Aristotle and the American Indians–A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World

Feb 15th, 1997 | By | Category: 8-4: Racism, Media Reviews
Lewis Hanke, Indiana University Press, 1959
Review by Chip Clark

This painstakingly researched small volume recounts the Spaniards’ dealings with the people they encountered in the New World. The events that Lewis Hanke describes surround a formal debate in Spain during 1550 and 1551. On one side the scholar Juan Gines de Sepulveda argued for Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery: “that one part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of masters born for a life of virtue free of manual labor.” Sepulveda argued that the Indians of the New World were obviously natural slaves. The Spanish explorers, missionaries, and conquistadors should therefore use all means possible to subdue and enslave the Indians, he said. No form of brutality was inappropriate.

Sepulveda’s opponent was a priest who had spent nearly 50 years in the Americas. Father Bartholome de Las Casas not only rejected the Aristotelian doctrine of natural slavery. He argued eloquently that the Indians of the Americas were people of language, culture, and sensible government who should be treated with respect and only brought to Catholicism and Spanish citizenship through education and peaceful persuasion. He deplored the violence perpetrated against them and their enslavement.

A panel of judges failed to reach consensus about the winner of the debate, and the question lingered until 1573 when Spain enacted laws favoring Las Casas’s point of view. However, the distance between the Spanish court and the New World resulted in continued brutality against the Indians and continued slavery.

As we struggle with racism in America today, I am struck by the continued presence of both participants in the debate. While slavery is not legal here today, other voices echo Sepulveda’s assumptions of the inferior nature of people who are different‑-and the legitimacy of their exploitation. Las Casas’s fervent beliefs also live today–all peoples are alike in some fundamental ways, and difference does not warrant brutality.

Another disagreement between Sepulveda and Las Casas is more subtle. Las Casas learned from the Indians he knew. Sepulveda believed that nothing could be learned from them. This seems to be at the heart of racism: the belief that people who are different offer nothing of value except through physical exploitation. The Spaniards actually learned a great deal from the Indians. Wherever different peoples mingle peacefully, much mutually beneficial learning occurs. Perhaps believing in the possibility of learning, seeking ways to promote it, is the best antidote to racism. It is interesting to note that the mission of Las Casas was located in what is now Chiapas, Mexico.

From my perspective, the attitude of the following Indians of the Americas is strikingly similar to Las Casas’. Chief Joseph: “All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it…I believe much trouble and blood would be saved if we opened our hearts more to one another.” Sitting Bull: “Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.” (Citations are from Native American Wisdom by Nerburn and Mengelkoch, 1991.)

Chip Clark is a consultant in Mancos, Colorado.

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