Claudio Veliz
Claudio Veliz; drawing by David Levine

In a famous presidential address delivered to the American Historical Association in 1932, Herbert Bolton challenged his fellow historians in the United States to move beyond national history and write an “Epic of Greater America.”1 Today Bolton’s address makes disappointing reading; but it has the great merit of raising a question which has refused to lie down and die—the question of how far the Americas share common characteristics and a common history. Bolton saw a series of what he called “larger historical unities,” like the frontier experience, as transcending the differences between British and Iberian America to create the distinctive civilization of a “Greater America,” which awaited (and indeed still awaits) its historian. Others, less persuaded of the transforming characteristics of the American environment, have insisted on the extent to which the New World societies retained the imprint of the European societies from which they sprang. The new societies were “fragments of the larger whole of Europe,” whose historical destinies were programmed by their time and place of origin.2

For those to whom America means the liberation of its peoples of European origin from the constraints of their collective past, the history of Iberian America has always posed something of a problem. For in those remote and often turbulent societies south of the border, the past has seemed almost oppressively present. American exceptionalism and manifest destiny somehow appeared to have stopped at the Rio Grande. Partly perhaps for this reason, Bolton’s plea for the history of a “Greater America” fell largely on deaf ears. It was hardly possible to envisage a Greater America when the disparities between North and South America were so glaringly apparent.

In the years following World War II, as questions of economic development moved to the center of the stage, those disparities, which seemed, if anything, to be growing more acute, became the subject of close attention and discussion among economists and historians alike. It was in the hope of reducing the disparities that President Kennedy launched his Alliance for Progress, an initiative preceded and followed by countless analyses of the Latin American “problem.” The nature of the problem was summarized by Stanley and Barbara Stein in the opening words of their influential study, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America, published in 1970. “The most striking feature of contemporary Latin America,” they wrote, “is its economic dependence, underdevelopment, or backwardness with respect to the North Atlantic World,” and they went on to confess that they viewed Latin America “as a continent of inadequate and disappointing fulfillment.”3 If their analysis was sharper and much more historically informed than that provided by most of the contemporaneous attempts to explain the North-South divergence, their point was the same. Judged by the standards set by North America, South America was a failure.

The most obvious practical response in the US was to refashion South America in the image of the North, and, in the process, make Greater America a reality at last. In the optimistic pursuit of this objective, hordes of well-meaning consultants descended on the continent, armed with the most up-to-date prescriptions, only to find that the patient failed to respond in the ways they had expected. North American ideas of land development, corporate investment, and city planning were resisted. Rather than question the diagnosis or the remedies prescribed, all too many were inclined to lay the blame at the patient’s door. No doubt it was hard for consultants working on tight schedules to develop that sensitive response to local conditions which comes from long exposure to a culture and a patient willingness to understand its workings.4 It was even harder to acquire the kind of historical empathy needed to examine Iberian America “not from the habitual standpoint of North America, as ‘victim,’ ‘patient,’ or ‘problem,’ but as a mirror-image in which North America would be able to recognize its own ills and ‘problems.’ “5

The analysis and commentary were by no means confined to the English-speaking world. Distinguished Latin American intellectuals and economists weighed in to a debate whose terms had largely been set outside Latin America itself. If some chose to shift the burden of blame for Latin America’s perceived predicament onto external forces; largely in the US itself, which had kept it in a state of dependency, others sought to show how some historical understanding of the social and political arrangements of Iberian America was an essential prerequisite for the achievement of successful reform. Among them was the Chilean sociologist and historian, Claudio Véliz, at that time professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Australia.

In The Centralist Tradition of Latin America,6 Véliz took advantage of the benefits conferred by distance to survey those features of the historical development of Iberian America which, in his view, made its societies unresponsive to a program of prepackaged economic and social reforms—reforms dreamt up on the supposition that the countries of Latin America could be neatly pigeonholed either as incipient West European countries or as overdeveloped extensions of the third world. He argued in particular that Latin America’s historical development differed from that of the societies of the North Atlantic in certain fundamental respects. Iberian America lacked the experience of feudalism and of the religious nonconformity that was central to the history of England and the Netherlands; and it was only marginally touched by the Industrial and the French Revolutions, those great shaping movements of the modern world. But as the creation, or more properly the “invention,” of sixteenth-century Spain and Portugal, Iberian America had, instead, developed a powerful centralizing tradition. Whether in the colonial administrations of Brazil, Peru, or Mexico, for example, the main Latin American regions had a precocious experience of bureaucratic rationalism; and this meant that the state remained the essential element of cohesion in the new and independent nations that emerged from the ruins of the Spanish and Portuguese overseas empires in the early nineteenth century.


