“It doesn’t . . . matter where you begin”: Pound and Santayana on Education

Paper Submission

Word count (excluding abstract, endnotes, and bibliography): 3495

Abstract: American poet Ezra Pound wrote a letter on 6 February 1940 inviting American philosopher George Santayana to join poet T. S. Eliot and himself in writing a book on the ideal university (Pound 1951, 338). Santayana declined the invitation claiming to have no ideas on education. Participation would have been morally impossible, he wrote, because unlike Pound and Eliot, he was “cynically content to let people educate or neglect themselves as they may prefer” (Santayana 2004, 335-36).

Unlike others I propose to take seriously Pound’s invitation to Santayana and his sense that Santayana has something to say about education. In this speculative, rather than historical, essay, I read Santayana with an eye to what conceivably could have appealed to Pound. I hope to suggest deeper connections between the two thinkers than have previously been noted, and to consider how their common concerns can benefit a reader concerned with pedagogy.


American poet Ezra Pound wrote a letter on 6 February 1940 inviting American philosopher George Santayana to join poet T. S. Eliot and himself in writing “a volume . . . on the Ideal University, or The Proper Curriculum, or how it would be possible to educate and/or (mostly or) civilize the university stewd-dent” (Pound 1951, 338). Santayana declined the invitation and claimed to have no ideas on the subject of education. Participation would have been morally impossible, he wrote, because unlike Pound and Eliot, he was “cynically content to let people educate or neglect themselves as they may prefer” (Santayana 2004, 335-36).

This supports the approach of commentators who emphasize the differences between Pound and Santayana. Anthony Woodward has emphasized the “deep gap . . . between their temperaments” (Woodward 1984, 87). Santayana’s biographer, John McCormick, has emphasized Pound’s lifelong misapprehension of Santayana (McCormick 1987, 406), a position that seems seconded by Pound scholar Noel Stock (Stock 1964, 250-51).[i]

Pound and Santayana were temperamentally quite distinct, but this does not justify neglect of common concerns and possible similarities. I propose to take seriously Pound’s invitation to Santayana and to trust Pound’s sense that Santayana may have something to say about education. In this speculative, rather than historical, essay, I want to read Santayana with an eye to what conceivably could have appealed to Pound. I want to use Pound’s views as a stalking horse to track ideas on education in Santayana’s thought.[ii] I hope to suggest deeper connections between the two thinkers than have previously been noted,[iii] and to consider how their common concerns can benefit a reader concerned with pedagogy.

For Pound education should broaden one’s connections to the natural and social worlds (Pound 1973, 21), as well as connections among ideas. Establishing such connections is central to human vitality, and it is the teacher’s mission to maintain this vitality or health of the mind (Pound 1954, 59). Such health thrives in the clarity and vigor of language, which Pound called “the health of the very matter of thought itself” (Pound 1954, 21). When language becomes “slushy and inexact,” both society and the individual suffer, and culture declines (Pound 1954, 21). Education amounts to learning how to read and write because, according to Pound, “the purpose of writing is to reveal the subject” (Pound 1952, 51), to reveal the concrete thing instead of a disconnected abstraction. Corrupt writing deceives and conceals, and education as health “consists,” wrote Pound,” in ‘getting wise’ in the rawest and hardest boiled sense of that bit of argot” (Pound 1952, 52).

But education is not merely evading deception; it is “active, instant and present awareness” (Pound 1952, 52), an understanding of process rather than merely retaining information. This awareness can tell the difference between a painting by Goya and one by Velázquez and does not merely memorize a list of names and dates from an encyclopedia. It distinguishes between live ideas and dead ones. Distinguishing live ideas is important if one aims to “get hold of ideas, in the sense that [one] will know where they ‘weigh in’” (Pound 1952, 44; see also 74, 307). Grasping ideas and sensing their heft enables one to wield them as one makes one’s way through the world, and real knowledge is a way of living rather than a collection of information: it informs perception and directs one’s relations to the world (Pound 1952, 28). This is the way to really do and make things. Education is creative, and the aim of learning is to make it new.[iv]

