Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira


How to Study

“Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations”








Saint of the Day, Friday, August 27, 1971

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The Reconquista Course commission decided to study the “Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations” [section of Catolicismo] and want information. They write:

1. We do not know how to divide the main lines for the study.

2. We do not know how to break down into specifics the general principles you give in the RCR to study ambiences, customs and culture.

You should not be too impressed with the title “Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations” because in fact, the section never dealt with or only broached upon customs and civilizations. It did nothing but describe ambiences.

That happened for lack of proper material. We never had the torrent of illustrative material that would be needed for the section to develop widely. The first idea of the section was to characterize an ambience or get readers used to characterize them. For characterizing ambiences, it is necessary to characterize what is primordial in an ambience, which is man, with his psychology, dominating the ambience with his presence. So, the characterization of man’s psychology is a fundamental datum for characterizing or defining ambiences.

Then one goes on to define ambiences themselves, and afterwards, customs. We should bring up a series of ancient customs and illustrate them. For example, showing Louis XI when issuing a decree that everyone should pray the Angelus in the Kingdom of France, thus instituting that custom. And then give the very text of the king’s decree with some pretty engraving representing the king dismounted from his horse and praying the Angelus with some warrior. So a custom would be expressed there.

Then [we go on to] civilizations, which should coordinate ambiences with customs to constitute this imposing whole called civilization. Sometimes it would contain an entire page of different pictures or two pages with subtitles with captions that would coordinate to make people understand what a civilization is.

About the Middle Ages, suppose we took the Sainte Chapelle, the castle of Saumur, the cathedral of Cologne, three or four other things like that, and then the decree of St. Gregory VII excommunicating Henry IV, Emperor of the Holy Empire, things like that. And suppose we illustrate it with photographs and such. Then we make a comment to coordinate all this, showing what this civilization was like, the religious, moral and philosophical notes that dominated it and constituted civilization—showing the primordial light and the Catholic character of that civilization.

I really intended to show the Catholic thing, and the anti-Catholic thing, as in fact was done several times in Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations. Horrifying modern things to show what was bad about them. In this sense, Ambiences and Customs were precursors of the somewhat exaggerated defamation one hears today about the contemporary civilization: pollution and several other topics dealt with in Ambiences and Customs when no one was even considering them. In this sense, Ambiences and Customs were really precursors. So we can often show contrasts between one civilization and another, one ambience and another, as we have done several times. But to do it not only in terms of ambience-ambience but custom-custom and civilization-civilization. And with that, we could give a really practical course in RCR.

But to have done this, I would need to have a material that we didn’t have the money to purchase at the time. And I would need to have had a body of secretaries especially dedicated to this, which I didn’t have at that time either. I would really need to have a team of specialists to prevent me from destroying or rejecting necessary materials, but above all [prevent] inflating the archive by inserting a world of things that someone would ask to have included because he found something in a magazine and wants to have it filed. So to be nice to that person, I would put into the file a piece of paper that would rather belong in the wastebasket. All this caused the section not to work.

It also did not work because the author of the section fell ill and had to face the huge growth of the TFP and later of the many TFPs working at full speed and everywhere. And a lot of people inside the TFP running at full throttle and sometimes doing more work than an entire TFP or two or three entire TFPs. The result is that all this made the entire operation of the Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations section impossible.

Once I was stunned when receiving a reporter from Veja magazine, some Sergio from Rio de Janeiro. He interviewed me, asked a hundred biased questions over and over, and then said: Would you tell me who the director of the Catolicismo magazine is? I said: the director officially is Msgr. Antônio Ribeiro do Rosário, but the de facto director, to whom Dom Mayer entrusted the direction of Catolicismo is Dr. José Carlos Castilho de Andrade. He said: look, I would love to meet this man. I said: you miss a lot in not knowing him. I did not tell him that Dr Castilho lived in the same building because it would not commit such disloyalty. I said he was a very good friend, a person who was really worth getting to know. He said: not only because of this, but because he is the author of an unsigned section titled Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations, and I would love to talk to the author of this section. I did not tell him who the author was.

A communist, he told me in passing that section was one of the few Catholic things that had impressed him in his life. So here you see the effectiveness of this type of apostolate and how it really is worth studying that section as I something that did not reach its true peak, but whose dominant thinking can pave the way for a kind of apostolate that is very precious.

When studying “Ambiences, Customs, Civilizations,” we should ask questions concerning the intention with which that ambience was made because, if we know the purpose of a thing, we know it in all its senses, in all its aspects, in all its depth. So it is necessary to know the intention behind each ambience.

In general, the intention of [showing an ambience] to the reader is to make a truth known to him, but a truth known first by way of an impression. Then you make an analysis and then a conclusion. This impression corresponds more or less to that vague and frequent thing that, in the language of almost all of my dear friends present here, is called vivency [experience].

A vivency is something I never fully understood, something a little detached from reason and which sometimes works against reason and takes work. At any rate, it is an impression. So the photograph or the contrast of photographs must give the first impression before the person reads the text. In fact, we really read the “Ambiences and Customs” before by looking at the photograph or photographs and trying to form an impression ourselves. Then we go to the text and (it is not always in that order, but more or less in that order ) it provides an analysis or rather an analytical description of what is there, in such a way that it helps the person to make explicit the first impressions he had.