The book, reflective and occasionally whimsical, bore witness to the author’s exposure to the Anglophone culture in which he now found himself immersed. In his introduction he cited the fragment from Archilochus which provided the inspiration for Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox7 : “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” “If,” wrote Véliz,

writers can be classified as foxes or hedgehogs, why not nations, perhaps with the interesting difference that while human beings are either one or the other throughout their brief productive lives, nations may change over time…. Without pressing the point too far, I would suggest that Latin America is a hedgehog that since the middle of the nineteenth century has been desperately trying to become a fox, with indifferent results.

It is this suggestion which provides the rather arch title, and the theme, of his latest book, The New World of the Gothic Fox.

In transporting these two antithetical creatures to the western hemisphere, and then endowing them with collective rather than individual identities, Professor Véliz has hit on a playful, if initially disconcerting, idea. Casual readers picking up his book may be excused for thinking that they have wandered into an American menagerie containing two species of whose existence they were previously unaware—the baroque hedgehog and the gothic fox. Their difficulty in imagining these implausible animals is not likely to be diminished by the discovery that the baroque hedgehog is “domed.” But those whose imaginations are excessively taxed may find reassurance in the author’s insistence that he is dealing in metaphors, and that a metaphor “is not meant to be a detailed portrait but a well-founded intimation, a glimpse that one hopes will be revealing and will help to discern what would otherwise remain obscure.”

What, then, are we expected to discern with the help of his metaphor? Let us first approach, if a little gingerly, the animals here portrayed. First of all the baroque hedgehog, who, as we are already aware, knows one big thing. This creature has its genesis in the establishment in the early sixteenth century of Castile’s empire of the Indies, but we learn that it only acquired its hedgehog characteristics in the age of the Catholic Counter-Reformation during the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Spain of Philip II launched its great crusade against the forces of Protestant heresy. “The Counter-Reformation,” Véliz informs us, “exhibited the kind of satisfying symmetry, predictability, and unifying disposition that would have pleased Archilochus’s hedgehog immensely.” As the Hispanic world enveloped itself in the culture of a Counter-Reformation that had been shaped by the Thomist revival in the Spanish universities, it was metamorphosed into a baroque hedgehog, unified and immobile beneath its impressive dome, and profoundly resistant to change.

Far away to the north, on the other hand, little gothic foxes were beginning to run wild. For Véliz the Gothic style of architecture, and particularly the Late Gothic, or Perpendicular, epitomizes the English culture that has spread across the world. From Ruskin’s description of the Gothic there emerges, he tells us, “the outline of a world with many truths and many errors that is as compatible with the tenets of his Protestantism as it is antagonistic to the ‘one truth, many errors’ of the Counter-Reformation Baroque.” The product of an aristocratic rather than a monarchical society, the gothic culture of the English-speaking peoples—a culture that was decentralized, eccentric, and asymmetrical—was the culture that made possible the Industrial Revolution and the consumer society, and met the challenge of modernity not by resisting but by embracing change.


It will be apparent from this necessarily brief synopsis of arguments presented in his book with considerable wit and learning that Claudio Véliz is dealing in vast generalities that raise at least as many problems as they seek to resolve. Nor, as might have been expected from the title and subtitle of his book, does he restrict his arguments to the Americas. Instead, he engages in what is in effect a comparison between English and Hispanic civilization in their broadest manifestations, and British North America in particular receives a distinctly cursory treatment. Rather, he chooses to range through time and space. A chapter entitled “Hellenistic Aftermath” contains a long and fairly conventional list of the blessings conferred by the English on the modern world—a list that includes the English language, tourism, soccer (that great American game?), boxing, horse racing, fox hunting, the Savoy Hotel, television, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and classical economics. Véliz discourses learnedly, and often amusingly, on these and other topics, but they take up a considerable amount of his space without appreciably advancing his argument or adding to the sum of knowledge. Indeed one might at times be reading an updated version of G.J. Renier’s once celebrated work, The English: Are They Human?

Not surprisingly, Véliz moves with special confidence around his own Hispanic world, and many readers will find his account of Spanish Baroque culture the most interesting and illuminating part of his book. In recent years the Baroque civilization of Spanish America has been undergoing a serious reappraisal. It has been brilliantly evoked by Octavio Paz in his study of the great seventeenth-century Mexican poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,8 and David Brading has examined its rise and decline, as seen through its chronicles and histories, in a magisterial survey.9 Véliz, drawing in particular on José Antonio Maravall’s Culture of the Baroque, 10 gives a lively account of Spanish Baroque culture and its American manifestations, an account in which he insists on its essentially Spanish, as distinct from European, characteristics, and portrays it as the supreme expression of the Spanish Counter-Reformation.