But why enlist Santayana? Pound wrote that the idea for a book was prompted by Santayana’s anecdote about Henry Adams denying that education is possible.[v] Pound believed, incorrectly, that Santayana further remarked, “It doesn’t matter what so long as they all read the same things” (Pound 1950, 338).[vi] Pound suggested that Santayana could “regard curriculum or method as arising from a philosophic root, a scheme of values,. . . and attach a paragraph to that effect to whatever you happen to be writing” (Pound 1950, 338). This suggests that Pound detected in Santayana’s philosophy the basis for ideas that countered mainstream educational outlooks and practices.[vii]

Despite significant differences between Pound and Santayana, there are points of contact in their thought. These are not seamless connections of perfectly compatible ideas; rather they are common points of interest where both agreement and disagreement seem likely to enlighten.

For Pound, there are not first principles from which education begins. He could be fiercely anti-dogmatic and advised readers to “never consider anything as dogma” (Pound 1954, 4). When he offered “A Few Don’ts” for poets, he presented them not as fixed doctrines but as fruits of long contemplation and as points of departure (Pound 1954, 4-5).

Similarly the past is valued not merely for its own sake but as it serves new discoveries. “All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW” (Pound 1991, 259). Past writers Pound thought vital to education made real discoveries (Pound 1954, 15), and the student proceeds “by a study of discoveries” (Pound 1954, 18-19). But learning begins in actuality—right now—and good writers have something to say to this very moment (Pound 1960, 31). “Literature is news that STAYS news” (Pound 1960, 29).

Hence, learning begins where you are. Pound wrote, “It doesn’t . . . matter where you begin the examination of a subject, so long as you keep on until you get round again to your starting point. As it were, you start on a sphere, or a cube; you must keep on until you have seen it from all sides” (Pound 1960, 29). There is no danger of starting in the wrong place if you keep moving, enlarging your sense of the present moment.

This approach echoes Santayana who wrote, “A philosopher is compelled to follow the maxim of epic poets and to plunge in media res” (Santayana 1955b, 1). Things may have no origin and consist of an endless succession, or if they have an origin it is unavailable at the outset of inquiry. In either case, “nothing would be lost by joining the procession wherever one happens to come upon it, and following it as long as one’s legs hold out” (Santayana 1955b, 1). There is no first principle of criticism.

The philosophic root of this view appears in Santayana’s account of how human consciousness comes to distinguish natural objects—a capacity basic to any education. When we call something reality we employ a term of discourse; that is, we necessarily use words and ideas to conceive the very notion of reality. The particular idea of reality justifies—allows the recognition of—the groupings of sensations that cohere in space and recur in time. But it is the actual coherence and recurrence of sensations that lead the mind to frame an idea of reality. This appears circular—one wonders which comes first: the idea of reality or the real sensation. On Santayana’s account neither the idea nor the sensation comes first because neither can be conceived without the other. This circular account is vindicated by our living practice, and this suggests that education has its only basis in actual living (Santayana 1980, 82-83).

For Pound the methods of learning were, in part, the methods of reading, hence, his titles How to Read and ABC of Reading. He sought a method for wading through “the heteroclite mass of undigested information hurled at [one] daily and monthly” (Pound 1952, 23). Santayana in his first philosophical book, The Sense of Beauty, analyzed the situation that calls for a method of awakening attention amid monotony.

Considering beauty of form, Santayana noted the case of uniform multiplicity—a striking example being the celestial beauty of the stars (Santayana 1988, 64-66)—and then considered the limitations of this form. Monotony can be impressive but it cannot “hold us with that depth of developing interest, with which we might study a crowd or a forest of trees” (Santayana 1988, 69). It has a two-fold deleterious effect on the perceiver. When monotonous impressions are acute, they hurt (perhaps the repetition of an extremely bright light); when they are not acute, they numb (as with the ticking of a clock). In this second case, beauty or hideousness apparently drops out of consciousness altogether, but Santayana thought that while one becomes unaware of the particular object making the monotonous impression, its presence remains either vaguely irritating or subtly delightful.

