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Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 312-315

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The Uncertainties of Empire: Essays in Iberian and Ibero-American Intellectual History. By Anthony Pagden. London: Variorum, 1994. Pp. xvi + 280. $87.50.

The Uncertainties of Empire, comprising sixteen articles spanning three centuries, offers a comprehensive view of Anthony Pagden's noteworthy contribution to the intellectual history of Spain and colonial America. Pagden's concise and thoughtful preface identifies two important shortcomings in previous and current works on Latin American intellectual history: the frequent assumption that the impact of European colonization in America is a "perennial question," and the tendency to isolate cultural phenomena in the colonies from social and ideological developments in the metropolis. The assimilation of the colonization of America by the Spaniards to other forms of colonialism has not further contributed to our understanding of the evolution of Latin American societies. On the contrary, by projecting back upon the colonial experience of the sixteenth century many of the features that belong to a later period, it has often distorted the uniqueness of Spanish colonial reality. Through careful attention to the language [End Page 312] that informed the debates about the legitimacy of the Spanish presence in America as well as the political ideas elaborated by criollos and peninsular Spaniards in the eighteenth century, Pagden provides a compelling account of the tensions and continuities that marked the relationship between Spain and its colonies.1

The two opening articles present a penetrating analysis of the popular diffusion of Aristotle's moral philosophy in Spain. This is a phenomenon essential to an understanding of a tradition that furnished the conceptual tools for the controversy about the legitimacy of Spain over American territories as well as for the debates about the status of the Amerindians. Pagden traces the diffusion of Aristotle's moral treatises in the vernacular from the fifteenth century to its progressive decline in the early sixteenth century, noting how these versions with their emphasis on practical virtue over abstract speculation appealed to the nobility. This popular tradition was replaced by a new type of moral literature rooted in the Catholic reform and the Erasmian movement. Under the influence of humanism, Aristotle's moral doctrine moved into Castilian universities, especially Salamanca, where Francisco de Vitoria led the renewal of Thomism, a project carried on by his disciples. This latter strand of Aristotelianism, with the Politics as its center, proved instrumental in the conceptualization of the nature and status of the Amerindians. I would add that the popular tradition of Aristotle's moral thought was very much alive in the writings of missionaries and civilians occupied with the conversion and governance of the Indians.

Three essays touch upon the concept of ius naturae (natural law). Pagden sees in this concept, as elaborated by the school of Salamanca, a key to interpret the "philosophical conservatism" that allowed Spain to resist the challenges to the authority of tradition posed by the "new philosophy." Pagden recognizes the intellectual power demonstrated by theologians such as Vitoria in addressing a wide range of issues related to the status of Indian subjects within the framework of natural law. However, his assertion that this principle sanctions as natural only the set of values and institutions identified with European civil society seems too narrow a characterization. Beyond the restricted theological domain, as seen in the writings of missionaries and civilians in Peru and Mexico, this concept helped to establish a basic level of equality that allowed the observers of Native Americans to identify sameness [End Page 313] without losing sight of the diversity of their particular practices and social experiences, which were recognized in their own right. A piece on cannibalism offers a concrete example of how Vitoria and José de Acosta interpreted this practice in the light of ius naturae, an interpretation that led them to characterize Indian societies as deficient and therefore in need of tutelage. Another essay takes up in a wider context the use of cannibalism in Europe.

In the eighteenth century the hegemony of scholasticism and the idea...


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