From Varela to Martí, the 19th century went by, a century that Martí hailed as being “about patriotic work.” It was a century in which the “Cuban feeling” was thought about, constructed and achieved; that century in which profound ideas were sown about the nation as the bearer of its essential quality: heartfelt cubanía (Cuban-ness),...
It was early 1853. In Havana, Mrs. Leonor Pérez was expecting the birth of a child. In St. Augustine, Florida, the well-known former professor from the Royal San Carlos and San Ambrosio School and Seminary in Havana, Félix Varela y Morales, was in a wooden room in the rear of the town’s small church, furnished only with a cot, a small table, and an arm chair. Far away from his homeland, he feels the symptoms of his disease becoming worse.
The capital of the Island of Cuba, one of the main ports of the Americas, awakens every morning to the reverberation of the bells from its numerous churches, the call of street vendors, the slow and dignified gait of gentlemen wearing European-style suits, and the hustle and bustle of the street full of slaves and freed blacks, craftsmen and merchants, sailors and go-getters, dreamers, pragmatists, and officials.
No one imagined that two transcendental events in the history of Cuba were about to take place that 53rd year of the 19th century. In a house on Paula Street, on January 28th, Mr. Mariano and Mrs. Leonor were happily celebrating the birth of their son, José Martí y Pérez.
On Friday, February 25th, at 8:30pm and after suffering a prolonged and painful illness, Félix Varela y Morales died, in abject poverty. The symbolism of these two events is remarkable. While the man who first pioneered pro-independence thinking in Cuba, the advocate of philosophy and modern sciences, and the professor of a generation that produced outstanding figures who laid the foundations for a patriotic culture, was drying, the man who would carry that thinking and that culture to their highest expression and into the work of liberation, was being born. Varela, the Founding Father, was born on November 20, 1788, as shown in my research paper published as part of the celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of his birth. Varela called himself \"a son of freedom, an American soul.\"
In a letter addressed to one of his disciples, and which for its content could be considered his political and intellectual testament, Varela expressed a fervent desire - the pressing need - to begin again patriotic work in thought and action, in science and conscience, which would allow him to achieve the objectives of his life and work: the liberation and authentic realization of the human being, of society, of his homeland, and of all humanity.
In typical Cuban language the philosopher urges: \"I will say it frankly, as I normally do: too many weeds have been left to grow in the field that I cleared; and as I don’t have a machete nor the habit of using one, I want those who have both to begin again the work.”
In the final moments of his life, the Founding Father couldn’t know that the man able to use the machete to cut the weeds had been born only some days before. With honed writing, steel courage, and exquisite sensitivity, he would cut the soul-destroying weed that colonialism, slavery, illiteracy, false erudition, material and spiritual deprivation, gambling, laziness, and indolence, among many other bad weeds that sprout without need of fertilization, had allowed to grow within Cuban society.
From Varela to Martí, the 19th century went by, a century that Martí hailed as being “about patriotic work.” It was a century in which the “Cuban feeling” was thought about, constructed and achieved; that century in which profound ideas were sown about the nation as the bearer of its essential quality: heartfelt cubanía (Cuban-ness), which in turn nurtured the idea of cubanidad (being Cuban) based on the universality of knowledge and from the uniqueness of its own reality. Varela is present in its origins.
The liberating chain
Martí was 15 years old when our wars for independence began. His patriotic fervor is expressed in his poem “10 de octubre.” One event shows how this young man already had, at such an early age, a fully developed \"Cuban idea,\" and the universal sense of Varela’s rational and intelligent patriotism.
In a letter to a fellow student who offers to serve in the voluntary Spanish troops against the pro-independence movement, Martí and his brother in ideas, Fermín Valdés Domínguez, tell him that no student of Rafael María Mendive should wear that uniform. Their teacher had taught them the idea of patriotism. That idea contained the construction of a new independent Cuba, a country of free and cultured people, a country that gives rise to the full dignity of humankind. This is significant, because Martí would travel abroad observing carefully, enriching his ideas, identifying perils, organizing thoughts in his mind to be able to organize them in life, defining universal phenomena as accurately as possible.