On Santayana’s view, the particular is lost to consciousness, and this would explain Pound’s observation that “[p]eople find ideas a bore because they do not distinguish between live ones and stuffed ones on a shelf” (Pound 1952, 56). Overwhelmed by a monotonous parade of information, people become numb to ideas and notice only of irritation or delight.

If this still seems too remote from Pound’s pedagogic concerns, consider Santayana’s discussion of the consequences of monotony for art: monotonous form restricts association and inhibits diverse relations. Hence, for Pound, education ceases.

Santayana observed that art works composed of an endless repetition of elements have a hardness and definiteness that leave them with few affinities or relational ties; “they are not fit for many uses, nor capable of expressing many ideas. The heroic couplet, now too much derided, is a form of this kind. Its compactness and inevitableness make it excellent for an epigram and adequate for a satire, but its perpetual snap and unvarying rhythm are thin for an epic, and impossible for a song” (Santayana 1988, 70).

Pound sought to combat the deadening effects of monotony by drawing attention to the Luminous Detail, which is the aim of good reading. The method of good reading is the method of contemporary science (Pound 1960, 17; Pound 1954, 18-19),[viii] and Pound credited Ernest Fenollosa, Harvard-educated philosophy professor and Asian culture enthusiast, with articulating how scientific method applies to literature (Pound 1960, 18).

Fenollosa demonstrated how the Chinese ideogram discourages abstraction and can bring “language close to things” (Pound 1920, 367). The pictographic nature of the Chinese language as well as its reliance on verbs maintains a direct connection between language and nature. By contrast, European logic isolates and abstracts ideas likes bricks “baked into little hard units or concepts” (Pound 1920, 380). The abstract character of the system cannot represent change or growth or handle interaction. But the lessons of the ideogram can be applied to English: Fenollosa wrote, “we must use words highly charged, words whose vital suggestion shall interplay as nature interplays. Sentences must be like the mingling of the fringes of feathered banners, or as the colors of many flowers blended into the single sheen of a meadow” (Pound 1920, 386).

Pound’s employment of the ideogrammic method in writing recalls why it does not matter where a student begins examining a subject: “The ideogrammic method consists of presenting one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader’s mind, onto a part that will register” (Pound 1952, 51). Pound rejected first principles in communication and education in favor of continual presentation or inspection until the bigger picture takes shape, or until one hits on the fact that provokes realization of the whole. The methods of writing and reading, unsurprisingly, reflect each other in their circular appearance and both aim for an enlightening detail that creates new knowledge.

The ideogrammic method illustrates Pound’s New Method of Scholarship, which he characterized as “the method of Luminous Detail, a method most vigorously hostile to the prevailing mode of today—that is, the method of multitudinous detail, and to the method of yesterday, the method of sentiment and generalisation. The latter is too inexact and the former too cumbersome to be of much use” (Pound 1973, 21). The significant detail that gives “sudden insight into circumjacent conditions” becomes the material out of which an ideogram can be constructed (Pound 1973, 22); likewise it can be the detail that illuminates and is illuminated by related details and this would amount to genuine education (Beach 1992, 51-52; McDonald 1993, 152; see also Pound 1954, 24-25).[ix]

Monotonous and desensitizing information seem at least susceptible to a method, but Pound observed other obstacles that seem opposed to any creative learning. “Universities,” claimed Pound, have “no provision whatever for the fostering of the creative energies” (Pound 1973, 132). He derided such institutions as beaneries shaped by business and bureaucracy. Santayana himself had experienced first-hand the business mentality of the American university in an encounter with the president of Harvard, Charles William Eliot, who “seeing me once by chance soon after the beginning of the term, inquired how my classes were getting on; and when I replied that I thought they were getting on well, that my men seemed to be keen and intelligent, he stopped me as if I was about to waste his time. ‘I meant,’ said he, ‘what is the number of students in your classes?’” (Santayana 1955a, 105).[x]

