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Jaime Luciano Balmes

Priest, philosopher and publicist (1810-1848)

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Balmes, JAIME LUCIANO, philosopher and publicist, b. at Vich, Spain, August 28, 1810; d. there, July 9, 1848. His parents enriched him with no material wealth, but he owed to them a firm, well-balanced temperament, a thorough education, and, probably to his father, a marvelous memory. If to these endowments we add a penetrating intellect, an instinctive sense of right method, an absorbing passion for knowledge, an unflinching though noble ambition, an indomitable determination, a pure life—wherein no unruly sensuousness seems to have ever beclouded the spirit—and abundant opportunities for mental development, we may he prepared to accept even what looks so much like an extravagance on the part of his biographers, that with his sixteenth year, having passed through the schools of Vich, he had completed the seminary course, including philosophy and elementary theology. The next stage of his education was completed at the University of Cervera, where after seven years he received his licentiate in 1833. Later on, he stood for the dignity of Magistrai of Vich, contesting for the position with his former teacher, Dr. Soler. Returning to Cervera after his ordination to the priesthood he held a position as an assistant professor and pursued the study of civil and canon law. He shortly afterwards received the doctorate in pampa. In 1834 he went back to his native place where he devoted himself with his wonted ador to physics and mathematics, and accepting a position as professor in the latter branch, varied the onerous duties of this position by cultivating the classics and writing poems. The latter, though not of a very high order of merit, served to extend his reputation to the capital. He wrote for the “Madrileno Catolico” a prize essay on “Clerical Celibacy” which was so favorably received by the public that he was encouraged to send forth a small book, entitled “Observaciones sociales, politicos, y economicas sobre los bienes del clero” (1840), which won for him national distinction, the essay arousing special interest in the Cortes. Soon afterwards he wrote “Consideraciones sobre la situation en Espana”, directed mainly against Espartero, then at the zenith of his power. It was a bold deed and might easily have been fatal to Balmes.

This was followed by a translation, with Spanish introduction, of the maxims of St. Francis de Sales (1840). He was now far advanced in his “Protestantism Compared with Catholicism” but suspended the work for fifteen days to compose “La Religion demonstrado al alcance de los ninos” a work of advanced instruction for children which rapidly spread throughout Spain and Spanish America and was translated into English. Elected a member of the Academy of Barcelona (1841), he wrote his inaugural dissertation on “Originality”, an essay which exemplifies the predominant trait of its author’s mind. Having completed his reply to Guizot’s “Civilization in Europe“, he published it at Barcelona (1844) under the title “El Protestantismo comparado con el Catolicismo en sus relaciones con la civilization Europea”. The work was at once translated into French and subsequently into Italian, German, and English, and extended the fame of Balmes throughout the world. This work, which for its wealth of fact and critical insight would alone have taxed the resources of a longer life than that which was allotted to Balmes, left to its author time and energy adequate to accomplish tasks of hardly less magnitude and significance. During the bombardment of Barcelona by Espartero, Balmes, going away unwillingly with his friends, took refuge in a country house with no other books than his breviary, “The Imitation”, and the Bible, and while the cannon roared in his ears the philosopher, repeating the experience of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse, composed the “El Criterio” (The Criterion, New York, 1875; The Art of Thinking, Dublin, 1882), a thoroughly practical guide on method in the pursuit of knowledge. It seems incredible that the work could have been produced as it was within a month. Shortly after Balmes became associated with two friends, Roca y Cornet and Ferrer y Subirana, in editing “La Civilization”, a widely influential review wherein appeared one of his most powerful, because sympathetic, papers—that on O’Connell. In 1843 Balmes withdrew from the editorship to found in Barcelona a review of his own, “La Sociedad”. It contained a mass of important papers meeting the social, political, and religious exigencies of the time. “La Sociedad” was reprinted at Barcelona in 1851. It was through its pages that the greater part of a notable work, subsequently completed by the author, was issued—”Cartas a un eseptico (Letters to a Sceptic, Dublin, 1875).

About the date of the appearance of “El Protestantismo” (1844) Balmes was called to Madrid where he established a newspaper “El Pensamiento de la Nacion” in the interests of politics and religion. Its special purpose was the advocacy of the marriage of Isabella II with the eldest son of Don Carlos, a union which appeared to Balmes to offer the most effectual solution of the existing political problems of Spain. He even accepted a mission to Don Carlos and succeeded in persuading the latter to renounce his title of king in favor of the Count of Montemolin. Unfortunately, the plan which might have spared his country many misfortunes failed through French interference. Balmes, seeing his cherished design come to naught when Isabella married her cousin Don Francisco de Assisi, suspended the publication of “El Pensamiento” notwithstanding the remonstrance of friend and foe, for the journal had, through the impress of his mind and character and literary power, come to mark an epoch in the history of the Spanish press. Balmes now retired from the political arena to devote the closing years of a life all too short to the publication of his philosophical writings. In May, 1845, he visited France, Belgium, and England, a journey of which there are few details recorded save that he was feted in Paris, where he also met Chateaubriand, and in Brussels, and Mechlin. Returning to Madrid, he repaired thence to Barcelona where he issued in 1846 his “Filosofia fundamental” (this was translated into English by Henry F. Brownson, with an introduction by his father Dr. Orestes A. Brownson (New York, 1864). It is an exposition of the philosophy of St. Thomas in view of the intellectual conditions of the nineteenth century. His biographer, Dr. Soler, speaks of this work as one “which, from the stupendous variety of knowledge which it manifests and the richness of its mental treasures, appears a collection of libraries, a mine of science, for there is no faculty foreign to the vast comprehension of its author”. Allowing for some extravagance in this fervid eulogy, no reader competent to judge can fail to recognize the breadth, depth, and practical timeliness of the “Fundamental Philosophy“.

