The most subversive book in our time would be a compendium of old proverbs.
Nicolás Gómez Dávila was a man of wide-ranging interests, and his aphorisms reflect that fact. Although he was to a certain extent an autodidact—he received an excellent secondary education, but never attended university, instead relying on his voluminous library—he may rightfully be considered one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Among the scholarly topics he wrote about are religion, philosophy, politics, history, literature, aesthetics, and more. Besides these scholarly interests, however, many of his aphorisms betray a more personal dimension, with intimate observations on topics like love and the process of aging.
Gómez Dávila by all accounts valued his privacy and was concerned primarily with finding the truth for himself. Why then, would he write down his thoughts and observations in aphorisms and even publish them, however secretively? Gómez Dávila was, quite possibly, writing a subversive collection of proverbs himself. He disavowed originality, and maintained that he desired only wisdom for himself, but despite his protests that he was not trying to convert anyone to his way of thinking, perhaps he secretly did harbor a hope that he might rouse a few souls from their dogmatic slumber. Of course, Gómez Dávila never resorted to a loud and vulgar way of awakening us moderns; he wrote his aphorisms so that anyone who happened to come across them might be inspired by a wisdom that is ancient yet ever young.
Unfortunately, this wisdom is largely foreign to us today, and precisely for that reason, so subversive. There are, then, quite a few aspects of Gómez Dávila’s work that merit closer examination.
II: Why aphorisms?
The first and most obvious is the very form of Gómez Dávila’s work: aphorisms. There has been some speculation about the motivations behind Gómez Dávila’s choice to write aphorisms, even though he himself gave the most important reason in Notas. In this early work, he stated that the only two “tolerable” ways to write were a long, leisurely style, and a short, elliptical style. However, since he did not think himself capable of the long, leisurely style, he opted for aphorisms. Aphorisms, according to Gómez Dávila, are like seeds containing the promise of “infinite consequences.” Another way to think of these aphorisms is to say that aphorisms are like the summits of ideas, which allow the reader to imagine the massive mountain beneath. The sheer number of aphorisms, then, helps take place of the long, metaphysical meditation Gómez Dávila wished for; each aphorism puts another in its proper context, and taken all together, they provide an outline of the implicit text mentioned in the title. But just as importantly for Gómez Dávila, these aphorisms, while providing context for each other, cannot be made into a thought-deadening system.
Another function that Gómez Dávila’s aphorisms served was, as their Spanish title (Escolios a un Texto Implícito) suggests, as notes on books he had read. The Spanish word escolio comes from the Greek σχόλιον (scholion). This word is used to describe the annotations made by ancient and medieval scribes and students in the margins of their texts. Many of these aphorisms, then, are allusions to other works. They constitute the briefest of summaries of works he read, conclusions he had drawn from these works, or judgments on these works.
Finally, Gómez Dávila’s use of aphorisms was also motivated in part by polemical considerations. In the modern age, the reactionary cannot hope to formulate arguments that will convince his opponent, because he does not share any assumptions with his opponent. Moreover, even if the reactionary could argue from certain shared assumptions, modern man’s dogmatism prevents him from listening to argumentation. Faced with this situation, the reactionary should instead write aphorisms. Gómez Dávila compares his aphorisms to shots fired by a guerrilla from behind a thicket on any modern idea that dares advance along the road. The reactionary will not convince his opponent, but he may convert him.
III: What is a reactionary?
The second extraordinary feature of Gómez Dávila’s work is its “reactionary,” not merely conservative, content. “Reactionary” is mostly used today as an abusive epithet, sometimes as a synonym for that all-purpose slur, “fascist.” However, Gómez Dávila proudly labeled himself a reactionary and actually created a literary persona for himself as “the authentic reactionary,” precisely because of the stigma attached to the term. Gómez Dávila’s lifework was to be an authentic reactionary.
The term “reactionary,” then, demands some explanation. The reactionary, in the common political sense, is a rare breed in America, primarily because of America’s own acceptance of the Enlightenment. The reactionary, in European history, as the name indicates, is fighting against something. That something is the French Revolution (and the Enlightenment). The conflict between the forces of the Enlightenment and the ancien régime was much more polarizing in Europe than it ever was in America. While America in the aftermath of its own revolution certainly witnessed its own share of power struggles between politicians with traditional, more aristocratic leanings (Federalists) and more radically democratic tendencies (Republicans), both sides generally accepted the legitimacy of Enlightenment ideals of liberal politics, which included democracy, individual rights, and a commercial society, among other things. There was, ex hypothesi, never any serious possibility that a group of disaffected American Tories would conspire to restore the authority of the British crown over the newly-independent United States.
