Monday, November 2, 2009

Aristotle and the Indians (and Us Too)

I don't know about you, but one of my favorite things about blogging is having friends who teach me new things. One of my friends, Suzanne McCarthy of Suzanne's Bookshelf, is a prolific reader who reads blogs, essays, articles, and books, and shares pertinent snippets. At her suggestion, I've been reading Aristotle and the Indians: A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World by Lewis Hanke.

Would you like some snippets? And do, also, note below them how much Willis Barnstone makes some of the same observations Hanke has made. They both refer to Bartolomé de Las Casas and see him as instrumental in opposing Christianized Aristotelian slavery. Hanke includes (untranslated) some of the correspondence of Las Casas and a major proponent of enslavement of Indians as a natural class of slaves.

Here's from Hanke:
At first sight, the conjunction of Aristotle and the American Indians appears absurd and meaningless. One may ask why sixteenth-century Spaniards came to apply the ideas of a Greek, who lived four centuries before Christ, to the problems of their conquest of America. What did Aristotle say that had any relevance to the Indians? The explanation is simple. The opening up of a vast unknown world peopled by strange folk led the Spaniards as they advanced among them bearing the Cross to ask themselves who these people were. And in asking this, they found themselves involved in a larger question that Aristotle never had to face: How ought Christians to conduct themselves towards human beings who differ in colour, culture, and religion? Aristotle's authority remained so strong among Christian thinkers that some eminent Spaniards did not hesitate to apply his doctrine of natural slavery to Indians.
(page 1)
Of all the ideas churned up during the early tumultuous years of American history, none had a more dramatic application than the attempts made to apply to the natives there the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery: that one part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of masters born for a life of virtue free of manual labour. Learned authorities such as the Spanish jurist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda not only sustained this view with great tenacity and erudition but also concluded that the Indians were in fact such rude and brutal beings that war against them to make possible their forcible Christianization was not only expedient but lawful. Many ecclesiastics, including the noted Indian apostle, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, opposed this idea scornfully, with appeals to divine and natural law as well as to their own experience in America. The controversy became so heated and the king's conscience so troubled over the question of how to carry on the conquest of the Indies in a Christian way that Charles V actually suspended all expeditions to America while a junta of foremost theologians, jurists and officials in the royal capital of Valladolid listened to the arguments of Las Casas and Sepúlveda. All this occured in 1550, after Cortez had conquered Mexico, Pizarro had shattered the Inca empire, and many other lesser-known captains had carried the Spanish banners to far corners of the New World.
The idea that someone else should do the hard manual work of the world appealed strongly to sixteenth-century Spaniards, who inherited a taste for martial glory and religious conquest and a distaste for physical labour from their medieval forefathers who had struggled for centuries to free Spain from the Moslems....
A Scottish professor in Paris, John Major, was the first to apply to the Indians the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery. He also approved the idea that force should be used as a preliminary to the preaching of the faith, and published these convictions in a book in Paris in 1510.
(pages 12-14)
Now, here's from Barnstone also mentioning Las Casas:
Slavery was accepted by the church. When the Roman Empire became Christian, under Constantine, slavery continued, flourishing in the Byzantine Empire as well as in the West. It came to the New World in the sixteenth century under the Spaniards, a century before the English and French brought in slaves from Africa. Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), a Spanish missionary and historian called "the Apostle of the Indies," heroically devoted his life to obtain, though without success, the complete abolition of slavery (the encomienda) among the native population in the New World. In order to save the souls of the Indians for Christian conversion, he proposed to import black slaves from Cuba, who had no souls, he claimed, to work in the mines. In Mexico, slavery was normal even in monasteries and convents. When Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51-95), the major poet of the colonial period, entered the cloistered Hieronymite convent of Santa Paula in Mexico City, she brought with her to her luxurious apartment two slaves, one Indian, one black, onw of whome she later sold to her sister Josefa for 250 gold pesos. Although Sor Juana's biography, Response to Sister Filotea (1691), was the first and truly most significant literary book concerning a woman's right to intellectual and artistic freedom prior to the publication of Virginia Woolf's emancipatory Room of One's Own, Sor Juana was unconcerned with the slavery that prevailed in working class Mexico during her lifetime.
Anciently, slavery was present in Israel and Christianity, in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek scriptures. There were rules concerning slavery in both the authentic and disputed letters of Paul. He asked for kindness to slaves and commanded that in the spiritual realm they be treated as brothers [siblings?] in Christ. With respect to the slave's obligations in the material world, in the letters in which he discusses slavery, he commands that a slave under threat of punishment, obey his master and not escape.
(The Restored New Testament, pages 856-57)
One of my hopes in posting such passages is to show that Aristotle's incorrect, racist notions can be exposed, confronted, and overcome.  Of course, Aristotle does not have a monopoly on the ideas that he conceived, on the methods he developed and used, or on the influence he has wielded.

Another blogger, Paula Fether, writes a post today entitled "Sound Familiar?" While Fether, like Barnstone, does not connect the notion of natural-born slavery back to Aristotle, she does connect slavery to Christian arguments for slavery that just happen to be Aristotelian. She gives a number of statements of logic before she appeals to us, her readers, to work through them:
I want to focus on two things right now: how these very arguments for slavery in the US could be lifted almost without alteration to support the resurgance of patriarchy / male supremacy in the Christian community at large, and also the charge that it is elitist to insist that accurate interpretation of scripture does require the expertise of scholars at some point.

Try reading through the quotes again, this time substituting “women” or “the subordination of women” for terms about slavery. You will be struck with the familiarity of the arguments, because the modern male supremacist movement has adopted practically all of them and merely changed the names....

[I] challenge anyone to say how these [arguments] apply to slaves but not women....

Whether we look at this from the perspective of proof-texts or an appeal to the whole teaching of scripture, there is no logically consistent way to make one set of arguments valid or invalid solely on the basis of the name of the group under examination. In other words, it would require a double standard or the fallacy of “special pleading” to make these arguments valid for the subordination of women but invalid for slavery.

Regarding the alleged elitism of arguing for some expertise in order to have an accurate understanding of scripture, we see first of all that if one rejects this argument on the topic of women, one must also reject it on the topic of slavery.
What Barnstone, Fether, Hanke, Las Casas, and McCarthy are doing is helping us see the connections between Aristotle's sexism, logic, and elitism and that of others' too, even in our cultures and our times.

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