In the 1850s, Emily Dickinson’sshaped her uncommon body of work for a lifetime, shaping the spare and searing poems that would go on animating lives for generations to come. In the 1950s, Rai Weiss fell in love with a pianist, fell in love with his lover’s passion for music, and went on to invent the , revolutionizing our understanding of the universe and earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
In 1957, after becoming the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus hastened to send his childhood teacher afor shaping the spirit and sensibility of the boy that made the man that did the work that won humanity’s highest accolade. With uncommon insight into these joint fomentations of heart and mind, the great Spanish-American philosopher, poet, essayist, and novelist George Santayana (December 16, 1863–September 26, 1952) takes up the question of how our sensibilities are formed in a portion of Reason in Art — the fourth volume, nestled between Reason in Religion and Reason in Science, of his five-volume 1906 masterwork ( | ).
Considering the formative infrastructure of our frames of reference and our standards, our likes and dislikes, our aesthetic and moral judgments — that colossal compass of sensibility we call “taste,” by which we orient ourselves to the world, for we only ever orient by our yeas and nays — Santayana writes:
Taste is formed when aesthetic emotion is massive and distinct; preferences grow conscious, judgments then put into words, will verbally reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute prejudices, habits of apperception, secret. A period of life in which such intuitions have been frequent may amass tastes and ideals sufficient for the rest of our days. Youth in these matters governs maturity. While men may develop their early impressions more systematically and find confirmations in various quarters, they will seldom look at the world afresh or use new categories to decipher it. Half of our from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we can have a true sublimity.
By the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation thatand with an eye to our criteria for beauty — which apply to stand out in the of not only aesthetic beauty but intellectual and moral beauty — Santayana adds:
It may be some eloquent appreciations read in a book or some preference expressed by a gifted friend that may have revealed unsuspected beauties in art or nature. Then, since our perception was vicarious and inferior in volume to that which our mentor possessed, we shall take his judgments for our criterion, since they were the source and exemplar of all our own. Thus the volume and intensity of some appreciations, especially when nothing of the kind has preceded, makes them authoritative over our subsequent judgments. On those warm moments hang all our cold, systematic opinions, while the latter fill ourand shape our careers, only the former is crucial and alive.
More than a century later,remains an intellectual lavishment. Complement this particular fragment with Joseph Brodsky on , W. I. B. Beveridge on , and Wordsworth on .