*Feijóo y Montenegro, Benito Jerónimo

Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro

Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro



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Feijóo y Montenegro, Benito Jerónimo

Spanish, 1676–1764
One of Spain’s most important 18th-century scholars, Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro represents the burgeoning intelligentsia of the Enlightenment casting off the burdens of traditionalism, conformity, and ignorance. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Feijóo preferred the isolation of his native Galicia where he could enjoy an independence of thought not always allowed in the more confining and politically charged environment of the capital Madrid. From this unique vantage point, Feijóo could observe and synthesize the culture, politics, and social conditions of his homeland. Ivy McClelland in her study of the author (1969) notes that “…as an intelligent man of the perimeter, Feijóo saw things that could not be seen in such clear perspective from the center…when he was urged to transfer permanently to Madrid to live at the heart of Spain’s activity, he resolutely refused, showing, by word or implication, that he could think better in less crowded places.” Aside from the freedom that his isolation afforded him, Feijóo also had more access to books, pamphlets, and other intellectual material than he could have had in the capital, where strict censorship was enforced. The combination of these two factors created a rich interplay of intellect and practical observation in his discourses.
Feijóo’s stance within the milieu of 18th-century Spanish Enlightenment thought manifests itself clearly in a multitude of essays which address a broad range of topics, including the role of women, politics, morality, literature, and medicine. The primary forum for his opinions is a multi-volume series entitled Teatro crítico universal (1725– 40; Universal theater of criticism). Essential to Feijóo’s philosophical outlook is his perception of what he considered to be the pervasive errors held by the general populace in contrast to his own truth. Feijóo explains in the prologue to Teatro crítico universal that these errors are comprised of “all the opinions” that contradict his perception of truth. Thus, the general tenor of Feijóo’s discourses reflects the perspective of a man sitting on a mountain looking down at the clamoring masses. He is an observer whose physical isolation causes him to consider objectively, and somewhat narrowly, the world that surrounds him. This is not to say that Feijóo lacks passion, only that the author’s zeal toward his topic appeals to a more restricted class of people, namely other intellectuals like himself. One might consider Feijóo’s own words from “Voz del pueblo” (1726; Voice of the people) where he asserts that the masses suffer from the illusion that their numbers alone vindicate their opinions. To this premise, Feijóo warns, “The value of an opinion should be calculated by its profundity, not by the number of souls who believe it.
The ignorant, even though they are numerous, do not cease to be ignorant.” He later affirms that those who adhere to a single truth should not be surprised that in a time of limited understanding and learning there should be so many false ideas.
Feijóo applies the same measure of truth to all his topics. Whether he addresses politics, patriotism, the role of women, or medicine, the recurring theme is the centrality of truth versus error. Despite his Christian stance, Feijóo often experienced derision because he condemned not only the fallibility of the people, or vulgo, but also the fallibility of the “pueblo de Dios” (people of God). In “El no se qué” (1733; I don’t know), Feijóo reiterates his perception that there rests an air of indecision and apathy on the masses that influences the way they act or are acted upon. Feijóo explains, “This I do not know what is the hex over their willpower and the quagmire of their understanding.”
In addition to Teatro crítico universal, Feijóo published his memoirs, Cartas eruditas y curiosas (1742–60; Intellectual letters), in five volumes. These documents provide important biographical information regarding the author and his social, political, and intellectual environment. Commenting on the content of Feijóo’s autobiography, McClelland notes, “He exposes the whole structure of his personality so completely that we often see parts of it that he cannot see himself. If he is aware of his own makeup he becomes, in his complexity, an even more absorbing study. To know him is to be admitted into the engine room of universal character, to observe a mind in motion, to
examine the total product of innumerable trivialities; it is to treat him as someone no less alive than we are.”
The context and content of Teatro crítico universal and Cartas eruditas suggest a rich and vigorous intellect. His susceptibility to Enlightenment thought in combination with his religious training combine in a unique vision of right and wrong, truth and error. For Feijóo, as for so many of his contemporaries, Spain was on the cusp of a new age of understanding and learning. Future writers such as Mariano José de Larra would look to Feijóo for inspiration and number him among the great writers of all time: “How would one write today, in our country, without the prior existence of Feijóo, Iriartes, Forner and Moratín?” Herein we see the true genius of the man, the ability to sound the trumpet of discontent and to ignite the intellectual flame not only in those who knew him, but in those who followed.

