Ethics and society in the aphorisms of Light and Knight

By: Dr. Roberto Méndez Martínez

José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862)
José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862)

Joseph of Light and Knight (1800–1862) was born at the time the 19th century began. Its fruitful existence extends for just over six decades that are key to the formation of a Cuban culture and identity and that will prepare, a few years later, the beginning of the first of our wars of independence. He will not contribute little to this spiritual growth.
He came into the world in an eco-economically very solvent family and this already involved a moral challenge: on the one hand, he was able to devote himself to intellectual life without worries, acquire books, travel, be independent; on the other hand, that was a kind of birthmark that prevented him from showing himself radical with certain problems such as slavery or the need to break spain’s bonds. In Luz there is always an ethical height in confrontation with reality, however, like many of his intellectual contemporaries, he fears breaking the delicate balance between Spanish power and its close collaborators, Creole farmers. He sees slavery as evil, but fears, like others in his class, to cast away the riches of the island and is not pleasant to the idea of a revolution, in the face of it prefers evolutionary changes, reforms. He educates the privileged to be honest, righteous, laborious, friends of truth. Several of them, as they left El Salvador’s classrooms, understood that to be consistent with these ideas, they had to advocate for independence and took that step that their teacher did not dare take.
Martí dedicated an article in Patria where he calls him “silent founder” and emphasizes “that of the piety he watered in life, he has created from his tomb, among the purest sons of Cuba, a natural and beautiful religion, which in its forms accommodates the new reason of man, and in the balm of his spirit to the wound and pride of Cuban society; he, the father, is unknown for no reason by those who have no eyes to see him with, and sometimes denied by his own children.”
There is a youthful, promising and valuable Light, scholarly, great polemist, who has been able to take advantage of the support of his uncle and mentor José Agustín Caballero, as well as Varela’s lessons in the seminary. He is the man who embarks on an educational journey around the world in 1830 and in Paris goes to the classroom to listen to the lessons of the naturalist Georges Cuvier, author of the “theory of cataclysm”, and those of the historian Jules Michelet. Even Scotland left to visit his admired novelist Walter Scott at his castle and it is claimed that he, after a few minutes of conversation with him, asks, “Which of Europe’s sages do I have the honour to speak to?”
He is not a man who attends to easy flattery, nor who cultivates superficiality. He demonstrates this, back to the homeland in 1831, when he turned to his educational endeavors: from within the Patriotic Society he sought to reform teaching, he demonstrated his purposes by teaching in two classrooms, drawing up a book of reading, as well as the plans of the Colegio San Cristóbal or Carraguao, sustained by that corporation and which he directed for a time. He also advocated a Cuban Institute – inspired by the Institute of France as it was constituted at the time – where modern sciences and languages were taught. That did not prevent him from obtaining a law degree, leading the Patriotic Society, serving a chair of Philosophy at the Convent of San Francisco.
During these years he held several controversies of philosophical subject, it is especially important that she unrapped in 1839 around the thinking of Victor Cousin (1792-1862), spiritualist philosopher, father of the Eclectic School, with brothers Manuel and José Zacarías González del Valle. The controversy, which from the outside seemed like a waste of Byzantine erudition, actually translated serious social and cultural problems. The sugar economy was suffering from the crisis in the planting system, at the low temperature in sugar prices on the world market, high slave prices were joined, mainly by England’s active anti-treatment work. Varela’s ancient disciples feared for their fortunes, the intellectual elite sought sustenance in a philosophy that would allow, under the appearance of a high spiritual flight, to sustain the unjust order of the colony.
Cousin, who for those years became State Counsellor and then Minister of Education of Luis Felipe de Orleans, the Bourgeois King, had an attitude reminiscent of certain postmoderns today, according to him, everything necessary in philosophy was created, it was enough to reconcile Hegel’s ideas with those of Descartes, Bacon and some more, to build a perennial philosophy. The consequence of this was not only to nullify the original and revolutionary reflections, but to accept that the social state of things was precisely desirable, with a naive or interested “historical optimism”. Cuban cousinists, by extension, were free to act as Hegel with respect to the Prussian empire or Cousin in front of the French monarchy supported by bankers. For them, slave plantations were practical, rational, and even ex-former pre-Sions of the Absolute Spirit. Understanding these sins, Luz held that strife in which she put all her intellect and deteriorated her health. He called eclecticism “a business of politics, with a layer of philosophy, nothing more.”2 He, a member of what he called “liberal youth,” could not uproot those ideas, but his teaching programs will have a special emphasis on making students reason and educating them in depth from an ethical point of view.
This young and impetuous intellectual will be succeeded by an even more valuable mature man, who will be the most remembered in history. He who in 1844 learns in Paris that he has been accused of being one of the promoters of the ill-called Conspiracy of the Staircase, and, unlike Domingo del Monte, returns, to personally respond to the accusations and be exculpated, although the risks of prison and judicial murder were more than notorious.
It is he himself who in 1848 opened his own Colegio El Salvador, which he directed until his death. There he puts into practice his explanatory method, which requires the active participation of students. He knew that not all teachers in the center were at the same level, but he sought to top that education off with the talks he led, in which ethical teaching and free debate of ideas were the struts of the encounter. This will be described, years later, by one of the disciples, Manuel Sanguily:
“For some time the Saturdays of each week were days devoted to talks. All the benches in the classes and as many seats as there could have been were, were placed in order and symmetry around a wooden chair painted black, which remained in the center. At one in the afternoon, students and teachers, and often people who missed the establishment, occupied that place anxiously and happily. Soon after, and in the midst of the most complete silence, the master approached slowly, gathered in grave meditation and bringing in his hand some volume: commonly, one in the fourth major, of dark Dutch paste, very overloaded with marks: they were the epistles of his friend, the great and admirable St Paul. Sit just on the edge of the chair, so I would read a piece of the book and start his talk, which was always a commentary full of a one-of-the-kind words from the text […] Very small was I when, confused among my companions, I also attended those conferences that I surely could not understand; but of which I have kept the general impression, the throbbing image, the living and animated picture: a beautiful apostolic group, a multitude of children and men, standing some, sitting many, staring, absorbed, silent, and in the midst of all, the old man as a father among his children, like the patriarch among the tribe, with besides inspired, shining black eyes , and his robust word spreading vibrant through the deserted galleries.”3

