chapter  2
16 Pages

Locating the Other in the Political Debates of Early Modernity

In this chapter, I lay the context for the European encounter with the Other of the New World in 1492 and the debates about the equality of the Indians that ensued. I begin by discussing the shock eff ect of the Discovery, focusing on how the initial reaction to the Indians was one of marvel and curiosity. These emotions, however, quickly gave way to attempts to understand and categorize them within a circumscribed European philosophy. Because the Indians’ customs were perceived as strange, they were commonly viewed as barbarians, a term which connoted inferiority. To contextualize the intellectual distance traveled by Spanish thinkers, I briefl y discuss the Portuguese expansion to show how the Portuguese crown turned to theological precedents from the Middle Ages-the ius ecclesia or belief that the pope had spiritual and temporal dominium over the world-to justify their conquests. In Spain, this view was also used to justify the conquests, along with the view that the Indians were the equivalent of the Aristotelian natural slave. Both of these frameworks delimit the Other as morally and politically unequal compared to Christians, a framework that was challenged in important ways by Vitoria and Las Casas during the Aff air of the Indies. To contextualize the Spanish further, I briefl y consider Montaigne who, moved by marvel and curious about the Other, reminds us that an alternative modernity can be possible, at least on an individual level, but forces us to consider what it means that the Discovery, conquest, and subsequent political defense of the Indians fell to the Spanish. For Montaigne, the Spanish were anything but curious about the identity of the Indians; rather, they were largely presumptuous and interested in furthering their own interests and converting the Indians.