He searches, he studies from the uncompromising substance of a Cuban patriotism - which has nothing to do with common chauvinism - everything that can be important for the creation of the transcendental project of a \"Cuban Cuba.\" It is about educating to create, without \"the vanity of a villager,\" according to Martí, or \"miniature copies,\" according to Varela; a new culture, the genuine release of a new people. Everything he studies makes sense, for he does it from a Cuban view of the world, born in the Lessons of Philosophy by the Founding Father, Felix Varela. Thus, Europe and North America do not absorb Martí, do not transform him; they teach him how to insert Cuba in the world with its authentic identity, and at the same time, how to make the world more ours.
It was the teacher Mendive who not only from the heart, but also from ideas, educated the man who would continue this tradition of thought. And, who can ignore the fact that Marti’s teacher is, on his part, the beloved student of Don Pepe, that is, of José de la Luz y Caballero? The first to know this is Martí himself. Unlike any other Cuban has ever done before, he considers Luz as the main founder of the \"patriotic idea\" and the intellectual father of the generation of 1868. Could there be more heartrending love than that of this son for this father of ideas? Martí affirms:
\"He, the father; he, the silent founder; he who burned and sparkled alone and choked his heart with heroic hand, to give time so that from him youth grow up with whom freedom would be won that would only shine upon his bones (…), he who resigned himself – so that Cuba was - seemed to be, in his time and afterwards, less than what it was(…) he has created from his tomb, among the purest sons of Cuba, a natural and beautiful religion that, in its form, fits the new reason of humankind, and in the balm of his spirit to the wound and arrogance of Cuban society; he, the father, is without reason unknown by those who have no eyes to see him, and is sometimes denied by his own children.\"
Luz had fought a silent, exhausting battle, in which he had undermined his health against all those who, under the influence of a philosophy in fashion in Europe, had placed between parenthesis Felix Varela\'s \"patriotic idea\" (the need of full knowledge to build Cuba, a Cuba that didn’t exist but which could be constructed by the work and efforts of its children).
From a stance of spiritualistic eclecticism, efforts had been made to dismantle everything that Varela’s efforts implied for creating a Cuban science and consciousness. Opponents of Varela\'s thought did nothing other than apply the ideas of European conservatism with respect to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Those who had raised the banners saying that genuine thought could not emerge in Cuba, affirmed Cuban patriotism was only of \"cassava and fried plantain,\" of “love to Mayabeque and Almendares\" (rivers), of landscapist patriotism; but not as Varela wanted: of thought and culture, of science, awareness and virtue.
Amid such an environment of diminished values, the doors were open for the consolidation of Spanish or North American colonialism because, they said, Cubans did not have either the culture or capacity for sustaining their aspirations for the creation of a nation. In defense of Varela\'s \"patriotic idea,\" Luz wrote his educational, ethical and theoretical texts. Two principles that he had learned from his teacher Varela, and passed on to his disciples and to the disciples of his disciples, summarize the basis of all creative thinking of the 19th century: \"the philosopher is as tolerant as he is cosmopolitan, but he must be above all a patriot\"; \"everything is in me, it was, in my homeland it will be.\" All the knowledge to build Cuba, to lay the foundations for a homeland that \"is not\" but which \"can and must come to be.”
Whoever studies the works of Luz y Caballero will realize that, from the first to the last, they are inspired by the thought of Felix Varela. It was Luz who said that Varela was “the one who first taught us to think.\"
In his speech accepting the Chair of Philosophy at the San Carlos Seminary, his first posting in his long career as an educator, Luz declared Varela the Perpetual Director of the Chair. In his last speech shortly before his death, his thoughts were for his inspiring father: \"because I, gentlemen, am getting closer to the end of the term God grants to life in these climates, as the illustrious Father Varela used to say, whose memory lives with me and accompanies me everywhere (…), just as he did, I too will reach the edge of the tomb making, with my final breath, a passionate vow for the prosperity of my homeland.\"
It would be Luz who would define the path, drawn by his teacher, so that the \"Cuban idea\" would be created from the \"patriotic idea\": \"we propose to create a school of philosophy in our country, a training establishment of ideas and feelings and methods. A school of virtues, of thoughts and actions; not of passive individuals nor of experts, but of people of action and thought.\" Virtues to think, thinking to act, acting to change reality, to sweep away \"the dirt of society\" so as to change it into a society of virtue and knowledge. This is the only way to free humankind from all their chains, the inner chains that do not permit their spirituality to develop, and the social ones that impede their full dignity. These are the human beings who for Varela, Luz and Martí are able to build a free and just homeland.
