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Las Casas

The Main Argument

One way of looking at the parts of an article or chapters of a book, is to ask what the author's chief purpose is. In this case one might say that Las Casas' chief purpose is to argue against the legitimacy of the wars of conquest and resulting enslavement of the native populations of the Americas. In doing this he is responding to Sepulveda's arguments. Probably the most important of Sepulveda's arguments is based on the Aristotelian theory of natural slavery. If the native peoples fit the characteristics of the natural slave and the Spanish the characteristics of natural masters, then the Indians can be hunted down like wild animals and compelled to accept Christianity. Barbarians of a certain kind are natural slaves. So, Las Casas sets out to pinpoint exactly the nature of the barbarians who are natural slaves. He does this be defining various senses in which people can be called barbarians. This is why you were asked to make the table and determine what these characteristics are. Having stated the nature of barbarians in the strict and proper sense, those who are properly natural slaves, he goes on to give a variety of reasons why the Indians do not belong to this class.

In its simplest form, all details removed, Las Casas' argument might be reconstructed like this:

P1. The Indians can be legitimately attacked and enslaved if and only if they are barbarians in the strict and proper sense specified by Aristotle.
P2. They are not barbarians in the strict and proper sense specified by Aristotle.
Cl. So, they cannot be legitimately attacked and enslaved.

From the point of view of logic, this is a perfectly good argument. You can see why it becomes important to define exactly what barbarians in the strict and proper sense are, and how important is the evidence which shows that the Indians are not barbarians in this sense. The really crucial parts of this argument are to be found on Pp. 32-3 where barbarians in the strict and proper sense are defined, and the bottom of Pg. 33 through Pg. 38 where we get the argument that barbarians of this kind are rare (while the Indians are numerous), and Pg. 44 where Las Casas shows that the Indians are not the kind of barbarians described on Pp. 32-3 in that they govern themselves, partake of the arts and commerce etc.

The argument from rarity

There is an additional argument (Chapters 2 and 3) which goes to show that it is impossible for a whole continent of people to fall into the category of natural slaves or barbarians in the strict and proper sense. Here is a summary of that argument. I am giving you this summary as an example. Later you will be asked to summarize arguments in a similar way. So, you should read the passage and examine the summary carefully.

Summary of the Argument from Rarity

The works of nature are the works of God, the Supreme Intellect, who is all poweful and good. So, nature, for the most part, brings forth what is best and perfect. Thus, every creature brings forth what is like itself, and is of the same species. God provides for and guides a rational nature for its own sake and in a way which is superior to other creatures, not only in regard to the species but individuals as well. Man partakes of a rational nature, all men recognize first principles. So, it would be impossible to find in a rational nature, that is one that does not fit the common notion of man, such a freak or mistake of nature, except very rarely and in far fewer instances than other creatures. Barbarians of the third kind -- those in the strict and proper sense -- are freaks or mistakes of nature. They are savage, lawless and unsociable because of an evil disposition and are the worst of men. Barbarians of this kind (or better, wild men) are rarely found in any part of the world and are few in number when compared with the rest of mankind. (Aristotle Ethics, Book VII). Anyone who, dares to write that countless numbers of natives (they completly outnumber all other men) accross the ocean are barbarous, savage, uncivilized and slow witted, is irreverant towards God, and contemptuous of nature.

In Chapter 3 Las Casas repeats the second argument which I just summarized for you and then gives another argument against Aristotle's claim that "it is lawful to hunt or catch barbarians of this type like wild beasts so that they might be led to the right way of life." In the activity section for this unit you will be asked to summarize this argument and to post your piece on the Las Casas Forum. Be sure to explain what role the Golden Rule plays in this argument.


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