In his seminal 16th century work In Defense of the Indians, Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas argues vehemently against Spain’s conquest of the Indians. However, closer scrutiny of the text proves perplexing. While Las Casas clearly opposes the coercive subjugation of the Indians, he also affirms his belief in a “natural order” in which imperfect beings yield to perfect ones. Yet the philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argues against Las Casas, justifies his arguments in favour of Spanish imperialism on the basis of this same “natural order.” Consequently, both of Las Casas’ perspectives seem to be mutually exclusive, throwing into serious question the credibility of his voice and the validity of his opposition to Spanish imperialism. This paper explores this tension. It will also seek to resolve the apparent contradiction in Las Casas’ views, arguing that he demonstrates the full compatibility of his views by clarifying, in three senses, what it means for the imperfect to yield to the perfect.
It is quite necessary to first explore the ostensible contradiction in Las Casas’ views. On one hand, he explicitly condemns Spain’s war against the Indians. He denounces proponents of war as “ferocious executioner[s]” and, more gravely, “son[s] of Satan, not…God” (Las Casas 40). He objects to warfare on the basis of God’s own nature and will and the orderliness of His design, which would not admit perpetual war (43, 47-48). On the other hand, his firm subscription to the existence of a natural order (48) seems to commit him to the view that war can be justified. For he acknowledges that under this order, the less perfect should “yield naturally to the more perfect” (48); those lacking fundamental intellectual capabilities (35) “ought to be ruled by others” so that they might adopt a civilized way of life (38). Indeed, it is on these very premises that Sepúlveda asserts that “barbaric” peoples are “held by natural law to submit to [those] wiser and superior” (11) and justifies Spain’s forceful subjugation of the Indians. How, then, can both of Las Casas’ views square?
More careful examination of Las Casas’ conception of this natural order reveals that the contradiction is but superficial. Firstly, Las Casas heatedly disputes Sepúlveda’s presumption that the Indians are barbaric (thus ‘inferior’) and consequently required by the natural law to submit to the ‘superior’ Spanish (31, 42). He points out that the Indians have well-regulated and organized states (42), are artistically skilful (44), and are hardly “ignorant, inhuman, or bestial” (42; cf. 44) barbarians. Their readiness to respect and accept Christianity (44) reveals that God must have “predestined [some] to become… glorious” (39), attesting to their inherent worth in God’s sight. Only in terms of lacking a written language (30) might they qualify as barbaric, but even so, they would be considered barbarians “not… literally but by circumstance” (31). By refuting Spain’s condescending classification of the Indians as barbaric, Las Casas demonstrates the irrelevance of the natural law principle—that the imperfect should yield to the perfect—to the Indian case, thus preventing a contradiction between his opposition to subjugation and belief in a natural order.
From excluding the Indian case from the application of the natural law, Las Casas goes on to inspect the very nature of the natural law. He points out that the natural order prescribes, but does not coerce (as Spain does). Though men may be “obliged by the natural law,” they cannot be “forced… against their will” (46) to obey. The natural law provides no enforcement mechanism, and certainly does not condone the mechanisms of wars or slavery (46). Only “gentle,” “loving” persuasion which organically draws the Indians to a better way of life is desirable and justly permissible (39). He also cites common examples of how the natural law binds, but never forces people to accept it: people are bound under natural law to return favours (46) and to do good (49), but are not punished for non-compliance. His observation that the natural law merely prescribes implies that his subscription to it and his disagreement with coerced subjection are, in fact, in full agreement.
Las Casas digs even deeper and considers the internal reasoning of the natural law’s demand that the imperfect should submit to the perfect. He protests Spain’s rule by clarifying the boundaries within which such a demand holds true. He critically notes that both must inhere in the same entity. For example, “sense” submits to “reason” and “body” to “soul” when they “exist in the same subject” (48). Likewise, within one society, it can be lawful to force “the unwise… to submit themselves… to the wiser who governs” (48). But such coercion is only lawful when people and state constitute “one… political community” (48). Coercion is not lawful when an external party insists that a “free people” submit to it, even if it presumes its rule to be beneficial (48). Additionally, within any entity, the imperfect submits to the perfect only for the “preservation and welfare” of the whole entity, not just the rulers’ (48). Nor does submission indicate the superiority of the wiser’s essential worth: it only evinces their “inborn talent for governing” (48). In this way, Las Casas delimits when subjugation might be in natural order. Since the Spanish-Indian case clearly falls outside the boundaries of acceptable coercion, his affirmation of the natural law does not contradict his anti-imperialism.
Hence, although Las Casas’ profession of the natural law may ostensibly contradict his vigorous opposition to imperialism, closer scrutiny of his arguments rules out apparent disorder. By clarifying notions of barbarianism, noting the non-coercive nature of the natural law, and delineating its boundaries, Las Casas skilfully dissipates any tension between his firmly-held persuasions.
Las Casas, Bartolomé de. In Defense of the Indians. Trans. Stafford Poole. DeKalb:
Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.