From Barcelona he returned to his native place, where he composed his “Filosofia elemental” (Madrid, 1847), a compendium that became widely used in the schools and which was also translated into English. In 1847 he wrote his pamphlet “Pio Nono” wherein he defends the liberal policy of Pius IX, at the opening of his pontificate, when that pope gave a universal amnesty and adopted constitutional government. Though perhaps the best written of all Balmes’s works, it was unfavorably received, was bitterly attacked by his enemies, and regretted by most of his friends. The pain inflicted on his sensitive spirit by the unjust aspersions and insidious innuendoes of his opponents preyed upon his constitution which, never robust, had been severely taxed by incessant labors. He retired once more to Barcelona dividing there his time between linguistic studies, his inaugural discourse for the Royal Spanish Academy, to which he had been admitted, and the Latin translation of his “Elementary Philosophy“, undertaken at the request of Archbishop Affre of Paris. He returned to his native Vich, May, 1848, where his health steadily declined till the end came on the 9th of July following. Balmes is described as of more than medium stature, slight of frame though well-developed; his face was pale but delicately tinged; his eye penetrating; his aspect agreeable and naturally majestic. His temperament combined the better elements of the traditional four. He was moderate in all lines of conduct, except probably in study and intellectual work, which he seems to have carried at times to a passionate excess. His thoughts and expression were so copious and so close to his call that he could easily dictate to two secretaries on any subject he might take in hand. Exact and methodical in his relations to God, he was no less conscientious in his duties towards his neighbor. Unostentatiously charitable to the poor, he was unaffectedly kind and affable, though somewhat reserved, in all social converse. A strong soul in a sensitive organism, his intellectual life absorbed and spiritualized the physical.

Balmes has a universally admitted place of honor amongst the greatest philosophers of modern times. He knew the reflective thought of his day and of the past. The systems of Germany, from Kant to Hegel, he studied carefully and criticized judiciously. The scholastics, especially St. Thomas, were familiar to him. He meditated on them profoundly and adopted most of their teaching, but passed it through his own mental processes and turned it out cast in the mould of his own genius. Descartes, Leibnitz, and especially the Scottish school, notably Jouffroy, had considerable influence on the method and matter of his thought, which is characterized consequently by a just eclecticism. He deemed it a danger to take lightly the opinions of any great mind, since, as he said, even if they did not reflect complete reality, they rarely were devoid of strong grounds and at least some measure of truth. Balmes was, therefore, one of the most influential causes in reviving sound philosophy in Spain and indeed throughout Europe generally during the second quarter of the nineteenth century—an influence that continues still through his permanent works. Certain indeed of his theories are open to criticism. He perhaps accords too much to an intellectual instinct, a theory of the Scottish school, and too little to objective evidence in the perception of truth. In psychology he rejects the intellectus agens (the abstractive intellect) and the species intelligibilis (intermediary presentations), and he holds the principle of life in brutes to be naturally imperishable.

These, however, are but accidental and relatively unimportant divergencies from the permanent body of the traditional philosophy—the system which receives in his “Filosofia fundamental” a fresh interpretation and a further development in answer to the intellectual conditions of his day; for it was an habitual conviction with Balmes that the philosopher’s business is not merely to rethink and restate but to reshape and develop. While the book just mentioned reflects the speculative aspect of its author’s mind, the work that most fully manifests his personality, his mental, moral, and religious character, and his social and political ideals, together with the range and accuracy of his learning—the work, therefore, that is likeliest to endure—is “El Protestantismo comparado”. Though conceived originally as a reply to Guizot’s “History of Civilization”, it is much more than a critique or a polemic. It is really a philosophy of history—or rather of Christianity—combining profound insight and critical analysis with wide erudition. It searches for the basal principles of Catholicism and of Protestantism, and summons the evidence of history concerning the comparative influence exercised by the former and the latter in the various spheres of human life—intellectual, moral, social, and political. The side on which the author’s sympathies lie is frankly indicated by him, while he appeals to the historical data in justification. It should be read in the Spanish to be fully estimated; for the English translation, done through a French medium, though accurate and scholarly, can hardly be expected to reflect all the light of the original.

For the rest, the general position of Balmes among his countrymen may be summed up in the words of one of the leading Spanish journals, “El Heraldo”, at the time of his death. “Balmes appeared, like Chateaubriand, on the last day of the revolution of his country to demand from it an account of its excesses, and to claim for ancient institutions their forgotten rights. Both mounted on the wings of genius to a height so elevated above the passions of party that all entertained respect and veneration for them. One and the other brought such glory to their country that, though they combated generally prevailing opinions and prejudices, all good citizens wove for them well-earned crowns and loved them with enthusiasm.” Besides the works mentioned above, a collection of fragments and unpublished pieces were issued after his death under the title “Escritos póstumos” (Barcelona, 1850); also “Poesías póstumas” (ib.), and “Escrítos políticos” (ib.)


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