Other authors born between 1800 and 1900 CE
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Optimism and the Condition of Man
Seeking Integrity in Education
The Importance of a Sense of Beauty
The Threat of Utilitarianism
Avoiding the Dangers of Mass Immigration
Equality of Opportunity, Not Results
Preserving the South American Character
Liberty in the United States
The Vicious Circle of North American Life
Moral Attitudes in the United States
Corruption and the Influence of Big Business
José Enrique Rodó (1872-1917) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, to a Catalan father who died when Rodó was twelve. Rodó received his primary education in Montevideo but was largely self-taught, reading in libraries during the free time offered by part-time employment. Rodó became a director of the Uruguay National Library and taught Western literature at Montevideo University. He was a cofounder of Revista Nacional de Literatura y Ciencias Social. Rodó later became a newspaper editor and a member of parliament, but his primary occupation was in writing essays, literary criticism and journalism. In this way he became one of Uruguay’s leading philosophers.
In his essays, Rodó sought to establish moral and aesthetic values that included respect for the cultural traditions of Europe (primarily, France, England, and Spain) and a desire for a unique South American culture, distinct from that of the United States. He argued that the character of a civilization should be judged on the basis of the grandeur of its thought, that it should protect itself from the vulgarity of the masses, and that, as a democracy, it should avoid nurturing mediocrity. In other aspects of his philosophy, Rodó has been termed an evolutionary pantheist. His writing was in the modernista literary style, a convoluted form of expression showing a sophisticated acquaintance with language but impeding communication. Nevertheless, the ideas Rodó expounded—including the threat to indigenous cultures posed by United States materialism, and the need to preserve humanistic values—have lasting value.
The following excerpts are taken from his book Ariel, a text that initially appeared in 1900 as a series of essays, when Rodó was 29. In this, the speaker is an elderly professor (Prospero), lecturing his favorite students in a seminar before they go out into the world. He is advocating that they should nurture the spirit of Shakespeare’s Ariel, which for Rodó symbolizes the noble, soaring aspect of the human spirit—the ideal to which humanity ascends, effacing the vestiges of brute sensuality symbolized by Caliban.
1 It has been well said that there are pessimisms that are like inverted optimism. In their discontent with the status quo, and their renouncement and condemnation of it, they teach the necessity of a new start. To be saved from pessimistic negation, humanity should avoid believing that all is well at present. Rather, it should have faith that it is possible through life’s growth to arrive at a better state, which can be discovered and hastened by human action. Faith in the future and belief in the effectiveness of human energy are necessary conditions for productive thought and all successful action.
2 Over all the inclinations that may tie you to particular careers and ways of life, you should guard in your inner soul the consciousness of the fundamental unity of our human nature. This demands that every human being exhibit, above all, the unspoiled pattern of a man in whom no noble faculty of the mind is obliterated, and no lofty interest for all men is devoid of expression.
3 There is a false and vulgar view of education as wholly subordinate to utilitarian ends. By a premature specialization this can proscribe the teaching of anything that is disinterested or ideal. Such materialism can devalue the natural wealth of our minds, making them narrow and incapable of seeing more that the one aspect of something that immediately touches them. These minds are separated by a frozen desert from other minds in the same society that have settled on other aspects of life. The necessity for each of us to devote ourselves to some determined activity—some special form of learning—surely need not exclude the realization, for the intimate harmony of our spirit, of the destiny common to all rational beings. That special activity must sound the basic note of that harmony. The famous line in which the slave in the ancient play declared that nothing human was strange to him, being human himself, reveals a cry of the heart eternally in human consciousness, because its meaning is inexhaustible.
4 Our capacity to understand must be limited only by the impossibility of understanding minds that are narrow. To be unaware of more than one phase of nature, more than one human interest or idea, is like living in a dream shadow pierced by one ray of sunlight. Intolerance or exclusiveness imposed by the tyranny of some high enthusiasm, or flowing from some disinterested ideal, may merit justification or even sympathy. However, it becomes converted to the most abominable inferiority when in the circle of vulgar life it emerges from a narrow mind incapacitated to reflect on more than the partial appearance of things.
