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Aristotle And Pandora

July 2024
4min read

When the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries broke through the established horizons and compelled their fellows to get acquainted with the unknown, they turned the medieval mind loose in a world of fantasies and marvels. New myths were created and old myths regained credence. Columbus suspected that he had found either Japan or the true terrestrial paradise; the flat Florida peninsula was believed to contain the authentic Fountain of Youth; the Seven Enchanted Cities of ancient legend were thought to lie, attainable at last, somewhere north of Mexico; and such creatures as dragons, griffins, unicorns, sea monsters, giants, and headless men with eyes in their chests were accepted as realities in the fabulous lands beyond the seas. Men who supposed that they had a fairly complete understanding of an orderly cosmos found themselves living in a world where almost anything might be true.

In such a world, men have to recast many of their ideas, and out of the intellectual ferment that developed in the sixteenth century came notions which have immense relevance to the state of today’s world. For the age of discovery took the lid off of the world, a process not entirely unlike the opening of Pandora’s box; some of the ideas that came out when the lid came off have had an amazing development and have become very hard to live with, and constitute present-. day problems of the first magnitude.

Among these, apparently, must be listed that enormous obstacle to peace and good will, race prejudice itself; and a succinct and provocative discussion of the development of this problem is provided by Lewis Hanke in his compact little book, Aristotle and the American Indians , which is subtitled: “A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World.”

As Professor Hanke makes clear, true race prejudice hardly existed in the fifteenth century. Mankind then was divided into two antagonistic groups, to be sure, but the division was between Christians and infidels rather than between men whose skins had different pigmentation. It was only when Europeans entered not only the Americas but Africa and Asia as well that the issue of race became dominant.

It developed naturally enough. The new lands that were being opened had enormous wealth. The men who occupied these lands were either uncouth barbarians or, at the least, eminently conquerable, and in any case they were strange folk of a different race. Who were they? How should they be treated? Could they be Christianized and civilized? Was it not, perhaps, wholly right and proper for Europeans to conquer and despoil them by force of arms?

Aristotle and the American Indians , by Lewis Hanke. Henry Regnery Co. 164 pp. $3.50.

The debate that centered around this final question was carried on most extensively in Spain, which was making the largest conquests and which was also an extremely devout nation, troubled by pangs of conscience. In 1550 Charles V took the remarkable step of ordering all further conquests suspended until a special assembly of theologians and counselors could debate the matter. In his examination of the ensuing debate Professor Hanke centers his attention chiefly on two distinguished opponents—the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who argued that the Indians had natural rights which had to be respected, and the famous Renaissance scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who held that the Indians were such crude and brutish people that their subjugation was lawful.

Given the circumstances, it was probably inevitable that Sepúlveda’s idea should prevail, inasmuch as the pressure for continued conquest and exploitation was all but irresistible. But it was the justification which Sepúlveda offered that did the damage. For Sepúlveda brought forward the ancient theory of Aristotle—that a part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of a master race. The Indians, obviously, were the sort of inferior folk Aristotle had in mind.

As Professor Hanke points out, the debate led to no formal, clear-cut decision, and the Spanish Crown actually made sincere attempts to follow the humane doctrine of Las Casas. But the Aristotelian notion took hold. It was mightily comforting, not only to Spaniards but to all other Europeans who could see huge profits coming from the merciless exploitation of less fortunate peoples. If these people of another race were, in fact, ordained by natural law to serve their betters, and if you as a conqueror could elect yourself as one of the betters—well, what more could the master race ask?

It could ask for nothing more, and the notion has prevailed ever since. It did not always need Aristotle, as a matter of fact. Professor Hanke calls attention to the fact that the Protestant English embraced the idea, and cites the possibly apocryphal tale of the New England assembly which, in 1640 or thereabouts, considered three resolutions:

“1. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Voted.

“2. The Lord may give the earth or any part of it to his chosen people. Voted.

“3. We are his chosen people. Voted.”

So it went, and so the people of Europe adapted themselves to the idea that other races were somehow set aside by nature to be subject folk. It was a very reassuring notion indeed, for those who believed themselves to be on top of the heap, and the idea took hold and grew. Las Casas might go on insisting that “all the peoples of the world are men” and that men have natural rights which cannot be overborne; the infinite weight of the people who could wax rich and prosperous by following Aristotle was too great for him, and one of the great tragedies of world history was the fact that just as the white Europeans entered on a period of closer and closer contact with nonwhite races, they developed a powerful conviction of their own innate superiority. You can justify any imaginable oppression or injustice if you can first demonstrate that the people you are oppressing were ordained by natural law to be your servants. The records of the Nuremberg trials contain hair-raising testimony about the things men will feel free to do when they follow Aristotle’s theory.

So the controversy of the 1550’s still goes on, and we have not left Aristotle behind us. There may, however, be a way out, which Las Casas probably would have understood. Professor Hanke quotes the Mexican José Vasconcelos, who was asked how he proposed to solve the Indian problem; had he considered the means by which the Indians should be educated? Vasconcelos replied: “No—we are simply going to treat them like human beings, with Christian principles.”

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