«MLN 363 The Traditional Cosmos and the New World ❦ Joachim Küpper I Looking back to the beginnings of the development which brought about the ...»
The Traditional Cosmos
and the New World
Looking back to the beginnings of the development which brought
about the Western model’s rise to global dominance—and leaving all
moral considerations aside—we cannot but pay our respects to our
ancestors’ achievements. In 1492 a world entered the Europeans’
horizon which was new in every sense of the word, a world at least as
vast as anything known until then, a world not even dreamed of, a world that was to shake the foundations of the standard model of the cosmos to its roots. If we did not know what actually happened afterwards and, thus, were our judgment not biased by our knowledge of subsequent events, we would tend to expect a reaction characterized by disorientation or even fearful retreat. Yet, what happened within no more than ﬁfty years was this: the new continents were opened up and their inhabitants acculturated. The Aztecs and the Incas—two highly developed indigenous civilizations that were in a number of respects superior to that of the conquerors—were subjugated with surprisingly little effort.
Fashionable skepticism might answer the questions these events raise by simply pointing to the contingency of everything historical. If we remain, however, at a level of abstraction where we are still capable of observing and seeking explanations for concrete developments, we must assume that contemporary Europeans were somehow capable of an immediate understanding of the New World’s novelties—regardless of the established notions shaken by the hitherto unknown.
MLN 118 (2003): 363–392 © 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 364 JOACHIM KÜPPER Otherwise the Europeans could not have taken possession of the New World with such an unproblematizing attitude as evidenced by the unmediated display of primary instincts, most prominent amongst them the greed for gold.1 I shall hardly be able to ﬁnd a better explanation than the one suggested by Hegel and recently reafﬁrmed by Tzvetan Todorov,2 which argues that it was monotheism and its ideological equivalent, universalism, that enabled the Europeans to mentally assimilate the New World in such a remarkably smooth manner. Yet, I shall try to put this theory into a new perspective and to supplement it by distinguishing various, and partly contradictory, steps within the process of assimilation.
For even before Pope Paul III declared the natives of the New World homines veri,3 thus depriving them and their continent of their entirely novel quality, the conquerors reacted to the new situation differently from the conquered. The latter recoiled in shock when From the very earliestreports onwards, even in that by Columbus himself, this greed is expressed with great frankness “[...] por donde espero que Su Magestad [i. e.
Nuestro Señor] [a] de dar a V. A. tanto oro como abrán menester” (Carta a los Reyes anunciando el Descubrimiento [4. 3. 1493], in Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, ed. Consuelo Varela [Madrid: Alianza, 1992] 227–35, 232). In his report on the conquest of the Inca empire Gonzálo Fernández de Oviedo quite casually names it as the conquerors’ main motivation (“para hacer hacienda”), which shows to which extent the New World was taken as a mere extension of the Old, where wars, in those times, tended to be no more than ill-disguised raids (Historia general y natural de las Indias , ed. Juan Perez de Tudela Buesco, Biblioteca de autores españoles, 5 vols.
[Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1959] 5: 32; see also 5: 33). A few decades later, especially with Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, this aspect became a standard element of the “leyendra negra.” But it did not acquire this prominence before—for reasons I shall explain below—the speciﬁcally novel of the New World became problematic and, therefore, had to be dealt with by annihilating its difference through Christianization.
As soon as the conquerors claim their missionary activity to be their principal motivation for the subjugation of the Americas—a motivation that has both a subjective, i. e. Spanish, and an objective, i. e. divine side—the more material aspects of the conquest become open to censure.
La Conquête de L’Amérique: La question de l’autre (Paris: Seuil, 1982). Apart from the point mentioned, Todorov foregrounds the Europeans’ superiority in terms of their cultural media. Their deployment of literacy provided the conquerors with far more complex forms of negotiating the difference between Self and Other than were available to illiterate (mythical, cyclical) communities (see esp. 165).
With respect to the bull Sublimis Deus (1537) see Lewis Hanke: “Pope Paul III and the American Indians,” Harvard Theological Review 30 (1937): 65–102. What is reﬂected in the bull is not some sort of “progressiveness,” but rather an inevitable consequence of a dogmatically ﬁxed concept of the created, from which, for reasons of principle, one was not willing to distance oneself (see our following notes, esp. the quotes from Thomas Aquinas).
MLN 365 confronted with what we rather cavalierly call an alien “race,” to use a term from the nineteenth century. Their defeat largely resulted from the effects of irritation and from their application of interpretive frames that relegated the new to the realm of the supernatural.4 As a ﬁrst hypothesis,5 one could assume that the systematic attempts that began in the thirties of the sixteenth century to make the New World commensurable to European thinking were preceded by an approach that I will call the conditioned effacement of concrete Cf. Hernán Cortes’s report on the speech with which Moctezuma welcomed the Spaniards and the one with which the Aztec ruler demanded that his vassals, like him, submit to the invaders (Carta segunda, enviada a Su Sacra Majestad del Emperador Nuestro Señor , Historiadores primitivos de Indias, ed. Enrique de Vedia, Biblioteca de autores españoles, vol. 1 [Madrid: Real Academia Espagñola, 1946] 12–52, esp. 25 and 30).