5 And though it is a necessary condition of progress, the need for specialization brings with it visible evils. These may not only lower the horizons of thought, thus distorting the image of the universe, but may also reduce the spirit of human solidarity by fencing off individual habits and affections. Auguste Comte noted well this peril of advanced civilizations. A high state of social advancement had for him the serious inconvenience that it facilitated the appearance of narrow and bounded minds—of brains "very efficient under one aspect and monstrously inept under all others". The belittling of the human brain by continual exercise of one mode of activity is compared by Comte to the miserable lot of the laborer who by the division of labor is condemned in a factory to devote all his energies to the invariable repetition of a single mechanical activity. In each case, the moral result is to inspire the narrow specialist with a disastrous indifference to the general interests of humanity.
6 Never give, to either passion or self-interest, anything but a small part of what is you. For even in material servitude there is a way to free one’s inner self, the self of reason and feeling. Similarly, never try to justify by your absorption in labor or conflict, the enslaving of your mind.
7 The basic principle of your development, your motto for life, should be to maintain the integrity of your humanity. No one function should ever prevail over that final end. No isolated force can satisfy all reasonable objects of individual existence, just as it cannot by itself produce the ordered harmony of collective existence. Like the deformity of the body produced by a restricted action, deformity of the mind results from a narrow form of culture. The falsity of what is artificial makes ephemeral the glamour of those societies which have constrained the free development of their feeling or thought—whether to mercantile activity as in Phoenicia, to wars as in Sparta, to mysticism as in fear of the millennium, or to the life of the salon and the court as in eighteenth century France.
8 Just as the first impulse of religious profanation will be directed to what is most sacred in the holy sanctuary, so the common deterioration I warn you against will begin by your despising a sense of beauty. Of all things of the spirit, this sense provides the most delicate, clear vision of the loveliness of things. This is what withers most quickly in a life limited to the invariable round of a meaningless circle, leaving it to be a treasured relic abandoned to the care of the few. The emotion for beauty is to the refined feeling of other ideal modalities as the jewel is to the ring. The effect of a rude approach is like that of a blow and soon has a fatal effect: an absolute indifference settles in the average soul, where there should be perfect love. The stupor of a savage in the presence of the complicated mechanisms of civilization is not more intense than the dazed wonder with which too many educated men regard acts conceding a serious reality to what is beautiful in life.
9 Of all the elements of education that go to make up a full and noble view of life, surely none can justify our interest more than art. For as Schiller eloquently wrote, no other discipline offers a culture that stimulates more fully all of the mind’s faculties. Even if the love and admiration of beauty did not themselves create a lofty impulse in the rational mind, or were not worth cultivating for themselves alone, a high moral motive would propose the culture of the aesthetic sentiment as crucial for all. If no one is without moral sentiment, its development carries with it the duty of preparing the mind for a clear vision of what is beautiful. Believe me, an educated sense of the beautiful is most effective in forming a delicate sense of justice.
10 I am convinced that he who has learned to distinguish the delicate from the common, the ugly from the beautiful, has gone half the way to knowing the evil from the good. It is true mere good taste is not, as the dilettante might wish, the only criterion of human actions. Yet, one should not, with the narrow ascetic, consider it a lure to error, a deceitful guide. Good taste is not a sure guide, but it can help steer one’s vision. As humanity progresses, it will see that the moral law is but beauty of conduct; that evil and error are like discord. The good will then be sought as a restored harmony.
11 The concept of a human life formed by the harmonious development of our entire nature, including our feeling for the beautiful, is opposed by utilitarianism. This theory views our whole activities as governed by their relation to the immediate ends of self-interest. The criticism of narrow utilitarianism as the spirit of our century—meted out by idealists with all the rigor of an anathema—is based in part in a failure to recognize the necessity for its titanic efforts. By subordinating the forces of nature to the human will, and by expanding material well-being, utilitarianism prepares for the flowering of future idealisms, in the way that laborious spreading of fertilizer revives an exhausted soil. The transitory predominance of the potent energies of utilitarianism in the agitated and feverish life of the last hundred years explains, although it does not justify, many of the painful yearnings, many discontents and grievances of the intelligence that show themselves either by a melancholy and exalted idealization of the past, or by a cruel despair of the future.
