Savages, philosophers and colonialism

Part 1



Exploration and colonization of the American continent by the Europeans started in the Sixteenth Century and was ultimately halted within the tail end of the Nineteenth, with the expansion of USA territory towards the west. At the same time of such an immense movement of humans and resources, European powers chose to operate in other directions as well. Insofar as a lack of innovation and progress in science and technology (at least by European standards at the time) was perceived in the native cultures of the soon to be colonies by European observers, the idea of their inferiority to their European counterparts took hold. The concept of European superiority sprout forth the necessity to educate and civilize the savages. How philosophers reacted to the existence of a brave new world and how they thought the so-called “savages” is the topic we’ll be tackling. The idea of analyzing the whole of philosophical works from the discovery of the American continent right up to the end of the Nineteenth Century would likely prove somewhat difficult, though; we will as such concentrate on just some of those who discussed the matter at hand, namely Gianbattista Vico (Naples, June 23th 1668 - Naples, January 23th 1744), Jean Jacques Rousseau (Geneva, June 28th 1712 - Ermenonville, July 2nd 1778) and Denis Diderot (Langres, October 5th 1713 - Paris, July 31th 1784), by means of some specific texts, making the overall endeavor much more manageable and simple. The objective would be to grasp a viewpoint on the colonists (and the act of colonizing in itself) somewhat different from the one commonly accepted, a safe harbor of sorts to evade the maelstrom of cultural mainstream of the time.


In order to keep things as linear as possible, we will be starting off with the first by birth; our first stop will then be Principi di scienza nuova (Milano, Oscar Mondadori, 2011, VII edition) by Vico. What we are mostly interested within such a text are two things: the idea of history as a variable perspective, changing depending from the viewpoint one looks from (meaning that different people may date the same phenomena at different points throughout time), and the principle of ebbs and flows history seem to move through and be subjected to. The presence of these first two concepts will allow us to establish a framework of sorts within which we can move throughout the analysis of the other texts we will study (and that, on some ideal level at least, would allow us to explore a point of view different from the already mentioned cultural mainstream that demanded non-Europeans be just savages).


Vico’s objective in Principi di scienza nuova is to come to know peoples past, present and (within reasonable limits) future. What interests us is that the opening section of such a text presents a comparative history of various and different peoples, selecting events of particular interest and relevance and organizing them within a single framework, removing (partially, at least) the elusiveness of the subject we are interested in studying. This kind of chronological frame analyzes a span of years starting with the Great Flood presented in the Bible and ending with the Second Punic War. Here Vico introduces an interesting idea: that not every single people has reached the same level of development (with particular attention placed, as far as we are concerned, to European and Native-American development) at the same time is not accounted as a consequence of different states of being or natures (a position that would have been easily exploitable in order to postulate the superiority of one kind of humanity on the others) but rather as a result of the fact that not every “story” of any particular people started in the exact same moment. Such histories, Vico states, is divided in three different stages: what he calls età degli dei (literally “age of the gods”), età degli eroi (“age of heroes”) and a chronologically final stage called età degli uomini (“age of mankind”) (Principi di scienza nuova, p. 72). Vico’s hypothesis at this stage is that history can only be known once it has happened, a posteriori: it would be impossible to know history “in real time” because the very act of narrating events would necessitate such events being over. Looking back at the first two ages of history, we can only grasp minor clues of what happened. That would be a consequence of the many different lines of thought countering each other within the clues at our disposal: that pertaining to who produced the testimony for sure, but also all of the interpretations projected upon it in times successively. In order to kickstart the age of gods a particular theoretical event would have been necessary, Vico states, one capable of terrorizing a barbaric humanity closed out into a state of continuous conflict with itself: lightning (Principi di scienza nuova, p. 377). Through fear of lightning seen as divine retribution, humankind was forced progressively outside of its primeval condition by means of formulating the ideas of divine providence, religion, divination, the progressive abandonment of a nomadic condition (which would in turn help developing the idea of property) and the beginning of entombment of the dead as a mean for certain groups to claim different patches of land. The phenomenon of lightning, would not interest the whole of humankind at the same time but would have been witnessed by various maniples in different moments and scattered spaces: the process of making the “barbarian” humanity human would not start for everyone at the same time. Once abandoned the age of gods and entered into that of heroes, those first humans begun disciplining nature; families originally bonded only by blood gave way to larger units and only at a later moment, via conflicts with other and still feral humans, to the progressively larger society others will be welcomed: those savages that would submit to the new order in the name of common survival and utility. It will be their own nature and their own presence that will enable humanity to move further again, by means of revolt that would press various clans into the first of the republics and cities as a way for those regarded as nobles to maintain their own privilege and keep the lower classes in check by means of granting them further rights and options in a dialectic process that would push boundaries always further.


That all being said, it is still possible to add something: those native populations with which explorers first established contact were not a different human kind, inferior to Europeans in such or such other aspect, but rather a microcosm that remained “behind” (in a manner of speaking) when compared with those that encountered and observed it. While keeping under scrutiny ebbs and flows Vico took so at heart, American natives offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to their would-be colonist: to gaze through a window in time and experience not the development of something completely other than themselves but rather to witness another civilization take some of the steps their ancestors themselves had in the past taken. The only possible advantage western civilization had, then, would have been that its founders entered history “proper” before other human groups and (as such) progressed forward than most.

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