is far less significant than my others about Las Casas, because it merely
refutes a very poor criticism of it. It is probably not worth your reading. But
it does respond to a comment I received, and perhaps it helps us see what is at
stake with Las Casas.
following is my summary of “A Loving Ambivalence,” an article by Helen Andrews, in First
Things, October 8 (Columbus Day), 2018. The title refers to the final lines:
“Since we have failed to come up with a better solution, even after forty years
of postmodern sensitivity to indigenous rights along the philosophical lines
suggested by Las Casas, maybe we should take a lead from Motolinía instead. It
could be that in a saga as complex and wrenching as the meeting of the Old
World and the New, loving ambivalence is the best we could hope for.” “Loving
Ambivalence” seems to mean Las Casas is wrong, so we should kind of shrug our
shoulders about historic atrocities against the Indians. The author does not
explain what makes that proposal “loving,” or if it has any relation to
Christian love; she does not refer to Christian principles at all, except to
mock Las Casas for talking about “love and gentleness and kindness.”
Andrews devotes one paragraph (two if we are generous) to the actual arguments
(148, or generously 273, words of a 3790-word essay). My main reason for
addressing her article is to point out again that what I did in my post yesterday
was to outline the actual arguments of Las Casas and Sepúlveda.
argument, she says, is that “Spaniards also have human rights”—which is kind of
a strange way to talk about the people who are invading someone else’s home, enslaving
and slaughtering them by the millions, and dominating their whole continent.
the conditions of peace and order that would make peaceful propagation of the
gospel possible, such peoples would simply have to be ruled, as the Roman
empire had ruled Hispania.” That, as we saw yesterday, is the real argument. It
has both a general principle (a major, or “wider,” premise) and a specific
application (a minor, or “narrower,” premise). The general principle is that
the effective way, and the only way, to preach the Gospel is first to conquer.
In yesterday’s post we saw how Las Casas contradicted the idea that conquering
with the sword is in general either the only way or effective—but you don’t
need Las Casas to make that argument for you.
specific application is that the Indians in particular required this form of
domination. Indian specifics are irrelevant if we agree with Las Casas that the
sword is never the way to preach the Gospel. But the specific question depends,
of course, on anthropological evidence. We shall see in a moment how Ms.
Andrews quickly trashes Las Casas’ several books on anthropology; I can add
that Ms. Andrews adds no anthropological evidence of her own; but the question
remains to be studied just how primitive and incapable of the Gospel Indian
culture was. As a theologian, I would add that the notion that any culture is
incapable of receiving the Gospel seems to me problematic. JPII sure didn’t
Andrews seems ambivalent about Indian culture. In this same paragraph, she
says, “With an advanced civilization like the Aztecs, one might negotiate a
treaty concerning the rights of misssionaries,” and in the next, “The Aztecs
had developed an advanced tribute system” (which somehow legitimates the
Spanish enslaving the Indians), but a few paragraphs before she commends Cortes
for his “undisputed mastery of the Aztec empire.” To me that sounds like a
contradiction. Should the Aztecs be conquered, and “become more civilized,” or
respected as a civilization?
contrasts the Aztecs with “pre-literate tribes in a place like Guatemala,” a
strange choice of example. Guatemala is the Mayans. Their period of great
building ended around 950, but the city of Mayapan still had a population of
10-15,000 people a hundred years before the Spanish came. (Madrid was about
4,000—though London, for example, was more like 50,000.) Every historian of
civilization I know agrees that the Mayas were one of the most advanced
civilizations in history. They were certainly literate. Google the “Popol Vuh,”
and you’ll find they had a highly developed religion and mythology; the Mayan
“Madrid Codex,” “Dresden Codex,” and “Paris Codex” are three famous examples of
Mayan writing from the time, though the conquistadors destroyed what they
could. I don’t know what Ms. Andrews is talking about, or whether she knows
what she’s talking about, when she uses Guatemala as an example of illiterate
people who need to become Spaniards before they can become Christians.
next paragraph, Ms. Andrews gets to her, and Sepúlveda’s, real argument, which
is that it was more economically advantageous to Spain to enslave the Indians
and steal their stuff. That might be true, but it is beside the point:
Christians do not believe that economic advantage is a good reason to do immoral
things. That’s really the debate, between materialists and Christians.
these two paragraphs, the article is a string of unsubstantiated personal
attacks. Ironically, she accuses Las Casas of what her article does: “Rather
than answer Sepúlveda’s arguments, Las Casas preferred ad hominem attacks”
(that is, putting down the person). But we have seen his arguments, which make
no appearance in her article. Ironically, accusing him of ad hominem attacks is
itself an ad hominem attack.
going to be long. You should probably skip it, but it’s worth documenting.
