Enlightenment In Spain: Development Of Philosophy, Part III

A General Ferment

One cannot reduce Spain’s contribution in the 18th-century to just fiction or the literature of ideas. The real intellectual ferment that characterized this era across the Pyrenees affected all areas in which the human spirit is illustrated, from poetry to fine arts, through music, science and architecture. Multiplying examples and names in all these disciplines would not, however, be of great help in understanding the general orientations of the Spanish Enlightenment, as well as the challenges of the period. This is why we will content ourselves with succinctly developing some fundamental aspects of this century.

The historiography of this Iberian nation generally divides the members of the Ilustración into four successive generations:

  • The critical generation, notably represented by Father Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (1676—1764), who analyzed the causes of the “decadence” of the country and proposed solutions to reform it, especially in educational matters;
  • The erudite generation, which sought to inventory the Spanish cultural heritage and laid the foundations for its conservation and study, while renewing the national historiography, as with the works of Gregorio Mayans (1699-1781) and Father Enrique Flórez (1702—1773);
  • The reformist generation, known for its political action and its theoretical treatises, like Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes (1723-1802), author of Discurso sobre la educación popular de los artesanos (which advocated special instruction for artisans) and Tratado de la regalía de la amortización (which gave a critical view of the agrarian system at the time);
  • The neo-classical generation, which tried to incorporate French influence even more into Spanish thought and arts, but also noted its failure, with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasion of Spain (1808-1814), like Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744-1811).

New Structures Of Thought

Ilustrada literature could not be conceived outside of places of sociability that nourished debate and creativity of artists. These places could be purely intellectual, like articles in the press, or very concrete, such as, academies, tertulias (places of meeting and discussion), saraos (dinners followed by animated conversations), parties, balls, invitations or even courtesy visits.

The eventual development of the publishing world, still very much oriented towards religious subjects, could not hide the growing circles of debate, such as, the Academy of Good Taste, created in 1749 in Madrid; the Auberge of Saint-Sebastian, in the capital; the Basque Economic Society, founded in 1764 in Vergara; the Royal Society of Madrid, opened in 1775; the Academy of Human Letters, established in 1793 in Seville; plus various associations in more or less important cities like Cadiz, Ciudad Rodrigo, Osuna, Vera de Bidasoa, Valladolid, Zaragoza, Chinchón, Valencia, Tarragona, etc. These clubs, inspired by salons that could be seen flourishing in France, England or in German areas, and especially attracting local and national elites (nobility, clergy, big bourgeoisie).

The eighteenth century was, in Spain, the century of academies, sponsored by the monarchy; in the forefront of which was the Royal Academy of Language (1713). It was followed by the creation of the Royal Academy of History (1738), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Saint-Ferdinand (1744), and the Royal Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation (1763). Such organizations carried out the important task of rationally recording knowledge in dictionaries, such as, the Diccionario de autoridades of 1739, the Tratado de ortografía of 1742, the Gramática of 1771, the Diccionario manual of 1780, the Diccionario histórico-crítico universal de España in 1736, or the Diccionario de los literatos in 1751.

The royal officials were not outdone by systematic work in the field of bibliographies, such as, Ensayo de una biblioteca de los mejores escritores del reinado de Carlos III by Juan Sempere y Guarinos (in 1789); Memorias políticas y económicas sobre los frutos, fábricas, comercio y minas de España by Eugenio Larruga y Boneta (in 1800); or in the area of geography, such as, Viaje de España by Antonio Ponz (in 1794).

Some educational institutions, which existed on the fringes of the official university, seemed very open to new trends from the rest of Europe. This was particularly the case for pilot schools, the first chambers of commerce (Juntas de Comercio) and several private colleges. All these establishments were seconded in their efforts, not by a bourgeoisie which was still struggling to emerge in Spain, but by ecclesiastics, military officers, progressive aristocrats, or even officials of the monarchy.

Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, Spiritual Father Of The Spanish Enlightenment

If certain writers, such as Diego de Torres Villarroel (1694-1770), or José Francisco de Isla (1703-1781) are sometimes considered as precursors of the Ilustración, it is Benito Jerónimo Feijoo who seems to have initiated this new era by the original character of his work in Spanish literature.

