Deconstructing the concepts of humanity and human nature

The Western paradigm: Human nature

Human nature and Western hegemony

Stoic philosophy, stretching from Roman antiquity to the early modern age, held that there was only one nature common to all human beings—a single human nature that all humans share on the material side and the spiritual side alike. But with the discovery of the New World, the incommensurable diversity of customs became apparent for all to see, and this led to the view that some peoples still found themselves at an initial stage of development,1 and that it was therefore legitimate for the Spanish conquerors to guide the Indios along the long path to civilization—the only conceivable civilization, that of the West. Hence the rights of peoples—among which dominium, namely, the right to ownership of land—were conceived from the start as qualified, and needed to be refashioned in such a way as to fit the model of Western civilization. The legitimate grounds of conquest were thus found to lie in the need to protect the right to life (an entirely instrumental protection), the universal right of free movement (in the lands of the Indios), and the right to spread the Christian faith in the New World. What came into shape, then, was a paradigm predicated on the uniformity of human nature and the different degrees of civilization as a criterion by which to legitimize Western hegemony—and it was this paradigm that would be coercively reproduced throughout the age of colonialism, fully establishing itself in the nineteenth century.


This chapter was originally published in 2011 under the title “Abbandonare la nature umana? Verso una democrazia multiculturale” (Gozzi 2011). It was subsequently republished with substantive revisions in Gozzi 2015, and in that version it now appears in translation.

1 In an attempt to explain why the New World Indios appeared not to have reached an advanced stage of civilization, Francisco de Vitoria resorted to the Aristotelian distinction between potentiality (potentia) and actuality (actus). The Indios, he conjectured, certainly had the use of reason (habent pro suo mode usitm rationis), but any such potential that failed to express itself in actuality was vain (frustra est potentia, quae non reducitur ad actum). See Vitoria (1539) 1991, §23, p. 250.

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