In Europe, on the other hand, and especially in France, the conflict between the heirs of the French Revolution and its opponents—the original reactionaries—still raged during the time Gómez Dávila lived in Paris. Indeed, reactionary ideals exercised a powerful influence over certain sectors of French society until after World War II. One important reason for the persistence of reactionary ideals in France was the Catholic Church’s own resistance to modern liberalism (e.g., Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors) and the persecution it often faced at the hands of secular governments following the Revolution, especially the Third Republic. In France, Catholicism and reaction were often overlapping (though not always identical) categories. The tension between modern liberalism and reaction continued to be felt in French Catholic circles during Vatican II. Though reaction as a cohesive movement largely died in the wake of the Council, it has survived in some French Catholic circles to this day, most visibly among the Lefebvrites (SSPX).
Gómez Dávila’s brand of reaction, however, was different. He did not mean to identify himself exclusively with a narrow political position. In several aphorisms, he acknowledged that there is no possibility of reversing the course of history. Traditionalism, in his eyes, could never be a viable basis for action. Indeed, the reactionary’s task is to be the guardian of heritages, even the heritage of revolutionaries. This certainly does not mean that Gómez Dávila made his peace with democracy; all it means is that he also did not allow himself to be deluded by promises of the restoration of the old order. Moreover, in matters of religion, despite his disdain for Vatican II and his fierce adherence to the traditional Latin Mass, which he shared with most Catholic reactionaries, he recognized that the ordinary reactionaries, the so-called “integralists” of the period, were incapable of renewing the Church. For instance, he maintained in one aphorism that the Church needed to make better use of the historical-critical method of Biblical research—a suggestion which would make many ordinary reactionaries furious. Finally, his appreciation of some authors not usually associated with conservative Catholicism, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, might make some “traditionalist” readers nervous.
If Gómez Dávila’s brand of reaction was different, what then did he actually stand for? For Gómez Dávila, the reactionary’s task in our age is to resist democracy. By democracy he means “less a political fact than a metaphysical perversion.” Indeed, Gómez Dávila defines democracy as, quite literally, “an anthropotheist religion,” an insane attempt to rival, or even surpass, God. The secret of modernity is that man has begun to worship man, and it is this secret which lurks behind every doctrine of inevitable progress. The reactionary’s resistance, therefore, is religious in nature. “In our time, rebellion is reactionary, or else it is nothing but a hypocritical and facile farce.” The most important and difficult rebellion, however, does not necessarily take place in action. “To think against is more difficult than to act against.” But, all that remains to the reactionary today is “an impotent lucidity." Moreover, Gómez Dávila did not look forward to the establishment of a utopia; what he wanted was to preserve values within the world. For this purpose, not force but art was the more powerful weapon.
IV: Sensual, skeptical, religious
The third extraordinary feature of these aphorisms is Gómez Dávila’s unmistakable personality. Much of the pleasure of reading the Escolios consists in slowly getting to know this personality. While Gómez Dávila generally did not indulge in autobiography, in the privately-published Notas he was slightly less guarded about himself. In one line he declares: “Sensual, skeptical, and religious, would perhaps not be a bad definition of what I am.” These are the three basic strands of his personality and his work; they belong together, despite any contradictions the reader might think exist between them.
Gómez Dávila was aware that most people view sensuality and religion as contradictory, but he was determined to keep both these basic features of his personality together. He did not deny that sensuality, in isolation, can be a vice; instead of being discarded, however, it needs to be joined with love—love not of an abstract concept, but of an individual. Indeed, the object of love is the “ineffableness of the individual.” In Gómez Dávila’s philosophy, the sensual, by virtue of its union with love, is intimately united with the individual.
But, what exactly is the sensual? If the sensual is merely defined as the opposite of the abstract, an important element of the sensual will be missing. What is missing is value, an important and recurring term in the Escolios. “The sensual is the presence of a value in the sensible.” One of the most important ways of perceiving the presence of values—which are immortal—is through art. A good painting, for example, gives the spirit “a sensual enrichment.” True sensuality wants its object to enjoy eternity. This mention of eternity, in conjunction with the immortality of values, indicates the ultimate goal of sensuality. If the sensual as the embodiment of values, aspires to eternity, it must be a longing for the only being who is eternal, God. This explains why for Gómez Dávila it is not sensuality, but abstraction, that leads us away from God. This praise of sensuality may sound foreign to many Christians today, but one cannot help but be reminded of St. Thomas Aquinas’ statement: “It must be that God is in all things most intimately” (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 8, art. 1).
