chapter  3
29 Pages

Thinking and Rethinking the Equality of the Other: Vitoria, Sepúlveda, and the True Barbarians

In this chapter, I set the context for Las Casas’s oft-heralded defense of the Indians by discussing two intellectual fi gures to whom he responded: Francisco de Vitoria and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Vitoria is well known as a defender of the sovereignty of the Indians and one of the fathers of international law. His defense of the Indians, however, is a form of civilizational discourse that off ers several ambiguous claims about the scope of their rights and the power to mold their identity imbued in the perceived moral superiority of the Spanish. As he contemplates the political plight of the Indians, Vitoria struggles with the tension between the radical alterity of the Indians whom he views as barbarians and his articulation of a version of universal rights. His solution to the tensions of modernity, as I will argue, is a version of rights that presupposes two levels of barbarians: those whose barbarism can be eff aced and those whose barbarism cannot. For the former, full membership in society via assimilation, or cultural othercide, is possible; for the latter, such equality is not possible, meaning a permanent just war and a position of inequality is warranted which could lead, though not necessarily, to physical othercide. The key questions for Vitoria were whether and to what extent the rights of the Indians could be violated to facilitate their assimilation and where to draw the line between civilization and barbarism that could not be eff aced.