Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Birth of the Modern Age

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Birth of the Modern Age

Article excerpt

THE Letters of Amerigo Vespucci were published at a time--early in the sixteenth century--when printing was becoming widespread in Europe, making it possible for ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts to be reproduced and studied for the first time, and thereby ushering in the Renaissance. In them, Vespucci writes of new worlds populated by hitherto unknown beings and creatures, which cast serious doubt on such eminent works as Ptolemy's Cosmography, published in Rome in 1478, the Historia plantatum of Theophrastus, published in Venice in 1498, and even Aristotle's Mechanics.

A vast body of knowledge, painstakingly built up over the centuries, had to be subjected to a searching reappraisal. Many long-held propositions and assumptions turned out to be false, while others were proved correct. Most had to be brought up to date. There was a crisis but at the same time it compelled a radical rethinking, heralding an age that was open to all manner of intellectual curiosity and capable of imagining a universe composed of a variety of differing worlds.

Fresh ways of representing human beings and the world they lived in had to be devised. The humanists began to speak of universality and humanity, a new concept for designating a world inhabited by men and women who were similar yet also different. This idea of humanity marked the beginning of the modern age in the West and gradually imposed a new imago mundi.


However, these new ideas were by no means accepted by everybody and it was a long time before they gained wide currency. Sceptics in the universities poured scorn on the accounts of the extraordinary discoveries of the Spanish and Portuguese navigators and treated them as baseless figments of their imagination. In 1512, the scholar Alessandro Achillini was still teaching that the Equator was a barren and unpopulated desert region. In 1539, J. Boemus published his Recueil des diverses histoires des trois parties du monde, a work whose very title denies the existence of America, although this did not prevent it from being regularly studied and republished until the seventeenth century.

Vespucci's Letters were not alone in capturing the imagination of Europeans. The writings of the explorers and conquistadors began to circulate discreetly in the royal courts of Europe, among shipowners and thinkers. Columbus's correspondence with the Catholic Monarchs gave a first-hand word-picture of the peoples of America as being handsome, good-natured, free and uninterested in material things, as though they were living in an age of innocence.

This impression was borne out by Vespucci, when he wrote: "They have no captain to lead them and do not march in step, for every man is his own master .... They have no king or chief and they answer to nobody. They live in complete freedom". This first impression of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean gave rise to the myth of the noble savage, the first European legend about the New World.

This first image of "the Other" had a considerable impact. Rabelais wrote with a mixture of curiosity and admiration of the Indians "who prize a piece of iron more highly than a gold nugget", and the ideas set forth in Montaigne's Essays about people with different cultures and customs made a pioneering contribution to comparative anthropology.

It would be possible to speak of two forms of rational thinking or two systems of development, each trying to grasp what the other is saying but constantly getting bogged down in misunderstanding.

The idea of the "natural" condition of the Indian as merely being an extension of the state of nature gave rise to a discriminatory and inegalitarian ideology so influential that it prompted a thinker like Hegel to deny the historical dimension of American man, as though pre-Columbian America belonged to the realm of nature rather than to that of reason.

The myth of the noble savage died hard, although it was soon paralleled by that of Eldorado, whereby America was imagined to be a land of precious gems, the horn of plenty and eternal youth, the garden chosen by Providence to feed the rest of the world. …

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