As has already been hinted at, Gómez Dávila shares with the Romantics and the forefathers of conservatism, such as Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, a distrust of Enlightenment reason and intellect. His references to reason (razón) and intellect (intelecto) are rarely complimentary. Indeed, to avoid confusion with these Enlightenment constructions, he prefers to use the term “intelligence” or “understanding” (inteligencia) to designate man’s ability to perceive truth. The greatest truths, however, are often perceived not by means of abstract concepts, but religious rituals. This skepticism accounts, moreover, for his unsystematic method of composition and his preference for aphorisms. No system is capable of embracing the entire universe in concepts.
Not only is Gómez Dávila extremely skeptical of man’s ability to understand the world, he is also very cautious with respect to man’s ability to do what is right. “Good will” and “sincerity” are not excuses for our mistakes, but instead only make our mistakes more serious. Not surprisingly, he is a strong believer in the reality of sin.
Gómez Dávila, however, did not merely repeat old criticisms of the Enlightenment worship of an abstract reason; he turned skepticism into a strength. This can be seen from his discussion of “problems” and “solutions,” two words that recur throughout his work. Gómez Dávila turns their customary relationship on its head. For him, problems are good, and solutions are bad. His first, and most obvious, objection to solutions is that all the modern world’s solutions simply have not worked. Indeed, the modern world is “drowning in solutions.” This observation, true as it may be, still does not reach the core of Gómez Dávila’s objections to solutions. It is not only modern man who is incapable of finding solutions to the world’s problems; no man can devise solutions to his problems. Problems are not to be solved; they are to be lived out in our lives. For Gómez Dávila, man is an animal that has only a divine solution. Skepticism, then, is not a way of finding reasons not to believe in God, but rather of “pruning our faith” in God.
Another word that recurs throughout the Escolios, often (though not always) in connection with skepticism, is “smile.” I do not have time to make a complete study of the connection between skepticism and smiles, but I suspect that Gómez Dávila is the first philosopher to develop a metaphysics of the smile.
Some readers may be inclined to dismiss or at least minimize the role of religion in Gómez Dávila’s worldview. That would be a fundamental mistake, however, in the most literal sense of the world. The foundation of Gómez Dávila’s thought, of his being, was God. As seen above, his reactionary critique of the modern world is essentially a religious one. The reactionary rebellion, in which Gómez Dávila calls us to join him, consists of recognizing God for who He is, and recognizing man’s utter dependence on God.
“Between the birth of God and His death the history of man unfolds.” This is not a bizarre reversal of Nietzsche’s death of God scenario, or a rehash of Feuerbach’s thesis that man creates the gods in his own image. On the contrary, what Gómez Dávila is saying is that it is our belief in and knowledge of God that make us human and separate us from the animals. The ability to perceive mystery and beauty in the things of this world is unique to man; the apes do not feel the “sacred horror” that men feel. What results from this sacred horror? “God is born in the mystery of things.” This feeling of sacred horror is something each individual must experience for himself. For this reason, Gómez Dávila’s religion was intensely personal: “To depend on God is the being’s being.” “God exists for me in the same act in which I exist.” Indeed, the entire tone of his Escolios is one of contemplation in a pervasive silence, which is only broken by the faint sound of Gómez Dávila writing a comment into one of his notebooks.
At the same time, Gómez Dávila’s personal religiosity did not become an attack on religious institutions as such, and he always remained a son of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, he was not afraid to criticize the Church. Indeed, he wrote numerous aphorisms lamenting developments in the Church, especially in the wake of Vatican II. To pick just one example, “the sacrifice of the Mass today is the torturing of the liturgy.” But he always strove to make sure that his criticisms of the Church were “thought from within the Church.” Much of the poignancy of Gómez Dávila’s laments stems, of course, precisely from his great love for the Church. Despite his disappointment with the present, he was mindful that there is no going back to the primitive Church of the Acts of the Apostles, much less to “the lone Christ of the gospels.”
Gómez Dávila’s Catholicism, then, is a combination of the metaphysical, the anthropological, the aesthetic, and the historical. Indeed, all the different threads of Gómez Dávila’s thought, all the many aphorisms, converge in his belief in God.
Finally, two suggestion for those readers whose interest in Gómez Dávila has been piqued by this short essay. First, Gómez Dávila cited Nietzsche in his epigraphs for a reason. He would have nothing but scorn for those readers who enthusiastically quote him without grasping his “very definite philosophical sensibility.” The reader should carefully ponder an aphorism before quoting it—and then only at his own risk.
Second, Gómez Dávila’s aphorisms are truly existential. For Gómez Dávila philosophy is not a purely intellectual discipline, but rather a way of life. Each aphorism should act as a call not just to discern the truth, but to assimilate it and to live it.