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Aristotle and the justification for ënaturalí slavery

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Indigenous rights fare better, weíve been saying in recent editorials, in the medieval philosophic tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas than they do with the early moderns like John Locke, who inspired the American Declaration of Independence. We arenít just conducting an exercise in historical irony. We hope to reach an audience of at least three people ñ Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas ñ who seem to be receptive to the Thomist tradition.

The ultimate argument, echoing the Spanish Dominican theologians of the 16th century, is that Indians have the inherent political right of self-government because, after all, we share the rational and social human nature described by Aristotle. This right of dominium, or tribal sovereignty, is God-given, if you will. (We heard it put very well once by Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians: ìWe derive our sovereignty from the Creator.î) This principle is certainly not a ìPlatonic notionî to be subordinated to the whims of Congress.

But there are pitfalls in appealing to Aristotle and the medieval Scholastics, even in the fascinating 16th century Spanish Humanist version that directly inspired the development of International Law and modern ideas of Human Rights. Anglo-American history has always painted a dark picture of Spanish cruelty in the Americas. This ìBlack Legendî might partly reflect Elizabethan propaganda. (Thatís Queen Elizabeth I, who was freeing her own court from Spanish domination.) This legend, however, was based on eye witness accounts from Indian rights crusaders like Bartolome de las Casas (1474 ñ 1566). To recount the Spanish conquests without acknowledging the protests from priests, academics and students would be like writing a history of American involvement in Vietnam without mentioning the anti-war protests.

The second drawback is that apologists for the Spanish exploitation of Indians also used Aristotle. They drew a highly effective argument from a passage in the ìYhe Politicsî describing what Aristotle called ìthe natural slave.î It goes without saying that the argument was effective because it was thoroughly self-interested and seriously distorted. This theme dominated one of the most remarkable episodes of the Spanish conquest, the Great Debate at the Spanish city of Valladolid in 1550.

King Charles V (1500 ñ 1558), who was also the Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful figure in Europe, was so disturbed by accounts of New World atrocities that he ordered a suspension of all his conquests until his theologians could quiet his conscience. The historian Lewis Hanke has observed that no emperor ìbefore or sinceî has ever taken such a step. He summoned a Council of Fourteen to Valladolid to hear a debate between de las Casas and a Humanist scholar named Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490 ñ 1573). Hanke gives a thorough account in a book with the remarkable title, ìAristotle and the American Indians.î

De las Casas was a settler in the Spanish Americas who went through a spiritual crisis and joined the Dominican order. Like other Dominican preachers, he vehemently protested Spanish atrocities and wrote about them voluminously. Sepulveda had never been to America, but he had spent years in Italy as a Renaissance scholar. He produced a well-regarded edition of Aristotleís Politics and was highly praised by humanists like Erasmus. As too often happens, it was the ìivory towerî scholar who produced incalculable human misery. Our own John Mohawk has observed that Sepulveda is now regarded as ìthe father of modern racism.î

This doctrine grew from Aristotleís discussion of household relations. Since all wealthy households in ancient times relied on slaves, Aristotle skirted a social uproar by asking whether slavery was simply a product of force and arbitrary law and by nature unjust. He avoided this controversy by describing a justifiable form of ìnatural slavery.î This was a just and advantageous condition, he wrote, for ìthose who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast.î It seems clear Aristotle meant a very limited group of people unable to care for themselves, whom we would call today the severely retarded. He was saying indirectly that the vast majority of slaves in his day, often captives in war, were victims of injustice.

But in Sepulvedaís hands, the doctrine was just too useful. Indians were ìnatural slavesî just by being Indian. Since Indians in fact did not make good slaves, having an unfortunate attachment to liberty and their traditional ways and a tendency to die in captivity, the European settlers looked around for other sources of manpower. They found one in Africa, and the doctrine of natural slavery attached itself to new victims. But to maintain this doctrine, Europeans had severely to edit their perception of other races, ignoring all evidence of their rational humanity.

Hanke produces examples of the way this doctrine shaped ìethnographicî writings about American Natives. The economic incentive to justify exploitation underlies much of the denigration of Native life and continues to shape paternalism to this day, no matter how benevolent the veneer. Much of the federal trust relation and unlimited congressional power over the tribes has its root in the notion that tribes are dependents on the superior wisdom of Washington, D.C., held in pupilage until they can learn civilization and Christianity.

Of course, the benefits of European guidance are not nearly as self-evident today as they might have seemed to Europeans from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The idea of Europe as a bastion of civilization effectively died by the middle of the 20th century, along with millions of Europeans and Americans. The clear evidence of climate change and environmental devastation suggests strongly that it is modern industrial society that needs to be taken under the supervision of indigenous wisdom.

The notion of natural slavery, or of a European obligation to show the lesser breeds how to do things, has no more validity today than the doctrine of Christian discovery or conquest or any other excuse for the exploitation of human beings. Itís a shame that this doctrine can be traced to Renaissance humanism, one of the ears of European achievement. But at least it shouldnít be blamed on Aristotle.

