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December 07, 2003

Salingaros on Gomez-Davila

Dear Friedrich --

I was so taken by the aphorisms of Nicolas Gomez-Davila that I asked Nikos Salingaros, who turned them up and translated some of them, if we could run his piece about Gomez-Davila on 2Blowhards. Nikos graciously agreed. So it's my pleasure to present his introduction and translations.


Annotations on an Implicit Text

The work of Nicolas Gomez-Davila

By Nikos A. Salingaros
Many persons of letters today consider the Colombian philosopher Nicolas Gomez-Davila (1913-1994) as one of the foremost intellectuals of our time. His work consists exclusively of brief comments, or aphorisms, which he called "Notes on the margins of an implicit text". Gomez-Davila published three different books (a total of five volumes) of aphorisms in Spanish. To the best of my knowledge, none of his work is available in English. My own interest in this comes from the extraordinary comments on artistic, architectural, and urban matters that Gomez-Davila's work contains, mixed in with observations about politics, religion, tradition, culture, and society.

Until the literary world turns its long-overdue attention to the aphorisms of Gomez-Davila, I would like to make a few of his comments available to a general readership. Admitting at once that I am by no means qualified to present a scholarly translation of one of our age's great literary and philosophical figures, I have tried to do the best job possible. My selection of which texts to translate is motivated by questions of contemporary architecture and urbanism, and their underlying philosophical underpinnings.

I need to warn the reader that Nicolas Gomez-Davila was unashamedly conservative, even reactionary. His political views do not concern me, but they do color his opinions on architecture and urbanism. They also go hand-in-hand with his deep religious convictions. Admirers of his writings have suggested that his political leanings were responsible for the neglect that his work received during his lifetime. I am presenting his work not for its political value, but for the insights it offers into humankind, society, and history.

Gomez-Davila's aphorisms have been published as follows:

[1] Nicolás Gómez Dávila: Escolios a un Texto Implícito, Volumes I & II, Bogotá, 1977.

[2] Nuevos Escolios a un Texto Implícito, Volumes I & II, Bogotá, 1986.

[3] Succesivos Escolios a un Texto Implícito, Bogotá, 1992. Reprinted, Barcelona, 2002.

Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, a selection by Rosa Emilia Gómez de Restrepo from [1], [2], and [3], Bogotá, 2001.

In Margine a un Testo Implicito, Italian translation by Lucio Sessa of a selection by Franco Volpi from [1], Milano, 2001.

Les Horreurs de la Démocratie, French translation of [1] by Michel Bibard, Monaco, 2003.

There are also complete translations of his work into German: [1] by Günther Rudolf Sigl, Vienna, 1987; [2] by Michaela Messner, Vienna, 1992; & [3] by Günther Maschke, Vienna, 1994.


Selected from [3].

• Truths do not contradict each other except when they become disordered.

• A properly civilizing task is to revisit old commonplace things.

• The difference between "organic" and "mechanical" in social matters is a moral one: the "organic" is the result of innumerable humble acts; the "mechanical" is the result of one decisive act of arrogance.

• "Taste is relative" is the excuse adopted by those eras that have bad taste.

• The modernist object does not possess inner life; only internal conflicts.

• External influences enrich solely those with an original mind.

• Contrary to the modernist prejudice, the perfect adaptation of an object to its use has to always be paid for by the absence of style.

• To renovate it is not necessary to contradict; it suffices to make something more profound.

• Replacing the concrete sensory perception of an object with its abstract intellectual construction gains the world for man, but loses his soul.

• Contemporary persons do not admire anything other than hysterical texts.

• Humanity compensates for the solidity of the buildings it raises, with the fragility of the foundations upon which it builds them.

• The ugliness of today's urban environment is more an accusation of the modernist soul than of contemporary urbanism.

• Whoever says that he "belongs to his time" is only saying that he agrees with the largest number of fools at that moment.

• The most notorious aspect of all modern undertakings is the discrepancy between the immensity and complexity of the technical apparatus, and the insignificance of the final product.

• The criterion of "progress" between two cultures or two eras consists of a greater capacity to kill.

• In augmenting its power, humanity is multiplying its own servitudes.

• The modern machine gets more complicated each day, and the modern man becomes every day more elementary.

• Modernist mentality is the daughter of human conceit inflated by commercial propaganda.

• Mechanization brutalizes because it makes human beings believe that the universe is intelligible.

• The word "modern" no longer has an automatic prestige except among fools.

• Individualism is the cradle of vulgarity.

• Stupidity appropriates with a diabolical ease whatever science invents.

• The loss of transparency is the first symptom of decline in a language.

