How fear consumed a once confident and creative ideology
The Authentic Reactionary
Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913–1994) was a reclusive Colombian literary figure
who, in the last years of his life, began to garner recognition as one of the
most penetrating conservative thinkers of the twentieth century. The scion of
an upper-class Bogotá family, he was educated by private tutors in Paris, where
prolonged convalescence after an illness ignited a passion for classical literature.
While he never attended university, his personal library would grow to more
than 30,000 volumes. His reputation in Colombia was such that after the collapse
of the military dictatorship in 1958 he was repeatedly offered significant
political appointments, which he always refused.
Gómez Dávila’s mordant critique of modernity was expressed almost entirely
in books of aphorisms, which touch on philosophical, theological, political, and
aesthetic themes. He sought to limn a “reactionary” perspective distinct from
both the conventional Left and the conventional Right. But he made no effort
to promote his intellectual work: indeed, his first book was published in a private
edition of only 100 copies, which were presented as gifts to friends. His
international reputation spread by word of mouth.
Virtually nothing of his work is yet available in English, beyond a small sample
of aphorisms on various websites. However, his complete works have been
published in a German translation, prompting sustained engagement with his
thought in Central Europe. Significant translations have also been undertaken
in French, Italian, and Polish.
The essay below, “El reaccionario auténtico,” originally appeared in Revista
Universidad de Antioquia 240 (April-June 1995), 16–19. It is Gómez Dávila’s most
sustained attempt to explain his own unique intellectual position, that of an
The existence of the authentic reactionary
is usually a scandal to the progressive.
His presence causes a vague discomfort.
In the face of the reactionary attitude the
progressive experiences a slight scorn,
accompanied by surprise and restlessness.
In order to soothe his apprehensions, the
progressive is in the habit of interpreting
this unseasonable and shocking attitude as
a guise for self-interest or as a symptom of
stupidity; but only the journalist, the politician,
and the fool are not secretly flustered
before the tenacity with which the
loftiest intelligences of the West, for the
past one hundred fifty years, amass objections
against the modern world. Complacent
disdain does not, in fact, seem an
adequate rejoinder to an attitude where
a Goethe and a Dostoevsky can unite in
But if all the conclusions of the reactionary
surprise the progressive, the reactionary
stance is by itself disconcerting.
That the reactionary protests against progressive
society, judges it, and condemns
it, and yet is resigned to its current monopoly
of history, seems an eccentric position.
The radical progressive, on the one hand,
does not comprehend how the reactionary
condemns an action that he acknowledges,
and the liberal progressive, on the other,
does not understand how he acknowledges
an action that he condemns. The first
demands that he relinquish his condemnation
if he recognizes the action’s necessity,
and the second that he not confine himself
to abstention from an action that he admits
is reprehensible. The former warns him to
surrender, the latter to take action. Both
censure his passive loyalty in defeat.
The radical progressive and the liberal
progressive, in fact, reprove the reactionary
in different ways because the one
maintains that necessity is reason, while
the other affirms that reason is liberty.
A different vision of history conditions
their critiques. For the radical progressive,
necessity and reason are synonyms: reason
is the substance of necessity, and necessity
the process in which reason is realized.
Together they are a single stream of the
standing-reserve of existence.
History for the radical progressive is
not merely the sum of what has occurred,
but rather an epiphany of reason. Even
when reason indicates that conflict is the
directional mechanism of history, every
triumph results from a necessary act, and
the discontinuous series of acts is the path
traced by the steps of irresistible reason in
advancing over vanquished flesh. The radical
progressive adheres to the idea that history
admonishes, only because the contour
of necessity reveals the features of emergent
reason. The course of history itself
brings forth the ideal norm that haloes it.
Convinced of the rationality of history,
the radical progressive assigns himself the
duty of collaborating in its success. The
root of ethical obligation lies, for him, in
the possibility of our propelling history
toward its proper ends. The radical progressive
is inclined toward the impending
event in order to favor its arrival, because
in taking action according to the direction
of history individual reason coincides
with the reason of the world. For the radical
progressive, then, to condemn history
is not just a vain undertaking, but also a
foolish undertaking. A vain undertaking
because history is necessity; a foolish
undertaking because history is reason.