Indigenous rights fare better, weíve been saying in recent editorials, in the medieval philosophic tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas than they do with the early moderns like John Locke, who inspired the American Declaration of Independence. We arenít just conducting an exercise in historical irony. We hope to reach an audience of at least three people ñ Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas ñ who seem to be receptive to the Thomist tradition.The ultimate argument, echoing the Spanish Dominican theologians of the 16th century, is that Indians have the inherent political right of self-government because, after all, we share the rational and social human nature described by Aristotle. This right of dominium, or tribal sovereignty, is God-given, if you will. (We heard it put very well once by Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians: ìWe derive our sovereignty from the Creator.î) This principle is certainly not a ìPlatonic notionî to be subordinated to the whims of Congress.But there are pitfalls in appealing to Aristotle and the medieval Scholastics, even in the fascinating 16th century Spanish Humanist version that directly inspired the development of International Law and modern ideas of Human Rights. Anglo-American history has always painted a dark picture of Spanish cruelty in the Americas. This ìBlack Legendî might partly reflect Elizabethan propaganda. (Thatís Queen Elizabeth I, who was freeing her own court from Spanish domination.) This legend, however, was based on eye witness accounts from Indian rights crusaders like Bartolome de las Casas (1474 ñ 1566). To recount the Spanish conquests without acknowledging the protests from priests, academics and students would be like writing a history of American involvement in Vietnam without mentioning the anti-war protests.The second drawback is that apologists for the Spanish exploitation of Indians also used Aristotle. They drew a highly effective argument from a passage in the ìYhe Politicsî describing what Aristotle called ìthe natural slave.î It goes without saying that the argument was effective because it was thoroughly self-interested and seriously distorted. This theme dominated one of the most remarkable episodes of the Spanish conquest, the Great Debate at the Spanish city of Valladolid in 1550.King Charles V (1500 ñ 1558), who was also the Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful figure in Europe, was so disturbed by accounts of New World atrocities that he ordered a suspension of all his conquests until his theologians could quiet his conscience. The historian Lewis Hanke has observed that no emperor ìbefore or sinceî has ever taken such a step. He summoned a Council of Fourteen to Valladolid to hear a debate between de las Casas and a Humanist scholar named Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490 ñ 1573). Hanke gives a thorough account in a book with the remarkable title, ìAristotle and the American Indians.îDe las Casas was a settler in the Spanish Americas who went through a spiritual crisis and joined the Dominican order. Like other Dominican preachers, he vehemently protested Spanish atrocities and wrote about them voluminously. Sepulveda had never been to America, but he had spent years in Italy as a Renaissance scholar. He produced a well-regarded edition of Aristotleís Politics and was highly praised by humanists like Erasmus. As too often happens, it was the ìivory towerî scholar who produced incalculable human misery. Our own John Mohawk has observed that Sepulveda is now regarded as ìthe father of modern racism.î This doctrine grew from Aristotleís discussion of household relations. Since all wealthy households in ancient times relied on slaves, Aristotle skirted a social uproar by asking whether slavery was simply a product of force and arbitrary law and by nature unjust. He avoided this controversy by describing a justifiable form of ìnatural slavery.î This was a just and advantageous condition, he wrote, for ìthose who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast.î It seems clear Aristotle meant a very limited group of people unable to care for themselves, whom we would call today the severely retarded. He was saying indirectly that the vast majority of slaves in his day, often captives in war, were victims of injustice.But in Sepulvedaís hands, the doctrine was just too useful. Indians were ìnatural slavesî just by being Indian. Since Indians in fact did not make good slaves, having an unfortunate attachment to liberty and their traditional ways and a tendency to die in captivity, the European settlers looked around for other sources of manpower. They found one in Africa, and the doctrine of natural slavery attached itself to new victims. But to maintain this doctrine, Europeans had severely to edit their perception of other races, ignoring all evidence of their rational humanity.Hanke produces examples of the way this doctrine shaped ìethnographicî writings about American Natives. The economic incentive to justify exploitation underlies much of the denigration of Native life and continues to shape paternalism to this day, no matter how benevolent the veneer. Much of the federal trust relation and unlimited congressional power over the tribes has its root in the notion that tribes are dependents on the superior wisdom of Washington, D.C., held in pupilage until they can learn civilization and Christianity.Of course, the benefits of European guidance are not nearly as self-evident today as they might have seemed to Europeans from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The idea of Europe as a bastion of civilization effectively died by the middle of the 20th century, along with millions of Europeans and Americans. The clear evidence of climate change and environmental devastation suggests strongly that it is modern industrial society that needs to be taken under the supervision of indigenous wisdom.The notion of natural slavery, or of a European obligation to show the lesser breeds how to do things, has no more validity today than the doctrine of Christian discovery or conquest or any other excuse for the exploitation of human beings. Itís a shame that this doctrine can be traced to Renaissance humanism, one of the ears of European achievement. But at least it shouldnít be blamed on Aristotle.