Laszld Kontler


This chapter aims to establish a context for the study of dehumanization against the background of a crucial episode in the development ot notions of “humanity” (mankind, humanite, Menschheit) in modern European culture. It is not an empirical study based on any substantial amount of primary research, but rather an attempt to sketch an analytical framework for approaching and understanding a broad array of specific historical topics and phenomena within the parameters of an encompassing theme. The methodological assumption at its heart is trivial: the concept of humanity is not an intrinsic one, but a contextually defined cultural product shaped by processes of philosophical, historical, social-anthropological, and political self-reflection, and of encounter with “others” in modern times, which all raised important and disturbing questions about the differentiae specifica of the human kind.

The ensuing discussion of some of these questions and of significant answers to them during the 16th and 17th centuries will follow a chronological order. However, it should be borne in mind throughout that the consideration of the diversity versus unity, and the diversity within unity, of mankind was determined by early modern versions of three important intellectual frameworks.These are, first, the temporalization of human difference: the notion that such difference is largely a matter of patterns in the development of human faculties and relations both among humans and between them and their environment across (virtual) time. Second, the his— toricization of nature: an emerging trend in the study of nature on the basis of the collection and ordering of data about phenomena as they actually exist in space as well as in time. And third, related steps toward the naturalization of man2: the study of humans without the ascription of a special status to them; with the approach of the naturalists, as coequal, from the methodological point of view, with any other product of the creation.

Regarding the subject of human diversity—the real or alleged difference of some human individuals or groups in physical appearance, physiological mechanisms and functioning, psychological properties, sociocultural and moral standards, etc. from others—it is important to observe that such diversity is not only a matter of humanity’s geographic dispersal all over the planet, as it is most often understood. The question underlying inquiries into it can also be meaningfully framed in temporal terms: how different are we from our forebears? Contemporary historians taking a multi-disciplinary approach to evolution, also deriving their cues from “deep history,” have called attention to the importance of this manner of setting the problem, with important consequences to our understanding of the history of humanity itself.They propose that while we tacitly take it for granted that evolution “stopped” with the rise of anatomically modern humanity around 30—50,000 years ago, and that slow and long biological evolution was “replaced” with rapid cultural development from the Neolithic era onward, this is erroneous. Dietary change of several millennia, public health interventions of several centuries, toxic environment exposures of several decades are only a few among so many factors serving as reminders that people themselves have been constantly changing the conditions in which all organisms, including their own, exist. Evolution itself and the identity of humanity across time are thus placed in a different light for the historian of our days: does, then,“mankind” have “a” common history at all? (Brooke and Larsen 2014; Russell 2014)

The “Columbian moment” and the boundaries of the human

In early modern Europe, quasi-colonial situations were hotbeds of discussions regarding the humanity or the lack of it in the colonized subjects, with reference either to the civilizational gap that separated them from their metropolitan betters or to their bestiality, even without colonial conquests in geographically distant territories. Gaels in Scotland and Catholic Celts in Ireland were thought of as savages and barbarians in need of cultural, religious, and economic governance—the former were accused of cannibalism, while the latter occasionally even depicted as monkeys—and the vilification of the northern Sámi (“Lapps” in the discourse of the period) was common stock (Ohlmeyer 2001; Williamson 1996).These widespread practices served both as templates for the representation of native peoples in overseas colonial areas, and as a terrain where those representations could be recycled and adapted. However, arguably, the temporal dimension in discussing human diversity as highlighted in the introduction first became salient at the level of reflexivity familiar to us in the context of the massive encounter with human groups formerly unknown to Europeans in the early-modern period.The problem arose as a cognitive one: how were these groups to be inserted in the existing European system of knowledge—in the fields of ethics and theology as well as law and administration, and how were they to be related to on the basis of this system? That this question is by no means a trivial one is vividly illustrated by an example presented in an analysis of the intellectual and moral dilemmas occasioned by the “Columbian moment.” (Abulafia 2008: 5) Let us suppose that a group of Neanderthalers, which survived the extinction of their fellows elsewhere tens of thousands of years ago, were suddenly discovered today among the secluded mountains of Mongolia. It would be problematic to deny their human status, especially since we now know with a fair degree of certainty that Neanderthalers mingled with homo sapiens before their disappearance, and possibly for other reasons. But would they not be subjected to scientific examinations which, if applied to “modern” humans, would be rejected as dehumanizing? Could they be integrated into our modern system of labor, social welfare, education, human rights—would they be eligible for suffrage?

The questions perplexing Europeans upon the “discovery” of (native) Americans were not different in kind and gravity from these ones, even though for the Europeans the questions arose immediately and explicitly in terms of the grounds for dominion over indigenous peoples. The answers, which have been explored in now classic studies (Pagden 1982; see also several chapters in Rubies 2007), can be summarized as follows. None of the templates familiar from Western Christian legal traditions3 regarding how to relate to “pagans” were applicable to the case of Amerindians. Therefore, Christian claims to sovereignty over them had to be established not on supposed juridical rights of the conquerors, but on the “nature” of the people conquered.