There are, however, some problems with Véliz’s exposition of the Baroque as, in his words, “a metaphor for Spain and her Indies at their triumphant best.” In the first place, it tends to assume, as was perhaps inevitable in any attempt to convey the whole temper of a civilization, a culture far more monolithic than it really was. As described by Véliz, this culture had its philosophical foundations in the Summa of Aquinas. In the war of the universals, this placed it firmly in the camp of the Realists, who believed, with Saint Thomas, that the things of this world were created from universal patterns in the mind of God, and that all the things we say are of the same kind are not just groups of particular objects, as the Nominalists held. Véliz writes, “it can be affirmed with confidence that given the choice, the hedgehog of Archilochus would without hesitation side with the Realists, while the fox would swiftly count himself a Nominalist.” However, in a new and illuminating study of diabolism in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mexico, Fernando Cervantes emphasizes the continuing vitality of the Nominalist tradition which the Franciscans carried with them to the New World. Franciscan demonology had a profound impact on the culture of Baroque Mexico, and this demonology reflected an exaggerated Augustinianism which was irreconcilable with Aquinas’s theory of the human intellect. 11

Véliz, on being confronted with examples of the strength of Nominalism in the Hispanic New World, could legitimately counter by arguing that the supreme glory of the Baroque was to hold contradictory forces in a state of permanent tension beneath its unifying dome. But it would nonetheless seem that his baroque hedgehog is not exempt from foxlike characteristics. Further problems arise, too, with the chronology of his Baroque civilization. In making this effectively coterminous with the period of Spanish imperial suzerainty, he ignores the repudiation of the Baroque in the eighteenth-century Hispanic world, culminating in the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 and the advent of a neoclassical culture, which stripped the churches of their ornaments and let in the light.

Ironically, churches filled with light would also seem to call into question Véliz’s characterization of the English-speaking societies to the north. It is hard to equate those luminous classical churches of British colonial America, or, for that matter, the neo-Georgian banks, post offices, and funeral parlors scattered across today’s United States, with the Gothic culture that he sees as exemplifying the English-speaking world. But we must remember that he claims to be dealing only in metaphors, and that it would be unreasonable to expect a consistency throughout his two civilizations which he has never attributed to them. If the baroque hedgehog has certain foxlike characteristics, the gothic fox, too, can be allowed some hedgehog traits. Indeed, could there be anything more hedgehog-like than the single-minded determination of the postwar United States to impose its own values and culture on the Latin American world? There are moments when its behavior recalls nothing so closely as that of Counter-Reformation Spain.

Yet if the categories become too elastic, the hedgehog-fox dichotomy becomes no more than a mildly amusing game. Is there anything in Véliz’s approach which raises his book above this level to that of a serious enterprise? I believe that there is, although I suspect that he may not have pursued the most effective ways of achieving his objectives.

David Hume, in his essay “Of National Characters,” wrote that “the same set of manners will follow a nation, and adhere to them over the whole globe, as well as the same laws and language. The Spanish, English, French, and Dutch colonies, are all distinguishable even between the tropics.”12 In making this observation he was reasserting the claims of culture against those who argued for the determining effects of climate and environment. The Romantic movement gave an additional impetus to the force of Hume’s assertion. In the nineteenth century, historical expositions based on the idea of national character were to enjoy an enormous popularity, until eventually they collapsed beneath the weight of their own absurdity, and fell into a discredit that has lasted almost to today.

Recently, however, there have been signs of a revival of interest in the idea, although “national character” is nowadays likely to be dressed up in the less offensive guise of “collective identity.” The impetus behind this revival, as Michael Kammen has recently pointed out,13 has come from social scientists rather than historians, who have been slower to abandon their skepticism, although here again there are indications of a change of heart.14 Claudio Véliz’s book is, in this sense, in tune with the times. He has rightly seen that the economic disparities between British and Iberian America cannot be understood if their social and economic arrangements are not related to the whole complex of values, habits, and cultural traditions that went into the construction of their collective identities.

Central to those values and cultural traditions is, of course, religion. Latin America’s Catholicism has often been used as an explanation of its alleged failure to embrace the spirit of capitalism. But, as Véliz recognizes, the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the capitalist spirit is not as clearcut as it seemed to be in the days of Weber and Tawney. This impelled him to extend the scope of his inquiry into what would once have been called “national character.” Others, too, have seen the need to move in the same direction,15 but Véliz’s project is particularly ambitious in its attempt to cover not simply British and Iberian America but the whole spectrum of British and Spanish (or, more correctly, English and Castilian) culture at what he sees as the defining moments for the shaping of the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds.

