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Richness of Soul in the People’s Life

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Nativity scene, figures, Joaquim Machado de Castro

Among other precious pieces of the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal, is a Crèche carved by Joaquim Machado de Castro in the 17th century. Above, you can see details from that Crèche showing the shepherds coming to adore the Divine Infant.

The sculptor’s intent was to represent people from the Judean countryside at the time of the birth of Our Lord, the often ragged and threadbare shepherds of the East. However, the features, attitudes and essence of these figures in his work correspond to the people living in the area surrounding the artist, that is, the good simple people of the countryside in Portugal in the 17th century.

At a first glance, this scene might create an impression of disorder in some observers. We are accustomed to the disciplined and soulless crowds of large modern cities, the masses who file silently into movie theaters or grimly and hurriedly cross the streets when a traffic light or policeman’s whistle stops the flow of cars to let them pass. These crowds have become so soulless and standardized that at huge public gatherings they applaud as if they were one huge entity, in which the individual personalities were dissolved like drops of water in the ocean.

creche figures from Joaquim Machado de Castro

From this perspective, the group of people in our picture at left - a detail from the Crèche of St. Vincent de Fora - seems strange. Having heard the angelic message, everyone is running to find the Crib. Even the dog in the foreground is rushing. But the individual character of each figure is so distinct and pronounced that the group as a whole has something of effervescent and chaotic.

And indeed every face, every way of walking or running, expresses an entirely personal reaction regarding the Glad Tidings. The two boys in front seem to be moved simply by curiosity with the real and often excessive nonchalance of childhood. A more mature peasant with dilated eyes shining with joy and an intelligent face seems to have discerned the significance of the great event. Beside him, an old man with a raised brim hat shouts and cries with emotion. In the background, a hooded and white-bearded figure, who is hurrying yet still meditative, shows he is deeply moved.

*

Each soul in this group of lucid illiterates is like an interior world from which flows the expression of a vibrant personality.

Unlearned, illiterate, they were not subjected to the terrible process of standardization in the mechanical civilization of the 20th century. Their thinking has not been imposed by the same newspapers, their sensitivities modeled by the same films, their attention subjugated all day to the magnetic attraction of radio and television.

This reminds us of the admirable – and never sufficiently quoted – passage of Pius XII about "the people and the masses": "The people and the shapeless multitude, that is to say, the masses, are two distinct concepts.

“The people lives and moves by its own life. The masses are inert of themselves and can only be moved by an external agent. The people lives from the fullness of life of the men who compose it, each of whom - in his proper place and way - is a person conscious of his own responsibilities and convictions.

“The masses, on the contrary, wait for an external influence, and are the easy toy in the hands of whoever exploits their instincts or impressions, ready to follow this banner today and that other one tomorrow.

“From the exuberant life of a true people, a rich and abundant life is diffused in the State and all its organs, infusing them with ever-renewed vigor, the consciousness of its own responsibility and a true sense of the common good " (Radiomessage of Christmas of 1944).

Joaquim Machado de Castro, Nativity scene, creche

Translated from Catolicismo, n. 113, May 1960
Posted December 17, 2012

Tradition in Action

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Prof. Plinio
Organic Society was a theme dear to the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. He addressed this topic on countless occasions during his life - at times in lectures for the formation of his disciples, at times in meetings with friends who gathered to study the social aspects and history of Christendom, at times just in passing.

Atila S. Guimarães selected excerpts of these lectures and conversations from the transcripts of tapes and his own personal notes. He translated and adapted them into articles for the TIA website. In these texts fidelity to the original ideas and words is kept as much as possible.

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