Varela and the patriotic idea
A comparative study of the texts of Martí, Luz and Varela - regardless of the different times and situations, of specific developments, of predominant trends in each time - shows the common element that exists in the three figures. Even more so, these figures show the waves of a movement of thought that came to be extended throughout the country and maintained, consciously or not - one is not always aware of the origin of certain ideas and the motivations for certain behaviors - the ideal and the fundamental basis of the projects for a better Cuba and of the “Cuban idea” that have been defended for two centuries.
Based on this understanding of Varelian creation, what is important is not merely the Cuba dreamed, and even more, the Cuba thought; dreams are just dreams. What is important is the accumulation, tendency, improvement, and deepening of ideas based on “brute reality,” analyzed only by the applied sciences, be they physical or social. It’s from knowledge and its application to reality that projects of new and emancipated societies are sustained.
According to Varela, to achieve this one had to think with one’s own head because \"no one can walk with someone else’s feet.\" And this was the great contribution of Varela\'s entire work to culture, science, and the thought of Cuban and Latin American emancipation. See how his pro-American ideals are still valid: \"The American constantly listens to the imperious voice of nature that tells him: I put you on a ground that pursues you with its riches, and assaults you with its fruits; a vast ocean separates you from that Europe where tyranny, abusing me, tramples down my gifts and afflicts the people; do not fear it: its efforts are helpless; recover the freedom that you yourself relinquished through submission born more out of timidity than from need; live free and independent; and offer shelter to the free people of all countries; they are your brothers.”
Replying to a perfidious statement, he writes: \"When I held the Chair of Philosophy at the San Carlos Seminary in Havana, I thought as an American [Latin American]; when it served my homeland to give me the honorable commission of representing it in the Cortes [Spain’s Parliament], I thought as an American; in difficult moments when perhaps my personal interests were in struggle with those of my homeland, I thought as an American; when due to the political outcome of the business of Spain I was forced to seek asylum in a foreign country [United States] for not being a victim in a homeland whose mandates I had endeavored to fulfill up to the last minute, I thought as an American; and I hope to descend to my grave thinking as an American.\"
From his Chair of Philosophy he carried out the extraordinary task of freeing thinking from the gothic structures of medieval thought, thus laying the foundations for the pro-independence ideal in Cuba. He developed logical thinking based on the new methods of modern sciences, and introduced the study of experimental physics, thus becoming one of the great founders of scientific thought and sciences in Cuba. In another respect, in these lessons he outlined the three fundamental principles of political action that typify the essence of Cuban revolutionary thought: “prefer the common good over individual good; do nothing that goes against unity of the social body; and do only that which is possible to be done.\"
On his appointment to the Chair of the Constitution, he was the first to talk in Cuba about the rights of the people and about the contents of the ideas of sovereignty and democracy. A distinguished group of young men who would later become famous scientists like Felipe Poey, or educators and philosophers like José de la Luz y Caballero, or historians and sociologists like José Antonio Saco, or poets and revolutionaries like José María Heredia, considered Varela as their teacher, the man who had taught them to think and act with a scientific method and the love of a poet in, for and because of Cuba and America. To my way of thinking, this was because the most significant of Varela\'s teachings, the most original, is that all this knowledge - contained in his Philosophy Lessons - concluded with the \"one lesson of patriotism.\" The \"most sacred\" patriotic mission was, above all, to do science, to make culture, to educate, work, build, and work hard so that Cuba, finally, could become the \"common home for all.\"
