The Moral and Ethical Formation of José Martí

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References to Martí’s work are from Obras completas. 27 vols. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975

Scroll down for a bibliography of works cited

It is an established argument that our indigenous populations initiated the culture of resistance that continued throughout the independence wars and other rebellions in America (Fernández Retamar, Roberto. Calibán y otros ensayos. La Habana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1979). José Martí belongs to this tradition. His commitment to human development rested on the belief that freedom, justice, and dignity for everyone is an achievable goal, one that must be brought into being, and when necessary, through active resistance to oppression.

What are some of the influences on the framework of Martí’s moral and ethical formation?

There’s the well-rooted strain of intellectual radicalism, his natural empathy with sufferers of injustice augmented by his personal encounters with injustice, a lifetime of study and reflection, and his revolutionary activism from an early age.

First let us consider the influence of a radical strain of thought, with deep roots in the past, having to do with liberalism, humanism, nationalism, separatism, and anti-slavery.

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474/84-1566)

The Caribbean historian Gordon Lewis says that Las Casas was a liberal humanist who saw all peoples as human beings in different stages of development, and with the potential for cultural advance, economic progress, and moral improvement (Main Currents in Caribbean Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). Las Casas advanced a surprisingly modern theory of progress and cultural development, says Lewis, and testifies to a liberal humanist tradition in Spanish thought that I often forgotten by historians who overlook the prolonged Spanish debate on the implications of the discoveries for all the leading issues of liberal humanism: the problem of authority, the limits of obedience, religious toleration, the rights o subjects, the rival claims of papacy and nation-state, and the rest (Lewis 55).

Miguel Hidalgo Costilla (1753-1811)

This Creole intellectual, nonconformist priest, and humanitarian with a strong egalitarian spirit, strove to improve the economic well-being of his parishioners.

José María Morelos (1765-1815)

This parish priest and revolutionary assumed leadership of the revolt after Hidalgo’s execution and emphasized social and racial equality and complete independence from Spain.

Simón Bolíver (1783-1830)

Pensador and man of action, Bolívar’s revolt against Spanish rule and his spirit of independence, vision of the unity of America, and commitment to radical transformation continue in the anti-imperialism, revolutionary activism, and unifying nuestroamericanismo of José Martí.

Bolívar and Martí were from different classes, eras and historical conditions. Bolívar understood that a successful revolt depended on broad appeal and he saw the necessity of freeing America’s Africans and indigenous peoples from slavery and servitude. In Martí interpretation of Bolívar’s legacy, empathy with the “poor f the earth” and commitment to “the good of all” were foundational to the vision of a just society in Cuba and a unified America.

Nineteenth-Century Pensadores

We now turn to the nineteenth century pensadores and their preoccupaion with the problems of ethics and slavery. Cintio Vitier affirms that problems of ethics began to preoccupy Cuban pensadores since the first decades of the nineteenth century; he is referring to their preoccupation with duty, utility and justice alongside the deep and growing moral problem of slavery that came to occupy the centre of the Cuban spirit. He suggests that a type of autochthonous ethics emerged from among these founders of Cuban culture, and prominent among them were the illustrious intellectuals from the Seminario de San Carlos, who were influenced by El Padre Felix Varela, a vanguard educator who taught there between 1811 and 1821(“Lo ético fundador en la cultura cubana.” Hondo Revista de la Sociedad Cultural José Martí 6 (2002): 2-6).

Varela’s influence on a generation of pensadores is exemplified in, among others, José de la Luz y Caballera, outstanding pedagogue and philosopher, and Rafaél María de Mendive, poet and activist, and José Martí’s teacher and mentor. The Seminary and Varela were important to the formation of leading intellectuals of the independence movement, including José Martí. According to Vitier, in his monumental La historia de la esclavitud, José Antonio Saco, one of Varela’s ormer students, draws attention to the theme that is central to our understanding of history in Latin America, Cuba and the Caribbean, because of the immediacy of the experience of slavery. Vitier affirms that the degree to which the conscience of the nation was being forged, and the degree to which the historical trauma caused by what Saco referred to as “the poison of slavery” was coming to light, Cuban history began to reflect a concern with ethical problems (Vitier 4).

El Padre Félix Varela (1788-1853)

A vanguard educator, nationalist and independentista, he cultivated the seed o liberal humanism planted by Las Casas and is often described as the father of the Cuban identify and Cuban nationalism for many reasons. Varela is considered the first to have advocate the independence of the nation. He also advocated the abolition of slavery as essential for the economic and moral well-being of Cuba.

Appointed in 1811 to teach philosophy and ethics at the Seminary where he had studied, Varela transformed the pedagogy of the era. He replaced Latin with Spanish as the language of instruction. He introduced the study of physics and chemistry. He established the country’s first science laboratory and emphasized the study of science experimentation as the key to economic development, social transformation and the moral well-being of the nation. And he encouraged his students to reason and think independently.

