When Louis XIV accepted the offer of the last Hapsburg King of Spain to bequeath his crown to a grandson of the Grand Monarque, a Spanish ambassador at Versailles exclaimed joyfully, “Now there are no more Pyrenees!” But those gloomy masses stood their ground as an obstinate barrier to French lumières, and as a symbol of the resistance that would meet the attempt of a dedicated few to Europeanize the Spanish mind.
Campomanes startled the old with a Discurso sobre la educación popular de los artesanos y su fomento (1774-76), which made a wider extension of popular education an indispensable base for national vitality and growth. Some high ecclesiastics and great landowners saw no sense in disturbing the people with unnecessary knowledge that might lead to religious heresy and social revolt. Undeterred, Jovellanos labored to spread faith in education. “Numerous are the streams that lead to social prosperity,” he wrote, “but all spring from the same source, and that source is public education.”80 He hoped that education would teach men to reason, that reason would free them from superstition and intolerance, and that science, developed by such men, would use the resources of nature for the conquest of disease and poverty. Some noble ladies took up the challenge, and formed a Junta de Damas to finance primary schools. Charles III spent considerable sums in establishing free elementary schools. Private individuals joined in founding academies for the study of language, literature, history, art, law, science, or medicine.
The expulsion of the Jesuits compelled and facilitated the remolding of secondary schools. Charles ordered an expansion of science courses in these colleges, a modernization of their textbooks, and the admission of laymen to their faculties. He endowed colleges, and gave pensions to outstanding teachers.81 The universities were advised to admit Newton to their courses in physics, and Descartes and Leibniz into their courses in philosophy. The University of Salamanca rejected the advice on the ground that “the principles of Newton … and Cartesio do not resemble the revealed truth as much as do those of Aristotle”;82 but most Spanish universities accepted the royal directive. The University of Valencia, with 2,400 students, was now (1784) the largest and most progressive educational center in Spain. Several religious orders adopted filosofía moderna in their colleges. The general of the Discalced Carmelites urged Carmelite teachers to read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, Wolff, Condillac; here was no regimen for saints. One chapter of the Augustinian Friars studied Hobbes, another studied Helvétius. Such studies were always followed by refutations, but many an ardent soul has lost his faith in refuting its enemies.
One remarkable monk had “modernized” while Charles III was still a youth. Though spending the last forty-seven years (1717-64) of his life in a Benedictine monastery at Oviedo, Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro managed to study Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, Gassendi, Newton, and Leibniz; and he saw with wonder and shame how Spain, since Cervantes, had been isolated from the main currents of European thought. From his cell he sent forth, between 1726 and 1739, a series of eight volumes which he called Teatro crítico —not dramatic criticism, but a critical examination of ideas. He attacked the logic and philosophy then taught in Spain; lauded Bacon’s plea for inductive science; summarized the findings of scientists in many fields; ridiculed magic, divination, bogus miracles, medical ignorance, and popular superstitions; laid down rules of historical credibility that ruthlessly punctured fond national legends; demanded an extension of education to all classes; and advocated a freer and more public life for women in education and society.
A swarm of enemies gathered around his books, impugning his patriotism and denouncing his audacities. The Inquisition summoned him before its tribunal, but it could find no explicit heresy in him or his work. In 1742 he resumed his campaign with the first of five volumes entitled Cartas eruditas y curiosas (Learned and Inquiring Letters) . He wrote a good style, recognizing every author’s moral obligation to be clear; and the public so relished his instruction and his courage that fifteen editions of the Teatro and theCartas were required by 1786. He could not banish superstition from Spain; witches, ghosts, and demons still peopled the air and frightened the mind; but a beginning had been made, and it is to the credit of his order that this had been done by a monk who remained unmolested in his modest cell until his death at eighty-eight (1764).
It was another cleric who wrote the most famous prose work of eighteenth-century Spain. Just as the Benedictines saw that no harm should come to Feijóo, so the Jesuits protected one of their priests whose chief production was a satire of sermons. José Francisco de Isla was himself an eloquent preacher, but he was first amused, then disturbed, by the oratorical tricks, the literary conceits, the histrionics and buffoonery with which some preachers caught the attention and pennies of the people in churches and public squares. In 1758 he made high fun of these evangelists in a novel called Historia del famoso predicador Fray Gerundio. Brother Gerund, said Father Isla,
always began his sermons with some proverb, some pothouse witticism, or some strange fragment which, taken from its context, would seem at first blush to be an inconsequence, a blasphemy, or an impiety, until at last, having kept his audience waiting a moment in wonder, he finished the clause, and came out with an explanation that reduced the whole to a sort of miserable trifling. Thus, preaching one day on the mystery of the Trinity, he began his sermon by saying, “I deny that God exists a Unity in essence and a Trinity in person,” and then stopped short for an instant. The hearers, of course, looked around, … wondering what would be the end of this heretical blasphemy. At length, when the preacher thought he had fairly caught them, he went on: “Thus say the Ebionite, the Marcionite, the Arian, the Manichean, the Socinian; but I prove it against them all from the Scriptures, the Councils, and the Fathers.”83
Within a day of its publication eight hundred copies of Fray Gerundio were sold. The preaching friars assailed it as encouraging disrespect of the clergy. Isla was summoned before the Inquisition, and his book was condemned (1760), but he himself was not punished. Meanwhile he joined his fellow Jesuits in exile, and on the road suffered an attack of paralysis. He spent his declining years at Bologna, living on the pittance allowed him by the Spanish government.
Almost every Spaniard who could write wrote poetry. At a poetic joust in 1727 there were 150 competitors. Jovellanos added poetry and drama to his activities as jurist, educator, and statesman. His home in Madrid became a meeting place for men of letters. He composed satires in the manner of Juvenal, rebuking the corruption he had found in government and law; and, like any city dweller, he sang the joys of rural peace.—Nicolás Fernández de Moratín composed an epic canto on the exploits of Cortez; we are told that this is “the noblest poem of its class produced in Spain during the eighteenth century.”84 The gay and gracious verses of Diego González, an Augustinian friar, were more popular than the didactic Four Ages of Man which he dedicated to Jovellanos.—Don Tomás de Iriarte y Oropesa also indulged a didactic bent in his poem On Music; better were his Fables (1782), which chastised the foibles of pundits and earned him a reputation that still survives. He translated tragedies by Voltaire and comedies by Molière; he made fun of the monks “who hold sway over the heavens and two thirds of Spain”; he was prosecuted by the Inquisition, recanted, and died of syphilis at forty-one (1791).85
In 1780 the Spanish Academy offered an award for an eclogue celebrating pastoral life. Iriarte won second prize and never forgave the victor, for Juan Meléndez Valdés went on to become the leading Spanish poet of the age. Juan wooed Jovellanos, and through him obtained the chair of humanities at Salamanca (1781); there he won first the students, then the faculty, to a more adventurous curriculum, even to reading Locke and Montesquieu. Between classes he wrote a volume of lyrics and pastoral poetry—vivid evocations of natural scenery in verses of such delicacy and finish as Spain had not read for more than a century. The continuing favor of Jovellanos raised Meléndez to the judiciary at Saragossa and to the chancery court at Valladolid, and his poetry suffered from his politics. When Jovellanos was exiled (1798) Meléndez was banished, too. He turned his pen to denouncing the French invaders of Spain, and Joseph Bonaparte especially; but in 1808 he returned to Madrid, accepted office under Joseph Bonaparte, and shocked Spain with poetic flatteries of his foreign masters. In the war of liberation that deposed Joseph the poet’s house was sacked by French soldiers, he himself was attacked by an angry mob, and he fled for his life from Spain. Before crossing the Bidassoa into France he kissed the last spot of Spanish earth (1813). Four years later he died in obscurity and poverty in Montpellier.
Spain should have had good dramatists in this age, for the Bourbon kings were well disposed toward the theater. Three factors made for its decline: the strong preference of Isabella Farnese for opera and of Philip V for Farinelli; the consequent dependence of the theater upon the general public, whose applause went most to farces, miracles, legends, and verbal conceits; and the effort of the more serious dramatists to imprison their plays within the “Aristotelian unities” of action, place, and time. The most popular playwright of the century was Ramón Francisco de la Cruz, who wrote some four hundred little farces satirizing the manners, ideas, and speech of the middle and lower classes, but portraying the sins and follies of the populace with a forgiving sympathy. Jovellanos, the uomo universale of Spain, put his hand to comedy, and won both the audience and the critics with his Delinquente honrado (1773)—The Honored Criminal: a Spanish gentleman, after repeatedly refusing to fight a duel, finally takes up a persistent challenge, kills his opponent in a fair fight, and is condemned to death by a judge who turns out to be his father. Always a reformer, Jovellanos aimed with his play to obtain a mitigation of the law that made dueling a capital crime.
The campaign for the Aristotelian unities was led by the poet Nicolás Fernández de Moratín, and was carried on to success by his son Leandro. The early poems of this youth pleased Jovellanos, who secured a berth for him with the Spanish embassy in Paris. There he made friends with Goldoni, who turned him to writing plays. Fortune lavished gifts upon “Moratín the Younger”; he was sent at public expense to study the theaters in Germany, Italy, and England; and on his return to Spain he was given a sinecure that allowed him time for literary work. His first comedy was offered to a Madrid theater in 1786, but its presentation was delayed for four years while managers and actors debated whether a play obeying the rules of Aristotle and French drama could win a Spanish audience. Its success was moderate. Moratín took the offensive; in his Comedia nueva (1792) he made such fun of the popular comedies that the audience thereafter accepted dramas that studied character and illuminated life. Moratín was acclaimed as the Spanish Molière, and dominated the stage of Madrid until the French invasion of 1808. His French sympathies and liberal politics led him, like Meléndez and Goya, to co-operate with the government of Joseph Bonaparte. When Joseph fell, Moratín narrowly escaped imprisonment. He sought refuge in France, and died in Paris in 1828—the same year in which the self-exiled Goya died in Bordeaux.