During the 19th century, the emergence of the ideology of nationalism, promoted by the modern ‘principle of nationalities,’ distorted the old reality of the nation, reducing it to an exclusivist and romantic idea. In the West, nations had formed slowly during the Middle Ages, emerging from the chaos in which the Roman Empire had been left after the invasions of Germanic tribes. At the same time, they were spiritually conquered by Catholic and Latin civilization.
In this way, the universalist paradigm of the Catholic religion and of Latin culture encountered the tribal perspective of the primitive Germanic peoples. This important encounter thus engendered the balance that eventually characterized traditional Western civilization — that is, individual Christian nations imbued with the universalist ideal of Christendom. This precious equilibrium was eventually dismantled by Protestantism and political absolutism. Meanwhile, the two Treaties of Westphalia eventually buried the old Christendom and ushered in the Modern Age — which eventually gave birth to the ideologies of nationalism and racialism.
We can summarize the principles of the Modern Age in three fundamental points: in religion, Protestantism; in philosophy, rationalism; in politics, liberalism. Although Protestantism and rationalism are opposites, they agree at their core and have the same origin — since both derive from Ockhamist nominalism and deny the essential harmony between faith and reason as defended by the Classical and Scholastic tradition.
For Luther and Calvin, both influenced by nominalist teachers, human reason and human nature were completely corrupted. Faith was no longer understood as the rational assent to divine revelation but as the sentimental certainty of one’s salvation. The divorce between divine faith and human reason created both an individualist religion — which, since it aimed at the purely spiritual, dismissed the historical reality of the Incarnation — and a rationalist approach to worldly affairs (i.e. politics and economics). Liberalism then is really a projection of nominalism in social and political life. It can be combined with either democratic or despotic regimes, though both share the modern idea of political sovereignty and the principle that civil government is self-sufficient and superior to religious authority.
The avalanche of modern ideas dominated Europe throughout the 17th century — but not the entirety of it. In the Iberian Peninsula, the old Western order prevailed for at least one more century. For this reason, the study of Hispanic civilization is of the greatest importance for anyone who wants to adhere to traditionalism and conservatism in the West. Portugal, Castile, and Aragon — each in very particular ways — provided sound examples in the 17th and 18th centuries of what could be used to fend off and resist Modernity. United under the Hispanic Monarchy under the same kings, these nations formed what Francisco Elías de Tejada called the Christianitas minor; that is, the lesser Christendom, thereby perpetuating the idea of Christendom in the West while, at the same time, expanding the old idea of Western civilization to all continents.
The cultural and political complex forged by the Hispanic Monarchy was called ‘Hispanity’ at the beginning of the 20th century and was promoted by men like Zacarías de Vizcarra and Ramiro de Maeztu. It differs from ‘ordinary’ nationalisms because it instead highlights the anti-modern and anti-Romantic nature of Hispanic civilization — especially its deeply anti-nationalist drive. This civilization needed a vector for its defence and for its manifestation in the contemporary context. Thus, Maeztu chose to use the word ‘Hispanity’ so that contemporary man could easily understand it.
Maeztu’s 1934 book, Defensa de la Hispanidad (Defence of Hispanity — not, as some have chosen to translate it, Defence of Spanishness, a term that does not fully capture his idea) summarizes the traditional perspective of the Hispanic monarchy in order to protect and preserve it against the adverse influence of an increasingly dominant Modernity. As a name, Hispania does not refer to modern Spain but to the old name the Romans applied to the totality of the Iberian Peninsula, organized into three provinces under Augustus.
During the Habsburg reign, starting in the 16th century, the Hispanic monarchy consisted of three main crowns: the Crown of Castile (with the Kingdom of Castile, the Kingdom of Navarre, and many other kingdoms and lordships in the peninsula, in South and North America, as well as the Philippines); the Crown of Aragon (with the Kingdom of Aragon, the interesting Lordship of Biscay, the County of Barcelona, and many other kingdoms and dominions across the Mediterranean — including the Italian kingdoms of Naples and Sicily); and the Crown of Portugal (with the Kingdom of Portugal, the State of India, the State of Brazil, and other Portuguese dominions in Africa and Asia). The Hispanic Christianitas minor thus encompassed a huge portion of the planet — from the Kingdom of Portugal to the Duchy of Milan; from the Kingdom of Chile to the Viceroyalty of New Spain; from California to the Philippines; from the Kingdom of Kongo to the Low Countries; from Goa to Macao. All these lands comprised the Hispanic monarchy, a varied and “composite” (in the words of John H. Elliott) political community.
Hispanity, thus, does not refer exclusively to Castile. It encompasses a range of homelands and patriotic allegiances, united at a higher level by a traditional Western worldview with regards to religion, philosophy, and politics. This civilization undoubtedly has experienced decadence and domination, particularly from the 18th century onwards, due to a process well explained by Ramiro de Maeztu. This fundamentally consists of the moral defeat of Hispanic elites, who — since the 18th century — progressively abandoned classical ideals, choosing instead to emulate modern English and French institutions (and then also Prussian and North American ones).
Hispanic peoples remained largely loyal to the Latin and Catholic tradition of Western civilization despite the corruption of their elites. This precipitated the long-standing clash between people and elites in Hispanic countries, a phenomenon much commented upon in Brazil by writers such as Machado de Assis, Joaquim Nabuco, and Ariano Suassuna. As Machado de Assis wrote in one of his columns during the 19th century: “The real country is good and reveals the best instincts; but the official country is caricatural and burlesque” (Diário do Rio de Janeiro, December 29, 1861).
Since no country can survive without authentic elites, it should be no surprise that Latin and Hispanic countries — from Italy and Spain to Mexico and Peru — soon became ‘outcasts’ in the contemporary world order. Although for centuries they represented the pinnacle of civilization, their importance and prominence faded — and, along with this, Western civilization faded as well. The classical Western notions of natural law, human nature, and the common good — as well as a proper understanding of the relations between authority and liberty, faith and reason, nation and ecumene — all faded along with the idea of Christendom as represented by the Hispanic Christianitas minor. They ceded their place to modern ideologies, beginning with nationalism, liberalism, and totalitarianism.
Despite the decadence of the Hispanic world and the indifference of most of its elites, there is no way to truly re-discover the roots of Western civilization without recognizing the vitality of the Hispanic tradition. Even today, popular cultural expressions — and diverse manifestations of the Hispanic tradition’s historical and artistic patrimony — still pulse with Latin and Catholic traditionalism. The 20th century even abounded with great traditionalist authors who continued and further developed the Hispanic and Western political tradition — people like Francisco Elías de Tejada but also: Francisco Canals Vidal, José Pedro Galvão de Sousa, Arlindo Veiga dos Santos, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, and Guido Soaje Ramos, to name but a few. Many others, though not exactly traditionalists, also echoed the idea of Hispanity in their work — for instance, people like Rubén Darío, Gilberto Freyre, and Frank Tannenbaum. Manuel García Morente’s Idea de la Hispanidad (1938) was a particularly important work in the elaboration of this idea.
The esteemed Spanish traditionalist Miguel Ayuso, a professor of political science and constitutional law at Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid, has described the evolution of the Hispanic traditionalist movement — from the 19th century to the present day — a move away from Christianitas minor towards Christianitas minima. Despite this diminishment, Hispanity continues to represent an important tradition — and reflect a doctrinal corpus — that should be re-discovered and better known by all conservatives and traditionalists in the West. To dismiss it or ignore it is to reject a critically important aspect of the West’s rich legacy.