Acosta, José de

views updated May 23 2018

Acosta, José de

There is perhaps no more potent expression of the tense and complex relationship between the European colonial enterprise and the work of Christian missionaries than the life and writings of the Spanish Jesuit José de Acosta. By the time of his death in 1600 large portions of his work were known on four continents, and in at least eight languages. Famous for writing his era's most influential treatise on the conversion of indigenous peoples of the Americas to Christianity, Acosta is also credited with forming the first of the "reductions" that laid the basis for Jesuit missions in Paraguay, for writing the first indigenous-language Catholic catechism in the Andes, and for being a forceful critic of the violent Spanish conquests of Mexico, Peru, and the Philippine Islands.

Born in 1540 to a merchant family in the town of Medina del Campo in central Spain, Acosta left home at the age of twelve to join the newly formed Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were part of a new initiative for the revitalization of European religious life begun in Italy by the Basque Ignatius of Loyola. With fewer than fifty members in the first couple of years, the Jesuits numbered in the thousands by the end of the sixteenth century and were to be found on every continent save Antarctica. At the Jesuit schools Acosta studied Latin and Greek grammar and rhetoric, classical history, and geography—all of which would deeply inform his writings on the Indies—and at the universities of Alcalá and Salamanca, Acosta pursued studies in philosophy and theology. The Spanish universities of the time were hot-beds of controversy between humanists (advocates of classical learning) and scholastics (heirs of the medieval philosophical and theological schools)—a tension also reflected in Acosta's work.

Through his studies, Acosta became enamored with the religious revitalization work of the Jesuits. He sought to apply his humanistic education to the challenge of converting to Christianity peoples with histories, customs, and languages entirely different than those of Europe. Eager for intellectual debate, Acosta originally requested to be sent to China—the land most enigmatic to Europeans, yet known for its highly developed civilization and its rich philosophical and religious traditions. Acosta wrote to his superiors that he would willingly go where needed, but preferred to go where the people "were not too thick" and where his intellectual skills might be the most useful. Yet Acosta was not sent to mine the philosophical riches of China, but assigned to manage the troublesome Jesuit province of Peru—a Peru torn by controversies between religious and colonial administrators, and faced with the tense aftermath of the Spanish conquest led by Francisco Pizarro nearly a generation earlier.

Acosta arrived in Peru in 1569 amidst some anticipation: he was a highly respected orator and theologian, and it was also hoped that he would bring some clarity to the troubled world of newly colonized Peru. Acosta gained the first chair in theology at the new University of San Marcos in Lima, and in 1576 was elected Provincial of the Society of Jesus for the Province of Peru. He also acted as official theologian to the Third Council of Lima, which proposed reforms in religious practice and in colonial administration. As a result of these positions, he was able to travel widely throughout the Andean region and gain firsthand knowledge of the many difficulties faced by an indigenous population continually confronted with ambitious colonial administrators and often ignorant and unsympathetic priests and missionaries. Those experiences led Acosta to write what would become his three primary works: De natura novi orbis (on the geography of the New World and the customs and habits of its indigenous peoples), De procuranda indorum salute (on the evangelization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas), and The Natural and Moral History of the Indies (an expanded Spanish edition of De natura novi orbis).

Acosta considered his works on natural and moral history to be a preface to the more theological work on the question of conversion and its historical, political, and social preconditions. Acosta wrote that his task was to combine his experience in Peru with a rigorous study of the Holy Scriptures and Fathers of the Church—a project he fulfills in part by taking to task the early Church Fathers for their errors in understanding the natural world and their too hasty rejection of Aristotle. And yet Acosta was no Aristotelian: the great philosopher also comes in for rebuke when Acosta finds that he too was mistaken in matters ranging from geography to human customs and habits to moral philosophy. Only firsthand experience of the New World, coupled with classical knowledge, could guide proper enquiry into its natural and human diversity, Acosta argued. Combining his anthropological and theological interests, Acosta also worked to apply the thought of the Church Fathers, especially Augustine and Chrystosom, to the religious world of the Andes. The range of erudition that Acosta exhibited in these works was enormous, and his writings are replete with arguments from and allusions to the works of the Greek philosophers, Greek and Latin historians and poets, the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church, and medieval historians, theologians, and jurists. Stylistically, his writing combined "erudition" with "eloquence" along models advanced by earlier European humanists.

