In the 1850s, Emily Dickinson’s passionate first love shaped her uncommon body of work for a lifetime to come and shaped the spare and searing poems that would animate 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 colossal instrument that captured the sound of spacetime, 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 a tender letter of gratitude for 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 The Life of Reason; Or, The Phases of Human Progress (public domain | public library).
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 in those moments when aesthetic emotion is massive and distinct; preferences have then grown conscious, judgments then put into words, will verbal reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute prejudices, habits of apperception, secret standards for all other beauties. 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 seldom look at the world afresh or use new categories to decipher it. Half our standards come from our first masters and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no objects save those we then discovered can have a true sublimity.
In consonance with the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation that “whatever our degree of friends maybe, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” and with an eye to our criteria for beauty — which apply to standout in the broad Robinson Jeffers sense of not only aesthetic beauty but intellectual and moral beauty — Santayana adds: