Saturday, May 18, 2013

Nicolás Gómez Dávila

What the reactionary says never interests anybody.
Neither at the time he says it, because it seems absurd, nor after a few years, because it seems obvious.

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Nicolás Gómez Dávila, a thinker almost universally unknown even in his native Colombia. He never did anything to attract attention to himself. He did not even lead a particularly eventful life. He was born in Bogotá to a wealthy family that moved to Paris when he was young, and stayed in Europe until he was 23. He then returned to Bogotá, where he married, accumulated 30,000 books, and hosted discussion groups with friends on Sunday afternoons in his library. His family’s wealth meant that he had to work only briefly. Otherwise, his life was a life of leisure. As the late Italian philosopher Franco Volpi summarized Gómez’s biography, “he was born, he wrote, he died.”

The only reason he is at all known today, nineteen years after his death, is that he composed five volumes of aphorisms which he called “Scholia on the Margin of an Implicit Text” (Escolios a un Texto Implícito), which he published in tiny printing runs primarily for his friends. Shortly before his death, and in the next two decades, his fame spread slowly to Europe, and his works have been translated into German, French, Italian, and Polish, though sadly not into English yet. In these scholia he addresses the whole range of human thought; aphorisms about ethics and politics are printed next to reflections on aesthetics and literature, God and the devil next to history, technology, metaphysics, and love. Gómez’s writings display a breadth of erudition attainable by only the most gifted of scholars, a depth of thought reserved for only the most original thinkers, and a capacity for expression matched by only the most talented prose stylists.

What holds all Gómez’s disparate observations together is the persona he assumed: the reactionary. From the outset, then, it is clear that Gómez is a political thinker, and a deeply unfashionable one at that. But for him being a reactionary does not mean idealizing the past, indulging nostalgia, or restoring the old regime. “Being a reactionary is not about believing in certain solutions, but about having an acute sense of the complexity of the problems.” Yet, the reactionary label he adopted was not totally deceiving: true to the heritage of the original European reactionaries, Gómez resisted the onslaught of democracy and opposed the noxious ideas of modernity.

In order to truly understand Gómez’s critique of modernity, however, one must first grasp that the heart of his message is not political, but religious. Gómez’s key insight is that democracy is “an anthropotheist religion.” Modern man has made himself into his own god by denying the most foundational truth of all: “to depend on God is the being’s being.” Denying our dependence on the Creator, however, led directly to the 20th century’s dystopias. “The proclamation of our autonomy is the founding charter of hell.” “Hell is any place from which God is absent.” Modern man, though, has tried to eliminate the feeling of alienation by resorting to revolution, technology, and immorality. But all these solutions only make the problem worse, as history has shown.

All this makes Gómez sound like an Old Testament prophet pronouncing God’s judgment on a stubborn and sinful people. It is certainly true that he chastises modern man for his lack of faith. Many of his aphorisms can be read as an extended reflection on the first commandment of the Decalogue. Yet there is much more to the Escolios than condemnation of unbelief. Gómez certainly did not expect to exercise a wide influence; at most he hoped to be instrumental in bringing about a few individual conversions. And for him one of the most important ways to bring someone to acknowledge his dependence was to encourage a reverence for beauty. Beauty, according to Gómez’s axiology and epistemology, is a value whose existence depends on nothing in us and which we can never deserve. Beauty is like a light that blinds us at first, but later we see the world in a new way because of it; even a great artist cannot completely control the beauty that inheres in his work of art through his techniques. Beauty is a grace.

As Gómez explained in one of his few short essays, “The Authentic Reactionary,” the reactionary searches history and his own life for values like beauty. For instance, in many aphorisms he speaks of the beauty of a smile. In other aphorisms he discusses all aspects of love. His passion for literature is a search for the values that artists make perceptible to readers.

Perhaps most importantly for a reactionary in a world surrounded by enemies, however, Gómez teaches us to cultivate the virtue of hope. “The reactionary escapes the slavery of history because he pursues in the human wilderness the trace of divine footsteps.” Gómez exhorts us not to seek a solution to man’s problems in history, but rather to live those problems “at a higher level.” Yet he also reminds us that “Christianity does not teach that the problem is solved, but that the prayer is answered.” In the end, he offers us the consolation that “in history it is wise to hope for miracles and absurd to trust in plans.” This may seem like meager consolation to some, but for Gómez it was the most extravagant promise imaginable: “The Christian knows that he can claim nothing, but can hope for everything.”

This brief sketch fails to do justice to the richness and complexity of Gómez’s Escolios. But, any reader whose interest has been piqued should look at a website I started as a testimony to an author whom I have not stopped reading since I discovered him seven years ago. It contains English translations of around 3,000 aphorisms and other material related to Nicolás Gómez Dávila: Don Colacho’s Aphorisms.