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.

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


  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