According to the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, "eminent" means "high, elevated, it stands out from the crowd"; "it excels and has advantage in merit, price, extension or another quality". Thus, the "eminent" Spaniards are those who stand out -or stood out, as it is our case- from the rest. There are many of these, and Vives, Saavedra Fajardo, Feijóo, Jovellanos, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Ramón y Cajal and Ortega y Gasset, are among them without doubt. They indeed stood out -in different fields: essay, critic, literature, science, philosophy- due to their quality and importance, but also due to the projection that their personalities, ideas, texts, and researches had.
Their biographies are thus of great interest. I would say that for four reasons: 1) because their biography expose, in words of Dilthey, "the fundamental historical happening in its pure and complete reality", from the moment that the biography is an essential expression of the radical reality that is life (Dilthey, Ortega); 2) because Vives, Saavedra Fajardo, Feijóo, Jovellanos, Emilia Pardo Bazán and Ortega were famous episodes of the Spanish life, and the knowledge on these episodes allow us to see history itself from surely partial, but also privileged, perspectives; 3) because the topic of eminence is strongly related to other topics like merit, prestige, moral authority, and exemplarity, a social event of first magnitude as what we could call "archetypes of eminence (or excellence)" -the saint, the knight, the courtier, the hero, the gentleman- clearly expose the virtues that in each period are in effect in society; 4) because in the case of Vives, Saavedra Fajardo, Feijóo, Jovellanos, Emilia Pardo Bazán an Ortega, six men and a woman of ideas, the topic that unites their biographies is also the topic of the power of ideas in history, a topic that raised great interest in for example -and in order to cite an authority- Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford historian.
Individual life and the power of ideas as the keys of history: Vives, Saavedra Fajardo, Feijóo, Jovellanos, Pardo Bazán, Ramón y Cajal and Ortega, as a sequence -or possible sequence- of Spain’s own history.
The Benedictine Benito Jerónimo Feijoo Montenegro (Casdemiro, Orense, 1676 - Oviedo, 1764) was without doubt the most the most prominent figure of the Spanish culture in the first half of the 18th century. His work, different in style from the prose of the las Baroque period, cannot be totally included into the Enlightenment. It better belongs to that period that Paul Hazard named La Crise de la conscience européenne (1680-1715) characterized by the contradiction and confrontation of new ideas in many and diverse fields, from cosmology to the natural sciences (exposed to the reception of the new theories by Galileo and Newton), including exact sciences or the biblical critic (Richard Simon), and even philosophy (under the influence of Bacon and the post-cartesian controversy).
The discussion about these new proposals casts doubt upon certainties and visions inherited from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that until then had been firmly accepted by the doxa. This was not only limited to society's lower strata (the concept of "the vulgar" that Feijoo applies in the first speech of his Teatro Crítico Universal is clearly strata-independent), nor was referred to those exclusively un-scholar. The project of Feijoo was not so much the systematic articulation of the new universal knowledge based on experience and reason, but the attempt to eradicate the errors admitted by the opinion of the majority. This explains the miscelaneous nature of his work that shows some similarities in styles with other works like Pseudodoxia Epidemica from the English medic Thomas Browne (1646, and many posterior editions), or even Curiosa Filosofía y cuestiones naturales (1630) from the Jesuist Nieremberg. There is no encyclopedical desire neither in Teatro Crítico Universal or the Cartas Eruditas, but only a random compilation of rebuttals to several errors. For Feijoo, truth was unique and errors were multiple and proliferating, although the sum of many in a single opinion does not guarantee its own truth.
The enterprise of Feijoo is associated with the reformism of the first Spanish Bourbons, and curiously, to the administrative, military and financial rationalization policies of the Marquis of Patiño and his collaborators. In the second half of the century, the attacks against the Benedictine increased, but also his followers within the new Enlightenment sectors. The constant opposition he found from Gregorio Mayans y Siscar was somewhat equilibrated with the support given by intellectuals and scientists of the Court (like for example, the medic and anatomist Martín Martínez). Nevertheless, the reign of Fernando VI gave way to a more fierce and ubiquitous criticism, to the point that Feijoo requested and obtained from the monarch the explicit prohibition of making public critics to his work.
Feijoo nowadays does not represent the "insufficient Enlightenment", but a transition figure corresponding to a period of time characterized by the wish to innovate in all fields of knowledge. Not only did he combat the errors contained in opinions inherited, but also created an appropriate language for the dissemination of science and public criticism, as well as he set the fundaments of the modern essay in Spanish culture.