Varela’s move into politics may have begun when he assumed the new Chair of Constitutionalism at the Seminario de San Carlos in 1820, following the re-establishment in Cuba that year of the Constitution of 1812. He defended the Constitution and fostered in his students an admiration of liberalism in government and a dislike for absolutism.

Philip Foner suggests that Varela was impressed by a pamphlet published in Spain advocating the independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and written by a priest from Guatemala, José Mariano Méndez (1777 El Salvador-1850 Guatemala). Varela discussed the document with his students and encouraged them to consider the limits of reformism (The History of Cuba and Its Relations with the United Sates. Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers, 1962). In 1821 Varela inaugurated the Chair of Law at the Seminario and used it for the teaching of civic responsibility, human rights, and the restraint of absolute power. In 1821 also, he was one of the three deputies elected to the Cortes and expected to represent the interests of the slave-owning hacendados—in particular, that the Treaty of 1817 ending the importation of slaves be revoked or delayed.

But El Padre Varela had ideas of his own. He urged the Cortes not to confuse the interests of the slave-owners with the true interests” of the colony. He stated that the general wish of the people of Cuba was to end slavery and to find other solutions for their economy. He published a Memoria arguing that slavery was harmful to the well-being of Cuba, and proposing a plan for its gradual abolition. He joined a petition urging the recognition of the independence of the Spanish American republics. He joined with others to propose political and economic autonomy for the remaining colonies. And he was also among those diputados who favoured replacing the monarch with a Council of Regents.

Not surprisingly, he was among those sentenced to death with the return of Fernando VII and absolutism, but he escaped to Gibraltar, and then to the United States, where he remained until his death in February 1853—which is approximately one month after Martí’s birth.

Vitier says that even before Varela became radicalized—thanks to is learning experience at the Cortes of Cadiz—he had declared from the Chair of Constitution he occupied in Havana’s Seminario de San Carlos that an “irresistible moral force” was the foundation of a “society of free men”; and later he summed up his ideal of independence in the maxim that there is no nation without true virtue (“no hay patria sin virtud”) (Vitier 3).

A firm advocate for independence, Varela’s influence I Cuba continued throughout his life in exile. In the United States, while he carried out his religious work with selfless dedication, working to improve the conditions of poor immigrants, he also published newspapers that clandestinely entered Cuba and were distributed secretly in the island by those of his followers who remained there. Many students and intellectuals, including the poet José María Heredia (1803-1839), were among the independence conspirators forced into exile to escape the death penalty for the resistance to the colonial regime and their support for the cause of independence.

José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862)

Luz y Caballero studied under Varela at the Seminario de San Carlos. Influenced by Varela’s patriotic teachings, modernizing pedagogy, and emphasis on enquiry and experiment, and in touch with the most progressive pedagogical currents of his era, Luz y Caballero dedicated his life to the education of Cubans. He emphasized their moral and ethical formation, teaching them to value social justice and patriotism over individual wealth and success.

Vitier refers to a long and intense polemic, from July to October 1839, concerning whether or not the principle of utility was an acceptable foundation for moral judgement and Actions. Luz y Caballero put forward the idea that the moral of interest opens up an abyss of evil that causes inescapable consequences: forgetfulness of our rights, emphasis on physical pleasure, and degradation of the national character. While not in conflict with Luz y Caballero’s formulation, Féliz Varela, by then a revolucionario in exile, was somewhat impatient with the theoretical nature of those preoccupations (Vitier 3).

Vitier affirms that the event that most influenced and determined the history of Cuba is the systematic introduction of African slavery to solve the problem of labour after the decimation of the indigenous population. He suggests that when Luz y Caballero wrote that the introduction of Africans through slavery is Cuba’s original sin, he probably intended more than a religious analogy with Genesis. He probably meant a political analogy to the biblical story of the beginning of human history—that African slavery marks the origin of Cuba as a nation, for Cuba began with the social, economic, political, intellectual, and cultural manifestations that came into being alongside and related to the horrors of slavery.

Julio Ramos makes a good point, I believe, when he suggests that in Luz and Caballero, “religious rhetoric gives legitimacy to ideas that would have sounded transgressive had they been said in another way during this period” (Divergent Modernities. Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Trans. John D. Blanco. Durham:Duke U.P., 1996, p. 26).

Rafaél María de Mendive (1821-1886)

Mendive case illustrates Ramos’s point. In January 1869, following direct or implied expressions of support at the Teatro Villanueva for the 1868 uprising led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Mendive was arrested, accused of involvement in those events, and of using his house for patriotic meetings. The colonial authorities deported him to Spain. He escaped to New York and lived in exile until 1878, returning to Cuba after the signing of El Pacto de Zanjón, the peace treaty that ended Cuba’s first independence war. Martí came under the direct influence of Mendive’s patriotic activism from 1865 when he became the latter’s student at the Escuela Superior Municipal de Varones, until Mendive’s arrest and deportation in 1869.