In the heightened and conflicted colonial context in which he worked, Acosta's attitudes toward indigenous religions in the Americas range from moments of subtle understanding to the harsh rejection of practices he thought—following the Church Fathers—to be demonically inspired. He thus found himself perpetually engaged in debates ranging from the meaning of human sacrifice in Mexico to how to extirpate idolatry in Peru. Yet his most evocative arguments were with his fellow Spaniards. Acosta spared few harsh words and argued that the Spanish conquests were not "just wars," and that the "greatest sin" perpetuated in the Americas was the horrific violence of a conquest that enriched the Spaniards while robbing the indigenous peoples of their lives and liberty. He further argued that indigenous hostility to Christianity was not a result of their incapacity to understand it, but was a direct result of Spanish violence and the scandalous behavior of priests, missionaries, and colonial administrators who were supposed to be examples of the love of Christ.

In 1587 Acosta returned to Spain, and he published his primary works there in 1589. He continued to engage in controversies over the Spanish colonial project, and even worked to block a proposal for the conquest of China launched by Jesuits in the Philippines. For the remainder of his life he worked to train Jesuits to apply the lessons learned in the Americas to the "other Indies" of Spain itself. He was even called to investigate how missionary methods derived from Peru might be applied to the formerly Muslim population of southern Spain, in order to stave off renewed pressure for their expulsion from an increasingly homogenous religious landscape. Hence Acosta ended his career continuing full circle the program of religious revitalization with which he began, only with the difficult experience of Peru and Mexico behind him. The argument made centuries later by post-colonial theorists that the colonial experience deeply shaped and transformed the colonizer as well as the colonized was certainly true for José de Acosta.

see also Peru under Spanish Rule.


Acosta, José de. Obras del P. José de Acosta. Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 73. Edited by Francisco Mateos. Madrid: Atlas, 1954.

Acosta, José de. De procuranda Indorum salute. Edited by Luciano Pereña. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1984–1987.

Acosta, José de. The Natural and Moral History of the Indies. Edited by Jane Mangan; translated by Frances Lopez-Morillas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Álvarez López, Enrique. "La filosofia natural en Padre José de Acosta." Revista de Indias (1943): 305-322.

Ares Queija, Berta, et al. eds. Humanismo y visión del otro en la España moderna: Cuatro estudios. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1992.

Baciero, Claudio. "Acosta y el Catecismo Limense: Una nueva pedagogia." In Inculturación del Indio, edited by Luciano Pereña et al. Salamanca, Spain: Universidad Pontifica de Salamanca, 1988.

Burgaleta, Claudio M. José de Acosta (1540–1600): His Life and Thought. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1999.

Carducci, Luigi Guarnieri Calò. Nuovo mondo e ordine politico: La Compagnia di Gesù in Perù e l'attività di José de Acosta. Rimini, Italy: Il Cerchio, 1997.

Echánove, Alfonso. "Origen y evolución de la idea jesuítica de 'reducciones' en las misiones del Virreinato del Perú." Missionalia Hispanica 12 (1955): 95-144; 13 (1956): 497-540.

Lopetegui, Léon. El padre José de Acosta, S. I., y las misiones. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1942.

MacCormack, Sabine. Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Pinta Llorente, Miguel de la. Actividades diplomáticas del P. José de Acosta: En torno a una política, y a un sentimiento religioso. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1952.

Rivara de Tuesta, María Luisa. José de Acosta, un humanista reformista. Lima: Gráf. de Editorial Universo, 1970.

Shepherd, Gregory. An Exposition of Jose de Acosta's Historia natural y moral de las Indias, 1590: The Emergence of an Anthropological Vision of Colonial Latin America. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 2002.

Acosta, José de

views updated May 29 2018


Philosopher and theologian; b. Medina del Campo, Spain, September or October 1540; d. Salamanca, Feb. 15, 1600. He took vows in the Society of Jesus Sept. 24, 1570. In 1572 he went to Peru, where he was provincial and rector of the Colegio of Lima. He served as theologian of the Third Provincial Council of Lima (158283), and participated in the composition and publishing of the books ordered by the council. In 1586 he went to Mexico, where he remained until his return to Spain in May 1587. He was visitor of the provinces of Aragon and Andalusia, and, in 1592, provost of the Casa Profesa of Valladolid. In connection with the convocation of the Fifth Congregation of the Society of Jesus he was in Rome until 1594, engaged in negotiations that caused him difficulties with Father General Claudio Aquaviva. He spent the rest of his life in Spain. In 1597 he was named rector of the Colegio of Salamanca.