12 Democracy has been accused of guiding humanity, by making it mediocre, to a holy empire of utilitarianism. . .To confront the problem one must first recognize that if democracy does not uplift its spirit by sharing a strong interest in ideals with its preoccupation with material interests, it leads fatally to the favoring of mediocrity. It then lacks, more than any other social system, barriers within which it may safely seek a higher culture. Abandoned to itself, without the constant guidance of some active moral sanction that purifies and guides its motives for dignifying life, democracy will gradually extinguish the idea of any superiority that may not be turned into a more efficient training for the war of interests. It is then the most ignoble form of brutalities of power.
13 In the life of the Americas [in 1900], the duty of putting forward a true conception of our social state is doubly needful. Our democracies grow rapidly by the continual addition of a vast cosmopolitan multitude, by a stream of immigration. This is merged with a social nucleus already too weak to make an active effort at assimilation and so contain the human flood by those dikes that an ancient solidity of social structure can alone provide—that is, a secure political order and the elements of a culture that have become deeply rooted. This rapid growth exposes our future to the dangers of a democratic degeneration that smothers under the blind force of the mass all idea of quality, deprives the social consciousness of all just notion of order, yields its class organization to the rough hands of chance, and causes the triumph of only the most ignoble, unjustifiable supremacies.
14 It is, of course, true that our selfish advantage—not the virtue of it alone—bids us be hospitable to immigration. Long ago, the need to people the emptiness of the desert made a famous publicist declare, "To govern is to populate." But this famous aphorism contains a truth that must not be too narrowly understood: it must not ascribe civilizing virtues to mere numbers. To govern is first of all to populate by assimilation, and then by education and selection. If the emergence and growth of the highest human activities require a dense population, it is precisely because great numbers make possible both the most complete division of labor and the birth of elements of strong leadership that bring about the predominance of quality over quantity. The multitude, the anonymous mass, is nothing by itself. It will be an instrument of barbarity or of civilization according as it has or lacks the presence of high moral leadership. There is a deep truth in Emerson's paradox that every country on earth should be judged by its minorities and not by its majorities. The civilization of a country acquires its grandeur, not by its manifestations of material prosperity and predominance, but by the higher order of thinking or of feeling this makes possible.
15 Any equality of conditions in the order of society, like homogeneity in nature, is an unstable equilibrium. From the moment when democracy achieves its perfect work of leveling unjust superiorities, the equality so won should be a new starting-point. A challenging affirmation remains. And the affirmation and glory of democracy consist in revealing and employing the true superiorities of men by means of proper incentives.
16 We must seek to gradually nurture in people the idea that democracy involves a necessary subordination, a recognition of true superiorities, and an instinctive yet conscious cultivation of all that multiplies human worth in the sight of reason.
Popular education thus acquires its supreme interest considered in relation to such a work, and with thought for the future. And it is at school where we first mould the clay of the multitude. There, arise the first and broadest manifestations of social equity. Schools are consecrated to the equal right of all to learning and to the most efficient means for superior attainment. They have to round out a noble task—to deliver as prime objects of its instruction a sense for order and a will for justice, together with a recognition of legitimate moral authority.
17 There is no distinction more easily lost sight of in the popular mind than that between equality of opportunity and actual equality—either of influence or of power—among members of organized society. All have the same right to aspire to a moral superiority that may justify and explain an actual position of superiority; but only those who have truly achieved the former should be rewarded by the latter. The true and worthy notion of equality rests on the assumption that all reasonable beings are endowed by nature with faculties capable of a noble development. The duty of the state consists in seeing that all its members are so placed as to be able to seek without favor their own best. It must arrange things so as to bring to light each human superiority, wherever it exists. By this process, when inequality comes after initial equality, it will be justified; for it will be sanctioned either by the mysterious powers of nature or the deserving merit of personal effort.