Born 8 October 1676 in Casdemiro, Orense. Studied at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, where he was ordained a Benedictine monk, 1690; University of Oviedo, degree in theology, 1709. Lived and taught at the monastery of San Vicente, Oviedo, from 1709; professor of theology, University of Oviedo, 1710–39. Honorary member, Royal Society of Medicine, Seville, 1727. Died in Oviedo, 26 September 1764.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Teatro crítico universal, 9 vols., 1725–40; edited by Carmen Martín Gaite, with Cartas eruditas, 1970, Ángel-Raimundo González Fernández, 1980, and Giovanni Stiffoni, 1986; selection as Essays or Discourses Selected from the Works of Feijóo, translated by John Brett, 1779; several essays also translated anonymously and published separately, including The Honour and Advantage of Agriculture, 1764, An Essay on Woman, 1770, An Essay on the Learning, Genius, and Abilities, of the Fair-Sex, 1774, and Rules for Preserving Health, Particularly with Regard to Studious Persons, 1800
Cartas eruditas y curiosas, 5 vols., 1742–60; edited by Carmen Martin Gaite, with Teatro crítico universal, 1970
Other writings: poetry.
Collected works edition: Obras completas, edited by José Miguel
Caso González, 1981.
Further Reading
Aldridge, A. Owen, “Feijóo, Voltaire, and the Mathematics of Procreation,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 4, edited by Harold E.Pagliaro, Richard Morton, and Roy McKeen Wiles, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975: 131–38
Alvarez de Miranda, Pedro, “Aproximación al estudio del vocabulario ideológico de Feijóo,” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 347 (1979):367–93
Browning, John, “Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijóo and the Sciences in 18th-Century Spain,” in The Varied Pattern: Studies in the 18th Century, edited by Peter Hughes and David Williams, Toronto: Hakkert, 1971:353–71
Camarero, Manuel, “Una lectura de ‘El no sé qué’ de Feijóo,” in Pen and Peruke: Spanish Literature of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Monroe Z.Hafter, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Department of Romance Languages, 1992:203–13
Coughlin, Edward V., “The Polemic of Feijóo’s ‘Defensa de las mujeres’,” Dieciocho 9, nos. 1–2 (1986):74–85
Crusafont y Pairo, M., “El enciclopedismo ortodoxo del Padre Feijóo y las ciencias naturales,” Boletín de la Biblioteca de Menéndez Pelayo 40 (1964):65–97
Domergue, Lucienne, “Feijóo y Blanco White: Homenaje de un ‘hereje’ al Padre Maestro,” in II simposio sobre el Padre Feijóo y su siglo, Oviedo: Center for Eighteenth- Century Studies, 1981: 333–48
Dowling, John, “Life, Death, and Immortality in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century
Spain,” in Selected Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Annual Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference, edited by Ramón Fernández Rubio, Greenville, South Carolina: Furman University, 1987:121–34
Elizalde, Ignacio, “La influencia de Bayle y Fontenelle en Feijóo,” in Actas del VIII
Congreso de la Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas, edited by A.David Kossoff and others, Madrid: Istmo, 2 vols., 1986:497–509
Fallows, Noel, “‘True Wit,’ and Feijóo’s ‘Chistes de N’,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 70, no. 2 (April 1993):249–53
Franklin, Elizabeth M., “Feijóo, Josefa Amar y Borbón, and the Feminist Debate in Eighteenth-Century Spain,” Dieciocho 12, no. 2 (1989):188–203
Livermore, A.L., “Goya y Feijóo,” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 253–54 (1971):17–45
McClelland, I.L., Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, New York: Twayne, 1969
Maravall, José A., “Feijóo, el europeo, desde América,” Revista de Occidente 7 (1964):313–34
Maravall, José A., “El espíritu de crítica y el pensamiento social de Feijóo,” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 318 (1979):736–65
Mestre, Antonio, “Reflexiones sobre el marco político-cultural de la obra del P.Feijóo,” Bulletin Hispanique 91, no. 2 (July-December 1989):195–311
Sebold, Russell P., “Colón, Bacon y la metáfora heroíca de Feijóo,” in Homenafe a Don Agapito Rey, edited by Josep Roca Pons, Bloomington: Indiana University Department of Spanish and Portuguese, 1979:333–54

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