Conservative, Prudent Spirit Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies

Edgard Leite

Francisco José de Oliveira Viana (1883- 1951) was a Brazilian intellectual who lived in the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1918, he finished writing one of his most relevant books: "Meridional Populations of Brazil".

Like many of his contemporaries, Oliveira Viana believed in the importance of deciphering the mysteries behind the country's social and historical background.

Though he recognized Brazilian people's great virtues, he was of the opinion that Brazil would have to overcome some barriers if it were to become a competent nation in a competitive world.

In "Meridional Populations", he discussed the characteristics of human groups living in the interior of the States of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Traditionally, these regions have had the highest number of Brazilian inhabitants. For Oliveira Viana, in these people's profile lies the explanation to Brazilian reality.

Oliveira Viana saw in them a characteristic, gregarious and entrepreneurial profile. They made up a conservative population who were terrified of political conflicts and the "brutal nature of armed fight".

In his opinion, they were the ones who gave support to the great changes of the Nineteenth century, guaranteed Brazil's independence and kept its extraordinary political integrity.

Oliveira Viana viewed these people as being entirely different from their "Hispanic American brothers", who kept a "constant and pulsating drive for turmoil and fight". This marked a history of "devastation and destruction". Unlike them, Brazilian Meridional populations, with their "gentle and sensible disposition" and a "conservative and prudent spirit" transformed Brazil into "a radiant and solitary example of order, stability and peace".

By saying that, Oliveira Viana evidently referred to these people's cautious attitude before the passions of political life and persistent refusal to accept radical opinions or rely on the need of large-scale conflicts.

These populations usually rejected political solutions that implied large and collective compromises that could jeopardize current balance and stability or challenge their own private interests.

Notwithstanding these characteristics, which, from a political viewpoint, had the potential to stabilize relations, Oliveira Viana perceived an underlying problem that involved the origin of Brazil. This problem could at times neutralize Brazil as a nation and occasionally jeopardize its stability.

Largely, this problem derived from the process of the country's independence, or, more precisely, from the way in which society tended to deal with the propositions put forward by leaderships in charge of creating a sense of nationality.

Oliveira Viana defended that, since independence, in 1822, we have been "behaving like opium smokers amidst active, daring and progressive ethnic groups. We have been living on dreams and fiction, amidst pragmatic and objective peoples. For a century, we have been cultivating the politics of dreams and illusion."

In his opinion, the independence of Brazil, which was achieved by means of an administrative deed, implied a change in the state of Brazilian society.

In the previous situation, government and administrative institutions were appropriate to the nature of existing social relations, for they had, from the first moments of settlement, been shaped to serve these.

The dynamics of social order was translated into political order, i.e., there was a synergy between theories and practices involving rulers and subjects.

This changed in 1822. According to Oliveira Viana, a new governance perspective was created at that point in history that was not based on the country's reality, but rather on political models originated from the North, the US and Europe.

In fact, the fathers of independence, such as José Bonifácio de Andrada  (1763-1838), were politicians who followed an illuminist orientation. They were heirs to the foreignized Portuguese intellectuals.

They referred to Portuguese politicians, such as Alexandre de Gusmão (1695- 1753) or  Marquee of Pombal (1699- 1782), as "foreignized". As such, they meant to modernize Portugal and Brazil by the imposition of European models, which were supposedly more efficient. However, these measures were not well received by society.

Post-independence political leaderships found themselves in the imminence of building governance institutions and models in the country that were inadequate to our way of life. According to Oliveira Viana, they lost "the objective notion of real-life Brazil" and created, for their own sake, "an artificial and foreign Brazil, a Brazil made of a customs manifest".

In his opinion, this created a series of "presumptions about our aptitudes and great expectations", which "harsh realities" usually threatened to destroy in a unmerciful and cruel way".

The opening ceremony for  Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games exemplifies Oliveira Viana's thesis. Beneath the official discourse in defense of global ecology and preservation, there lies a real-life country which has nothing to do with the ecological and preservationist discourse. What's worse, that real country constantly challenges the discourse.

In order to give an idea of the situation, between 2000 and 2005,  Brazil responded for 47 percent of global loss of forest area. There followed a significant decrease over a certain period of time, but, as from 2012, average rates of deforestation started to go up again and have kept an upward trend since then.

In Oliveira Viana's opinion, the problem did not lie in the modernizing agenda, or in its underlying intentions. Still according to Viana, the great issue was a prevailing sense of illusion.

According to him, "what even the most superficial observation reveals, within the field of international competition, is the prevalence of peoples who organize themselves by following objective criteria".


 "Sentimental and imaginative peoples", i.e., those who, like Brazilians, "conscious and systematically practice the cult of their own illusion, are doomed to perish".


In a global scale, "the politics of reverie and illusion", i.e., our own, lies before "men of action who plant, by peace or by force, the roots of their sovereignty in every region of the globe". While all this happens, we keep on dreaming.

Apparently, this does not apply only to Brazil. Every nation that aims to play a relevant role in the global society that was built after the nineteenth century is equally trapped in the great contradictions between what they aim at and what they really are. They also import foreign models.

In Oliveira Viana's opinion, however, such conflict is aggravated  when one neglects his own reality and works against it. Still according to Viana, that is precisely what reverie leads us to do.

Brazilian society conservatism welcomes these dreams, for they are dreams and change nothing in the world of reality. After Oliveira Viana, Brazil was entrapped into a series of such illusions, both from left wing and right wing trends.

However, this conservatism paradoxically deepens the strangeness between society and its illusions, mainly when such threats bring along "devastation and destruction", or when they bring us closer to the way of life led by our "Hispanic-American brothers".

Oliveira Viana defended that "we should henceforth deal with facts rather than with hypotheses; with reality rather than with fiction; and, through heroic willpower, renew our ideas, rebuild our culture and re-educate our character".

Maybe. However, there can be no re-education of character without society's (and those who aim to rule it) true recognition of what it really is. Without such recognition, there is not even the possibility of knowing its potential.

It can be too much, as dreamers seem to think. However, being little, according to the prudent spirit of Meridional populations, is also a form of being.

Oliveira Viana seemed to be right when he said that insisting on exaggerated political and social reveries increased and aggravated the chronic problems caused by the conflict between the real and the ideal in Brazilian society.

Such insistence paralyses society and prevents it from playing a creative role in the world and guaranteeing that its presence and message become universal.

For, above all, it despises one of Brazilian society's essential characteriscs, maybe a greater virtue, without which the country would not even exist, i.e., its persistent and wise "conservative, prudent spirit".

Go to Edgard Leite biography >>​​