• Falsifying the past is the method that the Left used in pretending to produce the future.

• The modernist thirst for originality makes the mediocre artist believe that the secret of originality consists simply in being different.

• In general, "historical necessity" turns out to be merely a name for human stupidity.

• Modernist architecture is fundamentally anti-historical. It is the first architecture that does not derive from a preceding architecture; the first that begins with a vertical rupture in time.

• More irritating than someone's actual stupidity is their mouthing a scientific vocabulary.

• Architecture is the only art where it is aesthetically permitted to imitate what contemporary art has done right.

• That which is "modern" is the product of an initial act of arrogance; anything that apparently permits us to elude the human condition is "modern".

• Modern society works fervently to put vulgarity within the reach of everyone.

• What is deceiving about the aesthetic quality of certain new works is that their manner of being bad differs from the traditional manner of being bad.

• In the arts, the authentic product never gains as much authentic popularity as the false.

• Modern persons believe that they live in a plurality of opinions, whereas in fact what reigns today is an asphyxiating unanimity.

• In philosophy, a single naive question oftentimes suffices for the whole system to collapse.

• For the progressive modernist, nostalgia is the supreme heresy.

• Nothing turns obsolete so rapidly as that which is most boldly modern.

• Surviving fragments of the past put to shame the modern landscape in which they stand.

• Clarity of text is the sole incontrovertible sign of the maturity of an idea.

• If philosophy does not resolve any scientific problem, science, in its turn, does not resolve any philosophical problem.

• "Nature" was a pre-romantic discovery that romanticism propagated, and which technology is killing in our days.

• The much celebrated "dominion of man over nature" resulted simply in an immense homicidal capacity.

• Fashion, even more than technology, is the cause for the uniformity of the modern world.

• The modernist urban agglomeration is not a city; it is a disease.

• One of the worst intellectual catastrophes is found in the appropriation of scientific concepts and vocabulary by mediocre intelligences.

• Truths are not relative. What are relative are opinions about truth.


Great stuff. I can't resist saying that the way Gomez-Davila presents his aphorisms as "notes on the margins of an implicit text" ... the whole idea of conceiving of and presenting your thoughts in that way ... Well, it's just so damned poetic and fabulous I almost can't stand the beauty of it. "Conceptual artists," eat your hearts out. And then -- oh, right! -- there's the content of the writing too, of course.

Our thanks to Nikos Salingaros -- whose own website, where there's much brain-shaking writing and thinking to explore, is here. I recently enjoyed this short article here, which Salingaros co-wrote wth Michael Mehaffy. In only a few hundred words, they manage to demolish the anti-ornament prejudice of modernist architecture -- good show! Our own q&a with Nikos (a fascinating multi-parter, if I do say so myself) can be found here.

Jim Kalb's posting on Gomez-Davila is here. Jim turned up a Spanish-language version of one of Gomez-Davila's books at Amazon here.

Where's the accomplished and loving translator who'll bring the rest of Gomez-Davila's work into English?




posted by Michael at December 7, 2003


> Sales Rank: 2,119,423

Until I folowed this link I would have sworn I was being treated to an especially brilliant Borges pastiche ;-)

Posted by: fyreflye on December 7, 2003 10:57 PM

I really got a kick out of reading these aphorisms. There's something about the form that I really like. I'm fond of all the aphoristic philosophers I've read - for the style of their presentation alone - if not for their philosophies. Nietzche, Schopenhauer, and now Gomez-Davila.

There's something about a well-written aphorism that inevitably brings to the surface of my mind a flood of experiences that agree with the sentiment it expresses; a burst of mental associations with that explode to the surface like an oil strike or geyser. Inevitably, I find my self chuckling at the surprising similarites recognized and combinations produced.

I think that there's something to the aphoristic form that makes it more interesting or amusing to read. A sequence of good aphorisms are like a list of terrific topic sentences for an essay, where the evidence and subsequent arguments are left to the reader. If the aphorisms are well-constructed, the effort to fill in the subsequent reasoning is repaid in spades.

Posted by: cks on December 7, 2003 11:59 PM

Contrary to the modernist prejudice, the perfect adaptation of an object to its use has to always be paid for by the absence of style.

Not so. The perfect adaptation of an object to its use imparts to it a style all it's own.

Or, form follows function.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 8, 2003 1:25 AM

Okay, getting a little serious here. I've found things in the list Michael posted that make sense, and a few that make me go, hold it bub.

For this comment I'll restrict myself to one observation. Namely, the universe is intelligible. It does, in other words, make sense. The universe is, furthermore, explainable. That is, when you've made sense of it you can explain your findings to others.