Acosta's writings are many and varied, but the following works brought him fame: De natura novi orbis, De procuranda indorum salute (both published Salamanca 1588), and the Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590; new ed. Mexico City 1962). He translated De natura into Spanish and included it with the Historia as books 1 and 2, so that those two works came to form a single whole.

In the De procuranda Acosta examined the problems of evangelization in America in his day. He discussed the doubts as to the capacity of the Native Americans (book 1), the legality of the employment of force (book 2), the rights and obligations of the civil authority and of the colonists (book 3), the special requisites for being a missionary in America (book 4), the parochial functions of the missions (book 5), and the casuistic difficulty in the administration of the Sacraments to the Native Americans (book 6). This work was the first systematic and complete presentation of the missionary problems provoked by the appearance of a new and unforseeable pagan world in the midst of the inhabited world. It is noteworthy, also, for the practical and balanced solutions proposed by its author, in contrast to the unfair exaggerations of impassioned men such as Fray Bartolomé de las casas and Ginés de Sepulveda. The Historia (including the De natura ) reflects Acosta's scientific concerns, which were never divorced from his missionary interests. A new entity, America, had appeared within the heart of Christendom, and it was necessary to show that, despite its novelty, it did not mean any derogation of the order God had assigned to nature and the course of history. This was the great task Acosta performed in his Historia. The highly varied subjects are grouped in accordance with the scientific view of reality then current, and thus the author placed the American world within the system of the universe (book 1), the sphere of the world (book 2), the concept of matter (book 3), the hierarchy of living beings (book 4), the idea of man as a spiritual being (book 5) and man as a rational being (book 6), and, finally, within the providential system of history (book 7).

Acosta's two great works represent the ideological culmination of the initial period (16th century) of the religious conquest and the philosophical and scientific conquest of the New World, of the great historical and ontological process of its incorporation into Western culture. For this reason, both works occupy unique positions in early American bibliography and have a historical value that is both irreplaceable and permanent.

[e. o'gorman]

Acosta, José De

views updated May 23 2018

Acosta, José De

(b. Medina del Campo, Spain, 1539; d. Salamanca, Spain, 15 February 1600)


Acosta was one of the first Europeans to provide a detailed image of the physical and human geography of Latin America; his studies of the Indian civilizations of the New World were a major source of information for several centuries. At the age of fifteen he entered the Jesuit order in his native city and underwent rigorous theological and literary training. He early displayed a strong interest in the New World, and although he was offered a chair of theology in Rome, he asked to be sent to the Americas. He left Spain in 1570 and sailed via Panama to Peru, where he remained for fourteen years. For many years Acosta lived at the Jesuit college on the shore of Lake Titicaca and learned enough of both Aymara and Quechua to produce a trilingual catechism (1583). After acting as historian of the third council of the church at Lima (1582–1583), he embarked for Mexico, where he spent three years. Next he went to Rome, and then to Spain, where he filled several important posts for the Jesuits. He died while serving as rector of the Jesuit college of Salamanca.

Acosta was a prolific writer on both sacred and profane subjects, but his most important scientific work was Historia natural y moral de las Indias. It provides firsthand observations on such diverse phenomena as altitude sickness, the nature and uses of coca, and the crops farm techniques, and domesticated animals of America. Equally important are his descriptions of Inca and Aztec history, religious observances, folk customs, and statecraft. He was the first to describe in detail Mexican ideograms and Peruvian quipu, and the Inca postal system. He may, indeed, be called the first of the true Americanists.


1. Original Works. Acosta’s most important work on the Americas was Historia natural y moral de las Indias, en que se tratan las cosas mds notables del cielo, y elementos, metales, plantes y animales dellas (Seville, 1590). The sole English trans., by Edward Grimston, is The Natural and Moral History of the Indies...(London, 1604), repr. with notes and intro. by C. R. Markham as Vols. LX and LXI of the Hakluyt Society Series (London, 1880).

II. Secondary Literature. References to Acosta’s writings may be found in Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, La ciencia española, III (Madrid, 1887); and Carlos Sommervogel, Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, I (Paris, 1890), cols. 31–38.

George Kish