The common retort by opponents of the idea of the canon of Western literature is that it is preferential to just one dimension of human history and culture. Diverse as the world may be, it is a reassuring detail that conservative thinkers from all corners of the world think favorably of these two pinnacles of society: Christianity and Western civilization. One need not be Christian or European to understand the impact that these interrelated features have had on human development. One does need to be literate in the history of Western civilization and Christianity, however, to know how the decline of either (or both) of these pillars is demonstrating to be more and more detrimental to our contemporary society.
As one of the twentieth century’s little-known conservative thinkers wrote, “Once religion and aesthetics are divorced, it is difficult to know which one gets corrupted quicker.” Civilization is more of an intellectual creation than it is a physical one; if you physically destroy a part of a civilization, like a town, museum, or church, it can be rebuilt so long as you maintain the intellectual integrity of what your civilization means. But if you manage to sever religion and aesthetics from civilization, it begins to tear apart at the seams all on its own: “Violence is not necessary to destroy a civilization. Each civilization dies from indifference toward the unique values which created it.”
The writer of these previous quotations was Nicolás Gómez Dávila. A philosopher in his own right, and more impressively, an autodidact, he contributed some of the most thoughtful analyses of twentieth-century thought through one of the least conventional ways of political interpretation: aphorisms. But, as we know about aphorisms, their pithiness does not negate their embedded wisdom; quite the contrary, they reveal to us through their epiphanic logic truths that experience has not yet taught us. Gómez Dávila is one of the most apt thinkers through which to interpret contemporary society.
Gómez Dávila has been called many things: “illustrious stranger,” “pagan who believes in Christ,” “indignant medieval peasant,” “passionate anachronist,” and “Nietzsche from the Andes.” He was born May 18, 1913 in Bogotá, Colombia but spent his years from age six to twenty-three living in Paris, while he attended a Benedictine school. A debilitating pneumonia forced him to be homeschooled for some time. Fascinated by literature, history, theology, philosophy, and ancient languages, Gómez Dávila spent most of his adult life in his personal library; from there he studied the humanities at length. He amassed a personal collection of over 30,000 books on the history of the West, earning praise from Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who remarked that the collection was the most impressive in the Latin American region. His extensive studies led him to become one of the most poignant critics of modernity, with a vast working repertoire of Western history. Yet, he never attended university, but developed so much knowledge that he helped found Los Andes University in Bogotá in 1948.
It is curious that one of the most astute and natural conservative thinkers in the Latin American tradition came from a country that, since the mid-century, has consistently been the most pro-North American, pro-liberal government, yet with the oldest Marxist guerrilla on the continent, the FARC. Colombia has always been an intellectually unique country in the sense that it has a strong conservative tradition despite its political instability and narco-trafficking reputation. Gómez Dávila the anti-modernist lived through a turbulent period in Colombian history that few might know known as La Violencia—The Violence. There was a ten-year period in the 20th century where Colombian citizens were literally killing each other over their political affiliation, liberales against conservadores.
His lived experience of the dangers of blind political affiliation demonstrated what can happen to a polarized society that champions a political party without truly recognizing the philosophical and moral underpinnings of each side. As a result, Gómez Dávila’s writings avoid politically-heavy words like “conservative” and “liberal” or “democrat” and “republican,” as he understood that these terms always meant slightly different things depending on their use and place in time. Instead, Gómez Dávila observed the root of men’s differing dispositions towards existence as a dichotomy between progressives and reactionaries. Just as the left-right division is used to describe everything in the political arena, Gómez Dávila believed that in the ample order of society, the most widely-spread cultural and intellectual division was between reactionaries and progressives.
Embedded deeper than our politics is a philosophical division between these two types of people, reactionaries and progressives. Peculiarly, it is an unspoken and accepted fact of life, for whatever unknown reason it may be, that it is better to be called progressive. An elegy for the thinker described Gómez Dávila as the exception to this general rule. He “knows and sustains that the reactionary is he who can react against the democratic totalitarianism of progressivism, against the cultural homogenization of infantile leftism, against the economic globalization of wild capitalism, against the pornographization and vulgarization of life. And he can do it because he is a reactionary. That is, because he conserves that capacity to reject, the strength to say no even if his cause is lost.”
A maverick, Gómez Dávila saw in the general and blind acceptance of progressivism a greater reason to distrust it: “I distrust every idea that doesn’t seem obsolete and grotesque to my contemporaries,” he wrote. Gómez Dávila was an unashamed reactionary thinker. He adopted the term reactionary because he believed that civilization would fall more quickly into decline if conservatives continued to be acquiescent over the changes that society was undergoing. Conservatism to Gómez Dávila was a necessary philosophy before the 18th century, but the 19th century spiraled out of control, mandating a greater involvement from the conservative thinker as something that needed to be unwavering and outright about its intention. Burke might have been a conservative, he once wrote, but the progresses of progress force us to be reactionaries: “Swimming against the current is not idiotic if the waters are racing toward a waterfall.”
