Angel Ganivet (1865-1898). Idearium español. 1897.

Angel Ganivet (1865-1898). Idearium español.
This post deals with the contribution of Angel Ganivet to the so-called “problem of Spain” precipitated by events in the 19th century, especially during approximately the last 25 years. The 19th century was a period of convulsive political and social occurrences which underlined Spain’s impotence on the world scene and its internal malaise. In Idearium español, Ganivet basically argues for a new form of imperialism or colonialism based on cultural domination to replace territorial control which was being lost by Spain during the 19th century.

The humiliating defeat of Spanish forces to the United States in 1898 and the loss of its last overseas colonies provoked an outpouring of writings analysing the causes for and seeking solutions to the country’s social and political degeneration or impotence. Among the writers was a literary group that came to be known as the Generation of 1898 (or ’98). But the concerns of the Generation of ’98 were not new nor unique. They were preceded by several writers and activists who expressed their distress and offered their solutions in different ways. We have looked at two ways that the “problem of Spain” was addressed in  Generation of 1898. Precursors and the “Problem of Spain.” The following looks at Angel Ganivet’s solution penned in his essay Idearium español, published in 1897.

Angel Ganivet

Brief Biography.
Born in Granada in 1865, into a modest, middle class family, Ganivet distinguished himself intellectually from an early age. He had a special aptitude for languages. Besides Greek and Latin, he also studied French and German, took up Arabic and wrote a doctoral thesis on the importance of Sanskrit, which he defended successfully in 1889. This was actually his second thesis, having earlier written one on contemporary Spain which was, however, rejected.

In 1891, Ganivet competed with Miguel de Unamuno for the chair of Greek at the University of Salamanca. He was unsuccessful, but he and Unamuno maintained a friendly and dialectic contact through public correspondence that appeared in newspapers and periodicals. The correspondence appeared in book form in 1912, under the title El porvenir de España (The Future of Spain).

In 1892, Ganivet met Amelia Roldán Llanos, who became his mistress and by whom he had a daughter (who died in infancy) and a son. In the same year, he won a position as vice-consul in Antwerp (Belgium). He remained there until 1895 when he was promoted to consul in Helsinki. Three years later, he was appointed consul to Latvia. Amelia, from whom he had in the meantime been alienated, followed him there against his wishes. On the day she arrived, November 29, 1898, Ganivet committed suicide, drowning himself (on his second attempt!) in the River Dvina in Riga (Latvia’s capital).

Ganivet’s private life was not as happy as his intellectual and career success might lead us to expect. He was a conflicted and pessimistic individual, blunt to some people and an introvert to others. Ethically unbending, he also indulged in sexual pursuits from which he contracted syphilis. His father committed suicide when Ganivet was 9, and Amelia had a brief affair in Barcelona while he was in Antwerp. Both events affected him deeply.

Ganivet was more a spiritual individual than a religious man. For him, spiritual regeneration was the desired end for Spain, which could be achieved by the application of reason and a sceptical approach to religion, an approach that did not allow him, for example, to accept Catholic dogma. If anything, his religion was that of ideas rather than organised religion. Predictably, then, he did not think highly of the Papacy, which he criticized for sowing discord in Christian countries (110) and for its intrusion in secular matters. 

Most of Ganivet’s major works were written in Finland and in a relatively short period. Besides Idearium español, Ganivet also wrote two novels, La conquista del reino de Maya por el último conquistador español, Pío Cid (1897, The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya by the last Conquistador, Pío Cid), and Los trabajos del infatigable creador Pío Cid (1898, The Labours of the Indefatigable Creator Pío Cid). In both, the names of the hero, Pío Cid, combine the two sides that Ganivet saw in the history of Spain, the man of action (Cid) and the pious, spiritually inclined individual (Pío) whose weapons were discussion and persuasion.

While in Helsinki, Ganivet also wrote a series of articles for El Defensor, a Granada newspaper, which were later collected and published under the title Granada la Bella (1896, Granada the Beautiful). At the same time, he authored — again for El Defensor— 22 essays about Finland. These were published as Cartas finlandesas (Letters from Finland) in 1898.

Published in 1897 when Ganivet was only 32, Idearium español first appeared anonymously with only the dedication to his father, Francisco Ganivet Morcillo, hinting at the identity of the author.

The Roots of Spain’s Spirit.
The Idearium is divided into three untitled sections (A: 9-74; B: 75-123; C: 124-148). Ganivet first traces historical and geographical factors that combined to forge Spain’s national identity or more specifically its spirit. 

Going back to Roman times, Ganivet saw in the stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (born in Cordoba c. 4 BC, died 65 AD) a man of indestructible spirit who refused to admit defeat by anything alien to his nature. In addition, Senequism for Ganivet was infused with noble, just and humanitarian doctrines (13). These qualities, Ganivet believed, epitomised the Spanish character or spirit (10). Furthermore, they coincided with and were therefore easily absorbed by Christianity which, with the help of its evangelical passion, eventually replaced the old Roman religions (15-16).

