Analyzing the Connections between Aristotle, Aquinas, and Christopher Columbus
History teaches that if someone is going to abuse or even enslave you in your own home, they better have a damn well argued reason for it. Perhaps the most commonly accepted philosophy in defense of Europeans seizing land from Native Americans is found in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.
This piece introduces the formulation that something becomes a person’s private property when they “mix their labor” with it. Loosely interpreting this doctrine, settlers were justified in snatching the land of Native Americans since (in the colonists’ eyes) the land hadn’t truly been “labored” upon until it was subjected to European farming techniques. While reading The Four Voyages,
I couldn’t help but see similarities to the works of another philosopher: Thomas Aquinas. While I’m sure that Aquinas would’ve condemned many of the actions of Columbus and his cohorts, I have to admit that I might’ve called up the works of the good saint for moral justification had I been an enterprising missionary in that fateful year of 1492.
To understand Aquinas’s writing we first look to Aristotle. In his Physics
Aristotle lays out the basis of his thought (paraphrasing considerably): “All things go towards their good.” For instance, a puppy’s “good” would be growing up into a healthy and prolific dog. Since humans are the only beings with an intellect, their “good” is to contemplate the order of the cosmos. Being a Pagan, Aristotle would often refer to this inherent order that he saw in the universe as “God,” yet it is important to note that he did not believe in a God who was outside of or separate from the world.
Aquinas loved Aristotle; he probably spent most of his spare time writing newsletters for the Aristotle fan club. Aquinas’s brilliance is seen in his ability to wrap a Pagan doctrine in a Judeo-Christian package. In his Summa Theologica,
Aquinas agrees with Aristotle (addressing him as “The Philosopher”) that the highest human good is to know the order of the cosmos, or in other words, to know God. Now Aquinas has gotten himself in a pickle, because the “God” he is writing about is the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures; a God who consciously chose
to create the world as opposed to the Pagan conception of “God” as an eternal principle of order. Here is Aquinas’s reconciliation: God, in order to pursue his
highest good, had no choice but to create this world so that he could broadcast his eternal love upon more lowly beings. Therefore it is man’s greatest purpose to know God and this love, and the man who is already familiar with it has a responsibility to, like God, broadcast it down to more lowly beings. Evangelizing takes on a tone of not just necessity, but godliness.
This explanation of creation and humanity’s ultimate good seems to mesh well with the sympathies found in The Four Voyages.
Early on, the narrator writes that King Ferdinand valued converted souls more than treasure. Throughout the account Columbus believes that the Native Americans will be easily converted to Christianity. Could this stem from a belief that the natural “good” of humankind is to know the Christian God? The Christian Gospels have widely been acknowledged of texts expounding pacifism and the virtue of the poor but the adverse effects of their manipulation can be seen in Columbus’s imperialist outlook.