Pound noted that business deformed the institution so that the main interest of scholars has become getting a job and holding onto it. This leads “many scholars to write under a terror” and “maintain a pretence of omniscience” (Pound 1952, 70). The pressure to know everything leads to a narrowing of fields. One becomes a master by restricting one’s scope.[xi] Santayana also observed the pressure a business-minded university put on the young academic, who through social pressure and his or her own eagerness is burdened with committee work and forced to publish too soon and lecture too much. “He has no peace in himself, no window open to a calm horizon, and in his heart perhaps little taste for mere scholarship or pure speculation” (Santayana 1955a, 82)[xii]

The narrowness and careerism of the university leads not to real knowledge but something abstracted from a thin experience of dead ideas. “Go in fear of abstractions” (Pound 1954, 5), Pound advised. Do not redo what has already been done. Pound’s pedagogy and art aimed at direct contact with real things of the world. Pound wrote, “As far as the ‘living art’ goes, I should like to break up cliché, to disintegrate these magnetized groups that stand between the reader of poetry and the drive of it” (Pound 1973, 41).

Santayana was committed to breaking up received understandings of philosophic traditions in order to gain a more honest understanding of the world. He revitalized in idiosyncratic ways terms like “reason,” “universal,” and “essence.” He also reconsidered skepticism and challenged the centuries-old conception descended from the French philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes wanted to establish a solid foundation for knowledge by doubting everything until he found one certain and indubitable piece of information—namely that I exist as a thinking thing, a fact supposedly entailed by the very act doubting. Santayana found Cartesian skepticism disingenuous and lacking in rigor. Skepticism in this tradition leaves favored conventions untouched by doubt (Santayana 1955b, 18-19, 33): the Romantic solipsist retains  “personal history and destiny” and a mystic retains “the feeling of existence” (Santayana 1955b, 33).

The result of this wayward skepticism is an abstracted conception of knowledge that ignores actual experience in favor of unavowed presumptions. This gives rise to an implausible conception of knowledge as something certain and impervious to doubt, which can be had only by smuggling in something already given a free pass from skeptical scrutiny.

In his book Scepticism and Animal Faith Santayana sought to break through the conventional notions of skepticism and take it to its honest conclusion. The thoroughgoing skeptic would have no occasion to remark a self or history and no knowledge of existence. Santayana wrote, “[s]kepticism may thus be carried to the point of denying change and memory, and the reality of all facts” (Santayana 1955b, 40). Yet even this conclusion taken as fact would be struck down. One is left with ambiguity and contradiction.

Santayana did not aim to destroy all intellectual life but rather to demonstrate that the traditional philosophical conception of knowledge is insincere in its establishment and impossible in practice. This results from a deceptive employment of skepticism. Skepticism, wrote Santayana, is an exercise not a life (Santayana 1955b, 69). It eradicates prejudices including those that declare knowledge must be literal and certain (Santayana 1955b, 101-02). We cannot live with such a conception of knowledge, and we do not. Actual living is impervious to skepticism and can discount its philosophical products. This counter to skepticism Santayana called animal faith: “a faith not founded on reason but precipitated in action, and in that intent, which is virtual action, involved in perception” (Santayana 1955b, 106). It does not eliminate skepticism rather it restores the roots of actual life after their denial by modern epistemology.

Certainly Pound and Santayana disagreed. In Santayana’s letters to Pound, he roundly criticized Pound and Fenollosa for what might be called their romantic ontology, for confusing how human experience relates to existence. But Pound recognized that different artists have different excellences, and “[h]aving discovered his own virtue the artist will be more likely to discern and allow for a peculiar virtú in others” (Pound 1973, 29). This is not merely courtesy. In a letter to a young writer, Pound wrote “elucidate thine own bloody damn point of view by its contrast to others, not by trying to make the others conform” (Pound 1951, 235). This suggests that self-definition requires resistance, and that eschewing conformity entails neither conforming oneself nor forcing others to conform. Santayana would not disagree. He wrote, “I do not ask any one to think in my terms if he prefers others. Let him clean better, if he can, the windows of his soul, that the variety and beauty of the prospect may spread more brightly before him” (Santayana 1955).

I am not blithely suggesting Pound was a pluralist, but his educational ideas seem to invite some sort of pluralism. Education for Pound requires both tradition and critique, setting up a perpetual tension that drives learning. What is the vortex of his artistic theory but an opportunity to turn energy to new directions rather than being passively shaped by it? Perhaps he sensed in Santayana an opposite that in collaboration could generate something new and so invited his assistance.[xiii] Even if this was not Pound’s motive, further consideration of their different views could inform a broader educational approach.

