Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625

By Andrew Fitzmaurice | Go to book overview

chapter 6
The Machiavellian argument for colonial possession

Historians have distinguished two attitudes in early modern Europe to the problem of the possession of the New World. The first, supported primarily by theologians, particularly the school of Salamanca, was cautious and sceptical concerning the scope of European claims to property in the New World. Opposed to the theologians, according to this account, were the humanists. Humanists were closely associated with colonial ventures – unsurprisingly, given their emphasis on the vita activa. They are said to have allowed their preoccupation with glory, particularly the glory of conquest, to encourage their unapologetic justifications of the enterprises (Sepulveda was merely one of many such enthusiasts).1

This portrayal has neglected a central tension within Renaissance humanism. Humanists, as we have seen, balanced their pursuit of glory with a careful vigilance against corruption. This anxiety was in part based upon the threats of wealth and luxury that were believed to arise from conquest, but it also encompassed the related question of possession. The humanist promoters of English colonial projects were profoundly concerned with justifying the adventures, but this concern was not motivated simply by

1 The most recent representative of this view is Richard Tuck, The rights of war and peace: Political
thought and the international order from Grotius to Kant
(Oxford, 1999). See also Anthony Pagden, The
fall of natural man: The American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology
(2nd edn, Cambridge,
1986); L. C. Green and Olive P. Dickason, The law of nations and the New World (Edmonton, 1989).
The dichotomy is sustained by Robert A. Williams, The American Indian in western legal thought: The
discourses of conquest
(Oxford, 1990), who, however, refers to the Thomistic Salamanca theologians
as 'Thomistic-Humanist' (p. 93). It is certainly clear from a reading of Vitoria, for example, that he
had also been educated in the studia humanitatis. Compare the discussion of the fundamental points
of opposition between Thomists of the Salamanca school and humanists, in Quentin Skinner, The
foundations of modern political thought
, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1978), II, p. 141. See also Francisco de
Vitoria, Political writings, eds. Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrance (Cambridge, 1991), p. xiv: 'it is a
mistake to attribute the originallity of Vitoria's work, as many scholars have done, to a happy marriage
of Thomism and [Christian Humanism]… he came to regard humanist textual scholarship on the
Bible as the slippery slope which had led to Protestant heresy'. The similarities between humanist
and Thomist attitudes to colonial possession were not grounded upon any humanist influence upon
the Salamanca school.

-167-

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Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Humanism and America i
  • Ideas in Context ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Moral Philosophy of Tudor Colonization 20
  • Chapter 3 - The Moral Philosophy of Jacobean Colonization 58
  • Chapter 4 - Rhetoric – 'Not the Words, but the Acts' 102
  • Chapter 5 - Law and History 137
  • Chapter 6 - The Machiavellian Argument for Colonial Possession 167
  • Chapter 7 - Conclusion 187
  • Bibliography 195
  • Index 208
  • Ideas in Context 217
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