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MLN 118.2 (2003) 363-392

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The Traditional Cosmos and the New World

Joachim Küpper


Looking back to the beginnings of the development which brought about the Western model's rise to global dominance—and leaving all moral considerations aside—we cannot but pay our respects to our ancestors' achievements. In 1492 a world entered the Europeans' horizon which was new in every sense of the word, a world at least as vast as anything known until then, a world not even dreamed of, a world that was to shake the foundations of the standard model of the cosmos to its roots. If we did not know what actually happened afterwards and, thus, were our judgment not biased by our knowledge of subsequent events, we would tend to expect a reaction characterized by disorientation or even fearful retreat. Yet, what happened within no more than fifty years was this: the new continents were opened up and their inhabitants acculturated. The Aztecs and the Incas—two highly developed indigenous civilizations that were in a number of respects superior to that of the conquerors—were subjugated with surprisingly little effort.

Fashionable skepticism might answer the questions these events raise by simply pointing to the contingency of everything historical. If we remain, however, at a level of abstraction where we are still capable of observing and seeking explanations for concrete developments, we must assume that contemporary Europeans were somehow capable of an immediate understanding of the New World's novelties—regardless of the established notions shaken by the hitherto unknown. [End Page 363] Otherwise the Europeans could not have taken possession of the New World with such an unproblematizing attitude as evidenced by the unmediated display of primary instincts, most prominent amongst them the greed for gold. 1

I shall hardly be able to find a better explanation than the one suggested by Hegel and recently reaffirmed by Tzvetan Todorov, 2 which argues that it was monotheism and its ideological equivalent, universalism, that enabled the Europeans to mentally assimilate the New World in such a remarkably smooth manner. Yet, I shall try to put this theory into a new perspective and to supplement it by distinguishing various, and partly contradictory, steps within the process of assimilation.

For even before Pope Paul III declared the natives of the New World homines veri, 3 thus depriving them and their continent of their entirely novel quality, the conquerors reacted to the new situation differently from the conquered. The latter recoiled in shock when [End Page 364] confronted with what we rather cavalierly call an alien "race," to use a term from the nineteenth century. Their defeat largely resulted from the effects of irritation and from their application of interpretive frames that relegated the new to the realm of the supernatural. 4 As a first hypothesis, 5 one could assume that the systematic attempts that began in the thirties of the sixteenth century to make the New World commensurable to European thinking were preceded by an approach that I will call the conditioned effacement of concrete [End Page 365] materiality. 6 It was this approach that explains the "immediate understanding" we can extrapolate from what the conquerors actually did.

According to Thomistic doctrine, which was still authoritative at the time, the act of creation as described in Genesis constituted the forms of all beings (species) once and for all. 7 The principle of individuation is matter. 8 Hence, material diversity (determinata corporis complexio) is a feature of all given reality. As long as an individual being is subsumable, ex parte corporis, to some existing species, such diversity is irrelevant beyond the mere natura individui. 9 [End Page 366]

It seems to have been this view that was responsible for the fact that the appearance of individuals who were physically different, yet subsumable to the given species did not affect the concept of an unchangeable order of nature established with the act of creation. At this level at least, the discoveries did not undermine the traditional concept of the cosmos (unde non repugnat perfectioni universi [...] si deus quotidie novas animas...