The story of the Enlightenment in Spain is a case of a resistible force encountering an immovable body. The Spanish character, and its blood-written pledge to its medieval faith, turned back sooner or later all winds of heresy or doubt, all alien forms of dress or manners or economy. Only one economic force favored foreign thought—Spanish merchants who daily dealt with strangers, and who knew to what power and wealth their like had risen in England and France. They were willing to import ideas if these could weaken the hold that nobles and clergy had inherited on the land, life, and mind of Spain. They knew that religion had lost its power in England; some had heard of Newton and Locke; even Gibbon was to find a few readers in Spain.19
Of course the strongest Enlightenment breezes came from France. The French aristocrats who followed Philip V to Madrid were already touched by the irreligion that hid its head under Louis XIV but ran rampant during the Regency. In 1714 some scholars founded the Real Academia Española in emulation of the French Academy; soon it began work on a dictionary; in 1737 the Diario de los literatos de España undertook to rival the Journal des savants. The Duke of Alba, who directed the Real Academia for twenty years (1756-76), was a warm admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.20 In 1773 he subscribed eight louis d’or for Pigalle’s statue of Voltaire; “Condemned to cultivate my reason in secret,” he wrote to d’Alembert, “I take this opportunity to give public testimony to my gratitude and admiration for the great man who first showed me the way.”21
Gratuitous advertisement was given to Rousseau’s Émile by its ceremonious burning in a Madrid church (1765).22 Young Spaniards acquainted with Paris, like the Marqués de Mora who loved Julie de Lespinasse, came back to Spain with some rubbing of the skepticism that they had encountered in the salons. Copies of works by Voltaire, Diderot, or Raynal were smuggled into Spain, and aroused some innovating minds. A Spanish journalist wrote in 1763: “Through the effect of many pernicious books that have become the fashion, such as those of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Helvétius, much cooling of faith has been felt in this country.”23 Pablo Olavide openly expressed Voltairean ideas in his Madrid salon (c. 1766).24 On the shelves of the Sociedades Económicas de los Amigos del País in Madrid were works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Bayle, d’Alembert, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume.25 Abbé Clément, touring Spain in 1768, reported a wide spread of religious indifference, even unbelief, covered with external observance of Catholic ritual.26 In 1778 the Inquisition was informed that the highest officials of the court read the French philosophes.27
It was of considerable importance to Spanish history that Pedro Abarca, Conde de Aranda, traveling in France, became a friend of Voltaire. We may judge of his connections by his later activity as Spanish ambassador to Versailles; he mixed freely with the Encyclopedists in Paris, formed an admiring intimacy with d’Alembert, and crossed France to visit Voltaire at Ferney. In Spain he professed fidelity to the Church, but it was he who persuaded Charles III to expel the Jesuits. Under his guidance Charles joined the ranks of those “enlightened despots” to whom the philosophes were looking as their likeliest aides in the spread of education, liberty, and reason.