He prefigured—by his simple and direct style, his spiritual preoccupations, his polemical tone, his will to educate, and his passion for science and ideas from the rest of Europe—polemists like Juan Pablo Forner (1756-1797), or fabulists like Félix María Samaniego (1745-1801) and Tomás de Iriarte (1750-1791).

Deeply anti-Aristotelian and opposed to scholasticism, Benito Jerónimo Feijoo became known in September 1726, when he began to sell copies of the first volume of his Teatro crítico universal. It was a collection of speeches aimed at combating the scientific, religious and ideological errors of the time. Between 1742 and 1760, he freed himself definitively from Baroque forms, whose survival was still attested at the beginning of the century, and published the Cartas eruditas y curiosas. In this work, he drew upon a wide range of European philosophers and scientists (Francis Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Isaac Newton, etc.) and advocated the use of the analytical method, as opposed to syllogistics still in vogue at universities.

Defender of reason, but also of spontaneity in writing, rhetoric and artistic criticism (he introduced concepts like “je ne sais quoi” and “taste” in Spain), he also demonstrated his great scholarship. He graced his speeches with quotations and references to other thinkers on the continent, such as Pierre Bayle.

Common sense (sentido común) was one of the fundamental intellectual hallmarks of Father Feijoo, who, as a Benedictine, was also sensitive to the religious reform implemented by the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A resolute opponent of a number of national traditions, which he considered absurd and without documentary basis, he facilitated the renewal of Spanish historiography. The latter took place under the impetus of José Manuel Miñana (1671—1730), Manuel Martí (1663—1737), Juan de Ferreras (1652—1735), Luis de Salazar y Castro (1658—1734), and Gaspar Ibáñez de Segovia, Marquis de Mondéjar (1628—1708).

The Controversy Of The Theater, Testimony To The Tensions Of The Ilustración

A great theater nation since the end of the Middle Ages, Spain had a tradition in this area very different from that of classical French dramaturgy and which one could compare to Shakespearean theater. It is to Lope de Vega (1562—1635) that we owe the establishment of special rules in his Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo. Characterized by the absence of unity of place, time and intrigue, the theater of the Lopesca school (whose disciples were Guillén de Castro, Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, and Luis Vélez de Guevara) was founded on the mixture of comedy and tragedy, and advocated a great freedom specific to the Baroque aesthetic. It was these precepts that dominated until the end of the Golden Age, especially among giants like Tirso de Molina (1579—1648) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600—1681).

With the change of dynasty and the new influences from France, the Spanish authorities sought to impose a radical metamorphosis of dramaturgy, in particular by promoting neoclassicism. This “official art”, which was difficult to promote because of public tastes and political and religious censorship, led to a controversy over the “xenomania” of national leaders and their rejection of tradition.

Very much inspired by Jean Racine and Voltaire, Spanish neoclassical tragedy followed the precepts of La poética by Ignacio de Luzán (1702—1754), while exploiting specific historical themes. Such was the case with pieces like Munuza, by Jovellanos (1769), Sancho García, by Cadalso (1771), or even Raquel, by Vicente García de la Huerta (1788). Criticism of Baroque theater, which in fact brought success to Spanish belles lettres, was obvious in a number of authors who deplored the heavy gaze of the Inquisition and the monarchy, namely, Agustín de Montiano (1697—1764), Nicolás Fernández de Moratín (1737—1780) and his son Leandro (1760—1828), Ignacio López de Ayala (1739—1789), and various others.

The passion of the Spanish (and in particular of the people of Madrid) for the theater and live performance led to numerous disputes among authors, actors, genres and poetics. In this context, the neoclassical comedy of Leandro Fernández de Moratín is the only one that posterity has truly retained, notably with The Maidens’ Consent (1806). The general public, for its part, preferred popular forms: magical comedies (which take place in a magical universe full of special effects), musical theater (especially with the emerging zarzuelas and tonadillas) and the theater of pathos (sentimental melodrama) whose intrigue often revolves around a marriage blocked and thwarted.

The success of sainetes (little one-act plays, often taken down, whose name is at the origin of the French saynète play) and entremeses (comic one-act theatrical plays, generally performed during the intermission) testified to the extent of the controversy among supporters of French aesthetics and advocates of the nation’s genius. Both sainetes and entremeses were indeed genres that grew out of the Golden Age which allowed playwrights, like Ramón de la Cruz (1731—1794), to satirize the neoclassical deemed pedantic.

We therefore see the emergence, behind these apparently literary discussions, of ideological oppositions, whose content was fully revealed at the time of the French Revolution.

Explorers and Scientists: Pioneers Of Progress In Spain And America

At the end of the 19th-century, the Spanish thinker Manuel de la Revilla provoked controversy around the contribution of Spain to Western scientific and technological progress. His thesis, that Spain was insignificant in both these areas compared to its neighbors, was supported by great intellectuals and researchers, like Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Miguel de Unamuno, Américo Castro, José Ortega y Gasset, Gregorio Marañón, or Julio Rey Pastor. In contrast, philosophers of stature, such as, Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo took issue with this theory, underlining the fecundity of the nation’s science.

This controversy about science was indicative of Spain’s inferiority complex, whose work in the technological field is still little known abroad. In fact, Iberian science was not outdone by its comparable European counterparts. Such was the case during the Golden Age, with a figure like Jerónimo de Ayanz (1553—1613), to whom we owe the first steam engine in history.

In the 18th-century, Spain participated in the race for science in Europe, for example, providing discoverers like Juan José and Fausto Delhuyar (who isolated tungsten), and Andrés Manuel del Río (who discovered vanadium). In the wake of the many learned societies formed all over Spain, scientists from across the Pyrenees sought to advance human knowledge.

The country was right at the forefront in this regard because of its colonial possessions in America and Asia-Pacific. This is why Iberian researchers were explorers and navigators, who theorized their empirical discoveries. Such was the case, for example, of one Jorge Juan (1713—1773), the reformer of the Spanish naval system, whose main contribution was to have measured the length of the terrestrial meridian and to have proved that the Earth was slightly flattened at the poles. He thus continued the long Spanish tradition of understanding the fundamental terrestrial mechanisms and mapping that can be observed from the end of the Middle Ages.

In the long list of explorer-scientists of the time, we can mention the case of Félix de Azara (1742—1821), soldier, engineer, cartographer, anthropologist and naturalist. He was intellectually responsible for very fruitful expeditions to the interior regions of Latin America, which were still poorly understood at the time. Cooperation with other countries, notably France, was regular in this context.

Indeed, from the reign of Philip V (1700-1746), Madrid participated in the expedition to the meridian by the Paris Academy of Sciences, under the direction of Charles Marie de La Condamine. Besides Jorge Juan, mentioned earlier, Antonio de Ulloa (1716-1795) was also on the trip. Important written impressions of this itinerary are recorded in the Relación histórica del viaje a la América Meridional (1748), and in the Noticias secretas de América (1772).

Such expeditions were a great way to study the flora and fauna of the New World, especially under royal patronage. In 1777, Charles III entrusted a five-year mission to Hipólito Ruiz (1754-1816), who identified and described with precision three thousand plants, and produced around a thousand drawings of these plants. Most of this unpublished work is now kept at the Museum of Natural Sciences and the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid.

The figure of Ruiz is however somewhat overshadowed by that of one of his contemporaries, José Celestino Mutis (1732—1808). The celebrity of the latter is such beyond the Pyrenees that an engraving depicting him adorned the two thousand pesetas banknote, in final issue of Spanish currency before the adoption of the euro, in 1992. It was at the request of Archbishop Antonio Caballero y Góngora, the viceroy of New Granada (which brought together the current countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Guyana), that Mutis surrounded himself with scholars from the Iberian Peninsula or America (Antonio Zea, Sinforoso Mutis, Francisco de Caldas, Jorge Tadeo Lozano, Salvador Rizo). This was the fruit of their labor: 7,000 color drawings and 4,000 descriptive plates of the Latin American flora preserved by the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.

Charles III and Charles IV continued on this path, with the expedition of Martín Sessé (1751—1808) and especially that of the navigator of Tuscan origin, Alejandro Malaspina (1754-1809) (50). The latter gave his name to a vessel of the Spanish Navy.

At that time, however, it was the Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition (1803-1806), led by Francisco Javier Balmis (1753-1819), that had the greatest impact. Following the work of the Englishman Edward Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine, the Spanish monarchy promoted what is often considered the greatest humanitarian mission of all time. Most of Hispanic America is now immune to this endemic disease, thanks to the action and advice of Balmis and his second, José Salvany.