But, the universe is testable. Which means you can go and determine if the findings of another make sense or not. That is, one's understanding of the universe is falsifiable.

I can see where that would tick some people off. There are those who love personal revelation. The very idea that revelation can be contradicted, and often is, annoys them no end.

Then you have the "it all depends on viewpoint" crowd. A clique that's taken Einstein's General Relativity more than a bit too far.

Sorry, chuckles, it's not all a matter of opinion. There are some differences between ethnic groups that do make a difference. Hereditary medical conditions for one. (That's right, Jews have a higher chance of developing Tay Sachs than other groups, and Western Europeans a better chance of Huntington's Chorea than non-Western Europeans.)

Which means that the only thing that changes when your world view changes is that your world view has changed.

In short, we live in a scientific universe, not a magical one. We can change our environment but we cannot change our reality. Not at the basic level. That is, we cannot change how how universe works at the basic level, only the shape of our environment.

That is why I cannot agree with all of S. Gomez-Davila's aphorisms. For they are the product of magical thinking, and in a scientific universe magical thought is not productive.

Now I end with a question for all those who reply to this comment. How do you know the people you quote actually know what they're talking about? Or, authority me no authorities.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 8, 2003 3:04 AM

"The difference between "organic" and "mechanical" in social matters is a moral one: the "organic" is the result of innumerable humble acts; the "mechanical" is the result of one decisive act of arrogance."

Hmm..., could be Christopher Alexander in the "Timeless Way" or Mises or Hayek on socialism vs spontaneous order.

I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that Alexander and Salingaros view free markets as a main cause of the problem in urban and architecture issues, when it may well be the reverse.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on December 8, 2003 10:13 AM

Dear friends;

I'm glad that the extraordinary work of Nicolas Gomez-Davila has already generated some incisive comments. My whole point was to throw the ball into the court -- now the entire Anglophone world can play with it. Whatever game they decide to play is irrelevant.

As to adaptivity as a sequence of small steps; it's quite a relevation. I just happend to finish my online review of Christopher Alexander's "Nature of Order, Book2" for, and its central theme is precisely that: organic form is indeed the product of an enormous number of small steps. I had goosbumps when I read that aphorism of Gomez-Davila, since it encapsulates what Christopher took 30 years to write. And I can guarantee that Christopher has not (yet) read Gomez-Davila!

Many if not most of the problems we are having with an alien and inhumane architecture is that the "expert" imposes his/her will on the environment, in a single arrogant action. This can be slicing a city; or plucking a skyscraper into a formerly living urban fabric; or imposing a deconstructivist horror into a historic district (or a university campus); or putting up a sheer wall next to where pedestrians would like to walk. It's the definition of non-adaptiveness.

Finally, the reason why such supreme arrogance is possible can be traced to the false assertions of the early modernists that they understood nature, and that their "solutions" were scientific. This implies that cities, buildings, and people can be understood on the most simplistic level. That's why Gomez-Davila's aphorism about understanding the universe strikes me so deeply. I'm a scientist, and my career depends on understanding the universe. But I also concede that we understand much less than we like to admit, and a true scientist approaches any complex topic with the humility to learn more. The way to learn more is via the experimental method, not mysticism.

Best wishes
Nikos Salingaros

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on December 8, 2003 10:38 AM

Nikos Salingaros wrote:

"As to adaptivity as a sequence of small steps; it's quite a relevation. I just happend to finish my online review of Christopher Alexander's "Nature of Order, Book2" for, and its central theme is precisely that: organic form is indeed the product of an enormous number of small steps. I had goosbumps when I read that aphorism of Gomez-Davila, since it encapsulates what Christopher took 30 years to write. And I can guarantee that Christopher has not (yet) read Gomez-Davila!"

This is also one of the main themes of much of Hayek (see Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol.1), the Austrian School of Econ in gerneral, and evolution as applied to social phenomenon goes back to Hume and Mandeville and predates Darwin's concept of biological evolution.

I'm a huge fan of Alexander, and I think that coming to his conclusions from the field of architecture was incredibly difficult, and brilliant. But the Austrian economists have a much more developed version of, as far as I see, this exact same theory. They have arrived at the same place by studying human action. Alexander had the wonderful nerve to declare that that the "quality without a name" was not a matter of opinion, but based on fact, just like Mises shook things up by declaring solialism wrong on factual, scientific grounds.

I'm not quite sure what you meant by "game playing", but applying the underlying work of Alexander to human action, and the inevitable conlusions on, for example, capitalism versus socialism, is not game playing or hijacking a theory for politcal purposes. If Alexander and Gomez-Davila lead to conlusions one is uncomfortable with in economics, well you're not the first. Is this why you introduce Gomez-Davila with a warning that he is conservative?