The “Arab invasion” resulted in what Ganivet calls “the most original and fruitful creation of our religious spirit:” i. e. Christianity’s resistance seen in terms of “permanent war” i. e. the Reconquista (18). But the several centuries of war and close contact also had other consequences on Christianity which gave rise, according to Ganivet, to “the most distinct tendency in Spain’s religious spirit”: mysticism, a combination of Christian military religiosity and Arab sensuality.

Turning to geography (30), Ganivet theorizes that land has a profound influence on the psychology or spirit of a nation (31). It is a substratum deeper and longer lasting even than religion (31). For Ganivet, land can be divided into three forms: continents, peninsulas and islands, each with its peculiar spirit (32).

The characteristic of continental peoples is resistance, peninsular peoples are independent and islanders are aggressive (32-33). He offers as example of the latter, England, whose history is one of permanent aggression projected outwards through its naval power. His example of continental peoples is France for whom patriotism is a guiding principle because, bordering several countries, it has always fought defensive (and offensive) frontier battles (35).

Spain is a peninsular nation, but since it is almost an island Spaniards have grown up believing they are also islanders (37)! As a result, Spain’s history is “an endless series of invasions and expulsions, a constant war of independence” (37) that has produced aggressive individuals resistant to organisation. He gives as examples the Lusitanian guerrilla fighter, Viriatus, the Cid (43) and the individuals who conquered America (44). Spain, he points out, did not employ an army in its conquest of America, but groups of individual soldiers (49) susceptible to insubordination (49) and hostile to being organised. Ideally, Spaniards would like to own a legal card proclaiming: Este español está autorizado para hacer lo que le dé la gana” (“This Spaniard is authorised to do whatever he wants” 55).

Spaniards are self confident individuals whose love of independence leads them to pay no attention to others (69). There is no middle ground for them (67). This has also led to a longstanding lack of leadership (138) which has seen Spain expend its energies on heroic and vain exploits beyond its borders with the result that it is now no more than a “hospital for invalids and a breeding ground for beggars” (72).

The Road to Recovery?
If Spain is to recover its international prestige, it must do so by restoring its spiritual life (139). This can be achieved only by the application of intelligence, inner or spiritual energy, and ideas.

Force is not the answer to Spain’s current misery and poverty (125), and a country’s greatness is not measured by the extent of its territory or the number of its inhabitants (119) but on its spiritual energy and the richness of its ideas. This is, in a rather convoluted way, a defence of Spain’s colonial conquest of the Americas, especially in view of European criticism. The conquest was not carried out by a militarily organised army but by “legitimate guerrilla fighters” (44), “a few adventurers” (45), “heroes” (45) driven by idealism, a “fuerza ideal” (45).

Ganivet rejects the colonisation of old, which meant conquest of territory, and is even more opposed to modern colonisation which is based on commerce (115, 116) and exploitation. To overcome another political power, Spain must fight to win by ideas (114).

Predictably, given Spain’s past colonial exploits, Ganivet’s attention is focused on Spain’s relationship with Latin America, i. e. on those countries which were once its colonies and those that still belonged to Spain (Cuba and Puerto Rico, although in 1898 these too were lost). He rejects a political confederation of Hispano-American states as unworkable and favours an intellectual or spiritual confederation. But this depends on Spain: it must generate ideas as the basis of the unity, and these must be offered freely if they are to have effect (98).

Ganivet does not, then, advocate a return to the Spain’s colonial past but neither does he favour rejecting that past entirely. Rather, guided by intelligence he seeks a new beginning aimed at creating a “family” union of Hispanic countries infused with “our [i. e. Spain’s] ideals” (128). This would win Spain something more important than land (128). But to achieve this, Spain must recover its intellectual prestige (100) and its spiritual energy: “Spain has to begin a new evolution soon … which is a continuation of traditional Spain … [and] what we must take from the tradition is … [its] spirit” (120). It was that spiritual energy, and not its physical strength, that was the source of Spain’s past triumphs (106). Spain’s ships, he argues, weren’t manned only by sailors, they were driven by ideas (106).

So, what is to be done?
What Spain must not do is imitate French, English, or German ideas (126). On the contrary, it must seek ideas within its own borders (123). It must look within itself because the wholesale absorption of ideas from other countries implies a loss of what is authentically Spanish, leaving Spain in the state of abjection in which she has long stagnated.

Where will Spain’s Ideas come from?
Unfortunately, Spain’s Catholic education system has failed to inspire ideas: “… Catholic education has condemned us to intellectual atrophy …” ( 130) which might explain why Ganivet does not advocate a role for the Church in his call for a spiritual regeneration.