By Way Of Conclusion – A Rich Civilization Essential To Understanding The World

The murderous words of Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers, which we reproduced at the beginning of this investigation, take on a completely different meaning at the end of our study—which cannot be exhaustive. We can see how these words were the fruit of ignorance, prejudice and bad faith of an era, but also of a form of Hispanophobia which spread throughout the Western world, from the Renaissance down to our own times.

Spain has been an integral part of the progress of the human mind since its existence as a nation. Even in times of extreme difficulty and isolation on the international scene, as during the Franco dictatorship (1939—1975), this Iberian nation has never ceased to contribute to the improvement of knowledge of humanity and to the promotion of the arts and literature.

The rapid overview of the Ilustración (this Spanish variation of the Enlightenment) that I have just presented will show, I hope, that our Spanish friends were at the origin of a double civilization (both in Europe and in America), rich and essential to understanding the universe around us.

The French version of the article appeared in Revue Conflits. Translated from the French by N. Dass.

The image shows, “Saints Ippolito, Taurino, and Ercolano,” by Antonio González Velázquez, painted ca. 1740-1742.

The Roots And Branches Of Spanish Enlightenment Thought, Part Two

The Oldness of Spanish Reformist Thought

Spanish thought, whether of a theological, philosophical or political nature, is old since it dates back to the Middle Ages, where it flourished (among others) in the universities founded in this period: Palencia, Salamanca, Lérida, Valladolid, Huesca, Calatayud, Girona and Barcelona. The consolidation of the Spanish university system continued during the Renaissance and the Baroque era, with nearly thirty higher education establishments founded between 1483 and 1624 – not counting New World universities.

It is from these establishments (and in particular from the Colegios Mayores that we mentioned earlier) that the letrados, jurists and great administrators came first from the underprivileged classes, who then were intended for service within various national, regional and local bodies of government (Royal Councils, Provincial Audiences, Chancelleries, the post of corregidores, etc.).

If classical education (logic, rhetoric, theology, civil law, canon law, medicine) remained on the agenda, the renewal brought about by these prestigious letrados explains the superiority of the administration of the Habsburgs of Spain over that of the other European countries, in particular at the beginning of the reign of Philip II (1556-1598), the sovereign considered as the “inventor” of polysynodal governments.

The administrative and ideological revolution that early gave birth to Spanish absolute monarchy is also partly behind the origin of French absolutism, as recent historiographical research has clearly shown.

Salamanca, the Arbitrators and the Novatores

It is also in the shadow of the University of Salamanca that the second Spanish scholasticism is born, commonly known as the School of Salamanca. This group of thinkers, teachers, jurists and theologians (including Martín de Azpilicueta, Tomás de Mercado, Francisco de Vitoria, Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Miguel Caja de Leruela, Diego de Covarrubias, Juan de Mariana, Luis de Molina, Bartolomé de las Casas, Martín González de Cellorigo, Francisco Suárez or even Domingo de Soto) profoundly renews political and legal science. It transforms and indeed creates many concepts, even branches that did not exist until then: Property law, usury and interest, fair price, public finances and taxes, international law, etc.

From the end of the 16th century onwards, Spanish thought changed again with the appearance of arbitrism (arbitrismo), a pejorative term first created in 1613 by Miguel de Cervantes in the short story, The Dialogue of the of Dogs. Here, the masculine name arbitrio designates the “extraordinary means” that a sovereign can use to achieve a given end or resolve a complex situation. Thus, the arbitrators (arbitristas), like Cellorigo, Fernández de Navarrete, Sancho de Moncada, Luis Ortiz or Luis Valle de la Cerda, sought to influence the sovereign by offering him a primer on a given subject, generally of an economic nature (speculation, unfair tax treatment, excessive concentration of agricultural property, government debt, export of capital and raw materials, depopulation).

There was, therefore, among the arbitristas (many of whom come from the School of Salamanca), awareness of a series of concrete problems that the government of Spain must work to resolve for the sake the common good – a theme that was largely taken up. in the Age of Enlightenment.