The enterprise is bold, but the boldness is justified if one believes, with Hume, that “the same set of manners will follow a nation, and adhere to them over the whole globe.” It then becomes essential to pay attention not only to the colonial societies themselves but also to the European culture which did so much to mold them. From this standpoint Véliz’s book can be welcomed as a valuable corrective to studies of British and Iberian colonial America which have for too long treated them in transatlantic isolation, making little or no reference to their countries of origin—countries with which they maintained a continuous contact, and against which, consciously and unconsciously, they constantly measured themselves.

Véliz’s book also has the great merit of adopting a broad comparative approach at a time when the fashion for micro-history tends to encourage micro-thinking. But the comparative approach, if it is to be effective, requires a careful definition and matching of the units of comparison, and it is not clear to me that Véliz achieves this, either in chronological or geographical terms. “The Counter-Reformation,” he writes, “is to the cultural tradition of Spain and her Indies what the Industrial Revolution is to that of the English-speaking peoples everywhere, especially in Britain and North America.” One, however, was a phenomenon of the religious and cultural history of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Western world; the other of its economic history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While both left a profound cultural imprint on their respective societies, the differences in the character and timing of the two phenomena make a comparison more than usually elusive. Are we to assume that a society permeated by Baroque culture was in some way rendered honorably ineligible for entry into the modern industrial world two centuries later? If so, we need some arguments that take us beyond Véliz’s claims that “deterioration” of the Spanish Empire is a consequence of the “cultural tenacity” of the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. Such tenacity itself requires analysis and explanation.

An effective comparison, too, requires geographical precision. Véliz’s study justifiably presumes, and illustrates, the existence of an English and a Hispanic culture spanning the Atlantic; but it has little to say about the possibility of colonial deviation from the metropolitan norm. It can be argued, for instance, that Baroque culture was taken to such extremes in Spanish America as to give its civilization a different texture to that of Spain itself. Seventeenth-century Mexican poetry, for instance, in its pursuit of exaggerated effects through ingenious conceits like acrostics and reversible lines, goes far beyond its peninsular models.16 Equally it can be argued that this same Spanish-American Baroque society, for all its exaggerations, was considerably more hospitable to entrepreneurial skills than its metropolitan equivalent. Eighteenth-century visitors to Mexico and Peru were struck by the obvious wealth and prosperity of an urban civilization which put that of the British colonies of the north into the shade. At that time it would not have been unreasonable to expect that the future lay with Spanish America rather than its British counterpart.

Why such expectations were defrauded is a question that cannot be answered in cultural terms alone. Any answer would have to take into account such topics as the advantages or disadvantages of the mining economies of South America as compared with the agrarian economies of the North, and the presence or absence of large and settled indigenous populations. Neither mines nor Indians appear in Véliz’s book. But even in his chosen field of cultural comparison he is not, to my mind, playing entirely fair. We hear much, for instance, of the foxlike “love of change” of the English-speaking peoples as compared with the resistance to innovation of the Hispanic hedgehog. But how does this square with the obsessive conservatism of Puritan New England, its preoccupation with “declension” from the high standards of the first generation of settlers, and its assumption that all change was for the worse?

Similarly, he has an eloquent passage on the urban culture of the Spanish Baroque. “The boundaries of the Baroque city,” he writes, “were those of civilization. Without there was a wilderness teeming with dangerous beasts and useless vegetation…” All true, no doubt; but what of the “wilderness” in Puritan mythology? It would be hard to find an adequate Spanish equivalent for a word so laden with theological and symbolic overtones as to make it a key for understanding the civilization of Anglo-America.17 Here, surely, is a concept that cries out for cross-cultural comparison. It would, I suspect, show that the idea of the wilderness figured far more prominently in the minds of the settlers of North America than in those of their Spanish-American counterparts. Using this as a point of entry into the two principal cultures of Greater America, it might be possible to trace the stages, and the mental convolutions, by which the all too hedgehog-like settlers of Puritan New England were gradually transmuted into adventurous gothic foxes.

It would, however, be unfair to demand too much of a relatively short book which has something of the charm and range of learning of an eighteenth-century philosophical inquiry. More than a jeu d’esprit and less than an exhaustive sociological or historical treatise, it belongs, dare one suggest, to a characteristically Hispanic literary tradition, in which the author expatiates, with grace and wit, on one big thing. As such, it lies squarely within the world of the hedgehogs; but foxes, too, may scurry through it and find some tasty pickings.

This Issue

October 20, 1994