In foregoing an emphasis on differences and the attendant risk of intellectual partisanship, I looked for similarities in the thought of Pound and Santayana in order, first, to gain a broader understanding of obstacles to learning and, second, to consider possible responses. These two very different thinkers acknowledged similar problems giving a more fully rounded picture of frustrating conditions.

Their responses and the aftermath range even more dramatically. Pound makes clear in the preface to Guide to Kulchur that his book is an attack on stupidity and a struggle to preserve values, and a subsequent commentator characterized the book as “written with a sense of  urgency” (Tryphonopoulos and Adams 2005, 139). In contrast Santayana writes to Robert Lowell that his “philosophy is not urgent or ‘militant’: you can manage perfectly without it” (Letter to Robert Lowell, 14 January 1949).

Both eventually left the United States, but Pound sought an audience and broadcast his cultural critiques on Italian radio during World War II. He eventually was charged with treason and locked in a mental hospital for years. Late in his life he wrote, “That I lost my center/Fighting the world” (McDonald 1993, 207). Santayana retired to a quiet life of reading, writing, and contemplation, and lived out the war in a clinic attached to a convent in Rome. Perhaps because of his early retirement and subsequent lack of students, he has become obscure even by the standards of American philosophical figures.

Considering the observations and responses of Pound and Santayana prompts me as an educator to reflect on what I think education should accomplish, on what determines success, on what sort of sacrifice is involved. I read them as cues to self-knowledge, to check what I am doing and why, to see what form obstacles to learning take for me and how I am responding. But self-knowledge can be difficult to seek when the conventions of professional life assume you have already determined your specialization and know the methods and reasons of the classroom (and whether they matter or not).

I have no pithy answers to my questions that will neatly conclude this essay, but I am encouraged by two serious minds acknowledging problems I too encounter. Their different responses suggest these questions really are difficult and their extreme responses suggest these questions really are worth asking and the answers really matter. While not conclusive, I find this more satisfying than staging a contest between two serious and influential thinkers.





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[i] An interesting counter to Stock’s interpretation of Pound’s use of Santayana in Canto XCV is found in Liebregts 2004, 326. I should note that Woodward is aware of exaggerating the differences between the two thinkers, qualifies it for the purpose of his essay, and goes on to suggest the beginning of a nuanced comparison of the thought of Pound and Santayana with regard to their religious thought.

[ii] Though he made comments and observations regarding education, Santayana never articulated any systematic philosophy of education. This is discussed in James Gouinlock’s not-yet-published introduction to The Life of Reason to be published by MIT Press.

[iii] Concluding an unpublished essay looking at parallels in the the work of Willa Cather and Santayana, James Seaton writes, “It is meant to suggest that a vision of the world of the quality and depth found in the work of Willa Cather is perhaps best understood when interrogated with the assistance of minds—like Santayana’s--whose works reveal a similar quality and depth.” Perhaps Santayana and Pound can mutually illuminate each other in a similar way.

[iv]  See also McDonald 1993,11.

[v] The story is related in Santayana’s autobiography published in the years after this exchange of letters. While in Washington D.C. visiting a friend Santayana was introduced to Henry Adams. Adams said to Santayana, “So you are trying to teach philosophy at Harvard. . . . I once tried to teach history there, but it can’t be done. It isn’t really possible to teach anything” (Santayana 1987, 224). Santayana went on to write, “This may be true, if we give very exacting meanings to our terms; but it was not encouraging” (Santayana 1987, 224). This would seem to further support the idea that Pound was way off the mark when he approached Santayana for the volume on education.