Between the end of the reign of Charles II (1665-1700) and the beginning of that of Philip V (1700-1746), while Spain experienced a change of dynasty as part of a War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the arbitrators yielded to a new current of thought, that of the novatores, who in 1700, founded the Royal Society of Medicine and Sciences of Seville, responsible for disseminating their ideas, which were based on atomism. These researchers (represented by Diego Martínez Zapata, Luis de Losada, Alejandro Avendaño, Martín Martínez, Tomás Vicente Tosca, Juan Bautista Berni or Juan de Cabriada) advocated above all the reform of Spanish higher education which, in their eyes, would have to favor physical and natural sciences rather than abstract scholasticism. They blended a renewed arbitrismo with the gestating rationality of the Enlightenment.

This transition was not specific to Spain. Across the Pyrenees, it was Benito Jerónimo Feijoo (1676-1764), forerunner of the Ilustración, who spread the theories of Galileo, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke or Pierre Bayle to renew philosophy and the sciences. Feijoo advocated a greater opening of Spain to the rest of Europe. The clergyman was not the only one to support such theses, since he was preceded by Francisco Gutiérrez de los Ríos, author of a treatise entitled El hombre práctico o discursos sobre su conocimiento y enseñanza (1680).

Enduring Quarrels And An Ambiguous Legacy

If we can credit the Spanish Enlightenment, which fed on the above-mentioned currents, with a certain number of successful reforms (upgrading of work, trade, industry and agriculture; reorganization of the administration; metamorphosis education and university), it should also be noted that they also contributed to deepening old fractures between supporters of an Iberian way (especially turned towards America) and a European way.

This confrontation between the casticistas (partisans of the casta, that is to say, of the national tradition) and the extranjerizantes (which we may call hereafter the europeístas, that is, Europeanists) is illustrated by the opposition of a large part of the Spanish church to new ways of thinking introduced in the Iberian Peninsula. Resistance to the publication of works deemed contrary to religion was the work of the court of the Holy Office, but the latter censored almost as much the monarchy itself – behavior which was not abnormal in the Europe of the time.

In the 18th-century, the casticismo musical rebelled against the predominance of forms from the rest of the continent (in particular from France and Italy), and this attitude favored the popular success of Spanish genres, such as zarzuela or tonadilla.

The Italians Domenico Scarlatti and Luigi Boccherini, who both ended their days in Madrid, exercised a quasi-tyranny at the court of Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788) (24), just like the castrato Farinelli had met with immense success with these kings’ father. The few Spaniards to break through, like the organist and harpsichordist Antonio Soler (1729-1783), were their pupils.

Literature also testifies to this European preponderance, notably French and English. We see this in Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828), nicknamed “the Spanish Molière”, or in José Cadalso (1741-1782), whose Cartas marruecas was inspired by Montesquieu and his Noches lúgubres by Edward Young.

It was around this time that the unflattering qualifier of afrancesado (“Frenchified”) arose, and which was revived with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasion (1808-1814). The demand for Spanish arts and literature served as a weapon for an ideological war against foreign influences, considered impious and harmful by certain sectors. The rise of the casticista movement was favored by the fate of Louis XVI, the “cousin” of Charles IV (1788-1808), who tried to save the French sovereign from the guillotine, and by the censorship of many foreign works.

During the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the First Empire, the opponents of Napoleon Bonaparte were not all adversaries of the new ideological currents – which explains the promulgation of the Constitution of 1812 (one of the first in Europe). The struggle between the Old Regime and liberalism continued for the next two centuries, with reformulations according to the times: Carlist reaction from 1833 to 1876, the difficulties in giving birth to a parliamentary regime from 1875 to 1931, then bloody civil war of 1936 in 1939, followed by a dictatorship which lasted until 1975.

It is through the bias of “two Spain” (dos Españas) that this age-old conflict is often addressed. Even if it is not for us now to discuss the relevance of this concept, we must nevertheless be careful when it comes to applying it to the Spanish Enlightenment.

Most of them were indeed moderate, deeply Christian and patriotic, even if they favored an evolution of religious doctrine. It is probably the painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), straddling two periods, who best illustrates these tensions inherent in the time. Favorite of the court, darling of the aristocracy, he did not hide his closeness to the most advanced ideas of his time. Nevertheless, disenchanted with the cruelty of the war unleashed by Napoleon, he found it difficult to progress in the absolutist Spain of Ferdinand VII (1808-1833) and chose exile in France in 1824.

The engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is part of Los caprichos, has an ambiguous title in Spanish, where the term sueño designates both the sleep and the dream. Is it when he abandons reason, dear to the Enlightenment, that man drifts and gets lost in the horror of irrationality? Or does reason, pushed to the ultimate and imposed by force, end up producing horrors similar to those that Goya represents in the last years of his life? None of the Ilustración representatives could resolve this dichotomy.

The original, French version of this article appeared in Revue Conflits and was translated by N. Dass.

Nicolas Klein is Associate Professor of Spanish and a former student at ENS Lyon. He is a teacher in preparatory classes. He is the author of Rupture de ban – L’Espagne face à la crise and Comprendre l’Espagne d’aujourd’hui – Manuel de civilisation. He has also translated Al-Andalus: l’invention d’un mythe – La réalité historique de l’Espagne des trois cultures by Serafín Fanjul.

The image shows, “The sleep of reason produces monsters” (No. 43), from Los Caprichos, by Francisco Goya, a print from 1799.

The Enlightenment in Spain

Part One – The Historical, Political And Intellectual Context: Has Spain Contributed Anything To Western Civilization?

In 1782, as part of the Encyclopédie méthodique par ordre des matières, published in France by Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, the geographer Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers expressed himself in these terms regarding the country of Spain: “The Spanish […] exercised in Europe and in the Indies, cruelties which make one shudder and which have made them odious to the peoples of the two worlds. […] Spain is perhaps the most ignorant nation in Europe. All overseas work is at an end. The monks lay down the law… […] Today, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Poland itself, Germany, Italy, England and France, all these peoples, whether enemies, friends, or rivals, all burn with generous emulation for the advancement of science and the arts […]. Each of them, so far, has made some useful discovery, which has turned to the benefit of humanity! But what do we owe to Spain? And for two centuries, for four, for ten, what has it done for Europe?”

This judgment, brutal as it is, is far from isolated in pre-revolutionary Europe. Voltaire does not have a better opinion of the historical role of Spain. He sees Philippe II (1556-1598) as a kind of “demon of the south;” the perfect counterpoint to the good Henry IV so tolerant. At a time when modern nations were really starting to take shape and stereotypes were fundamental anchors to their perception, Montesquieu is not any kinder towards Spain.

The same rabid Hispanophobia is found in many authors of the time, from the Marquis d’Argens to Father Reynal and Madame d’Aulnoy. Though Portugal suffers more or less the same fate, it is not the same for Italy, the cradle of European civilization. In addition, a similar trend can easily be seen in the following century. All of Europe is concerned with this propensity to see in the Iberian Peninsula a sort of desert when it comes to civilization, the arts and the sciences.

This is why the decision of the French authorities to censor the Encyclopédie méthodique at the request of the Spanish Ambassador to Paris, Pedro de Bolea y Pons de Mendoza, Count of Aranda, did not convince anyone for too long. Everyone knew already that the author had only openly said what all the European elites muttered under their breath among themselves.

The Bourbons of Spain: Promoters Of Enlightenment Thought

It is not for us to settle this debate here-and-now, a debate which has animated Iberian historiography for more than two centuries; nor shall we even enumerate the multiple contributions of Spain to European and world culture. On the other hand, we may still be surprised at the virulence of the above-mentioned remarks. Was there not a philosophical light which, issuing from the European Enlightenment, shone across the Pyrenees and carried across the ideas then in vogue in the other nations of the continent (progress, science, rationality, reform, education, elevation of the spirit)?

Although much less known than their English, French or Germanic colleagues, the Enlightenment thinkers and writers, in Spain, were active and fruitful. They benefited from the accession to the throne of the Bourbons from France in the person of the Duke of Anjou, Philippe V (1700-1746), whose descendants still reign today. Until the Napoleonic invasion (1808-1814), his sons, Louis I (January-August 1724), Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788), as well as his grandson Charles IV (1788-1808), succeeded one another as the heads of a country which they were trying to transform deeply, in particular from an economic and technological point of view. It is the Golden Age of what is called in Spain, the Ilustración, a term closer to the English “Enlightenment,” or the German Aufklärung than to the French Lumières (although we also find the expression, siglo de las Luces in the language of Cervantes).