The liberal progressive, on the other
hand, settles down in pure contingency.
Liberty, for him, is the substance of reason,
and history is the process in which man
realizes his liberty. History for the liberal
progressive is not a necessary process, but
rather the ascent of human liberty toward
full possession of itself. Man forges his own
history, imposing on nature the errors of
his free will. If hatred and greed drag man
down among bloody mazes, the struggle
is joined between perverted freedoms and
just freedoms. Necessity is merely the dead
weight of our own inertia, and the liberal
progressive reckons that good intentions
can redeem man, at any moment, from the
servitude that oppresses him.
The liberal progressive insists that history
conduct itself in a manner compatible
with what reason demands, since liberty
creates history; and as his liberty also
engenders the causes that he champions,
no fact is able to take precedence over the
right that liberty establishes. Revolutionary
action epitomizes the ethical obligation
of the liberal progressive, because to
break down what impedes it is the essential
act of liberty as it is realized. History
is an inert material that a sovereign will
fashions. For the liberal progressive, then,
to resign oneself to history is an immoral
and foolish attitude. Foolish because history
is freedom; immoral because liberty
is our essence.
The reactionary is, nevertheless, the
fool who takes up the vanity of condemning
history and the immorality of resigning
himself to it. Radical progressivism
and liberal progressivism elaborate partial
visions. History is neither necessity nor
freedom, but rather their flexible integration.
History is not, in fact, a divine monstrosity.
The human cloud of dust does
not seem to arise as if beneath the breath
of a sacred beast; the epochs do not seem
to be ordered as stages in the embryogenesis
of a metaphysical animal; facts are not
imbricated one upon another as scales on
a heavenly fish. But if history is not an
abstract system that germinates beneath
implacable laws, neither is it the docile
fodder of human madness. The whimsical
and arbitrary will of man is not its
supreme ruler. Facts are not shaped, like
sticky, pliable paste, between industrious
In fact, history results neither from
impersonal necessity nor from human
caprice, but rather from a dialectic of the
will where free choice unfolds into necessary
consequences. History does not
develop as a unique and autonomous dialectic,
which extends in vital dialectic the
dialectic of inanimate nature, but rather as
a pluralism of dialectical processes, numerous
as free acts and tied to the diversity of
their fleshly grounds.
If liberty is the creative act of history,
if each free act produces a new history,
the free creative act is cast upon the world
in an irrevocable process. Liberty secretes
history as a metaphysical spider secretes
the geometry of its web. Liberty is, in fact,
alienated from itself in the same gesture in
which it is assumed, because free action
possesses a coherent structure, an internal
organization, a regular proliferation of
sequelae. The act unfolds, opens up, and
expands into necessary consequences, in a
manner compatible with its intimate character
and with its intelligible nature. Every
act submits a piece of the world to a specific configuration.
History, therefore, is an assemblage of
freedoms hardened in dialectical processes.
The deeper the layer whence free action
gushes forth, the more varied are the zones
of activity that the process determines, and
the greater its duration. The superficial,
peripheral act is expended in biographical
episodes, while the central, profound act
can create an epoch for an entire society.
History is articulated, thus, in instants and
epochs: in free acts and in dialectical processes.
Instants are its fleeting soul, epochs
its tangible body. Epochs stretch out like
distances between two instants: its seminal
instant, and the instant when the inchoate
act of a new life brings it to a close. Upon
hinges of freedom swing gates of bronze.
Epochs do not have an irrevocable duration:
the encounter with processes loom
ing up from a greater depth can interrupt
them; inertia of the will can prolong them.
Conversion is possible, passivity ordinary.
History is a necessity that freedom produces
and chance destroys.
