Commentary on the Reading

This particular reading is interesting and not overly difficult. Nonetheless there are lessons to be learned from it about how philosophers read texts, and also about the material we are studying. One might think of reading as simply a process of running one's eyes over a series of pages. But one can do this without understanding much of what one has read! Some people read by picking out the parts of what they are reading which they agree with and ignoring the rest. They may take a highlighter and mark just those passages they agree with! If you read this way, it is hard to learn anything new, and it makes it hard to grasp what the person you are reading is really saying. You are, after all doing some serious editing! Philosophers tend to read analytically. That is, they break up the reading as a whole into its constituent parts and try to figure out how those parts fit together. What are the parts? Well, one way is to note that as philosophers we are particularly interested in the reasoning process which is going on in any particular text. What are the parts of a reaoning process? One way of getting at this is to look at Writing Philosophy Papers: A Student Guide If you look at the Table of Contents under "Basic Skills in Writing Philosophy" you will see such topics as identifying problems, defining concepts, analyzing arguments, giving examples, testing hypotheses and so on. Problems, definitions, arguments, examples, and hypotheses may all count as parts of the reasoning process going on in a text. What these parts are in this particular reading you will see as we go along.

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 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 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.

What are the two points which Las Casas says he will make?

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..." -- how many 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. 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 which you should read now -- Aristotle on slavery.

Las Casas distinguishes a number of different kinds of barbarians, so as to make it clear all the various senses in which someone can be called a barbarian, and to isolate that one sense of the word which Aristotle thinks justifies us in saying that someone is a natural slave. To do this he uses not only Aristotle, but a variety of sources beyond Aristotle. In the remainder of Chapter 1 you get the description of the first kind of barbarian.

Seeing the argument

Your first task is to read through Las Casas defense (all four chapters) and to list the kinds of barbarians which he distinguishes, and pick out the one kind which is supposed to be a legitimate candidate for natural slavery. List the properties which distinguish these kinds from one another. You should also list the examples which Las Casas gives of each type or kind, as there are some amusing ironies and pointed implications in the examples.

Make a table like the following one:

Distinguishing Properties
Type of BarbarianPage NumberExamples
Barbarians in the loose and broad sensePp. 28-30Cruel, inhumane, wild and merciless men acting against human reason out of anger or native disposition who becomes hard and merciless; is hard, unbeareable, cruel and plunges into crimes that only the wildest beasts of the forests would commit. These are reasonable men gone completly astray.The Spanish committing crimes against the Indians are the prime example of this kind of barbarian!
The second kind of barbarian are those who do not have a written languagePp. 30-32These are relative barbarians who can be wise, courageous, prudent and can lead a settled life. 
Barbarians...PP. 32-...  
Barbarian...Pp. ...  
(This is going to be a quick quiz. Which kind of barbarian is the barbarian in the strict and proper sense? Answer: The third kind.
What feature of this class of barbarians does Las Casas use as an argument to show that those who hold that the Indians are barbarians are "irreverant towards God, and contemptuous of nature"? Answer: "The rarity of this kind of barbarian

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:

  1. The Indians can be legitimately attacked and enslaved if and only if they are barbarians in the strict and proper sense specified by Aristotle.
  2. They are not barbarians in the strict and proper sense specified by Aristotle. _______________________________________________________________________
  3. 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.

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 this category. Summarize that argument.

In Chapter 3 Las Casas repeats the second argument which you summarized 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." Summarize this argument. Be sure to explain what role the Golden rule plays in this argument.