It is indeed French influence that is decisive in the development of this particularly obvious intellectual movement during the reign of Charles III, the Spanish prototype of the déspota ilustrado (“enlightened despot”). Having gained experience as the King of Naples and Sicily, from 1734 to 1759, the eldest son of Philippe V and Elisabeth Farnese, was closest to the Hispanic reformist movements – even if his father, trained in full Grand Siècle style by Fénelon and the Duke of Beauvilliers, had a solid intellectual background. Throughout the period, there were an increasing number of bodies created, from academies (including that of the Spanish language) to learned societies and think tanks which enlivened the life of ideas beyond the Pyrenees and renewed scientific research and technology.

The ministers surrounding Charles III – whether Spanish, like the Count of Aranda, Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca, as well as Pablo de Olavide, or foreigners, like the Genoese Leopoldo de Gregorio, Marquis d’Esquilache – were all instrumental in the development of a progressive spirit within Spain.

However, it should not be forgotten that, as in France or England, these statesmen, philosophers and writers whom these learned bodies permitted to flourish were part of a minority (Spanish historiography speaks about them as the minoría selecta). In addition, the ministers of the “enlightened despot” did not arise from nothing, since they pursued their studies within traditional social structures (aristocracy, clergy, petty bourgeoisie), as well as in the Colegios Mayores, those universities of the Golden Age which for a long time were marked by scholasticism. Among them were a majority of golillas, jurists (letrados) trained in Salamanca, Valladolid or Alcalá de Henares, as well as their lifelong opponents, the manteístas, who came from less prestigious universities.

Controlled Ferment

It is therefore within an official and oft-controlled context (some historians speak of cultura tutelada) that the Spanish Enlightenment flourished. It owed its protection, as we have said, to Charles III and his advisers, but, more generally, to royal absolutism, which favored the implementation, throughout Europe, of a series of first-class modernizing measures; and Spain was no exception to this phenomenon.

But the monarch was not the only one to have a say in Spanish intellectual life. Works published in Spain had to obtain the imprimatur from the Council of Castile, and more particularly from the Printing Court (Juzgado de Imprentas), which could censor them. The procedure was identical for foreign publications and for well-informed periodicals, such as La gaceta de Madrid and El mercurio.

Internal Opposition To The Enlightenment

In general, opposition to what some pejoratively called filosofía, or even filosofismo, was not uncommon in Spain – any more than it was in the rest of the continent. The questioning of theology as the queen discipline of the intellect, the rejection of the worldview imposed by the Counter-Reformation, the surpassing of the baroque, and the analysis of the sensory universe beyond the Aristotelian categories, in force in medieval and modern scholasticism, were all factors that shook up a cultural and educational elite reluctant to give up its place.

The unpopularity of the reforms is reflected, for example, in the revolt against the Minister Esquilache (motín de Esquilache). In March 1766, a popular rebellion broke out in Madrid, and then in other Spanish cities, against the decompartmentalization of the internal market in the midst of the food crisis, but also, and above all else, against the ban on certain elements of traditional Spanish attire.

All this contributed to undermining the beginning of the reign of Charles III. The latter was forced to accept the resignation and exile of Leopoldo de Gregorio, whose downfall was less because of the prohibition against wearing the chambergo (a soft hat with a wide brim; very fashionable at the time) than on the intrinsic limits to Bourbon reformism.

The burdens of society were quickly attributed by the monarch and the “philosophers” to the influence of the Catholic religion, which must be limited, in particular the Inquisition (which was already only a shadow of itself); and by expelling the Jesuits from all Spanish possessions.

A Thirst For Reform In Madrid And In The Provinces

At the same time as the movement to construct nation-states (which started almost everywhere in Europe at this time) the modernization of Spain appeared as an absolute necessity in the eyes of the Enlightenment of the Pyrenees. The ministers and thinkers belonging to this idea were aware that the recovery of their country, after the difficult years of the reigns of Philippe IV (1621-1665) and Charles II (1665-1700), could only come about by the adoption of solutions already tested in France, in England or in certain German principalities.