So we need to ask ourselves: where is the analytical description here? The analytical description unfolds when it comes to the contrast between the two photos. It is the analytical description of one picture, then the analytical description of the other photograph, and then – a second element  where is the contrast, in which part of the paper, article, or commentary? What is the contrast? It is not always an explicit contrast. It is not always a photograph here and another that is its opposite. But when there is only one photograph, it is the opposite of what the reader thinks. The average reader thinks either with his good side or with his bad side. But this is supposed to be the opposite of him in something. An “Ambiences and Customs” that is not the opposite of something is nothing.

So when it is a photograph of one thing, the person should ask what is its opposite, in what that is the opposite of the man in the street. I, the reader, am not the man in the street, but in me, there is something of the man in the street, as my conscience tells me sometimes. So what is the opposite of the man in the street? How does it shock him? It always brings up a contrast. After the contrast, there is always a judgment: such a thing is good, such a thing is bad. And this judgment is always rendered on the basis of a principle, which evidently is always a principle of Catholic doctrine.

So we study “Ambiences and Customs” trying to mark its various parts on the paper itself (please do not mark up the official collection of Catolicismo) where this part is, where that part is, to understand well the thought that produced that.

Furthermore, we should keep checking the photograph as we read. You must analyze and check the photograph, for it to enter your eyes and not remain something theoretical. A photograph is like a map of the commentary. Just like in geography class, the teacher will say: Lisbon is at the mouth of the Tagus, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It is the capital of Portugal. Then the child looks at the map: Portugal, Lisbon, Tagus, etc. So too, as we read the comment, we try to find what is being commented on in the picture.

Then we formed a notion that is useful to the apostolate. Why? Because we taught, and the intention was to teach a Catholic principle by making the person understand and feel in a living way what is good about this principle and how bad is the opposite of this principle or its violation.

So this is the ultimate goal we should seek.

The last question to ask is always this: what is the point of Catholic doctrine that is taught here, and what is the error or evil contrary to that point, which is condemned here?

There is no “Ambiences and Customs” that is purely laudatory or pure praise. There is always a condemnation.

If someday you in the commission want to, you may design something that I haven’t seen before, as that would be more interesting. And then, step by step, I will set up the Ambiences and Customs so you can see how the thing is done and then have an easier time making the analysis.

What is the use of this? The usefulness is in the following: in the catechism, we learn a lot of notions. But then, in practical life,  we find a lot of environments and customs and a whole civilization that go against the principles we learned in the catechism. But most directors of conscience do not form us in the habit of analyzing things from a Catholic point of view, approving those that are Catholic and censoring those that are not. It is a habit we do not have. We look at things like this [not analyzing them], and the result is that they influence us. Theoretically, we are as the catechism commands, but in the way we feel and act, we are often different.

So the Ambiences and Customs section seeks to correct this gap by teaching us to take a vigilant counterrevolutionary attitude toward a civilization all imbued with very bad spirit. It also teaches us to ‘give flesh,’ as it were, to the principles we learned in the abstract in the catechism. In other words, by knowing how these are embodied or exemplified, we have a much more real sense of these principles. This is what the “Ambiences and Customs” section is made for. It is, therefore, to give life to the teaching of Catholic doctrine.

There is a perhaps simpler and very interesting way to learn how to make Ambiences and Customs. In Dom Pedro Henrique’s library, there is a book that passed to Dom Bertrand and Dom Luís on the history of the Duke of Orleans. Curiously, it even has an autograph by Conde D’Eu, a historical character, offering the book to Dom Bertrand’s grandmother, Princess Dona Maria Pia. In this book, there are a lot of photographs, people, objects, places pertaining to the house of Orleans. And the subtitles contain is a kind of elementary Ambiences and Customs which are very well done, with that French clarity. And because it is much simpler, it is perhaps much easier for people to catch the meaning at first sight.

If you are interested, I could bring the book here, project it on a screen and read the commentary. You could follow the comments on the screen. First, I would project [the pictures], make you think a little bitsay a minutethen I would read [the comments] for you to see how through the man’s descriptions you gradually discover a lot of things that you would not have made explicit before. If you will, this is to a course on Ambiences and Customs like a firstyear would be to the third or fourth year. It would be very interesting to take the first step.

(What do you call the “ultimate ideal of a civilization”?)

It is the note by which that civilization specifies and characterizes in itself its way of being Catholic. This corresponds to the notion of an individual’s primordial light, adapted to the notion of civilization. Taking civilization as a kind psychological and collective whole to which the individual notion can be transposed.

If you ask me what the most difficult part about “Ambiences and Custom is,” I will say that it is language. Because it is very difficult to find a word that expresses a nuance precisely. Because Ambiences and Customs only matter insofar as the reader finds a word that expresses exactly the nuance he felt. That is why sometimes it is necessary for us to squeeze our vocabulary to find words in current use whose meaning everyone knows, which exactly translate the nuance of the truth in it. The French say that la vérité est dans les nuancesthe truth is in the nuances. Hence, if there is no hue, there is no truth. Where there is no hue, there are no Ambiences and Customs.

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