Referring to the natives, Columbus had already stated in his Carta a los Reyes anunciando el Descubrimiento: “[...] creyeron y creen que yo con estos navíos y gente venía del çielo” (230). Polytheism does permit the concept of a plurality of worlds, as our own classical tradition shows. Thus, a polytheistic model of the world may initially be capable of reacting to the new with greater ﬂexibility. But the emergence of new people always implies the emergence of new gods. Since polytheistic models favor anthropomorphic power hierarchies among their gods, the relationship between the old gods and the new is undecided at the outset of cultural contact, while for a community venerating the one and only god the issue of superiority is clear from the start. From a polytheistic point of view, theoretically, a complete change both of the celestial and the terrestrial power hierarchies (world models) is possible at any time, but a Christian perspective absolutely precludes such changes. This is illustrated by the different ways Aztecs and Spaniards reacted to the defeats they suffered during the conquest. Moctezuma, on the one hand, believed that his lack of success was due to the fact that the Spaniards were representatives of more powerful gods or even that they were gods themselves. The Spaniards, on the other, never doubted the existence of only one god who had sent them, and considered failures as temporary. They took them as stimuli for making greater efforts in order to reach the telos which they believed to be immovably ﬁxed.
One may call this particular feature of monotheism either a lesser degree of ﬂexibility or a greater degree of forcefulness. Even such a circumspect and self-reﬂexive thinker as Montaigne does not realize the disproportion mentioned above when in Des coches he explains the defeat of the Indios (whose side he takes [cf. infra, n. 28]) with their confusion at the sight of the absolutely new, but does not ask himself, what prevented the Europeans from reacting in the same way, who were, after all, basically in the same situation as the Indios (“Car, pour ceux qui les ont subjuguez, qu’ils ostent les ruses et batelages dequoy ils se sont servis à les piper, et le juste estonnement qu’aportoit à ces nations là de voir arriver si inopinéement des gens barbus, divers en langage, religions, en forme et en contenance, d’un endroict du monde si esloigné et où ils n’avoyent jamais imaginé qu’il y eust habitation quelconque [...] des peuples surpris [...] par la curiosité de veoir des choses estrangeres et incogneuses: contez [sic], dis-je, aux conquerans cette disparité, vous leur ostez toute l’occasion de tant de victoires.” [Des coches, Essais 3: 6, Œuvres complètes de Montaigne, ed. Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1962) 876–94, 887 sq.]) This can be no more than a hypothesis since there is no way that the lack of surprise vis à vis the Other, the foreign or the new manifests itself textually.
366 JOACHIM KÜPPER materiality.6 It was this approach that explains the “immediate understanding” we can extrapolate from what the conquerors actually did.
According to Thomistic doctrine, which was still authoritative at the time, the act of creation as described in Genesis constituted the forms of all beings (species) once and for all.7 The principle of individuation is matter.8 Hence, material diversity (determinata corporis complexio) is a feature of all given reality. As long as an individual being is subsumable, ex parte corporis, to some existing species, such diversity is irrelevant beyond the mere natura individui.9 The basis of this concept is Platonic dualism which regards matter as of lesser value.
A position that valorized the material, yet at the same time assigned lesser importance or even irrelevance to its individual manifestations is, perhaps, only possible within that hybrid fusion of monotheistic creationism and Platonism which we have come to call “Christian doctrine.” Thomas Aquinas, who developed the traditional Christian concept of the cosmos in its clearest form, refers to Platonic dualism, but does not accept Plato’s thesis according to which the species rerum have an existence separate from the given individuals (Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 29, ar. 2, ra. 3 and 4).
“[...] universi enim perfectio attenditur quantum ad species, non autem quantum ad individua [...] unde non repugnat perfectioni universi si animae de novo creentur.
[...] Simul enim dicitur, Gen 1, quod deus [...] requievit ab omni opere quod patrarat.
Sicut ergo consummatio sive perfectio creaturarum secundum species consideratur et non secundum individua, ita quies dei est intelligenda secundum cessationem a novis speciebus condendis: non autem a novis individuis, quorum similia secundum speciem praecesserunt. Et sic, cum omnes animae humanae sint unius speciei sicut et omnes homines, non repugnat praedictae quieti si deus quotidie novas animas creat” (Summa contra gentiles lb. 2, cp. 84, n. 5 and 6).
What I have said above and what is going to follow applies only to what can be grasped by sense perception and not, as far as human beings are concerned, to the soul. (“Ad tertium dicendum quod diversitas naturalium aliter est in angelis, qui differunt specie; et aliter in hominibus, qui differunt solo numero. Differentia enim secundum speciem est propter ﬁnem, sed differentia secundum numerum est propter materiam”. [Summa theologiae Ia, q. 62, ar. 6, ra. 3]. “[...] materia enim est principium individuationis formarum [...]” [Summa theologiae Ia, q. 75, ar. 5, co.]).