As contemporary historians point out, it was more the theme of Spanish decadence, the (necessarily subjective) perception of a decadence, rather than the reality of such a phenomenon which pushed men of letters and the intellectuals to think about the causes of the malaise which affected their country.

The reasons put forward in the 18th-century (and then during the years that followed) were numerous, often imprecise and generally not very convincing (even grotesque): The Spanish disdain for technology and manual work; the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and then the Moriscos (those Muslims who converted to Christianity as a facade) in 1613; the omnipotence of the Mesta, that association (it seems today more a lobby) of owners of nomadic sheep herds; the military drain that maintained the dominance of the Habsburgs in Europe; the constant drain of emigration to America; the deficient administration of the House of Austria, etc.

The abundant reflection generated by such considerations helped to create the feeling that it was not that Spain had problems, but that Spain was a problem in itself.

The economic and institutional obstacles to the development of Spain within the European context were real. In this sense, evoking the omnipotence of the Mesta (responsible, at least in part, for the agricultural backwardness from which the country suffered), or the dependence of royal finances on metals from the New World, or the French bank was certainly relevant. Nevertheless, the multiplication of the sources of complaints, and the obsession of some, both in Spain and abroad, with the idea of decadence, ultimately made any ilustrada philosophy sterile.

Fortunately, this was not the view of all representatives of the Spanish Enlightenment; quite the contrary. Often moderate and pragmatic thinkers and statesmen of the period proposed more or less ambitious reforms in all directions. It seemed indeed difficult that all could succeed and some were even horrendous failures – which fed, at regular intervals, the melancholy of Spanish intellectuals, who saw in the reign of Charles III a missed opportunity to transform their country in a fundamental way.

However, it must be said, many of these measures did bear fruit so that Spain has long lived “on” the legacy of the Ilustración. We can already cite a quite few:

  • The creation of learned societies, reflection clubs (the future Spanish casinos in the 19th-century). These were academies and gatherings whose aim was to work for the public good and were found throughout the breadth of Spain, and not only in Madrid;
  • The desire to better educate the people, in particular by suppressing certain entertainment of a religious nature, such as the sacramental autos (pieces of a hagiographic character, very popular in medieval and modern Spain), but also by attacking the ecclesiastical monopoly on universities;
  • Decisions aimed at improving the social situation of the poorest Spaniards, in particular by fighting begging and modernizing agriculture and irrigation, whether from a theoretical or practical point of view;
  • The reorganization of the state, the territorial administration, and the American colonies, in particular in order to derive greater economic profit;
  • The repopulation of certain demographic deserts, as in the Sierra Morena, north of Cordoba;
  • The stimulation of nascent industry, especially in Catalonia, and the foundation of royal factories on a more or less Colbertist model.

The real intellectual and political ferment that Spain experienced in the years 1760-1780 was not limited to the capital. Many thinkers and decision-makers were born and matured in Catalonia (Antoni de Capmany, Jaume Bonnels, Josep Climent), in Galicia (Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, Martín Sarmiento), in Aragon (the count of Aranda), in the old Kingdom from Murcia (Floridablanca), in the Principality of Asturias (Campomanes, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos), in Andalusia (José Cadalso), and even in the American colonies of Spain (like Olavide, who was born in Lima). It is therefore no coincidence that, in 1962, the Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier, located the action of his novel, El siglo de las Luces, in Havana.

This ferment did not come about without a series of ideological clashes that drew upon rivalries from before the reign of Charles III. The Spanish Enlightenment was not born out of thin air and did not owe its success solely to French or English influence. It had its roots in an older reform movement that consisted in the stinging denial of all those who wanted to see in Spain a nation without thought of its own.

The original, French version of this article appeared in Revue Conflits and was translated by N. Dass.

Nicolas Klein is Associate Professor of Spanish and a former student at ENS Lyon. He is a teacher in preparatory classes. He is the author of Rupture de ban – L’Espagne face à la crise and Comprendre l’Espagne d’aujourd’hui – Manuel de civilisation. He has also translated Al-Andalus: l’invention d’un mythe – La réalité historique de l’Espagne des trois cultures by Serafín Fanjul.

The image shows, “Philip V in Hunting Costume,” by Miguel Jacinto Meléndez; painted in 1712.