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Las Casas

Las Casas and the Great Debate

We are going to read and analyze Las Casas argument(s) on behalf of the Indians. Your goal is to understand these arguments. These arguments were given in the course of the Great Debate mentioned in your introduction to Las Casas and in Benjamin Keen 's fine article about Las Casas. Essentially Las Casas managed to get the Spanish government to consider the treatment of Indians in the new world. Las Casas speaks against brutal wars carried on by the Spanish ostensibly to convert the heathen Indians, but which really were a means for breaking resistence, taking lands, houses goods and slaves. Las Casas is also arguing against the forced labor system -- a system of slavery -- which the Spanish imposed on the Indians. His opponent, Juan Gines de Selpulveda spoke on behalf of the legitimacy of all of these practices which had been going on from the beginning of the conquest. What an extraordinary debate indeed!

In order to understand Las Casas' arguments you need to understand the strategy which he uses to argue against his opponent Juan Gines de Sepulveda. Sepulveda had returned from Italy where he had studied with the greatest of contemporary Italian scholars of Aristotle. Sepulveda proposed to apply Aristotle's arguments from the Politics that there are natural slaves to the native peoples of the Americas. If the Spanish stood to these native peoples as natural masters to natural slaves, then it would be moral for them to seize the lands, properties and persons of these people. Sepulveda was in fact justifying the colonists who were doing just that. This is why Aristotle plays an important role in the debate. We should also remember that this is the Renaissance. We might think using Aristotle to argue about such a matter would be rather odd. But, if you live in an era when classical models have enormous importance, it becomes quite sensible to use an ancient doctrine about slavery to try to justify a new form of slavery.

Before we get to Las Casas' arguments against the natural slavery theory, we should start at the beginning of the reading. You have already read the first few pages of the reading in which Las Casas describes Spanish atrocities which he personally witnessed. In the next part of the reading Chapters 1-4 of In Defence of the Indians we get Las Casas' response to Juan Gines de Sepulveda in the "Great Debate" of 1550.

In Defence of the Indians

In Chapter 1, Las Casas sets the scene. He tells us about the kinds of atrocities which have been committed, the motivation for committing them, some of the views of those who would justify these brutal activities, and some of the objections which he has to these justifications. There are two of these objections which are quite notable. On Pg. 26 Las Casas raises objections on the basis of theology. On. Pg. 27 he asks what good can compensate for all the evils committed in the eyes of God. Then he asks how these people could love the Spanish, become their friends and thus accept their religion when the Spanish are committing horrific crimes against them. In this section there is an appeal to the Golden Rule. Then comes a rejection of the claim that the wars which are waged to subjugate the native peoples are just. Finally Las Casas says that his defence will contain two main topics.

Las Casas then begins his argument against Sepulveda and his followers. He says that now "as a sort of assault on the first argument for Sepulveda's position, we should recognize that there are four kinds of barbarians, according to Aristotle, St. Thomas and other doctors. Why is it that barbarians and kinds of barbarians are important? It is because Aristotle says that the Greeks regarded the non-Greeks (barbarians) as natural slaves. The question then becomes whether the natives of the Americas are of the same character, so that they too might be considered natural slaves. For the most part, the reading in our booklet supplies all that you need to know about Aristotle's theory of slavery. Nonethless, I have written a brief account of it.


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