Life Is Not a Spectacle Or a Feast; It Is a Predicament

George Santayana? W. H. Auden? Cyril Connolly? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Fortunate people experience life as an overflowing banquet coupled with a remarkable series of sights and sounds. But most people have more complicated ordeals. Here are two pertinent expressions:

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.
Life is neither a feast nor a spectacle but a predicament.

Prominent philosopher George Santayana has received credit for this saying, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find an exact match within the writings and speeches of George Santayana. The closest match located by QI occurred within a lecture titled “The Unknowable” which Santayana delivered at Oxford University in 1923. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

Poets and philosophers sometimes talk as if life were an entertainment, a feast of ordered sensations; but the poets, if not the philosophers, know too well in their hearts that life is no such thing; it is a predicament. We are caught in it; it is something compulsory, urgent, dangerous, and tempting. We are surrounded by enormous, mysterious, only half-friendly forces.

The passage above did communicate a similar idea. The keywords “feast” and “predicament” were present, and the word “entertainment” provided a near match for “spectacle”.

A citation given further below shows that Santayana received credit for the saying under examination by 1932. QI offers two different hypotheses:

(1) The saying was constructed as a paraphrase of the statement above by an unknown person. The saying was subsequently reassigned directly to Santayana. (This is a known misquotation mechanism.)

(2) Santayana crafted the saying as a concise reformulation of his own idea, but a precise citation has not been uncovered. In fact, a direct citation in the works of Santayana may not exist if he only spoke it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1912 “The Daily Mail” of Hull, England printed a precursor opinion piece that contained a thematically related point. The didactic essay stated that life was not a spectacle. One must choose a side in a conflict: 2

Life is not a spectacle to be enjoyed, but a battle which we have to fight on one side or the other. It is, therefore, mischievous to teach the young even by suggestion that they can go looking at things provided for them. We do not want spoon-fed people. All men and women should be made to feel that they are citizens with duties and obligations resting upon them which it will need all their strength to fulfil.

In 1923 George Santayana delivered a lecture at Oxford University containing a passage that partially matched the saying under scrutiny as described previously in this article.

In 1929 Berkeley Moynihan who was the President of the Royal College of Surgeons delivered an address at the Fifth International Congress of Military Medicine held in London. Moynihan’s comment below contains the keywords of the saying. It might be a viewed as a response to the remarks of Santayana: 3

Well, my Lord Mayor and brother officers, if there is any meaning behind life, if life is not merely a feast, or a spectacle, or a predicament, but is, as I believe, a sacrament we must be sent into the world for the purpose of helping each other. It is because our profession in all its activities is founded upon the law of love, love to one’s fellows, love to mankind, expressing itself in service, that I ask you to drink to the success of the present Congress.

In June 1932 the “Los Angeles Record” of California printed the saying as a filler item. This was the first exact match located by QI. Santayana died in 1952; hence, the statement was attributed to him for at least two decades while he was still alive: 4

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.
—George Santayana.

In October 1932 “The Observer” of London published a review of “The Bedside Book” edited by Arthur Stanley. The reviewer highlighted some quotations from Stanley’s volume: 5

Here is George Santayana: “Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament”; or Nansen: “The difficult is that which can be done Immediately, the impossible that which takes a little longer.”

In 1941 “Ladies’ Home Journal” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania printed a filler item containing the following two items. The magazine pointed to the “Articles and Essays” of Santayana, but QI has not located a precise match in his works: 6

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.
Collected Essays.

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.
Articles and Essays.

In 1945 the saying above appeared in “World’s Wit and Wisdom” edited by Norman Lockridge, 7 and in 1947 the statement occurred in “A Little Book of Aphorisms” collected by Frederick B. Wilcox. 8 Santayana received credit in both compendia.

In 1948 “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs” included the following entry. The editor Burton Stevenson usually performed superb work, but in this case the supporting citation was imprecise: 9

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.
GEORGE SANTAYANA, Articles and Essays. (c. 1930)

In 1949 the “Miami Sunday News” of Florida printed a variant phrasing with the words “neither” and “nor”: 10

Life, as Santayana said, “is neither a spectacle nor a feast, but a predicament,” and Dr. Gifford suggested ways of making it easier and happier.

In 1962 the poet W. H. Auden placed the saying into “The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection”: 11

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.

The author Cyril Connolly flipped the order of “spectacle” and “feast” when he placed the statement into the 1968 edition of his book “The Rock Pool”: 12

. . . to believe, as Santayana puts it, that life is not a feast or a spectacle, but a predicament . . .

In 1987 “George Santayana: A Biography” by John McCormick did not contain the saying under examination. Instead, the biography reprinted the crucial excerpt from the essay “The Unknowable” with an ellipsis: 13

. . . he could later write that life is not an “entertainment, a feast of ordered sensations . . . life is no such thing: it is a predicament. We are caught in it; it is something compulsory, urgent, dangerous, and tempting. We are surrounded by enormous, mysterious, half-friendly forces.”

In 1994 the “Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations” included the saying and suggested a later time period than “”The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs”: 14

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.
George Santayana, Articles and Essays, 1936-7

In conclusion, George Santayana deserves credit for the remarks in his 1923 speech at Oxford University. QI conjectures that an unknown person rephrased and compressed Santayana’s comments to produce the currently popular formulation. This memorable formulation was later reassigned directly to Santayana. QI hopes that future researchers will clarify the situation.

Image Notes: Public domain image of painting titled “The Meadow of San Isidro on his Feast Day” by Francisco Goya circa 1788. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Steve White whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1923, The Unknowable: The Herbert Spencer Lecture, Delivered at Oxford, 24 October 1923 by George Santayana (Formerly Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University), Quote Page 10, Oxford University Press, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1912 December 27, The Daily Mail (Hull Daily Mail), An Interesting Point, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1929 May 18, The British Medical Journal, Volume 1, Number 3567, International Congress of Military Medicine And Pharmacy, Held in London on May 6th To 11th, Start Page 910, Quote Page 910, Column 2, Published by BMJ. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1932 June 18, Los Angeles Record, (Filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1932 October 2, The Observer, “The Bedside Book” (Review of “The Bedside Book” selected by Arthur Stanley), Quote Page 5, Column 4, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1941 September, Ladies’ Home Journal, Volume 58, Issue 9, Now You Know (Filler item), Quote Page 67, Column 2, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)
  7. 1945, World’s Wit and Wisdom, Edited by Norman Lockridge, Chapter 89: George Santayana, Quote Page 530, Biltmore Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1947, A Little Book of Aphorisms, Collected by Frederick B. Wilcox, Section: Life, Quote Page 88, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  9. 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: Life, Quote Page 1398, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1949 July 24, Miami Sunday News, Section: Miami Sunday News Magazine, Conservationist Gifford Gave Much To South Florida by Robe B. Carson, Quote Page 21, Column 2, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1962, The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection, Compiled by W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden) and Louis Kronenberger, Topic: The Human Creature, Quote Page 9, (Second Printing February 1963), Published by The Viking Press New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1968, The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly, Chapter 7, Quote Page 131, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1987, George Santayana: A Biography by John McCormick, Chapter 10: Reason in Common Sense, Quote Page 150, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1994 Copyright, Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations, Edited by Jonathon Green, Topic: Life, Quote Page 158, A Cassell Book: Sterling Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)