Above all, Varela’s proposal started from achieving \"knowing your own self,\" knowing “the Cuban.” In the same way that the origins of Western thought had arisen among the Greeks, Varela would consider the same starting point for Cuban thinking. Seen like this, it is possible to understand Roberto Agramonte\'s phrase that attributes to the Professor and his disciples the intention “to create a Cuban –sophia1 that would be as sophia as was the Greek one for the Greeks.\" It is from that starting point that we find the three questions of Cuban knowledge: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
Martí’s idea that \"homeland is humanity,\" that it is not the hatred of another people, or an ethnic root, but the \"sweet and consoling union of loves and hopes\" has its origins in Felix Varela\'s lessons of patriotism. But, what is the “patriotic idea\" that gives shape to the \"Cuban idea?\"
The concept of homeland is not common among theoreticians. However, Felix Varela devotes the last lesson of his study of philosophy to a final lesson on patriotism. All knowledge is at the service of a common task which is the creation of a new homeland, authentic, and Cuban. This is not a subtle or miniature copy of other models, but a requirement arising from a singular and specific reality. His efforts are firstly aimed at freeing thought from scholastic tethers and the resulting imitations that result from intellectual inferiority in the face of foreign influence. His second step is to create a philosophy of emancipation with necessity at its core, and also the capacity \"to think with one’s own head,\" to analyze and solve the problems that the concrete and specific Cuban and American realities place as the raw material of all knowledge.
Varela\'s own life was the implementation of his ideas. From the journal El Habanero he promoted and organized the project of patriotic awareness with the objective that Cuba would be free and independent. Together with his ideas for the creation of Cuban thought, he is one of the first to advocate Cuban independence. But he did not do this as others did in his time. He opposed the idea that the independence of Cuba be obtained with the assistance of foreign powers. This conviction led him to reject proposals for annexation. For him, Cuba must be as free in politics as an Island is in nature. Such freedom should not be for the enjoyment of a minority, but for the fulfillment of the majority. In one of his works that has impressed me the most because of the time in which he wrote it, he expresses what he understands as the \"public spirit\": \"people are not as ignorant as their accusers imagine (…). It is true they don\'t have the system of knowledge formed by sciences, but they do have the basis of social knowledge; that is, the ideas and feelings that can be found among great masses and that really form the public example (…) Social interest is not an impulse of sensitivity, but of reason; and some theories called philosophical - to the shame of Philosophy - are nothing but deliria serving as punishment for those in delirium. There exists, indeed, a public spirit, even more so in peoples whose circumstances provide the fuel for that flame that destroys crime and purifies virtue…\"
Science and conscience, with virtue, would be the basis for the creation of a new homeland. Martí would say it in other words: \"be cultured [educated] to be free.\" But being cultured means mastering science and having awareness. They both constitute the basis of true freedom. But freedom, if it is true, means choosing the best options for creating a human community in which the highest human condition is materialized; it means fighting vice, laziness, and insensitivity. It is creativity united with a real aesthetic pleasure in the joy of creating the individual and the social community. By definition, homeland is the land of the parents; it is a concept that includes the emotional so as to govern it and consider it, for which the just curbing of analytical reasoning is necessary. In the land of these parents, building a homeland means building the society they dreamed and thought. It is not a scheme but an enlivening spirit that vibrates in front of any reality that has been changed and is changing.
Felix Varela was the founding father of the Cuban patriotic idea; the father of the fathers of the homeland. What flows from his writings as a permanent strength of his human condition is love: sensitivity and spirituality in the inner being of being human; virtuous passion in social creation.
Varela is in the beginning of the Cuban \"patriotic idea.\" He is the man who, first, taught us to think of Cuba, and from that, to open spaces for all of humanity.
1 Revisor’s note: -sophy in English; from the Greek suffix sophia meaning “skilled in a craft, clever, wise”
Translated by Dayamí Interián García
Revised by Susana Hurlich
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