18 Rationally conceived, democracy always admits that indispensable aristocratic principle that concedes superiority to the better person when recognized and sanctioned by common consent. It consecrates, as much as aristocracy, the recognition of equality; but it favors such qualities as are truly superior—those of mind, character, and virtue. It does not immobilize them into a separate class that shall have the execrable privilege of caste. Instead, it renews them continually from the living fountain of the people, making justice and love the reason for choice. Wisely recognizing the selection and predominance of the best equipped as necessary for any progress, it avoids the humiliation that in other human contests falls to the lot of the vanquished.
19 If one could say of utilitarianism that it is the word for the English spirit, the United States may be considered the incarnation of that word. Its gospel is broadcast on every side to teach the material miracles of its triumph. And Spanish America is not to be regarded, in its relation to the United States, wholly as a dwelling place of savages. Yet, the mighty confederation of the north is realizing over us a sort of moral conquest. Admiration for its greatness, its strength, is a sentiment that is growing rapidly in the minds of our governing classes, and even more, perhaps, among the multitude, easily impressed with victory or success. And from admiration it is easy to pass to imitation. Admiration and belief are already for the psychologist but the passive mood of imitation.
20 So it happens that the vision of a voluntarily de-Latinized South America, achieved without compulsion or conquest, and constructed in the likeness of its Northern archetype, floats already through the dreams of many who are sincerely interested in our future. This vision satisfies them with suggestive parallels they discover at every step, and appears in constant movements for reform or innovation. We have our mania for the North. It is necessary to oppose to it those bounds which both feeling and reason indicate.
Not that I would make of those limits an absolute negation. I well understand that inspiration, enlightenment, and great lessons lie in the example of the strong. Nor do I fail to realize that intelligent attention directed abroad to materialistic advances and utilitarian progress is especially useful for a people in the formative stage, whose nationality is still in the mold. I understand how one must persevere by education to rectify such traits of a society as need to be made to fit in with new demands of civilization and for new opportunities in life, counteracting forces of heredity or custom by wise innovation. But I see no good in diluting the character of a people—its personal genius—by imposing on it a foreign model. Once the originality of their character is sacrificed, it can never be replaced. Nor do I subscribe to the ingenuous fancy that this result may be obtained artificially or by process of imitation
21 Perhaps our South American character lacks the defining contour of a personality. But even so, we Latin-Americans have an inheritance of race, a great ethnic tradition, and a sacred bond that unites us to immortal pages of history and puts us on our honor to preserve this for the future. The cosmopolitanism that we have to respect as the irresistible tendency of our development need not exclude fidelity to the past, nor respect for that molding and directing force the genius of our race must use to fuse of the elements of the American of the future.
22 Any severe judgment formed upon our neighbors of the North should be preceded, as in the courtesies of fencing, by a respectful salute. This is easy for me. Failure to recognize their faults does not seem to me so insensitive as to deny their qualities. Born—to use Beaudelaire's paradox—with the innate experience of liberty, the people of the United States have kept themselves faithful to the law of their birth. They have developed with the precision and certainty of a mathematical progression the fundamental principles of their social organization. This gives to their history a unity that, even if it has excluded the acquirement of different aptitudes or merits, has at least the intellectual beauty of being logical. The traces of its progress will never be expunged from the annals of human right, because they have been the first to evoke our modern ideal of liberty—to convert it from the uncertainty of experiments and visions of Utopia into the imperishable bronze of a living reality. For they have shown by their example the possibility of extending the immovable authority of a republic over an immense national commonwealth. And, with their federal organization, they have revealed how the brilliancy and power of great states may be combined with the felicity and peace of little ones—as de Tocqueville felicitously put it.
23 The United States has carried out many of the most daring deeds that in the perspective of time will distinguish this century. Theirs is the glory of having revealed completely the greatness and dignity of labor, thereby accentuating the firmest note of moral beauty in all our civilization. It is a vital force that antiquity abandoned to the abjection of slavery, and which we today identify with the highest expression of human dignity, based on conscious exertion of its own merit. Strong, tenacious of purpose, holding inaction as opprobrious, they have placed in the hands of the mechanic in their shops and the farmer in their fields the mystic key of Hercules, and have given human genius a new and unwonted beauty by clothing it with the leathern apron of the hand-worker. Each one of these goes forward to conquer life as his Puritan ancestors did the wilderness.
