Jose Martí was a titanic figure. And not just in the history of Latin American nationalism (his work mostly focused on Cuba but he was concerned with the Caribbean and Central America as a whole, never mind that his thought has had a major impact from beyond Cuba). No, his influence looms large over revolutionary thought as a whole.
A collection of his aphorisms, entitled Pensamientos (Thoughts) offers a dramatic and searing example of his unique and lasting power.
(***Reason there is no link to the book given at the end of this post)
I should note that this isn’t his book per se. That’s because Martí didn’t publish tracts or treatises or any work in the traditional sense. So to an extent there is no “Martí doctrine” or system of thought which we can reference, the way it’s easy to examine the political thoughts of someone like Arendt, Marx, or Rousseau. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t unifying themes to his thoughts, which he vividly expressed throughout his life. In fact, the more one reads his writing, the more obvious it becomes that this was a man who was driven by powerful convictions, like duty, honor, compassion, and – above all else – solidarity with his fellow human beings.
Pensamientos is a an excellent primer for those who, like me, are relatively unfamiliar with Martí’s ideas, as it brings together two-hundred separate thoughts on liberty, government, morality, art, and more.
So without further ado, here’s a brief sampling of the two-hundred thoughts (some of which are quite brief and, in their directness and the fact they are numbered calls to mind some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work):
1 – Respect for the freedom and ideas of others, of even the most wretched being, is my fanaticism. If I die, or am killed, it will be because of that.
The very first aphorism of the collection and a perfect encapsulation of what makes this book such a joy to read. It captures Martí’s uncompromising nature when it came to freedom, and the kind of fearlessness that would display at the end of his short life when he fought for Cuba’s independence against Spain in the mid–1890s.
78 – It is necessary to make virtue fashionable
86 – It is necessary to do good, even after death. Therefore, I write.
179 – Education is the birthright of every man. Afterwards, in payment, he has the duty to contribute to the education of others.
These excerpts illustrate the social aspect of his work, which is no less obvious than his commitment to individual liberty. You see, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” so, too, does Martí believe that using one’s freedom in purely selfish ways is not merely obscene but a betrayal of all humanity, especially those who lack the very freedom such a person abuses. Note the repetition of the word “necessary” in #78 and #86. This occurs in many other thoughts, as does his explicit calls for us to recognize and fulfill our social duty to one another. Lastly, I chose these three quotes because I find the first interesting as an acknowledgment of the, for lack of a better phrase, ways in which public perception of the rewards for certain kinds of behavior can – for good or ill – determine behavior, or at the very least encourage it (thus the crucial importance of not only modeling good behavior for children, but for leaders to model behavior for citizens. This isn’t to imply all citizens need the kind of supervision and guidance young children do, but it’s naïve to think that adults are any less susceptible to peer pressure or social forces – if anything, I think they’re more so, and if you still have your doubts, read Stanley Milgrim’s On Obedience).
As for the other two, I find #86 a fascinating expression of the drive all writers worth reading possess and #179 deeply true.
32 – To change masters is not to be free.
This brief excerpt takes on new dimensions if you’re familiar with the history, and aftermath, of the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899. Prior to the United States’ involvement, Cubans were fighting against Spain for their independence. Martí himself was killed during this war, after leaving New York to help his brothers and sisters free themselves from Spain’s tyranny.
Sadly, Cuba did indeed merely change masters – the United States entered the war, with Congressmen spouting platitudes about needing to help the poor Cubans, and then made them a colony, where the situation was no better, and perhaps worse, that it was under Spain. Decades of oppression would follow, during which the United States supported the vicious Batista regime, until Fidel Castro and others overthrew Batista and Cuba was finally free. Of course, the United States only stepped up it’s efforts to crush Cuba, never mind the internal issues, and so Martí‘s dream of a time when his country could live in peace and embody the ideals he wrote about tirelessly remained out of reach.
67 – There is only one kind of man more vile and despicable than a demagogue: that which accuses men who calmly and honestly seek the dispensing of justice of being demagogues.
96 – Double-breasted frockcoats, and humble shirts fit apostles and bandits alike.
60 – It is annoying to hear talk of social classes. To recognize their existence is to contribute to them. To refuse to recognize them is to help destroy them.
These quotes are pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll merely note that they are great examples of Martí‘s crystal-clear style, a perfect reflection of his own crystal-clear positions.
196 – After ages of faith come those of criticism. After ages of capricious synthesis come those of scrupulous analysis. The more trusting was the faith, the more skeptical is the analysis. The greater was the abandonment of reason, the greater the boldness and energy with which it is later applied. We never turn against anything so wholeheartedly as we turn against ourselves.
This final quote demonstrates one final important quality of Martí‘s writing. Namely, that as good as he is at examining the dynamics of societies, governments, and cultures, he is just as adept at examining individuals. Some of the most memorable lines in Pensamientos could apply equally well to individuals or nations.
These are but a handful of the two-hundred aphorisms you’ll find in Pensamientos. It may not be a political treatise or book in the typical sense, but there is a profound and palpable unity to Martí‘s philosophy that remains a visceral call to action to anyone who cares about freedom throughout the world.
So go read it. Now.
NOTE: I have so far failed to find a link to a copy of Pensamientos. I was lucky enough to find a bilingual copy compiled by Carlos Ripoll. However, just google Jose Martí and you’ll undoubtedly find tons of examples of his writing, even if you don’t find this precise anthology.
That said, if you do happen to find a copy of Ripoll’s anthology – which my review was based on – I’d deeply appreciate it if you could send me the link. And thanks in advance!