The Moral Life of Barbarians

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology by Anthony Pagden
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £24.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 22202 8

Spain was in doubt about its new dominion in the Antilles. In 1493, the Pope Alexander VI had granted Ferdinand and Isabel the right to conquer and also to enslave the inhabitants of the islands. But only two years later, Isabel was intervening to stop the sale of some that Columbus had sent back to Seville. It was not that she or anyone else objected to slavery itself. There was no moral problem, for instance, about buying Africans from the Portuguese. It was rather that she regarded the American Indians as vassals of her own crown and was clear, as she reminded the governor of Hispaniola in 1501, that they should be treated as well as the inhabitants of Castile itself. But she died, the Pope had decreed otherwise, and despite some revived resentment at his again presuming a temporal power, a junta of advisers called by Ferdinand in 1504 upheld the Pope’s view.

The question seems not to have been raised again for the next few years. But then, on the Sunday before Christmas 1511, a Dominican, Antonio de Montesinos, delivered a sermon to the Spanish population of Hispaniola, denouncing them for their treatment of the Indians and warning them that if they didn’t mend their ways they would ‘no more be saved than the Moors or the Turks’. Montesinos was objecting to the ‘cruel and horrible servitude’ to which his compatriots had reduced the natives. He was objecting to the encomienda. This institution had been introduced by Columbus in 1499 to provide ‘protection’ and religious instruction in return for labour, and it was being abused. In principle free, the Indians were in practice enslaved. Ferdinand was sensitive to the Dominicans’ opinions and still uneasy about the Pope’s authority in relation to his own. He accordingly called a second junta in Burgos in 1512 to try to get a fresh decision on the legitimacy of his conquest and the use of the natives. This precipitated Spain’s intellectuals, the theologians, canon lawyers and civil lawyers who were customarily asked to join such juntas and advise the Crown, into an argument that lasted for more than sixty years. And as Anthony Pagden explains, this argument can also be read as the start of what one can retrospectively recognise as anthropological thinking in Europe. Indeed, Pagden’s subtle account of it is a model for the history of anthropology altogether. It shows, too, how constant some of the subject’s central conceptions have been in the succeeding four hundred years.

The impulse to anthropology in Spain came in the doubt about the more straightforwardly juridical case for dominion. The Crown’s authority could lie in custom and precedent, but none such served for the Antilles. The Crown could accept the authority of the Pope, but that had its price, and it was not at all clear that the Pope himself could claim authority over people who had neither been part of the Roman Empire nor could plausibly be supposed, like the Jews and the Turks, to be living in vincible ignorance of Christ. If an acceptable answer to the question of dominion could be provided in some other way, such difficulties would be avoided. This is what the members of the Burgos junta did. They rested their case on the Indians’ own nature.

They began from John Mair, a Scot at the Collège de Montaigu in Paris, who had himself begun from Aristotle. Arguing against the more cautious theologians that Christian doctrine could not be at odds with the ‘true philosophy’, even if that philosophy had been proposed by a pre-Christian pagan, he had used the Politics to insist that the Indians were barbarians and that ‘because, by nature, the barbarians and the slaves are the same’, the Indians were by nature slaves. As one of the members of the junta put it, the Indians are ‘idle, vicious and without charity’ and only exist incompletely until they have been mastered. In the language of the Physics, they are not prime movers but have themselves to be moved. As another explained in a supplementary judgment asked for by a still uneasy Ferdinand, virtue requires community, community entails a political life, a political life demands phronesis and prohairesis, practical wisdom and a capacity for moral choice, and because the Indians don’t have a recognisable family life, because they are not, as we would now say, monogamous, patrilineal, patrilocal or, most important, patriarchal, and because a family life is the foundation of community, so, inferring backwards from their behaviour to their nature, we can see that they are by nature men of a different and distinctively lower kind. But although they are by nature slaves, all the members of the junta concluded, and need the conquerors to realise their slavish nature, the Indians are so only in their relation to their conquerors. In their own society, just like Aristotle’s barbarians in theirs, they are free. The point is not to use them, as one would use beasts, but to improve them, for although they are an inferior kind of men, they are still men. This line is very obviously fine, and Ferdinand, let alone most of the colonists, couldn’t see it, but to the ingenious theologians, anxious to serve their king and their Church, it seemed providential, precise and even practical.