Persistent followers of a creed of individual energy that makes every man the craftsman of his destiny, they have modeled their commonwealth on a kind of imaginary population of Crusoes who, as soon as they have learned the rough art of taking care of themselves, will turn to making themselves into a stable state. And, never sacrificing to this their concept of the sovereign individual, they have nevertheless known how to make their association the most admirable instrument of their grandeur and empire. From their energies devoted to research, industry, and philanthropy, they have achieved results that are the more marvelous in that they were secured with the most absolute integrity of personal liberty.
24 The people of the United States have a sleepless and insatiable instinct of curiosity, an impatient eagerness for enlightenment. Carrying a fondness for public education almost to the point of monomania, they have made the common school the surest prop of their prosperity, believing that the mind of the child should be the most cherished of their precious things. Their culture, while far from being spiritual or refined, has an admirable efficiency so far as it is directed to practical ends and their immediate realization. And from all this springs a dominant note of optimism, confidence, faith, which makes them face the future with a proud and stubborn assurance.
25 If by a sincere recognition of what is great and brilliant in the genius of that mighty country I have now acquired the right to complete the picture, one question full of interest presents itself: Does that society at least tend to realize the ideal of rational conduct which satisfies, to the heart’s desire, the intellectual and moral dignity of our civilization? Will we find the closest image to our perfect State there? Does the feverish unrest, which seems to centuple in its bosom the movement and the intensity of life, have an end that is worth while and a motive sufficient for its justification?
North American life, indeed, describes the vicious circle Pascal drew attention to—the ceaseless seeking for well-being that has no object outside of itself. Its national prosperity is as immense as its incapability of satisfying even a mediocre view of human destiny. Titanic in its enormous concentration of human will-power, in its unprecedented triumph in all spheres of material aggrandizement, its civilization yet produces as a whole a singular impression of insufficiency, of emptiness.
26 After thirty centuries of growth under classic and Christian influence man can with reason ask what in this new world are the guiding principles—the ideal substratum, the ulterior end of all this concern with the positivist interests that so preoccupy that mighty multitude. The answer will be that same exclusive interest in material triumphs. Orphaned from the profound tradition that attended his birth, the North American has not yet replaced the inspiring ideality of his past with any high unselfish conception of his future. He lives for the immediate reality of the present, and for this subordinates all his activities in the egoism of material well-being, albeit both individual and collective.
27 Of all this aggregation of the elements of wealth and power one might say what Bourget said of the intelligence of his character the Marquis Norbert, "a mountain of wood they cannot set on fire." The vital spark is lacking to throw up the flame of the restless, life-giving idealism from that mountain of timber. The selfishness of patriotism, for want of higher impulses, or the pride of race, transfigured and exalted in ancient days even the prosaic hardness of the life of Rome. But not even that can light a glimmer of ideality or beauty in a people where a cosmopolite confusion and the fragmentation of a badly understood democracy impede the formation of a true national conscience.
28 Sensibility, intelligence, manners—each is ineptly selected by that enormous people; and this, with the mechanical ordering of their material activities, makes a chaos of all that pertains to the realm of the ideal. It is easy to trace this ineptness from its most obvious manifestations to the more intimate and essential ones. Prodigal of riches—for meanness is not his fault—the North American has learned only to acquire by them the satisfaction of his vanity and material luxury, not by the chosen note of good taste. In such a surrounding true art can only exist as rebellion by the individual. Emerson and Poe are like stray species expelled into a foreign habitat by some geological catastrophe.
29 And so the outcome is that out of all their struggle with ignorance the only gain has been a sort of universal semi-culture and a profound indifference to higher ideals. . . As fast as the general ignorance decreases, so, in the air of that giant democracy, higher learning decreases and genius itself vanishes.
