restricted access Prologue
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Prologue THERE are several places in Hegel's works where he describes the Americas as an immature or impotent continent, or one that is in some other way "inferior" to the Old World. In expounding these passages the exegetes, even someone like Croce, even Ortega y Gasset, have looked on them as a typical aberration of Hegel's mind, a bizarre relic of his determination to enclose the infinite variety of the world within his scheme of triads. But in fact the thesis was adopted, not invented, by Hegel. And in its brief life-span it has reflected so many tendencies that it is perhaps not altogether idle to inquire into its varying fortunes. The pages that follow attempt to give a first broad outline of such an inquiry. Their beginning with Buffon results not so much from a desire to plunge the reader in medias res as from the fact that in his writings certain observations and judgments and prejudices that up until then had been expressed as curious revelations of distant lands in the descriptions of the early travelers and naturalists in the New World, or as polemic paradoxes and fables in the reports of the missionaries, in the utopias and myths of the noble or evil savage, for the first time assume coherent and scientific form; and particularly because only from Buffon onward does the thesis of the inferiority ofthe Americas have an uninterrupted history, a precise trajectory passing through de Pauw, touching its vertex with HegeJI and then proceeding on a long decline into the mutual recriminations and childish boasts, the brusque condemnations and confused panegyrics so common stilI in our own times. The ancient chroniclers of American nature, and in particular the greatest of them, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1526, 1535), had already commented carefully and perspicaciously on the many physical peculiarities of the New World and the many differences between the animals of America and those of Europe. But even when they noted certain relatively weak aspects, certain specific deficiencies in the I. Edmundo O·Gorman. "Trayectoria de America." in Fundamentos de la historia de America (Mexico. 1942). pp. 85-134. indicated in Buffon and de Pauw the sources of the Hegelian thesis. but without going into detail. and in fact indulging rather in apologetic considerations. xv xvi Prologue Americas, as did Father Acosta (1590), Antonio de Herrera (1601-15), and Father Cobo (1653), among others, they never reached the point of coordinating their observations in a general thesis of the inferiority of American nature (which in fact they admired and illustrated with loving devotion); nor even less did they conceive theories endowing it with a supposed "immaturity" or "degeneration," using concepts that suggested a development cut short when barely begun, or an exhaustion through old age. This Buffon did. And under the stimulus of this all-powerful fourfold influence-the strength of Buffon's authority; the formulation of such a dynamic and historicizing concept of nature; the merging of other timehallowed theories and pseudoscientific tendencies with this new evaluation of the men, the animals, the plants, and the very climate of America; and the maturing of a loftier and clearer self-awareness on the part of Europe simultaneously with the birth of an American patriotism and native pride-the polemic of America flared up on various levels, to burn on unquenched for several decades on both sides of the Atlantic. Its threads are mingled and twisted together and are of diverse hue, of varied thickness and length. There are some that go all the way back to Aristotle, and even beyond. But unravel them we must, if we are not to find ourselves caught once again in their tangled skein. From a more general point of view the history of this error has another claim on our interest. The facts on which the theories ofthe New World's inferiority were based were in many cases real. It is geologically true that America's mountain chains seem relatively recent and not yet completely mature. It is true that an unhealthy humidity prevails in many areas. It is true that the continent hosts a profusion of harmful insects, while lacking not only the great carnivores but many other larger animals. It is true that many of its peoples are beardless, others relatively weak, and yet others apparently incapable of civil progress. And it is true that certain species of animals were never successfully acclimatized there or else became sterile in the second generation. It is...