To Bartolomé de Las Casas, however, another Dominican, later Protector of the Indians and Bishop of Chiapa in Yucatan, the line was too fine. ‘False testimony, a contrived argument for tyranny,’ he scribbled in the margin of one of the judgments. And the judgments, inherently unsteady, did not last. For in 1519-22 Cortes stumbled on what seemed to be a real civilisation in Mexico, and in 1531-32 Pizarro stumbled on another in Peru. The Mexica, as the Spanish called them, and the Inca, however different still they may have been, were not just simple Caribs. At the same time, a new intellectual force appeared in Spain itself: working at the university in Salamanca, inspired by Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican who had studied under some of Mair’s pupils in Paris, and consisting of others from the same order, it reintroduced and extended Aquinas. It insisted that the ‘truth of the Gospel and the Decalogue’, as Pagden explains, ‘the primacy of the normative behaviour of Christians and the rightness of the political and social institutions of Europe had all to be defended, without recourse to arguments from revelation, as the inescapable conclusions of the rational mind drawing upon certain self-evident first principles’. The question, in the first instance Vitoria’s question in lectures that circulated widely before his death in 1546, was whether the dominion over the Indians could be justified in this way. Vitoria was certain that the civil lawyers had failed to explain how the Indians could be said to be subject to human justice if they were in some way, being natural slaves, less than fully human. It was for the new theology to sort out the matter. And the new theologians, too, were upset by the continuing reports of the colonists’ cruelty and abuse.

In fact, Vitoria insisted, the inhabitants of Mexico and Peru at least were fully human. ‘They have properly organised cities,’ he pointed out to an audience which would have been familiar with such Aristotelian criteria, they have ‘a recognisable form of marriage, magistrates, rulers, laws, industry, commerce, all of which require the use of reason. Item they have a form of religion.’ This was the case in favour. Unfortunately, though, their domestic life and their administration of justice were rather ramshackle, they had a very thin culture, and they sacrificed and ate each other. This was clearly the case against. It showed that they tended to live only to go on living, and not to cultivate virtue, and it showed that they did so by offending in their sacrifice and their diet precisely that recognition of the proper hierarchy of things which marked off the most rational. Human beings belong to God and are not men’s to offer to Him and certainly not theirs to eat. But this case against, compounded of fact and fantasy (accusations of habitual cannibalism are always false), and seen from the standpoint of natural law, raised an obvious difficulty. If the Indians are fully human in some ways but not in others, if God cannot create such imperfection because He is God, and if we reject the rather drastic device of supposing that the Indians inhabit another world altogether for which He created half-humans perfect only for that world, then the hypothesis of natural slavery, of nature’s man, must fall.

Charles V was cross. He rebuked the prior of Vitoria’s house for having allowed Vitoria and his associates to ‘discuss and treat in their sermons and relectiones the right that we have in the Indies, Islands and Tierra Firme of the Ocean Sea ... for to discuss such matters without our knowledge and without first informing us is most prejudicial and scandalous.’ It was one thing for theologians to advise in a junta. It was quite another for them spontaneously to raise doubts in the lecture hall. But Charles’s edict recalling existing papers and forbidding further discussion was a dead letter. The arguments went on. The Crown agreed to abolish the encomienda in 1545. Las Casas and others started to refuse absolution to some encomenderos, ‘impious bandits’, Las Casas called them, who had devastated the Indies and left them ‘by the death of thousands of peoples almost like a desert’. And Las Casas himself took part in a celebrated debate about the whole issue in Valladolid in 1550.

Las Casas’s opponent there, a not altogether coherent rhetorician, was still relying on the doctrine of natural slavery. But Vitoria and the other theologians at Salamanca had demolished that. Vitoria himself had instead proposed an analogy between the Indian and the child. America, like ‘these Indies’ (as one of his associates called them) in Europe, Asturias, Calabria and Sicily, was inhabited by men who had been prevented from realising their nature by the conditions and customs under which they lived. But like children, they were nevertheless potentially men, capable at least in prospect of knowing their real interest, and could thus be taken to have assented to an arrangement to realise it. Las Casas repeated the point. The Indians had many of the marks of civility and were capable of ‘receiving noble souls’. The difference between them and Europeans was simply a difference between points on a single line of development. It was a secondary difference and not a primary one. And if the more advanced Indians had reached the limit of their potential as pagans, then their evangelisation was inevitable and justified. One should certainly preach to them. But one should no more consider enslaving them than one would consider enslaving one’s own children. With arguments such as these, the Dominican intellectuals brought the Indians into one natural human kind and thence into history.

The Dominicans’ dominance, however, passed to the Jesuits. This order was taking control of the theology faculties in Spain towards the end of the century and extending its missions, and it was one of its number, José de Acosta, who more calmly completed the case. Acosta had absorbed the new Thomism of the previous generation, had gone to Peru in 1571, stayed in 1578 in an Indian village at the edge of Lake Titicaca, made several other expeditions into the interior, and travelled in Mexico in 1586. He returned to die at Salamanca in 1600. He was by most accounts a sick and depressed man, and did not like missionary work at all. He was an intellectual. And he wrote the first properly moral history, as he himself described it, of the Indians, the first history of their mores.

