From Spain to the New World via Florence and Vermont

In “honor” of Columbus Day, I thought I’d excerpt two interesting items I recently came across.

The first one is from the Introduction to Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958). Its relevance to Columbus Day will probably not be apparent until the end.

There are good reasons for dealing with Machiavelli in a series of Walgreen lectures. The United States of America may be said to be the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles. According to Machiavelli, the founder of the most renowned commonwealth of the world was a fratricide: the foundation of political greatness is necessarily laid in crime. If we can believe Thomas Paine, all governments of the Old World have an origin of this description; their origin was conquest and tyranny. But “the Independence of America [was] accompanied by a Revolution in the principles and practice of Governments”: the foundation of the United States was laid in freedom and justice. “Government founded on a moral theory, on a system of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the Government of the sword revolved from east to west.”* This judgment is far from being obsolete. While freedom is no longer a preserve of the United States, the United States is now the bulwark of freedom. And contemporary tyranny has its roots in Machiavelli’s thought, in the Machiavellian principle that the good end justifies every means. At least to the extent that the American reality is inseparable from the American aspiration, one cannot understand Americanism without understanding Machiavellianism which is its opposite.

But we cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that the problem is more complex than it appears in the presentation by Paine and his followers. Machiavelli would argue that America owes her greatness not only to her habitual adherence to the principles of freedom and justice, but also to her occasional deviation from them. He would not hesitate to suggest a mischievous interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase and of the fate of the Red Indians.** He would conclude that facts like these are an additional proof for his contention that there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus. This complication makes it all the more necessary that we should try to reach an adequate understanding of the fundamental issue raised by Machiavelli. (pp. 13-14)

*Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, Introduction to Part II.

**Cf. Henry Adams, The First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, II, 56, 71-73, 254.

I won’t comment on this except to say that it’s kind of funny that we don’t celebrate Machiavelli Day and get a day off for it (May 3). I mean, he’s just as Italian as Christopher Columbus.

Incidentally, I forgot, in the first version of this post, to mention that Machiavelli explicitly invokes Columbus in the Introduction to the First Book of his Discourses on Livy:

Although the envious nature of men, so prompt to blame and so slow to praise, makes the discovery and introduction of any new principles and systems as dangerous almost as the exploration of unknown seas and continents, yet animated by that desire which impels me to do what may prove for the common benefit of all, I have resolved to open a new route, which has not yet been followed by any one, and may prove difficult and troublesome, but may also bring me some reward in the approbation of those who will kindly appreciate my efforts.

Machiavelli wrote that decades after Columbus’s voyage and for that matter Columbus’s death. In suggesting that his “new route” would redound to “the benefit of all,” he exploits the reader’s presumptive belief that Columbus’s voyage had had the same, or an analogous benefit. The new route he proposes simultaneously valorizes Columbus’s efforts while dehumanizing Columbus’s victims and excluding them from membership in the moral community or the common good. For that reason, I think we can safely read Machiavelli as providing the theoretical basis for Columbus’s depredations, something worth bearing in mind when one reads Columbus’s modern-day apologists (like this, this, this, and this.) Like Machiavelli, they claim to be opening new routes and new vistas for thought. As with Machiavelli, a remarkable number of the routes they open seem to lead to or rationalize mass death.

As Strauss points out, Machiavelli famously taught us that a prince ought to exterminate the families of rulers whose territory he securely wishes to possess (Strauss, p. 9, commenting on The Prince, chapter 7). Columbus seems to have put that precept into action well before Machiavelli managed to rationalize it in print: 

The combined effects of Columbus’ forced labor regime, war, and slaughter resulted in the near-total eradication of 98% of the native Taino of Hispaniola.[107] De las Casas records that when he first came to Hispaniola in 1508, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….”[107]

Poor Bartolome de las Casas. We still don’t believe it.

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Columbus on the lookout for more people to kill and enslave, Main Street, Lodi, New Jersey

De Las Casas’s doxastic troubles bring me to my second Columbus Day item, Robert Frost’s “America Is Hard to See” (1951) a poem I just recently discovered while making my way through his collected poems.

Columbus may have worked the wind
A new and better way to Ind
And also proved the world a ball,
But how about the wherewithal?
Not just for scientific news
Had the Queen backed him for a cruise

Remember he had made the test
Finding the East by sailing West.
But had he found it?
Here he was
Without one trinket from Ormuz
To save the Queen from family censure
For her investment in his future.

There had been something strangely wrong
With every coast he tried along.
He could imagine nothing barrener.
The trouble was with him the mariner.
He wasn’t off a mere degree;
His reckoning was off a sea.

And to intensify the drama
Another mariner Da Gama
Came just then sailing into port
From the same general resort,
And with the gold in hand to show for
His claim it was another Ophir.

Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.

He might have fooled them in Madrid.
I was deceived by what he did.
If I had had my way when young
I should have had Columbus sung
As a god who had given us
A more than Moses’ exodus.

But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.

For these none too apparent gains
He got no more than dungeon chains
And such posthumous renown
(A country named for him, a town,
A holiday) as where he is,
He may not recognize for his.

They say his flagship’s unlaid ghost
Still probes and dents our rocky coast
With animus approaching hate,
And for not turning out a strait
He has cursed every river mouth
From fifty north to fifty south.

Someday our navy I predict
Will take in tow this derelict
And lock him through Culebra Cut,
His eyes as good (or bad) as shut
To all the modern works of man
And all we call American

America is hard to see.
Less partial witnesses than he
In book on book have testified
They could not see it from outside—
Or inside either for that matter.
We know the literary chatter.

Columbus, as I say, will miss
All he owes to the artifice
Of tractor-plow and motor-drill.
To naught but his own force of will,
Or at most some Andean quake,
Will he ascribe this lucky break.

High purpose makes the hero rude:
He will not stop for gratitude.
But let him show his haughty stern
To what was never his concern
Except as it denied him way
To fortune-hunting in Cathay.

He will be starting pretty late.
He’ll find that Asiatic state
Is about tired of being looted
While having its beliefs disputed.
His can be no such easy raid
As Cortez on the Aztecs made.

When I read that, I knew what I had to do. I had to read that poem, in its entirety, on Columbus Day, at the foot of the statue of Christopher Columbus that sits in front of Borough Hall on Main Street in Lodi, New Jersey.

So I’ll be there noon this Monday for as long as it takes to get through the poem. Stop by if you’re in the area. I’ll be handing out free copies of the Frost poem to anyone who wants one. I’d hand out free copies of The Prince as well, if I could afford it. Maybe next year, when I’m rich and famous, after conquering discovering a new world or something.

Postscript: This still has meaning, decades later:

Postscript, October 11, 2015: This Reuters piece, “U.S. Reassesses Columbus Day,” is worth reading. Predictably, the piece serves to underscore the fact that there are, apparently, no limits to ethnic-pride butthurt in this country:

New York City, with the country’s largest Italian American population at 1.9 million, attracts nearly 35,000 marchers and nearly 1 million spectators to its annual Columbus Day parade.

The Columbus Citizens Foundation, a non-profit that organizes the parade, says on its website the event “celebrates the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition and the important contributions Italian-Americans have made to the United States.”

John Viola, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Italian American Foundation, said renaming Columbus Day dishonors the country’s 25 million Italian Americans and their ancestors. He said Italian Americans feel slighted by cities that are dropping Columbus Day.

“By default, we’re like the collateral damage of this trend,” he said.

In other words, it’s wrong to condemn imperialism, enslavement, and mass death because cannoli.

If they want to celebrate Italian pride, why not find an Italian worth celebrating, like Albertus Magnus, Galileo, or Verdi? If it has to be an Italian-American, why not Fermi, Cavalli-Sforza, or Anthony Fauci? If those guys aren’t sexy enough, how about Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato, or Joe Pesci? If they don’t do it for you, why not pick the sexiest Italian-American of all time, and dedicate the day to Chris Sciabarra? Even Verrazano would be preferable to Columbus: unlike Columbus, at least he made it to the landmass that would later become the United States. But the real question is why Italian-Americans feel the need to close the country down for a day in the name of the dubious ethical achievement of being Italian-American.

And if they get a day, why not every other ethnicity? In that case, as a South Asian-American, I hereby nominate November 2 as a new federal holiday in honor of Mahmud of Ghazni. Because if Mahmud hadn’t liberated Lahore from the Jats in 1023 AD, my family wouldn’t have had a place to go during the partition of India in 1947–and I wouldn’t even be here. And boy, would counterfactual non-existence (have) hurt my feelings. I leave the rest of the argument as an exercise.

Postscript, October 14, 2015. I just happened on this short piece by Jack Weatherford that captures the essence of the Columbus controversy, at least as I see it. Here’s a simultaneously amusing but depressing article on Columbus Day. Also worth reading, on a related (but different) topic, “Native Lives Matter, Too.” 

85 thoughts on “From Spain to the New World via Florence and Vermont

  1. I don’t admire Columbus’ actions in the New World. His kidnapping of natives to show off at home, his desires to Christianize the natives, etc. But I do admire the strength of character and purpose that makes a man set off into the unknown on the basis of his own judgement to rise or fall based on whether that westward shore is there or not– with his ruination and death as the consequence of failure, he sets sail. That is what I admire in Columbus, and in every other person who has the slightest spark of that spirit.