[vi] In Santayana’s response to Pound he wrote, “I don’t remember my Henry Adams anecdote further than that he said history couldn’t be taught. If I have embroidered on that, you or Eliot are welcome to use my fancy-work as a text.” (Santayana 2004, 336)

[vii] Santayana’s explicit views on teaching and education reinforce the idea that a deep gap separated the two thinkers. According to Santayana, “[t]eaching is a delightful paternal art, . . . but it is an art like acting, where the performance, often rehearsed, must be adapted to an audience hearing it only once. The speaker must make concessions to their impatience, their taste, their capacity, their prejudices, their ultimate good; he must neither bore nor perplex nor demoralize them” (Santayana 1955, 27-28). The teacher “needs support, in order to exert influence with a good conscience; unless he feels that he is the vehicle of a massive tradition, he will become bitter, or flippant, or aggressive; if he is to teach with good grace and modesty and authority, it must not be he that speaks, but science or humanity that is speaking in him” (Santayana 1955, 28). At first it appears that Santayana was happy to leave in place the very conventions Pound wanted to demolish. But it may be that Santayana’s pedagogical concerns focused on something deeper and slower changing than what occupied Pound. In any case the expression suggests different strategies on the part of the two thinkers, and this seems an uncontroversial difference.

[viii] But “such method has nothing to do with those allegedly scientific methods which approach literature as if it were something not literature, or with scientists’ attempts to sub-divide the elements in literatures according to some non-literary categoric division” (Pound 1954, 19).

[ix] Beyond method Pound also recognized a kind of sympathy animating education. As Gail McDonald points out Pound was not opposed to scholarship, research, and the acquisition of facts, but he did oppose dead facts and sought ways to energize the tradition he found himself in (McDonald 1993, 23). Sympathy played a role in this energizing of tradition. For Pound, the tradition lives through “Apostolic Succession,” though “contact with men of genius” (Pound 1991a, 147). Likewise Santayana recognized that sympathetic contact does more to further mutual understanding of nature than general propositions about past experience. He characterized true education as “taking one another frankly by the hand and walking together along the outskirts of real knowledge, pointing to the material facts which we all can see” (Santayana 1980, 130).

[x] Santayana was also conscious of other academic pressures: “I had disregarded or defied public opinion by not becoming a specialist, but writing pessimistic old-fashioned verse, continuing to range superficially over literature and philosophy, being indiscernibly a Catholic or an atheist, attacking Robert Browning, prophet of the half-educated and half-believing, avoiding administrative duties, neglecting the Intelligentsia, frequenting the society of undergraduates and fashionable ladies, spending my holidays abroad, and even appearing as a witness in the disreputable Russell trial” (Santayana 1987, 395). Presumably Pound would not be surprised at the odd figure Santayana would make in the American university since he had already noted that “the University is not here for the unusual man” (Pound 1991a, 147)

[xi] Intellectual narrowness came into play when Pound suggested a thesis topic that was not included in the established curriculum. One professor rejected Pound’s idea saying “And besides, Mr Pound, we shd. have to do so much work ourselves to verify your results” (Pound 1952, 215). To avoid such work, to remain in a narrow well-trodden field kills curiosity and restricts contact with the world. But “the real educator” according to Pound, “arouses your CURIOSITY;” and the aim of the university should be preparing the student to live IN the social order, not stake out a narrow intellectual claim (Pound 1991b, 387)

[xii] Both Santayana and Pound noticed the paradoxical nature of American democratic education. Pound lamented that in spite of their talk of democracy universities seemed to “breed snobbishness” (Pound 1973, 131). Santayana commenting in a letter on a proposal for general education was surprised at the totalitarian view of society the proposal assumed. He explained that democracy was there supposed to be the standard for all education as an “orthodox system of life and thought” (Santayana 2006, 227).

[xiii] Additionally, Pound seemed genuinely fond of Santayana. In a letter to Eliot dated 18 January 1940 Pound wrote, “Had a lot of jaw with Geo. Santayana in Venice, and like him. Never met anyone who seems to me to fake less. In fact, I gave him a clean bill” (Pound 1951, 334). In conversation with Charles Olson Pound said, “Santayana—at least he’s got to the point where he don’t lie—he has no ethics—enlightened self-interest the closest (Olson 1975, 110). And Mary de Rachewiltz reported these words of Pounds: “A relief to talk philosophy with someone completely honest—a nice mind” (Rachewiltz 1971, 128).