Sixteenth-century Thomist philosophers like the Scottish Dominican John Mair (1467—1550) reached back to Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery as defining a category of man (as distinct from civil slavery, which was an institution of punishment or inflicted on captives of just war). Natural slavery allegedly originated in the psychology of the slave, in which, of the two poles of the duality in the human mind, reason has failed to achieve proper mastery over the passions. This failure apparently undermined the slave’s capacity for making deliberate choices—that is, for moral action—and thus for being a virtue-seeking, political animal. Slaves were located outside the civil community, at the bestial end of humanity, with a function of being slaves: their freedom would thus be a violation of the natural order, even harmful for themselves. The relationship between Spaniards and Indians was proposed to be determined not by human but by natural and universal law. To be precise, as the humanist-trained rhetorician Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494—1573) argued, as natural law was identical with the law of nations, which could only be applied to civilized people, acknowledging the equality of the Indians (of whom Sepúlveda never encountered a single one) would be “a very absurd thing ... For the barbarians or those who possess scant reasoning and humanity, the best rule is that of the master [for] either they are natural slaves, like the ones born in certain regions and climates of the world, or because of the depravity of their acts or due to other causes [they] cannot be made to conform to acceptable modes of behavior” (Sepúlveda 1941: 171,173, cited in Castro 2007: 27, emphasis mine).

One difficulty with this explanation was posed by the lack of any recognizable and substantial difference between Europeans and Amerindians in physical shape, and that the allegation that one of them was “inferior” as a species would have even violated the belief in the perfection of the creation as well as the Aristotelian theory of ethismos, the human capacity for the acquisition of moral qualities by “habituation.”The solution lay in the conflation or identification of“slaves” and barbaroi whose culture and society is insufficient and inferior. This condition, however, was not considered irremediable. As it was formulated by Bernardo de Mesa (1470—1524), later bishop of Cuba, at the junta—debate of theologians, civil and canon lawyers—of 1512 in Burgos, “a great labor is necessary before they [the Indians] can be brought to the faith and to the practice of good customs” (cited in Pagden 1982:50).This was a crucial moment. In this approach, human diversity is historicized, with reference to the natives’ primitive modes of subsistence, systems of property, knowledge, customs and beliefs, standards of intercourse, etc., which made them live in the sociocultural past. It is worth mentioning that occasionally even the Spanish legislation recognized and paid lip service to the notion that the distance between colonial masters and serfs was not intrinsic but historical. Articles promulgated in 1513 in Valladolid (the seat of the Council of the Indies), complementing the Laws of Burgos of the previous year, stipulated that “whereas it may so happen that in the course of time ... the Indians will become so apt and ready to become Christians, and so civilized and educated, that they will be capable of governing themselves and leading the kind of life that the Christians lead here ... [they] shall be allowed to live by themselves” (Laws of Burgos, Valladolid Amendment IV; cf. Stuurman 2017:207).

This manner of discussing the topic was quite prominent already in its emblematic 16,h-century treatments.The initial affirmations of the fully human status of the Native Americans were largely based on Christian charity and moral consternation over the brutality of the colonists, without much inquiry into the causes of the palpable differences between the two groups, and without much effort to reconcile such differences with the claim of equal human dignity. Accordingly, one of the early critics of colonial practices, the Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos (1475—1540) asked in a sermon of 1511,“Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” He further told the colonists that because of their rapacious behavior they could “be saved no more than Moors and Turks,” even threatening to withhold the sacraments from them (Cited, following Las Casas, in Hanke 1949: 17; see also Seed 1993).

Montesinos’s famous fellow Dominican, the Salamanca theology professor Francisco de Vitoria (1486—1546), while also stressing in a 1539 lecture the humanity of the “barbarians” with reference to the fact that they “have judgment like other men,” explained the still vastly different kind of order in their “marriages, magistrates, and overlords, laws, industries and commerce” by pointing to “their evil and barbarous education,” but did not formulate this in developmental-historical terms (Vitoria 1991: 250). It must be added that while Vitoria severely condemned the conduct of the colonists, he at the same time endorsed colonialism based on the natural right to travel and trade all over the world.