Acosta was not a modern. He wrote elsewhere on such conventional questions as the probable date of the end of the world. Nor had he read Las Casas. But from within his own Aristotelianism, he briskly dismissed the master’s prejudice and parochialism, which had led Aristotle, in the Politics and elsewhere, to align women and children with everyone who was not Greek, and advanced a threefold classification of those whom Aristotle had called ‘barbarians’. This ran from the savages, like the Caribs, to the immensely civilised, like the Chinese. He then proceeded himself to align these categories with the conventional scale of nature to argue that the differences between the barbarians were differences of social and cultural complexity on an evolution to virtue. The mark of complexity, he suggested, was language, for this showed how much scientia a people had, and one could trace similarities between a people’s concepts and its activities and show how each aspect of its life was simpler or more complex in the same degree. God had given Christians their superior scientia, of course, but the differences in scientia, in complexity, among the barbarians themselves could be explained by their history and that in turn was revealed, Acosta like others thought, in their myths. American Indians were not the lost tribes of Israel or the survivors of Atlantis or the descendants of men who had come from Europe on rafts. As they themselves suggested, and he had talked to them, they had migrated overland from the north, from Asia, over what we now call the Bering Strait, and whereas some, like the Mexica, had long since settled in cities and so become civilised, others, like the Chichimeca, had only recently stopped moving, and so were still simple. Differences in complexity should be read not as differences in nature but merely as differences in time.

Acosta’s Historia was enormously influential. It was the standard text in Jesuit missions in America, Asturias, Calabria, North Africa and the Philippines, and it went into several editions and five foreign languages. And although Pagden does not say so in his modest conclusion, the intellectual distance between this Historia and Ferdinand’s junta of 1504 is in some respects greater than that between it and anthropologies now. Once Vitoria had destroyed the ancient assumption of more than one natural kind of man; once he and Las Casas had brought the Indians into history; and once Acosta had turned this history into a theory of evolution to complexity, nothing, except rhetoric, had to be changed to deliver the supposedly scientific accounts of social evolution given three hundred years later by the anxious intellectuals of other extended empires such as our own. And what Pagden nicely describes as Acosta’s ‘overstressed system’ of analysis, his tracing of similarities in all aspects of a society’s life, is apparent, and in essence unchanged, in today’s structuralisms.

But such parallels between past and present, although plain, are as useless for an understanding of the history of anthropological thinking as the older, opposite, and perhaps still more common view that this thinking has come from lore to science. Pagden’s history, like John Burrow’s Evolution and Society, is sophisticated both in seeing that what we might now take as anthropological questions were nothing of the sort, but formulations and reformulations of moral and political anxiety, and in seeing that they were answered from within conceptual schemes which did more to determine what the writers saw than what they saw itself. This is still largely the case.

In the course of the 18th century, the Christians’ concern gave way to another. At the beginning, as Pagden explains, an argument very much like Acosta’s was developed by Joseph-François Lafitau, another Jesuit, to support the true religion. Lafitau, who is celebrated still in some of the standard histories as the first man to describe kinship terms and take burial rites seriously, had travelled in North America. His purpose was to show that the Iroquois and other tribes he had visited, who had no knowledge of the Gospel, nevertheless prefigured in their beliefs and rituals those of the Christians, and so refuted atheism. Only later in the century did there emerge the secular and putatively enlightened conception of primitives as ‘guiltless men’, in Dryden’s irony, ‘that danced away their time, fresh as their groves and happy as their clime’. But the innocent savage, as Burrow like Dryden saw, was no more than a rococco toy, ‘part of the furniture of a fête champêtre’, a mere literary device. He was never an indispensable element in any theory. Even Rousseau cheerfully conceded in his second Discours that what he had to say about this new natural man owed nothing whatever to the facts of the matter. It could have been dispensed with altogether for a more directly a priori psychology.

The sustained and serious and always anxious question, the question asked into the 19th century by Scots and Englishmen and some Frenchmen too, the question to which Rousseau gave a uniquely bleak reply, was of the conditions of progress. And even in the 19th century the answer to it, although firmly secular, was otherwise strikingly like Acosta’s. Contemporary primitives represent the earliest stages of mankind, it’s possible to arrange them on a scale of complexity in relation to ourselves, and this scale of complexity marks development and progress. In England, the common experience and example was of India. Once could force the pace of progress there with education, as Macaulay recommended in his famous memorandum. Or one could wait, as others, like James Mill, believed, until conditions were more propitious. Or one could start to wonder, like the gloomy Maine, whether anyone who doesn’t come down from the Greeks has any chance of enlightenment at all. But there was a general disposition still to think of progress coming, if it came at all, with time.

Pagden has illuminated a part of the 17th century, Burrow a part of the 19th. The 18th remains more obscure in this respect, still largely understood, in so far as it can be said to be understood at all, in the terms of its own moral propaganda. And there is no good account of the 20th. Here, at least in England and France, the late 17th-century connection of differences in culture to differences in time has been broken, but the question of relative rationality has remained. In this new ethnographic present, however, the answer to it has been turned right round. Primary differences and secondary ones, too, have been almost altogether denied. The presumption now, in societies that do not share a territory with them, is that primitives are as rational as we are because we are as irrational as they are. As they finally disappear, our old dominion over them seems never to have been justified.