What about secular, free education? Sadly for Ganivet, free education has followed the wrong path: “We’ve chosen the wrong direction …  free education is carrying us to rapid coarseness,” he declares (130). It is tempting to think that Ganivet’s criticism here alludes to the Institución Libre de Enseñanza founded in 1876 by a group of professors recently fired from Madrid University. Certainly, it is strange that a critic as perceptive as Ganivet has nothing to say about the Institución given its radical approach to and impact on education.

As for Spain’s universities, they are bereft of ideas. They are, together with the State and the Municipalities, “empty organisms” (131), waiting for everything to come from elsewhere (131). 

Is there a Solution?
 “If I were consulted as a spiritual doctor,” Ganivet says in what is possibly his most famous comment, “to provide a diagnosis of the illness which we Spaniards suffer from … I would say that the illness can be given the name of ‘not wishing,’ or in more scientific terms using the Greek word “abulia” which means the same: the disappearance or serious lack of will power” (131). In practical terms, he argues, “abulia” manifests itself in “el no hacer: doing nothing, apathy;” in intellectual terms it is characterised by “no atender: not paying attention, or indifference.” Spain, he claims, has for a long time been indifferent to what is going on in the world; it is interested in nothing.

Ganivet’s pessimistic analysis appears to leave little room for optimism, and yet he declares that he has faith in Spain’s spiritual future (144). At a time when other the imperial adventures of other European countries were seen as proof of Western superiority, Ganivet opts for a new type of leadership: the sharing of intellectual ideas and spiritual energy.

Where other European powers were expanding, Spain’s empire was contracting; it was the first to undergo a postcolonial adjustment. “Spain is the first European nation to be enlarged through expansion and conquest; it is the first to decline and complete its material evolution … and it is now the first to have to work on political and social restoration in a completely new way.” (126) This is Spain’s opportunity. This is its way of being ahead of the other European overseas powers, still obsessed by materialistic colonialism.

What the country needs to do is recover its faith in its own ideas and not seek elsewhere what it has within it (148). Spaniards must make a collective act of contrition which will produce “spiritual bread for us and our [Hispanic] family.” (148). Thanks to this rebirth, Spaniards will find a large number of brotherly nations i. e. Hispanic, which they can influence with their spirit and ideas.

Although he doesn’t say so, this is in effect another form of colonialism, in this case cultural hegemony which may also be seen as a “reaction to the threat of losing the last colonies” (Krauel 192).

Idearium español is a challenging read. It is a dense work compressing a great deal of detail in its approximately 150 pages (depending on the edition). But it suffers from repetition, inconsistencies, incongruities and lack of practicality, as many critics have pointed out. E. g. Ganivet defends the conquest of America as heroic and yet later he views it as an historical error (72) and a burden (108) which left the country a “hospital for invalids and a breeding ground for beggars” (72).  It also lacks critical balance in emphasising the loss of national character or spirit over the deficiencies of political or economic factors, which scarcely figure in the essay. That is, Ganivet has little to say about Spanish commercial exploitation from the very beginning of the country’s colonial ventures. On the other hand, he is critical of other European countries’ material exploitation of their colonies.

Idearium español is a work that shows Ganivet attempting to come to terms with Spain’s political inertia and the potential loss of what remained of its empire. It was written at a time when Spain was engaged in fighting a bloody war against Cuban rebels that went on intermittently from 1868 (1868-78, 1879-80, 1895-98). By the end of 1898, it had lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.

The loss of imperial power seen in terms of land and political control was hard for Ganivet to accept, so he adjusted his sights to retaining power through ideas, that is through Spanish ideas and ideals. His rejection of Spain’s physical colonialism is in fact forced upon him, given the loss of Latin American territory during the 19th century. As a result, he reanalyses the accomplishments of the 16th-century Spanish conquistadors and now attributes those triumphs to their ideas. Spain’s greatest successes, he says, were inspired more by “our spiritual energy” (106) rather than “our strength/force” (107).

As for Spain’s material failure in the 19th century (i. e. the loss of territory), it can be transformed into spiritual success provided Spaniards shake off their apathy. The Idearium is Ganivet’s attempt to awaken Spaniards to what has happened to them and to shake them out of their indifference so that they could, once again, to be in the forefront of a new imperial project: the empire of ideas, or in other words, Spain’s cultural values.

Ganivet, Angel Idearium espanol Madrid: Espasa-Calpe 1981, 11th ed. In Spanish. Page numbers from this text appear in brackets.
Ginsberg, Judith Angel Ganivet London: Tamesis, 1985.
Krauel, Javier “Angel Ganivet’s Idearium español as Fin-de-Siecle Imperial Melancholia” in Revista Hispanica Moderna, 65.2 (2012), 181-97. Can be accessed at
Tulimirovic, Bojana “Angel Ganivet y el Idearium espanol: La cosmovision spiritual de la Espana del fin del Siglo in
Photo of Ganivet:
By Manuel Compañy – (1903-12-05). “Actualidades”. Blanco y Negro (657). ISSN 0006-4572., Public Domain,