Azorín explains the nature of classical statesmanship
by Loane Le Clouërec
José Martínez Ruiz was born in 1873 into a middle-class family of nine children in the small town of Monóvar in the Alicante province of Spain. During his university years in Valencia, where he studied law but did not complete his degree, he began to write for local newspapers and published literary criticism in 1893 before turning to radical journals.
José Martínez Ruiz, forefather of the Generación del 98 and Spain’s Azorín
After moving to Madrid to become a journalist, José Martínez Ruiz was often dismissed for his political radicalism and presentations of anarchist theories of that time. He then published a trilogy of biographical novels, La Voluntad(Volition, 1902), Antonio Azorín (1903), whose main character’s surname would become the pseudonym of the author, and Las confesiones de un pequeño filósofo (The Confessions of a Minor Philosopher, 1904) which presented the stages of reminiscence of an intellectual living in the intellectual and artistic decay of modern Spain. Those three novels became the unifying force of the Generación del 98, name that Azorín first used in 1913 to identify a group of writers who desired to reinstate Spain into a prominent position in the intellectual and literary spheres.
These prominent writers, including Pio Baroja, Miguel de Unamuno, Enrique de Mesa, Azorín himself and others, were attempting to perform a literary regeneration through poetry, fiction and drama aimed at unveiling the patriotic soul of Spain.
They were concerned by the political and moral crisis following Spain’s defeat by the United States in the Spanish-American War in 1898, which resulted in the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. This event, called El Desastre (The Disaster), was considered a humiliation as Spain only held Morocco as the last remnant of a once-mighty empire. The Generación del 98 debated and explored the different failings of Spanish society while seeking inspiration from Cervantes, Quevedo, or Friedrich Nietzsche.
Azorín demonstrated through his literary, and political, journey a strong interest in capturing the essence of what it means to be Spanish through texts such as El Alma castellana (The Castilian Soul, 1900) as well as his mastery of the Spanish language. The ideas of Karl Krause, who claimed that an individual could be reformed and shaped by education and that a nation’s openness to diverse cultures could erode national conservatism, inspired him and fuelled his belief that there was a need for a literary renaissance to forge a ‘new Spain’.
El Politico, an instruction manual for the statesman
In 1908, Azorín published El Político and revealed the lessons and values that a statesman must possess. However, Azorín does not merely deliver a checklist for the reader to follow and suddenly become an authentic leader, a person worthy of leading and deserving of that title. Azorín offers advice, warnings and an understanding of the art of influence and leadership that together constitute the everyday experiences of a leadership lifestyle.
The first sentence of the book states that the first condition of being a statesman is strength. His body and his mind must be healthy, strong and firm enough to withstand the duties and pressures that a leadership position entails. Azorín then describes, chapter by chapter, the foundations of such strength of body, mind and character in three ways: straightforward exposition, fable-like stories and the qualities of historical characters from the Spanish court.
Chapter two, ‘The Art of Attire’, is one of the chapters using Azorín's first method of instruction. In this chapter, the author makes a particular point about the immediate appearance of the politician and how appearances enhance or degrade an individual. The ‘first rule of elegance is simplicity’, which in reality is not only a lesson about discretion so as to not portray oneself as arrogant but is also a first introduction to humility and respect. Simplicity of attire, harmony of colours and immaculateness of the cloth all indicate that the politician has mastered Castiglione’s sprezzatura, or studied simplicity.
A case of Azorín’s second avenue of teaching is a story from chapter seven (‘Do not be impatient’) in which the author simply narrates the tale of an archbishop saving an obstinate drowning man who, instead of crossing the river by using the bridge a bit further away, decided to cross the tumultuous water on foot so as to get to his destination faster. The moral of the story is to reflect appropriately beforehand, undertake our obligations with forbearance and, thus, do the more intelligent and indeed the more effective thing.
Some other lessons are based on the Duke of Lerma, personifying the fox’s agility, discretion and wit through examples that Azorín gives of this historical character. The other facet that the statesman must possess is represented by Don Rodrigo Calderón as the lion which implies dignity, strength and magnificence. The lion and the fox obviously echo Machiavelli. The statesman needs to learn how to be ambivalent, kind and resourceful among many other skills and qualities. This is a stern task, and the author attempts to assemble those skills and qualities in a fabric of stories and anecdotes to break down the highest distinctions of an individual’s personality into smaller, achievable and understandable habits.
Azorín concludes with a reminder to appreciate every lesson brought to us, be it through his book or through the diversity and subtlety of life itself. There is no single element that will generate influence and leadership; instead they represent a collection of values, experiences and an immense capacity for self-control that will shape the statesman. These principles merge ethics and aesthetics within Azorín’s writing, which illustrates yet again the fine balance between external grace and internal poise that the statesman must master.
José Martínez Ruiz, in El Político, thereby presents timeless, crystalline guidelines for future leaders to understand, internalise and employ.