A few comments now on Martí’s personal encounters with injustice.

Although he was not born into a slave-owning urban family, Martí was familiar with slavery in Havana. His introduction to its horror occurred while he was on a sojourn in the countryside with his father and witnessed the unloading of a cargo of degraded human beings and a dead Africa hanging from a seibo tree. He evokes this heartrending experience in “Versos sensillos” XXX, revealing that the child trembled with passion as he witnessed this horror and swore to wash away the crime with his life. Slavery, he writes in XXXIV, “Es la gran pena del mundo” [It is the world’s greatest crime]. The first action taken by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes at the start of the insurrection of 1868, to free the slaves in his sugar mill, symbolized for Martí the moral dimension of the just and necessary war.

There is, of course, also the imprisonment he describes in El presidio politico en Cuba. He was seventeen years old when he was condemned to six years in prison with hard labour for a letter he wrote chastising a fellow student who had enlisted in the Spanish army. The suffering he endured in prison left him with lifelong injuries, but it also increased his moral fortitude. Young though he was, Martí avoided centering on his own suffering, and focused instead on the suffering experienced by his fellow political prisoners who, according to the prison portraits he depicts in Presidio, reflect a racial cross-section of mostly lower-class Cubans.

Martí’s years of residence in Latin America and the United States gave breadth and depth to his knowledge of racial oppression and to his moral and ethical understanding of social injustice. His “América mestiza” and “nuestroamericanismo” began to emerge in Mexico and Guatemala, his first exposure to nations where indigenous people comprise the majority, and where he witnessed their poverty and oppression. Later, his critical journalism in the United States chronicles, among other things, the racial and social inequalities in English-speaking America. In New York he was also actively involved with Rafael Serra in La Liga de Instrucción, an adult education project organized to advance the political and social development, as well as the informed, active citizenship of humble exiled workers most of them Cuban and Puerto Rican patriots of African ancestry.

Finally, I referred earlier to Martí’s lifetime of study, reflection, and revolutionary activism. Hebert Pérez refers to Martí’s critical reception of the science of the time and to the consistency of his ethical response to the racism and the ideological justifications of racial oppression that were prevalent then—such as religious myths that dark skin was the result of divine punishment, notions in social Darwinism of a racial hierarchy, and racial supremacist beliefs of contemporaries such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and others (“Martí, Race and Cuban Identity.” Monthly Review. Nov. 2003. Monthly Review Foundations Inc. 21 Oct. 2005. <

On these issues Martí was certainly ahead of his era. As Pérez emphasizes, Martí has a moral and ethical yardstick by which he measures the science and ideas of the time—that is, his philosophical point of view; his belief in the equality of human beings and the unity of man and nature (5). There was also, of course, his independence of mind, his moral courage, and the sincerity and consistence o his commitment to equality, justice, and dignity for everyone—all to be achieved in a free society dedicated to the good of all.

He demonstrated this commitment in practical ways. His revolutionary speeches stressed unity and emphasized the contribution and sacrifices made by Cubans of African ancestry and the support of humble Cubans during the ten-year war of independence. Under his leadership, the ideology and objectives of the Partido Revolutionario Cubano represented the interests and involvement of all races and classes in the independence struggle. And he incorporated black Cubans in exile and on the island in positions of leadership in the Revolutionary Party.

We see, then, that the framework of Martí’s moral and ethical formation can be traced to the humanism of Las Casas. But it I Padre Varela’s emphasis on critical enquiry and thinking for oneself, his influence on the early nineteenth-century Cuban pensadores who forged the conscience of the nation, the example of his activism, patriotism, moral courage, and selfless dedication to duty, that inform Martí’s intellectual, moral and ethical principles. This framework encouraged Martí’s natural empathy with the oppressed, disposition for critical analysis, patriotic fervour, and passionate commitment to social justice and human progress on a national, regional and global scale.

Bibliography of Works Cited

Foner, Philip. The History of Cuba and Its Relations with the United Sates. Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers, 1962.

Férnandez Retamar, Roberto. Calibán y otros ensayos. La Habana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1979.

Lewis, Gordon K. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Pérez Hebert. (“Martí, Race and Cuban Identity.” Monthly Review. Nov. 2003. Monthly Review Foundations Inc. 21 Oct. 2005. <

Ramos, Julio. Divergent Modernities. Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Trans. John D. Blanco. Durham:Duke U.P., 1996, p. 26.

Vitier, Cintio. “Lo ético fundador en la cultura cubana.” Hondo Revista de la Sociedad Cultural José Martí 6 (2002): 2-6.

Copyright 2012 Pamela Barnett