Freedom and Truth in Menéndez Pelayo

At a time when cultural and social silencing threatens to undermine, especially, the rudiments of academic freedom, the figure of the scholar Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo emerges as an example.

November 30, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes
jose maria barrio verdad

"Just at the beginning of the Restoration, in February 1875 a decree was published by the Ministry of Development prohibiting the teaching of anything contrary to Catholic dogma, sound morals, the constitutional monarchy and the political regime. Several university professors, such as Giner de los Ríos, Azcárate and Salmerón were first suspended and later removed from their professorships".

In 1876, Giner de los Ríos and several of his colleagues founded the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, an association that, outside of public education, sought to renew the younger generations with a secular morality and ideas inspired by the German idealist Freemason K. Ch.F. Krause (1781/1832), whose philosophy had tried to harmonize pantheism and theism, and against the Hegelian exaltation of the idea of the State.Ch.F. Krause (1781/1832), whose philosophy had tried to harmonize pantheism and theism and, against the Hegelian exaltation of the idea of the State, had defended the ethical superiority of general purpose associations, such as the family or the nation. By promoting a voluntary federation among these associations, rapprochement and unity among human beings could be brought about.

A member of the Institution, Gumersindo de Azcárate, in an article published in the "Revista de España", stated that, "depending on whether the State protects or denies the freedom of science, the energy of a people will show more or less of its peculiar genius... and it may even be the case that its activity is almost completely stifled, as has happened in Spain for three centuries".

Menéndez Pelayo, after reading the aforementioned article and instructed by one of his teachers and friend, Gumersindo Laverde (18335/1890), published, in that same year 1876, his first work, "La ciencia española", with which he began his intellectual adventure, convinced that Spaniards could renew themselves by drawing inspiration from the ethical and cultural ideals of the highest moments of their history; and already then he endorsed the words of the Benedictine scholar B. J. Feijoo, who in one of his speeches had proclaimed himself "a free citizen in the Republic of Letters, neither a slave of Aristotle nor an ally of his enemies".J. Feijoo, who in one of his speeches had proclaimed himself "a free citizen in the Republic of Letters, neither a slave of Aristotle nor an ally of his enemies".

In 1892 he addressed a report to the Minister of Public Works in which he complained because "we see the separation of very worthy Professors from our Faculty..., representatives of very opposite doctrines, but equally worthy of respect for their zealous and disinterested consecration to the cult of truth...", "...ideal of life... aimed at scientific inquiry which can only be achieved with guarantees of independence similar to those enjoyed by all the great scientific institutions of other countries...; "...we wish to approach this ideal by all possible ways and claim for the university body all that freedom of action which, within its peculiar sphere, corresponds to it".

For his part, Cánovas del Castillo, historian, considered that such scourges as Spain's backwardness and lack of political unity were attributable to the legacy of the Inquisition and the House of Austria. And in the Constituent Assembly of 1868, Castelar bellowed: "There is nothing more dreadful, more abominable, than that great Spanish empire which was a shroud that extended over the planet... We lit the bonfires of the Inquisition; we threw our thinkers into them, we burned them and, afterwards, there was nothing more of science in Spain than a pile of ashes".

It is true that Spanish science had been interrupted for a long time, but that was after 1790, not coinciding with the Inquisition, but with the Volterian Court of Charles IV, the Cortes of Cadiz, the disentailment of Mendizabal, the burning of convents...

In this context, in 1881, when Don Marcelino was not yet 25 years old, a tribute was held in Madrid's Retiro Park for the second centenary of Calderón de la Barca's death. Foreign experts praised the merit of the writer, despite the retrograde era in which he lived. Already at the end, Menéndez Pelayo explodes... "Look, Enrique -he would confess later to his brother-, they already had me very loaded, they had said many barbarities and I could not but explode, and, in addition, they gave us such a bad champagne for dessert...".

In this famous toast, the Cantabrian polygraph emphasizes first of all the idea (or rather the fact) that it is the Catholic faith that has shaped us. From its loss or, at least, from its fading away, our decadence and eventual death is born...

Secondly, the vindication of the traditional monarchy, assumed and brought to its apogee by the House of Austria, which was neither absolute nor parliamentary, but Christian, and which, therefore, could be the guarantor of the Spanish municipality, where true freedom could flourish....

In defense of these principles (Catholic faith, traditional monarchy, municipal freedom) Calderón wrote. Liberals, both absolutists and revolutionaries, rise up against them, imposing their ideological freedom that destroys real freedom in the name of abstract and statist ideas.

I end with the transcription of the toast because I think it is worth it: "...I toast to what no one has toasted so far: to the great ideas that were the soul and inspiration of Calderon's poems. In the first place, to the Roman Catholic, apostolic faith, which in seven centuries of struggle made us reconquer our homeland, and which at the dawn of the Renaissance opened to the Castilians the virgin jungles of America, and to the Portuguese the fabulous sanctuaries of India.... I toast, in second place, to the ancient and traditional Spanish monarchy, Christian in essence and democratic in form... I toast to the Spanish nation, Amazon of the Latin race, of which it was a shield and a very firm fence against Germanic barbarism and the spirit of disintegration and heresy... I drink to the Spanish municipality, glorious son of the Roman municipality and expression of the true and legitimate and sacrosanct Spanish freedom... In short, I drink to all the ideas, to all the feelings that Calderón has brought to art...; those of us who feel and think like him, the only ones who with reason, and justice, and right, can exalt his memory.... and whom by no means can the more or less liberal parties count as his own, who, in the name of French-style centralist unity, have stifled and destroyed the ancient municipal and foral liberty of the Peninsula, assassinated first by the House of Bourbon and then by the revolutionary governments of this century. And I say and declare that I do not adhere to the centenary in what it has of a semi-pagan celebration, informed by principles... that would have little to please such a Christian poet as Calderón, if he would raise his head...".

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