people (as if quoting someone makes it true) as saying Las Casas is “mentally
ill . . . a paranoiac, a fanatic, a chronic exaggerator, and an impossible man
to work with.”
pretended to defend the Indians because it “brought him worldly success and the
favor of the establishment.” His “worldly success” included being named
“Protector of the Indians” and given the opportunity, in “a lavish charter” (quickly
retracted), to form a colony in Venezuela. (In fact, many of his Dominican
brothers were slaughtered by the Indians in response to a slave raid they
opposed and he was chased out of town by the slave raiders; when he was made a
bishop in Mexico, he was chased out at gunpoint; and when he returned to Spain
he was accused of treason.)
swore he would find thousands” to populate this colony, but the word “swore” suggests
he was untrue to his word; his “worldly success” was somehow compatible with no
one joining him.
than stay and put his pacific principles into practice, he ran off to
Hispaniola to file bureaucratic complaints against the local traders and
soldiers whom he blamed for the rising tensions. The men he left behind at
Cumaná were killed.” Bad person!
absolved himself of responsibility for the deaths of his men at Cumaná. It was
the fault of those traders and soldiers who had refused to recognize his
authority.” Andrews never explains why it is unreasonable to claim that armed
men breaking laws would cause problems. But she sure thinks Las Casas was
irresponsible for trying to stop them.
the way his guilt worked.” This is an odd line, common in today’s conservative
discourse. Somehow anyone who has a sense of guilt is morally compromised. I do
not know how to square that claim with Christianity. Christians are supposed to
feel guilt. Moral relativism is not Christianity.
moral crisis in 1514” (again, having a crisis over one’s immorality is something
to mock), he “turned to a life of activism” (Christian action is also obviously
wrong). He is “the original humanitarian personality,” a strange claim, except
when she claims he begins a “shift from pre-modern to modern ideas of moral
heroism, from Christian saints to human rights activists.” She does not support
the claim that Christian saints do not care about human rights; her argument
seems to be guilty by association with modern “activists” (whom, I guess,
readers of First Things dislike).
easily shrugged off the deaths for which he really was individually responsible”:
so despite being bad for having had a moral crisis, he is also bad for not
realizing that he was “individually responsible” whenever other people violated
did not know a calpixqui from a coatimundi.” Snap! “He knew little about
pre-conquest cultures. There is no evidence he spoke any Indian language. At
Valladolid, he spoke generically of ‘the Indians,’ making no distinctions
between the Aztecs, whose capital was larger than any European city at the time
save Constantinople, and the Tainos, whose idea of advanced technology was a
spear with a fish tooth on the end.” I confess that I have not read Las Casas’s
five-volume History of the Indies, or his Apologetic History of the
Peoples of these Indies, or his separate book on Peru, but I do find
Andrews’ claim improbable; she does not substantiate the accusation that these
books are vague and unsubstantiated.
specifics, Las Casas merely offered the judges his repeated assertion.” “Las
Casas frequently referred to his firsthand experience of the New World as the
basis for his authority, but this experience was far less extensive than he led
people to believe.” “The Hieronymites’ open-mindedness galled Las Casas to no
end. For the crime of not taking his word for everything, he accused them of
being in the pay of the encomenderos.” “There was hardly an intellectual low to
which Las Casas would not stoop.” “For someone who knew so little, Las Casas
was astonishingly resistant to correction. A central point of conflict between
him and the Hieronymite monks of the Hispaniola commission was that they
insisted on actually talking to the colonists about their experiences.” “Las
Casas’s constant misrepresentations. . . . ‘Everything which he attributes to
me is false, as is well known by those who have read my book, and he knows
better than anybody.’” “Las Casas spent most of his time on his drive-by visits
to the missionary field collecting atrocity stories and very little time
administering sacraments or preaching the Word.” (Was that a Rush Limbaugh
reference?) “At a time when the use of Indians as carriers was widely condemned
(the practice was periodically banned, though enforcement was difficult), Las
Casas traveled with twenty or thirty, ‘and the greatest part of what they were
carrying was accusations against the Spaniards and other rubbish.’” If you’ve
ever been unclear on what “ad hominem attack” means, there you go.
claims, “Las Casas revenged himself on his former mentor by forging a deathbed
retraction on his behalf,” substantiating the claim by saying that everyone
present said the deathbed retraction was true, but she doubts it. This is an
example of a circular argument: when people agree with Las Casas he must have
manipulated them because no one would agree with Las Casas.
simply reiterated his categorical belief that pacifism would meet all
eventualities.” This appears to be her summary of his appealing, not to
pacificism—as I have said, and will document, if I get a chance, his allies
defended him precisely on the grounds of just war—but to the Gospel at all. Of
that, he is guilty. But he does more than just “reiterate his categorical
beliefs”: as we have seen, he responds with arguments to arguments.