From his native Murcia to the curial Rome and, later, to the M,fcnster of the Westfalia negotiations, the actions of Saavedra Fajardo are one of the most complete and outstanding of the Baroque Spain, and even the Baroque Europe. Server of the Austria Monarchy as ambassador and plenipotentiary, he was also in charge of government responsibilities in the royal court, where he acted for a short time as a member of the Consejo de Indias. Erudite and insightful by nature, he travelled the turbulent Europe of the Thirty Years' War, infiltrating the labyrinthine life of its courts and transmitting their echoes through an extraordinary collection of letters. His long European voyage allowed him to know, like few Spaniards of the time, the changes that were taking place in the fight for international hegemony. As time passed, his condition of being a practical man for negotiation -and although he ended up disappointed by it- allowed him to lucidly reflect about the preeminent spot that the ideal reputation requested from the Spanish Monarchy. Saavedra Fajardo also learned in a more stark way what was really reserved for that Monarchy within the new continental scenario, all of it included in his work Locuras de Europa.
Among the works he authored, it is worth highlighting together with Corona gótica, his Idea de un príncipe político cristiano representada en cien empresas published in Milan on 1640 with a prologue aimed at Baltasar Carlos de Austria, at the time heir of the huge monarchy of Felipe IV. A mirror for princes in times of crisis, this book is probably one of the European pinnacles of the Baroque discourse based on the combined hammering action of texts and images. With the great knowledge he possessed about the networks of debaters and polemicists at the service of power, he registered with superb mastery the particular sociability of the men of letters in his República literaria. In summary, Saavedra Fajardo held a relevant position in the international Republic of Letters of the 17th century, to the point that he was included in the European Parnassus being drafted at the time.
Emilia Pardo Bazán belongs to that important generation of writers and thinkers - Pereda, Valera, Palacio Valdés, Galdós, Clarín, Giner, Menéndez Pelayo, Costa, Ramón y Cajal...- that act as the gantry to the Silver Age of the Spanish culture during the time period of the Restoration. Among so many illustrious men, doña Emilia has not gone unnoticed, but she has been insufficiently valued when it comes to evaluate the culture of that period. A rather unexpected event if we consider that she was one of the most restless and versatile figures of her environment. Hardened reader since her infancy, equipped with a great intelligence, devoted worker, full of a neverending curiosity, owner of a vast culture, and familiarized with several languages, she travelled along Europe and informed in Spain about the most recent literary movements: first the French physiological naturalism, and some time later the Russian naturalism of spiritual nature. This was through La cuestión palpitante and her conferences in the Ateneo of Madrid dealin on the revolution and the Russian novel (La revolución y la novela en Rusia).
Author of numerous novels that are among the most famous of her period, La tribuna Los pazos de Ulloa, La madre naturaleza, Una Cristiana, La prueba, Doña Milagros, Memorias de un solterón, la Quimera..., she developed a very intense journalistic labour in which the numerous problems experienced by society could be found: social problems, educative, religious, literary, the impact of the 98 crisis... Among these issues, one caught her attention in particular: the discrimination that women suffered in a society that called itself liberal and pretended to be democratic. It is due to this that her feminist conscience is born. The compromise of the writer with feminism will be always present in her work, and there are many tales, articles, and conferences devoted to this topic. Emilia who suffered the injustice and discrimination of women herself, will maintain all of her life the attitude of a militant in the pursuit of equality.
Jovellanos is one of the greatest figures of the Spanish Enlightenment, quite possibly the person that best and most completely incarnated the ideals and illusions of its phase of maturity during the reign of Carlos III, as it is evidenced by his acts and writings. His vital trajectory can be divided in a first period as judicial officer in Sevilla, where he had contact with another of the key representatives of Enlightenment movement, Pablo Olavide, and where he accomplished his first intellectual activities, both in the field of thought and the field of literature. A second period takes place in Madrid in contact with the Academias Reales and the Sociedad Económica Matritense de Amigos del País, until he is sent on a mission to Asturias. There, a third period around the Instituto Asturiano de Minas will take place in two sub-periods divided by a short stay working as the Secretary of Grace and Justice between 1797 and 1798. The following period corresponds with the exile ordered by Godoy in the island of Mallorca, a very rich one in terms of personal reflexions. And finally, the last period makes Jovellanos face the events that would precipitate the end of the Old Regime in Spain and with the difficult dilemma of all the enlightened: collaboration with the government of José I or supporting the Junta Central, fidelity to the constitutional tradition or support to the Courts of Cádiz.