José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862)
José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862)

The heritage of Light, without its pedagogical casts and philosophical articles, has come to us by those aphorisms that in the past were known by many teachers and even people of minimal culture. They were the expression of a wisdom that was supposed to take root deep in the Cuban school.
In his mature thinking there is a reconciliation of classical philosophy with elements of Christianity: “For me stoicism, for one’s neighbour Christianity: well that all the good things of stoicism were transfused into Christianity”.4 Luz does not reject religion, only that it seems to distance itself from naive credulity, from popular practices to associate it with the exercise of reason : “The exercise of thought, the most acceptable cult of divinity.”5
The ethics of Light are not abstract, nor is it nourished only by maximum generalities, but it sets an eye on the great social problems, even if it cannot provide a solution for them, it is the case of slavery: “On the question of blacks, the least black is black”,6 and also: “The introduction of blacks in Cuba is our true original sin , all the more so since they will pay righteously for sinners. But it is also right that the members of society be in solidarity and joint in that debt, when none of them are exempt from complicity.”7
In the face of colonial despotism, he claims freedom, but an enlightened freedom:
“Freedom, the soul of the social body.
“Freedom, the fiat of the moral world.
“Only panacea to heal and heal wounds that she herself (her abuse, leave) or other causes, infer to society.
“Absolute is whatever it needs to be, and this is the tendency of humanity. I don’t want any more brake than religion and reason; including in this authority.”8

