his natural passions, was plunged into artificial ones quite as violent and much more disappointing.[2]
"My atheism, like that of Spinoza," said Santayana, "is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests."[3] In his Reason in Science, Santayana says, "A thorough Materialist, one born to the faith and not half plunged into it by an unexpected christening in cold water, will be, like the superb Democritus, a laughing philosopher."[4]

Santayana, the atheist who thought religion should be studied like poetry, died 26 September 1952 and was buried, at his request, in a section of Rome's Catholic Cemetery reserved for Spaniards. It was George Santayana who said, "Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer."[5]

[1] Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense, 1905, page 284.
[2] Little Essays, No. 107, "Christian Morality"
[3] Quoted from "On My Friendly Critics," in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, 1922
[4] Life of Reason: Reason in Science, 1906, p. 90.
[5] Scepticism and Animal Faith, 1923, p. 69.

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770)

"Keep your eyes on that young man. Some day he will give the world something to talk about."
— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, after hearing Beethoven,
quoted in O. Jahn, Life of Mozart,
2nd edn., 1882.

It was also on this date, December 16, 1770, that we presume the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, although we have only the record of his baptism on December 17. He was reared a Catholic and composed inspired sacred works such as Missa Solemnis and his immortal Choral Symphony (#9). Surely Beethoven was touched by God?

Beethoven wrote many secular works of equal inspiration. He was an apostate from the Christian creed and a follower of the Pantheism espoused by Goethe. This was no secret during his life. Franz Joseph Haydn believed Beethoven was an Atheist. Biographer George Marek, says Catholic-born Beethoven "never became a practicing one. There is no record of his ever attending a church service or observing the orthodoxy of his religion. He never went to confession. ... Generally he viewed priests with mistrust.[1] Anton Felix Schindler, who was Beethoven's friend, described the composer as "inclined to Deism."[2] Once, when violinist Felix Moscheles playfully wrote on one of his manuscripts, "With God's help," Beethoven altered it to read "Man, help thyself."[3]

Another biographer, Ludwig Nohl, says that Beethoven had "no dogma or narrow philosophy of life."[4] As Beethoven lay dying in 1827, friends concerned for his soul hurried a priest to his side to perform the Last Rites. Beethoven endured the superstitious ceremony, then uttered the old Latin formula, "Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over" ("Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est.") He died on 26 March 1827. Sir G. Macferren calls Beethoven a "freethinker" in his article in the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography[5]; the Catholic Encyclopedia does not dare to claim him.

[1] George Marek, Beethoven: Biography of a Genius, 1969.
[2] Anton Felix Schindler, Beethoven As I Knew Him, 1860.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ludwig Nohl, Life of Beethoven, 1867.
[5] G. Macferren, Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography, 1857.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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