The second extraordinary feature of Gómez Dávila’s work is its “reactionary,” not merely conservative, content. “Reactionary” is mostly used today as an abusive epithet, sometimes as a synonym for that all-purpose slur, “fascist.” However, Gómez Dávila proudly labeled himself a reactionary and actually created a literary persona for himself as “the authentic reactionary,” precisely because of the stigma attached to the term. Gómez Dávila’s lifework was to be an authentic reactionary. The term “reactionary,” then, demands some explanation. The reactionary, in the common political sense, is a rare breed in America, primarily because of America’s own acceptance of the Enlightenment. The reactionary, in European history, as the name indicates, is fighting against something. That something is the French Revolution (and the Enlightenment). The conflict between the forces of the Enlightenment and the ancien régime was much more polarizing in Europe than it ever was in America. While America in the aftermath of its own revolution certainly witnessed its own share of power struggles between politicians with traditional, more aristocratic leanings (Federalists) and more radically democratic tendencies (Republicans), both sides generally accepted the legitimacy of Enlightenment ideals of liberal politics, which included democracy, individual rights, and a commercial society, among other things. There was, ex hypothesi, never any serious possibility that a group of disaffected American Tories would conspire to restore the authority of the British crown over the newly-independent United States.
In Europe, on the other hand, and especially in France, the conflict between the heirs of the French Revolution and its opponents—the original reactionaries—still raged during the time Gómez Dávila lived in Paris. Indeed, reactionary ideals exercised a powerful influence over certain sectors of French society until after World War II. One important reason for the persistence of reactionary ideals in France was the Catholic Church’s own resistance to modern liberalism (e.g., Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors) and the persecution it often faced at the hands of secular governments following the Revolution, especially the Third Republic. In France, Catholicism and reaction were often overlapping (though not always identical) categories. The tension between modern liberalism and reaction continued to be felt in French Catholic circles during Vatican II. Though reaction as a cohesive movement largely died in the wake of the Council, it has survived in some French Catholic circles to this day, most visibly among the Lefebvrites (SSPX).
Gómez Dávila’s brand of reaction, however, was different. He did not mean to identify himself exclusively with a narrow political position. In several aphorisms, he acknowledged that there is no possibility of reversing the course of history. Traditionalism, in his eyes, could never be a viable basis for action. Indeed, the reactionary’s task is to be the guardian of heritages, even the heritage of revolutionaries. This certainly does not mean that Gómez Dávila made his peace with democracy; all it means is that he also did not allow himself to be deluded by promises of the restoration of the old order. Moreover, in matters of religion, despite his disdain for Vatican II and his fierce adherence to the traditional Latin Mass, which he shared with most Catholic reactionaries, he recognized that the ordinary reactionaries, the so-called “integralists” of the period, were incapable of renewing the Church. For instance, he maintained in one aphorism that the Church needed to make better use of the historical-critical method of Biblical research—a suggestion which would make many ordinary reactionaries furious. Finally, his appreciation of some authors not usually associated with conservative Catholicism, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, might make some “traditionalist” readers nervous.
If Gómez Dávila’s brand of reaction was different, what then did he actually stand for? For Gómez Dávila, the reactionary’s task in our age is to resist democracy. By democracy he means “less a political fact than a metaphysical perversion.” Indeed, Gómez Dávila defines democracy as, quite literally, “an anthropotheist religion,” an insane attempt to rival, or even surpass, God. The secret of modernity is that man has begun to worship man, and it is this secret which lurks behind every doctrine of inevitable progress. The reactionary’s resistance, therefore, is religious in nature. “In our time, rebellion is reactionary, or else it is nothing but a hypocritical and facile farce.” The most important and difficult rebellion, however, does not necessarily take place in action. “To think against is more difficult than to act against.” But, all that remains to the reactionary today is “an impotent lucidity." Moreover, Gómez Dávila did not look forward to the establishment of a utopia; what he wanted was to preserve values within the world. For this purpose, not force but art was the more powerful weapon.
in Don Colacho’s Aphorisms, A Brief Overview of the Thought of Nicolás Gómez Dávila