Collective epochs are the result of an
active complicity in an identical decision,
or of the passive contamination of
inert wills; but while the dialectical process
in which freedoms have been poured
out lasts, the freedom of the nonconformist
is twisted into an ineffectual rebellion.
Social freedom is not a permanent option,
but rather an unforeseen auspiciousness in
the conjunction of affairs. The exercise of
freedom supposes an intelligence responsive
to history because confronting an
entire society alienated from liberty, man
can only lie in wait for the noisy crackup
of necessity. Every intention is thwarted if
it is not introduced into the principal fissures
of a life.
In the face of history ethical obligation
to take action only arises when the conscience
consents to a purpose that momentarily
prevails, or when circumstances culminate
in a conjunction propitious to our
freedom. The man whom destiny positions
in an epoch without a foreseeable end, the
character of which wounds the deepest
fibers of his being, cannot heedlessly sacrifice his repugnance to his boldness, nor his
intelligence to his vanity. The spectacular,
empty gesture earns public applause, but
the disdain of those governed by reflection.
In the shadowlands of history, man ought
to resign himself to patiently undermining
human presumption. Man is able, thus,
to condemn necessity without contradicting
himself, although he is unable to take
action except when necessity collapses.
If the reactionary concedes the fruitlessness
of his principles and the uselessness of
his censures, it is not because the spectacle
of human confusion suffices for him. The
reactionary does not refrain from taking
action because the risk frightens him, but
rather because he judges that the forces of
society are at the moment rushing headlong
toward a goal that he disdains. Within the
current process social forces have carved
their channel in bedrock, and nothing will
turn their course so long as they have not
emptied into the expanse of an unknown
plain. The gesticulation of castaways only
makes their bodies float along the further
bank. But if the reactionary is powerless in
our time, his condition obliges him to bear
witness to his revulsion. Freedom, for the
reactionary, is submission to a mandate.
In fact, even though it be neither necessity
nor caprice, history, for the reactionary,
is not, for all that, an interior dialectic
of the immanent will, but rather a temporal
adventure between man and that which
transcends him. His labors are traces, on
the disturbed sand, of the body of a man
and the body of an angel. History for the
reactionary is a tatter, torn from man’s
freedom, fl uttering in the breath of destiny.
The reactionary cannot be silent
because his liberty is not merely a sanctuary
where man escapes from deadening
routine and takes refuge in order to be his
own master. In the free act the reactionary
does not just take possession of his
essence. Liberty is not an abstract possibility
of choosing among known goods, but
rather the concrete condition in which we
are granted the possession of new goods.
Freedom is not a momentary judgment
between confl icting instincts, but rather
the summit from which man contemplates
the ascent of new stars among the luminous
dust of the starry sky. Liberty places
man among prohibitions that are not physical
and imperatives that are not vital. The
free moment dispels the unreal brightness
of the day, in order that the motionless
universe that slides its fleeting lights over
the shuddering of our flesh, might rise up
on the horizon of the soul.
If the progressive casts himself into the
future, and the conservative into the past,
the reactionary does not measure his anxieties
with the history of yesterday or with
the history of tomorrow. The reactionary
does not extol what the next dawn must
bring, nor is he terrified by the last shadows
of the night. His dwelling rises up in
that luminous space where the essential
accosts him with its immortal presence.
The reactionary escapes the slavery of
history because he pursues in the human
wilderness the trace of divine footsteps.
Man and his deeds are, for the reactionary,
a servile and mortal flesh that breathes
gusts from beyond the mountains. To be
reactionary is to champion causes that do
not turn up on the notice board of history,
causes where losing does not matter.
To be reactionary is to know that we
only discover what we think we invent; it
is to admit that our imagination does not
create, but only lays bares smooth bodies.
To be reactionary is not to espouse
settled cases, nor to plead for determined
conclusions, but rather to submit our will
to the necessity that does not constrain,
to surrender our freedom to the exigency
that does not compel; it is to find sleeping
certainties that guide us to the edge
of ancient pools. The reactionary is not a
nostalgic dreamer of a canceled past, but
rather a hunter of sacred shades upon the
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