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Recalling our Roots- The Fertile Iberian Soil of Liberty

“La libertad, Sancho, es uno de los mas preciosos dones que a los hombres dieron los cielos, con ella no pueden igualarse los tesoros que encierra la tierra ni el mar encubre”

“Liberty, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts given by heaven to mankind. To her, neither the treasures held in the earth nor those covered by the sea can compare.”

– Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel Cervantes (1616)

“La Libertad” indeed. Those of us within the Liberty community, especially among the North Atlantic nations, often suffer from a kind of Anglo-centric myopia; our language (and thus the thinking, in the Wittgenstein sense) is trapped within Anglophone boundaries. Locke, for example, is widely touted as the “Father of the Enlightenment,” despite the fact that he cribbed a great deal of his foundational philosophy from Spinoza. This is of course not to suggest that we are woefully unaware of contributions from outside the English sphere. E.C. Harwood, for instance, described our movement as a veritable Who’s Who of polyglot contributions:

Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, Milton, Dryden, Bacon, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Pascal, Locke, Rousseau, Paine, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, Burke and Adam Smith are but a few of those who wrote of the religious independence, social rights, and economic privileges that men of Western civilization enjoy today.

Rather, the point here is instead merely to recall to our everyday consciousness the deeper roots of what we now term the liberal project. It takes some extra effort on our part to peer beyond the linguistic horizon and recognize our ancestral liberal impulses, many of which sprang from the sun-drenched soils of Iberia.

Take, for example, Miguel de Cervantes. Though we grant him a certain glancing homage, few English speakers have read him in the original or are aware of his profound personal attachments to liberty. Even if we are aware of his contributions, we tend to assume he was an anomaly, a lone advocate speaking to a late medieval culture ill-prepared to understand or accept his positions—a man ahead of his time, born before things “really got going” in England. But in fact this rather gets it backward: His tremendous popularity in early-modern Spain reflects the fact that what we now consider “modern” conceptions of human dignity, individual liberty, and rule of law were quite firmly established in the dark days we associate with the “pre” Enlightenment.

It’s worth noting, by way of background, that Cervantes spent some five years enslaved in Africa, a prisoner in the baños (dungeons) of Algiers. When he speaks of “liberty,” then, as “one of the most precious gifts,” he speaks from experience. Before this, in 1571, he had led a twelve-man skiff in the Battle of Lepanto, arguably one of the greatest naval engagements in military history, and was wounded in the left arm so badly he never regained its use. In 1575 he was swept into the pirate hold of a Barbary frigate and spent some of the prime years of his life in slave labor and dank cells, hoping against hope for a reprieve. It came, eventually, through the intercession of Catholic Trinitarian monks, an order specifically devoted to ransoming captured slaves in Africa, the Middle East, and Moorish Spain.

Indeed, it is the Catholic Church, for all its modern associations with illiberality, that helped shape and encourage many early liberal impulses (while admittedly stifling others). Especially within the mid-16th-century Spanish Empire, a vigorous scholarly and political debate raged over the nature of individual rights and limits on secular power. The Jesuit School of Salamanca was a major source of intellectual grist for this mill: Francisco Vitoria, one of the school’s early founders, was a staunch defender of individual human dignity and rights (including Indian rights in the New World) as well as one of the earliest promulgators of formal notions of free trade and private property rights. Juan de Mariana, said to have been a formative intellectual influence on Cervantes, was one of the first to recognize (and decry) inflationary monetary policy stemming from abusive central authority and to make the case that a “King” does not commit arbitrary violence against his own subjects–only a Tyrant can do that. 

Thus we see in Don Quixote a famous scene featuring a dozen galley slaves, chained by the neck and handcuffed. Sancho Panza informs don Quixote that they are, “…men sentenced by the king and forced to row in his galleys.”

“What do you mean forced?” asks don Quixote. “Is it possible that the king is forcing anyone?”

“I’m not saying that—” replies Sancho, “only that these are people who, because of their crimes, are sentenced to serve the king in galleys, by force.”

“So, no matter,” retorts don Quixote, “these people are being taken away by force and not of their free will?”

“That’s right,” says Sancho.

“In that case,” says the knight-errant, “here’s where I can do what my profession requires: to set forced actions right and to succor and aid poor wretches.”

“Be careful, your grace,” warns Sancho, “for Justice, which is the king himself, isn’t using force or striking out against these people, but rather is punishing them for their crimes.”

Upon inspection, don Quixote finds that these “crimes” are ludicrously suspect, and a mere pretext for manning the galley oars: criminal confessions extracted under torture, petty victimization by unscrupulous magistrates, and trivial indebtedness. The irony of all this “kingly” justice was not lost on Cervantes’ audience, which was primed to read its appeal to common-sense notions of justice and liberty. The book, though panned by many elites, was a sensation in its time. Seven or perhaps even eight editions may were printed in the first year (1605) alone, an unheard-of level of popularity. The work was eagerly embraced by the “common” reading public who loved it both for its antic humor and acid wit. 

But most importantly of all, it was loved for its subtle advocacy for liberty. Cervantes wrote directly into a rich cultural tradition that had been grappling (in decidedly modern fashion) with the complexities of individual rights and state authority for generations. Cervantes’ advocacy for fundamental human dignity and natural right struck a resonant chord in Spanish society, a society shaped by the unsettling influences of the Reconquista, the inquisition, and the discovery of an unanticipated New World.

For a variety of complicated reasons this early Spanish Enlightenment didn’t flourish as we might have wished. But without it, the English and Scottish Enlightenments may well have never coalesced. The political revolutions that ultimately ensured so many of our modern liberties owe much of their formative influence to the intellectual ferment present in 16th and 17th century Iberia. And for that, we owe our thanks.

 Liberty is one of the most precious gifts given by heaven to mankind.” Gracias a los cielos y a nuestros antepasados también – Thanks be to heaven, and to our forebears as well.

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