Nature is an almost indomitable force in this work. Sarmiento describes the desolate, vast wastes of the pampas, conjuring up images of the loose sand, the winds, the stunted trees. He explains how Argentina has only barely begun its progress toward industrialization and how the cities that exist are lonely outposts of civilization. It is against this backdrop that men like Facundo and Rosas rise to power. The gauchos war with nature to both survive and subdue it. They grow up seeing an endless horizon and infinite hills; they and their horses are in a constant battle with the savage plains. It is no wonder, Sarmiento concludes, that these men develop traits of barbarism.
Civilization vs. Barbarism
This is perhaps the main theme of the work: the push and pull between the forces of civilization and barbarism. Civilization is described as essentially European; it is learning, economic and industrial progress, culture and art. It is enlightened, rational, and just. Barbarism is associated with the native, the countryside provinces. It eschews the hallmarks of civilization and manifests in violence, cruelty, subjugation, arbitrariness, unfettered ambition. Men like Paz and Barcala are civilized, while Rosas and Facundo are not. Sarmiento sees the eventual trajectory of Argentina being one of barbarism to civilization and knows he has to wait out Rosas, but he still rues the various atrocities committed along the way.
Sarmiento understands civilization in almost exclusively European terms. The cities absorbed European influence from the Spanish. They are places of learning, progress, and culture; in contrast, the provinces are just that - provincial, backward, hedonistic hinterlands. Sarmiento has no interest in promoting the local or the indigenous. In contemporary Argentina, some people do not excoriate Rosas as much as Sarmiento did because they see Rosas as a hero for the native. This is a tension in the work because while Sarmiento loves his country and wants it to progress, he wants it to do so on European terms.
War and violence are ubiquitous in this work. Both the civilized and uncivilized use war to carry out their aims, but there are differences in regards to their methods and means. The civilized generals use war to ostensibly uphold the government and the people. They do not try to elevate themselves or derive pleasure from the use of violence. As for men like Facundo and Rosas, however, they use war and violence for capricious, self-interested reasons. They torture and maim and destroy as a means to carry out their own ambitions and as part of their nature.
The Power of Writing
Sarmiento knew the significance of writing. When exiled from Argentina, he used letters and articles to campaign against the atrocities of the Rosas regime; Facundo is an exemplary expression of that. It was serialized and then became a book, one that Sarmiento sent to influential people and had discussed in sympathetic publications. Writing was a weapon; it was a call to action. Simply and intelligently written, Facundo was intended to galvanize. It was so influential that it helped Sarmiento himself rise to power and eventually become president.
Sarmiento only discusses religion a few times, but it is significant nonetheless. He explains that Argentina is a Catholic country but praises the "liberty of conscience" that a city like Buenos Ayres allows. Religious freedom is good for society because it putatively obviates war and promotes (European) immigration, a hallmark of civilized nations. Sarmiento condemns the provinces for not embracing it. He also condemns Facundo for using religion as a tool to manipulate and further his own agenda; Facundo is not religious at all but marches at the head of a religious procession in order to make inroads into the city he wants to conquer.
Sarmiento the man and Sarmiento the narrator of Facundo are committed to education as perhaps the primary way a nation progresses toward civilization. He deplores how the forces of barbarism destroyed education in the cities and how the men who come to lead the cities and provinces are devoid of education. He links education to civilization and civilization to Europe; he also sees education as something that flourishes best in areas that are denser in population and more progressive in terms of industry and economy.
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