Finally, thanks very much Mr. Salingaros for introducing Gomez-Davila.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on December 8, 2003 11:48 AM

The modernist urban agglomeration is not a city; it is a disease.

What does that mean? Is a city an aesthetic thing?

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on December 8, 2003 3:03 PM

re Mr. Kellogg's re-iteration that "form follows function," I'd say that my reaction to the _form_ of aphoristic philosophy gives an example of a benefit of the form of aphorisms, independent of their function (content).

Posted by: cks on December 8, 2003 9:21 PM

I dunno. I part company here.


"Nothing turns obsolete so rapidly as that which is most boldly modern."

Such as cars? Electricity? The web?

"The modernist urban agglomeration is not a city; it is a disease."

So what do you do with that insight? Even if you somehow accept that it is true, which I do not; I think it's McKibben.

But then he says:

"The ugliness of today's urban environment is more an accusation of the modernist soul than of contemporary urbanism."

Ok, if you want to make everyting a moralistic "I'm right. You're wrong" discussion.

"Humanity compensates for the solidity of the buildings it raises, with the fragility of the foundations upon which it builds them."


"Contemporary persons do not admire anything other than hysterical texts."

I have no idea what that means. I could impute a meaning but then I would be doing all the work.


I didn't pay too much attention to these aphorisms until I saw them being raved about -- wildly -- on another blog and then, due to my belief that that source is almost always dead-wrong, even if beguilingly articulate, I became profoundly suspicious.

So I am reading them and wondering.

Yes, these sentences of Gomez-Davila are provocative in that they are not particularly clear. One can certainly have a good discussion about almost any one of them. "Is the modern city a disease?" What an anti-life notion. I believe that if you read almost any one of these sentences carefully they start to dissolve into "well...hmmm..what am I missing?" or "Well, that's a perspective." I have not received an "aha" moment from any one of them so far.

I'll keep reading; but I'd be careful out there, folks.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 8, 2003 10:34 PM

I've read deeper thoughts in fortune cookies (in bed). Really Michael, sometimes I wonder about you.

Implicit text my cavicle.

Posted by: Brian on December 8, 2003 11:49 PM

Try as I might, I can't find these aphorisms anything but quotidian and dull. People have been criticising the so-called modernist program as inhuman and ugly since Yeats -- what is new or useful in any of this? Modernist architects have built beautiful, majestic buildings. Cities of the ancient world were often swarming, disease-ridden clusters of the worst construction. Gomez-Davila reads like an old crank who couldn't get over the fact that kids these days won't mind their manners and you can't get decent help anymore.

Posted by: Redcoffin on December 9, 2003 10:08 AM

"Wow, who peed in your Cheerios?"

That's an aphorism for the grumps in this thread.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 9, 2003 11:31 AM

I'm sorry that David Sucher didn't like some of Gomez-Davila's aphorisms on urbanism -- especially the one about a modern city being more like a "disease".

Even so, David Sucher is a much-respected physician of cities, whose "three rules of urban design" offer practical cures for precisely the urban desease that Gomez-Davila diagnoses.

From David's earlier interview on 2Blowhards, I gathered that he is a very practical hands-on type of guy. Maybe the poetic vehicle didn't appeal to him. Nevertheless, we need people like David Sucher to help heal our cities, whether they agree with others' philosophy or terminology. Not everyone needs to connect to Gomez-Davila's meaning; but those who do definitely find it a treat.


Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on December 9, 2003 12:06 PM

True enough, Nikos.
(and thanks.)

Posted by: David Sucher on December 9, 2003 5:41 PM

I was pleasantly surprised to read on A. C. Douglas's website the following endorsement of my efforts at translation:

"Well, Dr. Salingaros may know diddly about architectural aesthetics, but he apparently knows a first-rate philosopher when he comes across one. Dr. Salingaros has posted on his website, along with his own brief introduction, a sampling of Gomez-Davila's aphorisms in English translation, and they're radiantly illuminating. They remind one of nothing so much as the aphorisms of the great Nietzsche in their trenchant, vivisectional commentary on society and culture, and in their brilliance of language (at least in Dr. Salingaros's translation)."

Well, the gentlemanly thing to do is to thank A. C. Douglas for his kind and perceptive comments, and to wait for a new round of violent disagreement on architectural issues when my unpublished article entitled "The Derrida Virus" is finally released.


Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on December 10, 2003 1:11 PM

Individualism is the cradle of vulgarity.

Oh God, I certainly hope so.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 11, 2003 12:06 AM

Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.

Posted by: Sanford Daria on May 2, 2004 10:34 AM

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