Civilization and barbarism
Facundo is not only a critique of Rosas's dictatorship, but a broader investigation into Argentine history and culture, which Sarmiento charts through the rise, controversial rule, and downfall of Juan Facundo Quiroga, an archetypical Argentine caudillo. Sarmiento summarizes the book's message in the phrase "That is the point: to be or not to be savages". The dichotomy between civilization and barbarism is the book's central idea; Facundo Quiroga is portrayed as wild, untamed, and standing opposed to true progress through his rejection of European cultural ideals—found at that time in the metropolitan society of Buenos Aires.
The conflict between civilization and barbarism mirrors Latin America's difficulties in the post-Independence era. Literary critic Sorensen Goodrich argues that although Sarmiento was not the first to articulate this dichotomy, he forged it into a powerful and prominent theme that would impact Latin American literature. He explores the issue of civilization versus the cruder aspects of a caudillo culture of brutality and absolute power. Facundo set forth an oppositional message that promoted a more beneficial alternative for society at large. Although Sarmiento advocated various changes, such as honest officials who understood enlightenment ideas of European and Classical origin, for him education was the key. Caudillos like Facundo Quiroga are seen, at the beginning of the book, as the antithesis of education, high culture, and civil stability; barbarism was like a never ending litany of social ills. They are the agents of instability and chaos, destroying societies through their blatant disregard for humanity and social progress.
If Sarmiento viewed himself as civilized, Rosas was barbaric. Historian David Rock argues that "contemporary opponents reviled Rosas as a bloody tyrant and a symbol of barbarism". Sarmiento attacked Rosas through his book by promoting education and "civilized" status, whereas Rosas used political power and brute force to dispose of any kind of hindrance. In linking Europe with civilization, and civilization with education, Sarmiento conveyed an admiration of European culture and civilization which at the same time gave him a sense of dissatisfaction with his own culture, motivating him to drive it towards civilization. Using the wilderness of the pampas to reinforce his social analysis, he characterizes those who were isolated and opposed to political dialogue as ignorant and anarchic—symbolized by Argentina's desolate physical geography. Conversely, Latin America was connected to barbarism, which Sarmiento used mainly to illustrate the way in which Argentina was disconnected from the numerous resources surrounding it, limiting the growth of the country.
American critic Doris Sommer sees a connection between Facundo's ideology and Sarmiento's readings of Fenimore Cooper. She links Sarmiento's remarks on modernization and culture to the American discourse of expansion and progress of the 19th century.
Writing and power
In the history of post-independence Latin America, dictatorships have been relatively common—examples range from Paraguay's José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia in the 19th century to Chile's Augusto Pinochet in the 20th. In this context, Latin American literature has been distinguished by the protest novel, or dictator novel; the main story is based around the dictator figure, his behaviour, characteristics and the situation of the people under his regime. Writers such as Sarmiento used the power of the written word in order to criticize government, using literature as a tool, an instance of resistance and as a weapon against repression.
Making use of the connection between writing and power was one of Sarmiento's strategies. For him, writing was intended to be a catalyst for action. While the gauchos fought with physical weapons, Sarmiento used his voice and language. Sorensen states that Sarmiento used "text as [a] weapon". Sarmiento was writing not only for Argentina but for a wider audience too, especially the United States and Europe; in his view, these regions were close to civilization; his purpose was to seduce his readers toward his own political viewpoint. In the numerous translations of Facundo, Sarmiento's association of writing with power and conquest is apparent.
Since his books often serve as vehicles for his political manifesto, Sarmiento's writings commonly mock governments, with Facundo being the most prominent example. He elevates his own status at the expense of the ruling elite, almost portraying himself as invincible due to the power of writing. Toward the end of 1840, Sarmiento was exiled for his political views. Covered with bruises received the day before from unruly soldiers, he wrote in French, "On ne tue point les idees" (misquoted from "on ne tire pas des coups de fusil aux idees", which means "ideas cannot be killed by guns"). The government decided to decipher the message, and on learning the translation, said, "So! What does this mean?". With the failure of his oppressors to understand his meaning, Sarmiento is able to illustrate their ineptitude. His words are presented as a "code" that needs to be "deciphered", and unlike Sarmiento those in power are barbaric and uneducated. Their bafflement not only demonstrates their general ignorance, but also, according to Sorensen, illustrates "the fundamental displacement which any cultural transplantation brings about", since Argentine rural inhabitants and Rosas's associates were unable to accept the civilized culture which Sarmiento believed would lead to progress in Argentina.