But his form of being reactionary did not consist in being combatant or belligerent with progressives. As he stated himself, “Being reactionary is understanding that it is not possible to demonstrate or convince, only to invite.” The strength of Gómez Dávila’s understanding of being reactionary was his determination in being uncompromising on issues pertaining to the importance of Western civilization and the Church. For him, both of these elements created a whole that was able to successfully instill value and meaning to life without distorting what we consider “meaningful.” For Gómez Dávila, “the root of reactionary thought is not the distrust of reason, but the distrust of will.”
The problem with human will that the 19th century had proven was that, without reverence for faith or culture, man could easily substitute God and his own country for “universal” principles that lacked conviction in anything rooted in respect for order: “Reason, truth, justice, tend not to be man’s goals, but the names he gives to his goals.” These abstract words, when not tied to any tradition, lose their ability to cope with reality and refuse to accept the limits of reason, truth, or justice: “An irreligious society cannot endure the truth of the human condition. It prefers a lie, no matter how idiotic it may be.”
The most important attribute of Western civilization and Christianity, then, was their combined ability to create a unified spiritual-cultural aesthetic that established order: “In society just as in the soul, when hierarchies abdicate the appetites rule,” for that reason, Gómez Dávila always argued in favor of hierarchies: “Relativism is the solution of one who is incapable of putting things in order.” So he always discussed a sound form of hierarchical judgment that necessitated faith and culture to sustain itself in society—faith internally and culture externally. When facing the plurality of civilizations and cultures, he wrote, we must be “neither relativists nor absolutists, but hierarchists.” For Gómez Dávila, the Church represented a medium through which even the non-believer could improve himself. Standing athwart history, to use that Buckleyan language, the Church was an a-temporal haven that could remind man of his eventual perfectibility, but not in this world. Without the Church, Gómez Dávila believed that human sin would fester and society would be plagued—so much so that he wrote that “the modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.” Still, hope and refuge could be found in an institutional, hierarchical Church that would drain these problems: “The Church is the sewer of history, the tumultuous flowing of human impurity towards immaculate seas.”
For all his talk about the Church and civilization, why was this conservative and reactionary thinker likened to Nietzsche? For one, several of Gómez Dávila’s aphorisms seem to be responses pointed at Nietzsche’s philosophy: “The death of God is an interesting opinion, but one that does not affect God.” One student describes Gómez Dávila as an interlocutor of Nietzsche, because they are both confronted with the same problem of transcendence within humanity. According to Gómez Dávila, the suicidal factor of modernity to which society had become most accustomed consisted of “shooting a bullet into the soul,” killing God. Modern man had replaced God with a label, “humanity” that represented nothing: “Many love humanity only in order to forget God with a clear conscience,” he wrote.
But Gómez Dávila was no nihilist, though he was a cynic and Epicurean. He was sympathetic to Nietzsche, writing that “Nietzsche would be the only noble inhabitant of a derelict world. Only his choice could be exposed without shame to the resurrection of God.” For Gómez Dávila, Nietzsche’s inquiry was an honest one; it destroyed him and proved the importance of hierarchy: From Nietzsche’s commitment to criticize morality and uphold perspectivism came the possibility to recognize man’s finiteness, and this is represented in Nietzsche’s tragic spiritual collapse. In many ways, Nietzsche had correctly assessed the problems of modernity when he dismissed the importance of God: Gómez Dávila wrote, “Reading Nietzsche as a response is not understanding him. Nietzsche is an immense interrogation.”
It was Nietzsche’s nihilism, and the “suicidal” impulse of the west that chose doubt and cowardice over faith that paved the way for a true rediscovery of God, although we are still trying to get there. Gómez Dávila does not view Western civilization’s course as irreversible: His aphorisms demonstrate his view that there is hope for the future because it is connected to a redemption that can only come about through the questioning or outright denial of God. From this point, it is possible to bring about a resumption of the natural order of things. Perhaps this is the task that Gómez Dávila envisioned for the conservative, the reactionary, or the philosopher.
Gómez Dávila’s aphorisms open new intellectual and spiritual possibilities for the reactionary or conservative thinker, as his writings, like (good) poetry, reveal their truth gradually with every read. His only book, titled, Scholia to an Implicit Text, is a philosophical bastion against modernity, and it features a series of wise adages and aphorisms that would pique the interest of any political philosopher or theologian. Interestingly enough, Gómez Dávila’s work is better-known in European countries like Italy and Germany than in his own native country of Colombia. His book has been translated into various languages, and his theology, influenced by an unshakeable sense of realism—idiosyncratic to Latin American culture—is a topic of contemporary debate among philosophers who have compared Gómez Dávila with thinkers like Jürgen Habermas, Antoine de Rivarol, Blaise Pascal, Joeph Jourbert, and Emil Cioran.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on July 12, 2019.