Sepúlveda, Juan Ginés De (1490?–1574)

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SEPÚLVEDA, JUAN GINÉS DE (1490?1574), Spanish humanist scholar and philosopher. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was a distinguished university professor possessed of a mastery of Latin style. In 1515 he moved from Córdoba to Italy, where he was accepted into the Spanish College in Bologna. Working under the direction of the eminent Pietro Pomponazzi (14621525), Sepúlveda developed into one of the leading scholars in Italy. By 1526 he had become the official translator of Aristotle's writings for the papal court. During his twenty years in Italy he worked to recover the "true" Aristotle. He compiled and published in Paris a Latin translation of the Politics that for centuries was an indispensable work. Upon his return to Spain he translated Aristotle's Ethics into Castilian for the Habsburg Monarchy.

In 1542 the king of Spain, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (ruled 15191556), signed the "New Laws," which prohibited the enslavement of Indians. The king ordered in 1550 that conquests in his name cease until the Council of the Indies should decide upon the justness of Spain's conduct. Sepúlveda's opinions were solicited by the president of the Council of the Indies. Sepúlveda was an ardent nationalist, much impressed by his compatriots' conquests in the Americas described in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's (14781557) writings, which belittle aboriginal peoples. Never having visited the territories under question or having met a native, Sepúlveda had no personal or fiscal stake in his theoretical arguments.

Sepúlveda produced Democrates Alter sive de justicis beli causis apud Indios (Concerning the just cause of the war against the Indians; first published in Latin 1545 with a Spanish apology published in 1550 and the definitive version finally published in 1554). In this dialogue, Demócrates, a spokesman for the author, convinces Leopoldo, a German with Lutheran tendencies, that war against Indians is the just and necessary preliminary to their conversion. Sepúlveda's request that the Latin manuscript be published was denied, and the university faculties of Alcalá and Salamanca also recommended against granting permission. A committee of government officials, scholars, and theologians was formed in response to Sepúlveda's insistence that there be a debate over the merits of his argument. The committee's deliberations at Valladolid began in 1550 and reconvened the following year.

To Sepúlveda the Spanish were obviously champions of an advanced civilization. He believed that hierarchy, not equality, was the natural condition of human society. This argument mirrors Aristotle, who maintained, rather inconsistently, that some humans are by nature slaves and others masters. Natural slaves are persons of inborn rudeness and inhuman and barbarous customs, and those who exceed them in prudence and talent, even if physically inferior, are their natural lords. Sepúlveda's variant is: "If you know the customs and nature of the two peoples, that with perfect right the Spaniards rule over these barbarians of the New World and adjacent islands. . . . There is as much difference between them as there is . . . between apes and men . . . . And if they refuse our rule, they may be com pelled by force of arms to accept it" (Demócrates Secundus).

Sepúlveda claimed that every native was barbarous. Thus their natural condition was to obey a superior because they committed crimes against natural law by eating human flesh, offering human sacrifice, and worshiping "demons." War may thus be justly waged and should be waged against these infidels in order to prepare the way for preaching the True Faith.

Sepúlveda next abbreviated his principal arguments for his Apología (1550). This time he focused on the bulls of Pope Alexander VI (reigned 14921503), which he claimed gave Spain entire authority over the Indies. According to the laws of both nations and Nature, to the victor belong the spoils. Although Sepúlveda published the Apología in Rome, it was never made widely available in Spain, where it was confiscated by royal authority.

The committee next heard from Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, who took five days to read from an enormous manuscript. One of the committee's members then condensed the long argument for Sepúlveda, who wrote a point-by-point refutation of the positions held by the Dominican "Defender of the Indians." The two contenders did not debate face to face, and the proceedings proved inconclusive since the committee never produced a final report.

Sepúlveda's views about the inferiority of the Indians became well known and largely prevailed in the Western Hemisphere, where his stance was popular with the colonists. The municipal council of Mexico City sent Sepúlveda a letter of congratulations and thanks. From a theoretical viewpoint, however, Sepúlveda lost the debate because his manuscript was not published in Spain, where the government rejected his central argument that it was just to wage war against the Indians.

See also Colonialism ; Las Casas, Bartolomé de ; Natural Law ; Natural Rights ; Spanish Colonies ; Toleration .


Primary Sources

Losada, Ángel, ed. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda a través de su "Espistolaro" y nuevos documentos. Madrid, 1973.

Sepúlveda, Juan Ginés de. Demócrates Secundo o De la justas causas de la guerra contra los indios. Madrid, 1951. Spanish translation of Demócrates Alter sive de justicis beli causis apud Indios.

Secondary Sources

Bell, Aubrey G. F. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. London, 1925.

Hanke, Lewis. Aristotle and the American Indians. London, 1959.

."All Mankind Is One": A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians. DeKalb, Ill., 1974.

Marvin Lunenfeld