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484—1566), Dominican bishop of Chiapas in southern Mexico, on the contrary, in his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542, pub. 1552) elaborated on the indigence, imbecility, incapacity for hard labor, and lack of ambition in the Amerindians, while he also emphasized (in tune with the assertions of the bull Sublimis Deus issued by Pope Paul III [1534—49] in 1537) that they were capable of morality and of receiving the Gospel, and that they were not at all averse to civility—that is, of progress and the enhancement of their own humanity (Las Casas 2007: 3, 12). Unlike in the case of several other 16,h-century eyewitnesses who attempted to describe the novelty represented by the Americans in terms of unfamiliarity, Las Casas’s “project” was to establish them as familiar to the European gaze; for him, the New World “indicated a precise cultural relationship in which distances in space could be expressed as distances in time” (Pagden 1991: 157). Las Casas may also have been the first to object to the disparaging of the “primitive” customs and manners of indigenous peoples by pointing to the existence of similar practices among the ancestors of“civilized” Europeans (Las Casas 2007: 21).

The publication of Las Casas’s Brief Account (already presented to the court and the Council of the Indies right after its composition, causing great consternation), followed shortly after the famous dispute about the justness of the Spanish regime in America, which took place between Las Casas and Sepúlveda in the presence of Emperor Charles V and other notabilities at the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid in 1550—51 (see Losada 1971). At this encounter, Sepúlveda—relying on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas—justified war against the natives of the New World and the right of domination over them with reference to their barbarous habits, including idolatry, cannibalism, and human sacrifice, which put their very humanity into question: “these barbarians,” Sepúlveda claimed, “are as inferior to the Spaniards as are children to adults and women to men.The difference between them is as great as ... I am tempted to say, between men and monkeys” (cited in Brading 1991: 86).The strategy of redescription and conflation is noteworthy here: from children (temporarily subjected to adults) through women (inferior, but still human), there is a seamless transition to association with subhuman monkeys, not unlike in 18th-century discussions of the status of the orangutan compared to black slaves (cf. Sebastian! 2019:_90—92 and Sebastian!, in this volume). Las Casas opposed this by claiming that superior civilization carries no entitlement to the subjugation of the barbarian without prior injury at the hand of the latter, and he insisted that despite the cultural chasm, the moral imperatives governing rational creatures are binding in their relations. Importantly, he also argued that in many cases the Amerindians actually answer the Aristotelian requirements of the good life: “they cultivated friendship, ... lived in populous cities ... truly governed by laws that at very many points surpass ours, and could have won the admiration of the sages of Athens” (Las Casas 1974: 43; cf. Stuurman 2017: 227).Though the Valladolid debate has been described as little more than a confrontation of two faces of the same empire (Castro 2007: 133) and two currents of essentially Christian and humanistic thought (Brading 1991: 80—88) with both seeking the conversion of the Native Americans, from the point of view of the present volume the two positions are methodologically disparate.

A few decades later, already in the period of the consolidation of Spain’s empire in Latin America, the Jesuit missionary to Peru José de Acosta (1540—1600), in his Natural and Moral

History of the Indies (1590), painted a much vaster canvas than Las Casas of barbarians and savages. Access to and integration in the global information network created and maintained by the Society ofjesus with a view to the efficient evangelization and governance of remote populations enabled Acosta to develop a comparative methodology in the service of his ambition of providing a universal view of both nature and human society (Romano 2019:13—17). Some of the peoples he presented were described as virtuous while others as less so; with some notable exceptions, even the most advanced among them were living in societies marked by relatively low levels of specialization (distinction of functions), primitive laws and customs, rudimentary political organization, and inferior cultural attainments when compared to contemporary Europe. In the latter sphere, there is a special emphasis on the lack of alphabetical writing as a versatile means of fluent communication, record keeping, and cultivation of collective memory, though Acosta acknowledges the value of alternative mnemonic techniques adopted among some of the Native Americans (Acosta 1880:11. 96, 404-6, 409-13,421-2).

However, in general Acosta, too, had no doubt that the gulf separating “them” from “us” arose from differences in sociocultural development across historical time, but certainly not differences of kind.Though, unlike Las Casas, he was willing to condone the Spanish atrocities for the sake of achieving the goal he shared with the Dominican—the conversion of the Amerindians; the two men were in agreement regarding the full humanity of Native Americans. Acosta s achievement consists in drawing the conclusions by comprehensively inserting the New World into the sacred and secular history of mankind. This duality is important to emphasize. For many early modern natural historians, the Americas were a terrain where knowledge once possessed by Adam but lost as a result of the Fall could be recovered, and a better understanding of God’s creation could be gained by man, conceived as separate from the natural world.This essentially theological pursuit was only gradually transformed into a vision in which humanity was itself stripped of its privileged ontological status and became located within nature, and the tension between divine and natural knowledge was resolved with reference to an account of progress from savagery to civilization (Irving-Stonebraker 2019). In Acosta and in literature inspired by his work over the subsequent decades, some of these features are discernible: soon translated into Latin and all the main European languages, the encyclopedic handbook-like presentation of his overseas experiences gained over a decade and a half was a major influence on the way in which contemporaries in Europe understood these histories (Ford 1998).

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