What is important is all of his rich thinking, from which we know enough due to his numerous writings, many of them key pieces of the economic, political, and social thinking of the Spanish Enlightenment. Through them, Jovellanos appears as the quintessential theorist of the Enlightenment reformism in its most elaborated shape and most generous dimension. He also appears as a man always contained within the limits of this Enlightenment reformism, this is, always loyal to the preservation of the Old Regime. His educative proposals accepted social inequality, his economic proposals did not dare for a radical reformation of the structural obstacles opposing the development of the country, his political proposals did not put in doubt the organization estates of the Kingdom, nor did the go beyond the traditional constitution of the Monarchy. Due to this, Jovellanos was a noble figure in a period of transition, who theorized a coherent political reformism, but who could not or did not want to speak out in favour of a liberal solution for the future organization of Spain.
The idiosyncrasy of Spanish society and scientific research have not been fully understood throughout history. This is the reason why the case of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and his school pose a singular event that needs to be studied in detail. This study needs to begin with the analysis of the social and historical context in which our figure lived. In the 19th century, the science that was done in Spain moved within the borders set by the Enlightenment's utilitarianism and strong mental restrictions set by the Catholic education. As a result, the advances of life sciences arrived to our country late and the disciplines were practiced by a very small number of professionals who could not add-up the critical mass needed, nor disseminate the knowledge adequately among younger students.
Cajal did not come from an accommodated origin, nor grew up in an environment fostering scientific research. What he did have, though, was a father who was very aware of the difference between receiving a proper solid education or leaving the future of a person in hands of emotional whims. Fortunately for the the scientists of today, Cajal studied medicine and aimed his curiosity towards questions about the biological nature of humans. After gaining a first hand knowledge on the political decadence of Spain during that period, as well as the frustrations that still nowadays hinders the practice of medicine, Cajal did have a lucky encounter. In this case it was with a colleague of his, Dr Luis Simarro, who showed him a new coloring technique applying silver staining over the nervous system; a technique which had been invented fifteen years earlier by the Italian scientist Camilo Golgi. This was really a decisive moment on the course of Cajal's professional life. With perseverance and creativity the "reazione nera" was improved and amplified until becoming a wonderful tool for unravelling the structural organization of the nervous system. The mysterious function of the unsolvable complexity of the brain could now be studied in terms of specific communication paths, of cognitive differences between species and individuals, and in terms of development and evolution. This was the birth of modern Neurobiology, and its founder was Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
In the middle of Cajal's professional peak, Spanish society was also trying to overcome from its recent disastrous past. The Regeneration was a movement that also reached education and science. The Junta para la Ampliación de Estudios (Board for Advanced Studies and Scientific Research, JAE) was an unparalleled governmental effort to develop research and disseminate knowledge among society. Without surprise, Cajal was appointed its first president. The future promises granted by the JAE, the numerous histologic school following Cajal, and many other intellectuals being part of the regeneration movement had good reasons to be hopeful. The present would now be very different if all that enthusiasm and effort had not been whipped out by the plague of hate that is rooted within our history. Cajal died only two years before the beginning of our last national tragedy.
José Ortega y Gasset, one of the most powerful minds in the history of Spanish thought and a significant figure of the contemporary philosophical landscape, deserves beyond expectation a place in the pantheon of "eminent Spaniards". Along his wide and tireless reformist labour we can highlight his wish of making accessible to all Spaniards the trends of modern thought and submit them, in words of one of his biographers, to the "imperative of modernity". And yet, while Ortega defended the new sensibility he declared himself as "not modern at all and very much of the 20th century".
I believe that the most fruitful approximation to the sense and importance of his writings is to appreciate them as a modernizing will, anxious to elevate the Spanish culture to the level of European science, but that at the same times attempting to overcome those manifestations of modernity that our thinker considered limited, erroneous, expired, or damaging. In my conference I propose to make a brief analysis of some of the key essays of the Madrid-born philosopher, as well as the critics and comments that our thinker made to figures like Descartes, Galileo, Darwin, Velázquez, Debussy, among others. This way we will discover a modern, anti-modern, and current Ortega.