Casas’s friends get the same treatment. “Charles V’s priority was limiting the
power of American landowners in order to prevent the emergence of an
aristocracy that would threaten his power. That, and not humanitarianism, was
the reason for his hostility to the feudal encomienda system of compulsory
labor.” Couldn’t be that he was convinced by Christian arguments.
ad hominem arguments
But if her
response to Las Casas is entirely an attack on his character, her defense of
his opponents is entirely an appeal to their character.
Casas’s many enemies were other men who had better claim to moral authority,”
among them, “a more decisive man—Hernán Cortés.” I don’t know what “decisive”
means here: Cortés did kill a lot of people, but she seems annoyed at how much
Las Casas fights for what he thinks is right.
was “in contrast to the hundreds of devoted Franciscan and Dominican
missionaries who lived among their Indian flocks for decades at a time.” Among
them, “Domingo de Betanzos was not just any Dominican friar.” (He was present
when Las Casas joined the Dominicans, so there.) “He nonetheless opposed Las
Casas, writing open letters condemning his intemperate activism.” Good
people—vaguely defined—didn’t like Las Casas. How do we know they were good?
Because they didn’t like Las Casas.
saintly of Las Casas’s opponents was the Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente
. . . This holy friar hated Las Casas with a passion.” Torobio was also known
as Motolinía. One way Andrews knows he was right is that “Motolinía’s memoir .
. . is livelier and less repetitive than Las Casas’s.” What does that mean?
greatest hero, however, is Sepúlveda, Las Casas’ opponent in the debate at
Valladolid that we detailed yesterday. Andrews says almost nothing about
Sepúlveda’s arguments, which we reviewed in a previous post. But she says a lot
about what a great guy he was.
introduced as the “underdog at Valladolid.” Poor guy. “To the university
professors on the judges’ panel at Valladolid, Sepúlveda was a man out of his
depth. They were scholastics of the old school, trained in the methods of
Aquinas, to whom Sepúlveda was an upstart rhetorician who had the nerve to
opine on moral questions without the proper theological grounding.”
a little confusing on this. He isn’t a scholastic. He is a rhetorician. But she
also claims, “No man in Europe knew Aristotle better. Sepúlveda’s Latin
translation of the Politics was the standard throughout the continent.” The
second sentence seems to be her evidence for the first. But no one who studies
texts thinks that the translators are the philosophical experts. I think
scholars would agree there were quite a few great students of Aristotle,
including the Spanish Dominicans who took Las Casas’ side and who were those
evil “scholastics.” And none of Andrews’ arguments, nor any of the arguments we
saw in actually detailing the Valladolid debate, come from Aristotle: they come
from the Bible, from claims about evangelization and culture, and from claims
about the Indians, all totally foreign to Aristotle. This claim that he is the
greatest Aristotelian, apart from being probably false, is also irrelevant.
It’s just another ad hominem argument.
Sepúlveda, his “book in defense of the conquistadors was never published in
Spain during his lifetime, thanks to lobbying by Las Casas to have it censored
by the royal licensing office.” Somehow people not publishing your book is
proof that you’re right.
goal was to come up with a long-term solution” . . . as opposed to Las Casas? “Sepúlveda
thought the answer was to create a fully functioning New World aristocracy.”
I do not
know Ms. Andrews, and I will not conjecture on why First Things was
eager to take down Las Casas’s call for moral treatment of the Indians. My main
point here, not really worth anyone’s time, is to show that her long article
does little but make ad hominem attacks. That doesn’t prove that there are no
substantive attacks on Las Casas. But it does show that some of the attacks, at
least, lack substance. You can’t contradict an argument simply by vigorously
asserting that you think he was a bad guy and his opponents are good guys.
her real point? In part, she may be arguing that economic expediency trumps
Gospel morality. Some people think that. I disagree.
begins and ends with a point much more easily made. She begins, “The so-called ‘Black
Legend’—the idea that Spanish imperialism was categorically more brutal than
any other country’s—derives in large part from the Brief Relation, which was
immediately translated into every European language and enthusiastically
embraced by Spain’s Protestant rivals.” She ends, “For all our Anglophone
sneering about the Black Legend, there are 1.7 million Nahuatl speakers on this
continent today and only 150,000 speakers of Navajo. Our empire exterminated
its indigenous peoples far more thoroughly than the Spanish ever did.”
As I said
in a previous point, if the Black Legend is meant to say that Spain is the only
sinful nation on earth, it is indeed a bad thing. The English were worse! But
if “the Black Legend” is that nations in general are sinful, it is no legend at
all, it is the Gospel truth. One good reason to learn about Las Casas, and our
fallen history in general, is not to make us feel smug for being English, not
Spanish, but to teach us to rely on Christ, his Church, and his saints, not on any
nationalism, English, Spanish, Indian, or American. Our hope is in Jesus
Christ, and him alone.