(Las Casas, part four: a modern detractor)

This post 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.

The 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.”


Ms. 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.

Sepúlveda’s 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.

“To create 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.

The 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 think that.

Ms. 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?

She 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.

In the 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.

Ad hominem

Apart from 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.

This is going to be long. You should probably skip it, but it’s worth documenting.

She quotes 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.”

He only 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.)

“Las Casas 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.

“Rather 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!

“Las Casas 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.

“That was 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.

After “his 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).

He “so 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 his principles.

“Las Casas 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.

“Avoiding 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.

She even 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.

Finally: “he 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.

Las 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.

Opposite 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.

“Among Las 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.

Las Casas 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.

“The most 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?

The 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.

He is 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.”

But she’s 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.

But poor 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.

But “Sepúlveda’s 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.”

What’s the point?

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.

What is her real point? In part, she may be arguing that economic expediency trumps Gospel morality. Some people think that. I disagree.

But she 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.


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