Domingo Faustino Sarmiento

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (15 February 1811–11 September 1888)

Today is the 211th anniversary of the birth of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (15 February 1811 — 11 September 1888), who was born on this date in 1811.

Sarmiento was the second President of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, and a tireless advocate for the modernization of Argentina and Latin America. As President of Argentina, he didn’t just write about modernization; he was in a position to act upon modernization initiatives, which he did, especially focusing on education. Sarmiento traveled widely to study educational systems in other nation-states in order to apply this knowledge in Argentina.

Sarmiento in his Recollections of a Provincial Past recounts his contact with modern European ideas of history and philosophy and how he was won over by them:

“In 1838, my unfortunate friend Manuel Quiroga Rosas returned to San Juan, his spirit still inadequately prepared, but full of faith and enthusiasm for the new ideas that were shaking the literary world in France, and in possession of a choice library of modern authors. Villemain and Schlegel, on literature; Jouffroy, Lerminier, Guizot, Cousin, on philosophy and history; Tocqueville, Pierre Leroux, on democracy; the Revue Enciclopédique as a synthesis of all the doctrines; Charles Didier and a hundred other names, unknown to me until then, fed my thirst for knowledge for a long time. For two consecutive years, these books provided material for impassioned discussions at evening gatherings, where Doctors Cortinez, Aberastain, Quiroga Rosas, Rodriguez, and I discussed the new doctrines, resisting them, attacking them, and finally ending up more or less won over by them.”

The influence of modernizing European ideas seems to have stayed with Sarmiento throughout his life, if anything only becoming more powerful over time. Sarmiento had imbibed Enlightenment philosophy of history at the source, and eventually this attitude expressed itself in a great book that is variously translated as Facundo, or Barbarism and Civilization, or Life in the Argentine Republic in the days of the Tyrants. The book is a critique of “strongman” governments (in Latin American Spanish, such a strongman ruler is called a caudillo), and specifically a critique of the government of Juan Manuel de Rosas, a brutal and effective leader who rose up out of the countryside with a private army and eventually came to control all of Argentina, but the book is much more than that. Sarmiento was a great writer, and the book immediately strikes the reader as a classic from its opening page.

Sarmiento is unambiguous that civilization is to be found in cities and barbarism is to the found in the countryside; he is the antithesis of Rousseau’s praise of the natural and uncivilized man as morally superior to the civilized man, or the attitude of Herder that what is best and authentic in a people emerges from a pastoral idyll of virtuous peasants. Sarmiento will have no truck with such ideas. Still, his attitude to European scholarship is mixed; Rousseau is mentioned several times in Facundo, but in changing contexts, so it is difficult to understand exactly where Sarmiento stands in relation to the Enlightenment (and the counter-Enlightenment as it first appears in Rousseau). Here is a passage from Facundo in which Sarmiento discusses these European influences and how they were mirrored in Latin America:

“Today, studies of constitutions, races, beliefs — history, in a word — have made common a certain practical knowledge that instructs us against the glitter of theories conceived a priori; but before 1820, none of this had spread through the European world. With the paradoxes of the Social Contract, France rose up; Buenos Aires did the same; Montesquieu separated three distinct powers, and at once we had three powers; Benjamin Constant and Bentham annulled the executive, here it was constituted null at birth; Say and Smith preached free trade, and free trade, we repeated. Buenos Aires professed and believed everything that the learned European world believed and professed. Only after the revolution of 1830 in France, and its incomplete results, did the social sciences take a new direction and illusions begin to vanish. From then on, European books started to reach us showing that Voltaire was not really right, that Rousseau was a sophist, and Mably and Raynal, just anarchists; that there were not three powers, or a social contract, et cetera. From then on, we learned something about races, tendencies, national customs, historical causes. Tocqueville revealed to us, for the first time, the secret of North America; Sismondi showed us the futility of constitutions; Thierry, Michelet, and Guizot, the spirit of history; the revolution of 1830, all the deception of Benjamin Constant’s constitutionalism; the Spanish Revolution, all that is incomplete and backward in our race.”

There is a lot to unpack here. Indeed, I won’t try to pick it apart, as that would require a volume of no inconsiderable size. But I will note that none of these currents and counter-currents seemed to shake Sarmiento’s belief in the need for the progressive ideologies of cities to triumph in the name of civilization over the barbarism of the countryside:

“The man of the city wears European dress, lives a civilized life as we know it everywhere: in the city, there are laws, ideas of progress, means of instruction, some municipal organization, a regular government, etc. Leaving the city district, everything changes in aspect. The man of the country wears other dress, which I will call American, since it is common to all peoples; his way of life is different, his needs, specific and limited. They are like two distinct societies, two peoples strange to one another. And more still: the man of the country, far from aspiring to resemble the man of the city, rejects with scorn his luxuries and his polite manners; and the clothing of the city dweller, his tailcoat, his cape, his saddle — no such sign of Europe can appear in the countryside with impunity. All that is civilized in the city is blockaded, banished outside of it, and anyone who would dare show up in a frock coat, for example, and mounted on an English saddle, would draw upon himself the peasants’ jeers and their brutal aggression.”

Sarmiento was right historically, insofar as civilization appeared as an institution when cities began to appear; etymologically, the terms “city” and “civilization” are closely linked, but Sarmiento made no effort to understand the sources of the peasants’ ridicule of the man in a frock coat and an English saddle showing up in the countryside.

One might have thought, being part of the Hispanophone world, that Sarmiento might have learned something of this from Don Quixote, but there is no mention of Cervantes in the two works from which I quote here. It would take an Argentinian of the following century to better understand this gap, when Jorge Luis Borges recounts, in his short story “Funes, the Memorious,” his experience of being identified as a “city slicker” (“Littérateur, slicker, Buenos Airean”) when he showed up in rural Uruguay. The narrator of “Funes, the Memorious” calls Funes a “vernacular Zarathustra,” and one has to wonder if Juan Manuel de Rosas was also a vernacular Zarathustra, and that there might be something here more than mere barbarism.

It is worth noting that Sarmiento was writing when Argentina was growing in status to become a world power and a wealthy nation-state. By 1900, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world, so even as Sarmiento was criticizing Rosas, the fortunes of Argentina were on a steady upswing, so that we may imagine that there were many who were sympathetic to Rosas.

In the subsequent century, after the fortunes of Argentina had peaked, Latin America, and indeed much of the world, experienced communist insurgencies frequently based upon the discontent of rural peoples who founds themselves ruled by distant cities. In North America today, the rural/urban ideological division of the population is nearly absolute, but rather than the countryside being the source of communist insurgency, the countryside in North America is the source of reactionary resistance to the progressive culture of cities (conditions not unlike those which gave rise to Juan Manuel de Rosas), which progressive culture of cities Sarmiento had enthusiastically praised.

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