30 In the domain of moral attitudes, the mechanical impulse for the utilitarian has, indeed, been countered by a strong religious tradition. But one may not conclude that even this has given to the direction of conduct a real, disinterested principle. . . North American religiosity, derived from the English and exaggerated, is merely an auxiliary force for the penal law. It would disappear on the day it was found possible to give utilitarian morality that religious sanction without religion that Mill desired. The very culmination of that morality is only that of Franklin, a philosophy of conduct that has for its goal a commonplace sagacity, a prudent usefulness, in whose bosom will never rise the emotions of holiness or heroism. As such, it is fit only to give to one's conscience in the common affairs of life a certain moral support, like the apple-wood cane with which Franklin always walked. It is but a fragile staff for conquering great heights.
31 Even if the moral critique were not to descend below the honesty and moderation of Franklin's utilitarianism, the ultimate collapse of that society—as de Tocqueville wisely said of a society educated narrowly with similar notions of duty—would surely not be in that superb and noble decadence that affords the satanic beauty of tragedy in the downfall of empires. Rather it would end in a kind of pallid materialism, drab culture, and finally the sleep of an enervation without brilliancy, in the silent decay of all the mainsprings of the moral life. In a society that does not find the higher manifestations of self-denial and virtue obligatory, practical considerations will always make the limits of obligation recede indefinitely. And the school of material prosperity, always a rude teacher of republican austerity, has carried even further the simplification of the concept of rational conduct that now obsesses the mind.
32 To Franklin's code have succeeded others franker still in their expression of the national wisdom. A book by one Swett Marden was recently published in Boston, "Pushing to the Front," which announced as a new moral law, apparently with much popular approval, that success is the final end of life. This book was praised even in church circles, and compared to "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas à Kempis! . . . And public life does not escape the consequences of the growth of this germ of disorganization throughout society.
33 It would be useless to seek to convince them that, although their services to inventions and material advance have been doubtless great, even giving rise to a measure of universal human obligation to them, they do not of themselves suffice to shift the axis of the earth.
34 Any casual observer of the political customs of the United States will tell you how the obsession of material interest tends to steadily enervate and eradicate respect for law or justice. The civic virtue of a Hamilton has become an old and rusty sword, more forgotten each day, lost in the cobwebs of tradition. Venality, beginning at the polls, spreads through the working of all their institutions. The government by a mediocrity renders vain that emulation which exalts the character and the intelligence, and imposes itself even on the imagination as an unavoidable future. A democracy not subject to a superior instruction, not trained in liberal schools to the understanding of true human excellence, tends always to that abominable brutality of the majority. This despises the greater moral benefits of liberty and annuls in public opinion all respect for the dignity of the individual.
And today  a new and formidable power arises to accentuate this absolutism of numbers: the political influence of a plutocracy represented by the agents of trusts [Standard Oil, etc], monopolies of production, and lords of economic life. This is one of the most noteworthy and significant features of the United States of today.
35 In the eye of history a great civilization, a great people, is one that after its time has passed still leaves the chords of its memory vibrating, a new and divine portion of the sum of things. . . An organized society that limits its idea of civilization to the accumulation of material abundance, and of justice to its equitable distribution among its members, will never make of its great cities anything that differs essentially from the heaping up of anthills. Populous, opulent cities do not suffice to make civilization immutable, intensive. They are indeed necessary for the highest culture, for its natural atmosphere. The soul of the great man can rarely grow from amid the petty interests of small towns. But this quantitative side of a nation’s greatness, like the size of its armies, is but means, not results.
36 But please remember that when I, in the name of their soul’s rights, deny their utilitarianism the right to impose itself on the world as a mold or model, I do not in the least assert that its labors are wasted even in relation to those things that we may call soul interests. . . Without the arm that clears and constructs, there might now be no shelter for the brain that thinks. Without some certain conquest of the materialities, the rule of the spiritualities in human societies become impossible.
Adapted from Ariel by José Enrique Rodó, translated with an introductory essay by F. J. Stimson. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1922. Some simplification has been made of the prose style of F. J. Stimson, who in turn had simplified the style of Rodo.
A modern translation is available in Ariel by José Enrique Rodó, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, forword by James W. Symington, prologue by Carlos Fuentes. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, 1988. Fuentes provides a valuable commentary on Rodó from a modern perspective.
Other authors born between 1800 and 1900 CE
Introduction and adaptation of extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2004