Faced with the social fold, the educator demands respect for the truth, the only guarantee that he has reached moral maturity: “Only truth will put us on a manly robe”,9 as in the face of laziness, to the idleness shared by the lucky classes with the marginals, praises the power of the will: “There is a more powerful driving force than steam and electricity : the will.”10
The teacher wants to reform society from education, to correct a selfish and pragmatic class, to turn it to truth and good, so he states: “Educating is not giving career to live, but tempering the soul for life”.11 Hence he sets aside the public work of the polemicist to consecrate himself to the magisterium as a religious mandate. His thinking is very modern when he shows that more than free wisdom matters to the testimony of life: “Instruct can anyone, educate only who is a living gospel.”12
Another great Cuban pedagoguus, his successor, Enrique José Varona, praised Luz y Caballero in 1882 with these words:

“Descending from the serene height of the meditations he loved so much, taking his eyes off the gleaming sun from the truth that illuminated his spirit, and going down to the humble, getting used to the darkness, mingling with the unclean –that immaculate soul – and all to make light, to cleanse lovingly, to lift up to himself, to extol, to magnify. Isn’t this educating in the broadest and most beautiful meaning of the term?” 13

Luz expires in Havana in 1862, surrounded by his disciples, his burial was a mass demonstration of mourning that worried the Spanish authorities. Somehow, with him the times of moral and progressive liberalism were closed and those of the separatist insurrection opened up. Luz had warned him when he said, “Everything in me was, and in my homeland it will be.”
Today Luz is in our history books, has monuments in marble or bronze. It’s a classic. But, unfortunately, their presence is not in our schools. It is, if anything, part of a subject, a page to which others follow, but it has never been so urgent that when there are so many challenges in our society, one of which is a progressive pragmatism, more clumsy than Cousin’s, that his magisterium impedes the formation of the younger ones. Their ideas, how much they have of life, must be on everyone’s lips and hearts. It is up to the pedagogues to decide how and when it should be done.
I would like to conclude with those words which, very close to the end of its existence, in December 1861, he uttered in an act of his school and that we should all learn to guide our daily existence: “Before I would like to see the institutions of men collapsed, I do not say the institutions of men, but the stars all of the firmament, that seeing the feeling of justice fall from the human breast , that sun of the moral world.”15 Ω

1José Martí: “José de la Luz y Caballero”, in Complete Works, t. 5, Havana, Editorial of Social Sciences, 1975, p. 272.
2 Cited by Medardo Vitier: Philosophy in Cuba, Mexico, Economic Culture Fund, 1948, p. 119.
3 Manuel Sanguily: Joseph of Light and Knight. Critical Study, Havana, National Council of Culture, 1962, pp. 171-172.
4 Joseph of Light and Knight: Religion (XIII), in Complete Works, Volume One, Havana, Literary Propaganda, 1890, p. 30.All quotes by this author have been taken of the same volume.
5 Joseph of Light and Knight: Religion (XI), p. 30.
6 Joseph of Light and Knight: Slavery (CXIII), p. 65.
7 Joseph of Light and Knight: Slavery (CXV), p. 65.
8 Joseph of Light and Knight: Freedom and Tyranny (CXX), p. 68.
9 Joseph of Light and Knight: Miscellaneous (CCXII), p. 105. Luz originally formulated it in Latin: Veritate sola nobis imponetur virilis toga.
10 Joseph of Light and Knight: Miscellaneous (CCXXV), p. 108.
11 Joseph of Light and Knight: Teaching and Education (LXXXIX), p. 55.
12 Joseph of Light and Knight: Teaching and Education (XCII), p. 56.
13 Enrique José Varona: “Elogio de D. José de la Luz y Caballero” (1882), in his Studies and Lectures, Havana, 1936. Quoted by Medardo Vitier: Philosophy in Cuba, ed. cit. in note 2, p. 85.
14 Joseph of Light and Knight: Miscellaneous (CCXCVI), p. 121.
15 Joseph of Light and Knight: Miscellaneous (CCCXXXII), p. 127.

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