Is Brazil's problem a moral one? Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies


Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) was one of Brazil's greatest thinkers. His most influential book is "The Masters and the Slaves", published in 1933.

In his book, Freyre defends the thesis that Brazil has three founding ethnic groups: the Portuguese, indigenous peoples and Africans. In the author's opinion, the Portuguese's great virtue as colonizers was that they were much less racist or excluding as compared to other European settlers.

Therefore, there was an intense affective and cultural interchange between Portuguese and indigenous peoples, between Portuguese and Africans and between indigenous peoples and Africans. That explains why, unlike other Latin-American countries, Brazil did not follow the Europeanising tendency of its dominant sectors.

According to Freyre, in Brazil, unlike what happened in other countries, indigenous, and mainly African cultural values kept their roles in determining socio-cultural patterns through the imposition of habits and values.

Portuguese sentimentalism, coupled with the need to populate a vast territory, stimulated complex and irregular family relations. This in turn, stimulated the creation of a highly sensualized society, in which affection and eroticism constitute a part of social etiquette.

Thus, in his analysis of the colonial period, Freyre, quoting Richard Burton, wrote that "men do not like to marry forever, preferring illegitimate unions or illicit affairs. Portuguese and Brazilian laws, which facilitated the adoption of bastard offspring, merely favored the tendency towards concubinage and the forming of ephemeral bonds".

According to Freyre, this tendency distinguished Brazil from countries such as the United States, where Puritan leaders imposed rigid and clear standards of moral behavior for the functioning of society.

This erotic tendency of Brazilian society, in which the Portuguese, slaves and ex-slaves, indigenous peoples and mixed people from different ethnic groups mixed somewhat chaotically, was considered by the modernist writers of the twenties to be a peculiar characteristic of Brazil.

The poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), in his "Manifesto of Pau-Brasil Poetry", says about Brazil: "Carnival in Rio is the religious event of our race" and points out that, here, "joy is the litmus test".

In an unprecedented manner, unseen anywhere else, affectivity and sensuality played a relevant, structuring, characterizing and identity-building role in Brazilian society.

While, on the one hand, our sense of humor and our view on the world prevented us from building a more pragmatic social order, on the other, these same aspects are seen from the same perspective as being specific to an original society, a peculiar civilization, i.e., one whose destiny differs from those of other Western societies.

In fact, our tendency towards improvisation has always been evident to foreign travelers, who are seduced by our "cordiality" and capacity to find a friendly solution to all problems.

This characteristic, which was praised by modernists and admired by all those who believe such indulgence to pleasure to be a really positive trait of Brazilian people, has always met stern opposition.

Until the separation between Church and state in 1890, the Church was subjected to temporal power. In that period, many criticized the clergy's self-indulgent manners and their immersion into Brazil's moral confusion

However, from 1890 onwards, the situation changed drastically with the Church's autonomy and the triumph of ultramontane party positions, which advocated the alignment of the Brazilian church with the Vatican.

In a country with a Catholic majority, the Church understood that it could take on a leading role in society's existential and political affairs. This meant the defense of a deep moral reinforcement, which was deemed necessary in an increasingly plural society.

The first great thinker to advocate for these principles was Jackson de Figueiredo (1891-1928). As a Catholic intellectual, he played a significant leading role and understood that "the tendency towards sensuality of our mixed-race descent" was in fact a Brazilian characteristic, though not in the least desirable.

In his memorable chronicle "Painstaking Interrogations", he affirms that "the evil lies in what can be called moral indistinction. We are a people who cannot make moral distinctions".

For him, the moral problem was a central issue in Brazil. He was of the opinion that, given our moral flexibility, and mainly our implicit lack of ethical substance, all political and social evils, mainly economic ones, were deeply rooted in Brazilian society.

Such problem caused undefined attitudes, difficulties in living socially orderly and productive lives, which dissipated energies into a quasi-hedonism or absurd lack of responsibility.

Brazilian politics, for Jackson, was personal and disconnected from collective concerns. Social activities were fragmented and violent, and economic practices were poorly managed, which was due to the impossibility of recognition of the limits of good sense.

The diagnosis that the difficulties faced by Brazilian society had to do with such moral indulgence had an impact on the Catholic Church political positions. In fact, the Church advocated the strengthening of different moralizing tendencies in Brazilian society throughout the Twentieth century.

If we had stricter moral standards, would it be easier for us to recognize the superiority of collective norms over individual desire? Would we be less cordial and more efficient and law-abiding?

For Jackson Figueiredo it seemed so, and it was clear to him that a politics of moral reaction would only come into effect through the strengthening of the Catholic Church, the holder of the keys to the reading of the Bible, which is the great moral manual of the West.

As from 1922, the "Catholic reaction" had a great deal to do with this greater objective and, while conservative forces predominated among the Church leadership, the institution managed to keep its hegemony in Brazil's religious scenario.

In the face of peculiar national traditions on moral and good conduct, the Church thus aimed at setting a context of equilibrium and good sense, capable of realigning society's ethical present and future.

From the eighties onwards, with the Church slow decline, other forces emerged and in great part took over its legitimacy in setting up an agenda for reuniting Brazil with moral principles.

Pentecostal and mainly neopentecostal religions, as well as other religious politicians gathered around the so-called "evangelical band", took on themselves the agenda for moral establishment.

Since 2013, Brazilian National Congress has been staging a violent battle over the so-called "Family Statutory Laws".

The document, which is mainly sustained by the new religious political groups that took over the Catholic Church role within this scenario, defends "the family formed by the union between a man and a woman through marriage or stable union, and the community formed by any of the parent and their children".

The passionate tone of the debates has revealed that in a country so morally flexible, but so tragically underdeveloped, the moral issue is in fact, a serious problem.

It deals with the most intimate aspects of our historical and cultural identity, i.e., that aspect that seems to relate to both our most peculiar and seducing characteristics and our most blatant dysfunctions: our clear and evident moral indulgence.

Go to Edgard Leite biography >>