Aristotle And Pandora


So it went, and so the people of Europe adapted themselves to the idea that other races were somehow set aside by nature to be subject folk. It was a very reassuring notion indeed, for those who believed themselves to be on top of the heap, and the idea took hold and grew. Las Casas might go on insisting that “all the peoples of the world are men” and that men have natural rights which cannot be overborne; the infinite weight of the people who could wax rich and prosperous by following Aristotle was too great for him, and one of the great tragedies of world history was the fact that just as the white Europeans entered on a period of closer and closer contact with nonwhite races, they developed a powerful conviction of their own innate superiority. You can justify any imaginable oppression or injustice if you can first demonstrate that the people you are oppressing were ordained by natural law to be your servants. The records of the Nuremberg trials contain hair-raising testimony about the things men will feel free to do when they follow Aristotle’s theory.

So the controversy of the 1550’s still goes on, and we have not left Aristotle behind us. There may, however, be a way out, which Las Casas probably would have understood. Professor Hanke quotes the Mexican José Vasconcelos, who was asked how he proposed to solve the Indian problem; had he considered the means by which the Indians should be educated? Vasconcelos replied: “No—we are simply going to treat them like human beings, with Christian principles.”