    • Couldn’t the same be said of Adolph Hitler? His prosecution of a war of aggression, genocide, etc. was problematic. But it took initiative and boldness to conceive a plan of world conquest and embark on it–this from a lowly corporal who had seen active duty on the Western Front, and who by all accounts acquitted himself with great bravery there. A somewhat less impulsive Hitler might well have succeeded, and vanquished Communism in the process. How many foot soldiers from the German Army rose to become Chancellor of the Reich, to annex Austria and to defend the honor and rights of the Germans of the Sudentenland? That’s at least as impressive an achievement as anything Columbus pulled off.

      Or how about Stalin? Yes, his liquidation of the kulaks might give us pause–as might forced collectivization, engineered famines, etc. But should we not be impressed by the grandeur of his vision, and what he did accomplish? A genuinely unified Soviet Union. Rural electrification. Industrialization. Education for women and girls. Drastically improved literacy. The conquest of disease. The defense of the Soviet Union against the Nazis and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

      If Stalin doesn’t work for you, try Castro.

      The underlying philosophical issue here is whether evil may be done that good may come. The quasi-official Objectivist line is “no.” (See Tara Smith’s Viable Values, pp. 167-74.) Another underlying issue is whether virtue forms a unity, i.e., whether possession of one virtue requires possession of the others, or whether you can egregiously violate some virtues but have the others to admirable degree. The quasi-official Objectivist line is in favor of unity (i.e., the first option: see Peikoff’s OPAR on virtue, pp. 250-51).

      But this line gets thrown out in polemical contexts when it seems to lead to uncomfortably “multicultural” or “postcolonial” conclusions, as it does in the case of Columbus. A murderer, kidnapper, slavemaster, and tyrant lacks virtue. Columbus was all of those things. That makes him fundamentally unjust. So there is no “character” or “purpose” there to admire unless one admires injustice. And whatever “benefits” accrued from his ventures are on par with Stalin’s or Castro’s improvements to Soviet or Cuban life. They came at a price that nullifies their moral value. Someday, we’ll see that what’s true of Stalin et al is true of Columbus. But I guess that day is far off.


  2. Imagine a Mohican warrior who imagined he could reach the tribes in california by sailing east, who felled the locust trees of the Hudson Valley and built himself a ship, who braved the currents, found the gulf stream and brought his crew to harbor off the White Cliffs of Dover. Does it say anything about him if millions of Europeans then died of Indian diseases? Or if the Cherokee came over two hundred years later and enslaved the Parisians?


    • I’m imagining your Mohican while trying to ignore “warrior.” If I ignore “warrior,” and restrict myself to this one action, I have admiration for him, at least if I presume that he has a benign purpose in mind. But if his whole purpose is to win foreign soil for his god, and kill anyone who gets in his way, all bets are off.

      Does it say anything about him if millions of European colonists then die of diseases he brought? Well, it doesn’t say anything about his character, but I would still say that he violated their rights. A rights violation is a boundary crossing, and disease vectors will do the trick, even if they’re unintentionally introduced. If I showed up at your house and accidentally lit it on fire, killing your family and leaving you homeless, it might not be my fault, but you’d expect me at least to feel badly about it. The European colonists didn’t feel badly about introducing disease vectors into North America. They introduced them by accident, then realized the potential for biological warfare–and unleashed smallpox as a weapon of mass destruction on the indigenous population (cf. the Siege of Fort Pitt). This is the glorious history we’re being asked to celebrate tomorrow.

      The problem is that your scenario is simply not parallel to that of Columbus or the European colonists. Columbus didn’t just accidentally bring a few diseases to the New World. He came, he saw, he conquered, he enslaved, he murdered, and he tyrannized–all actions committed by him, and all missing from your scenario. Following his lead, and glorifying his example, later colonists went further and further. If you click one of the links I provided in the original post, you’ll see that the Ayn Rand Institute is now following his lead because it provides an example for handling contemporary indigenous people, like the Palestinians. Columbus’s handling of the Native Americans is their template for how Israel should deal with the Palestinians and how we should deal with Iran. We are civilizationally superior–hence they should die. That is the sum and substance of the whole message.

      The irony here is that your view should induce us to admire the civilization of the Native Americans themselves. North America has the harshest, most extreme climate in the world. From time immemorial, Native Americans braved that climate and lived under the harshest and most unforgiving of conditions. Try surviving a North Dakota winter in a teepee while hunting bison for subsistence. They did that for tens of thousands of years. Does that elicit anyone’s admiration? No. Why not? Because they were a patriarchal warrior society. If Columbus’s “initiative” is so admirable, what about the initiative of the natives who survived in North America where European colonists died off in droves on contact with the place? The truth is that for the most part, their initiative wasn’t all that admirable, either. To the extent that they were implicated in injustice themselves, they were no better than Columbus. That doesn’t mean that Europeans had the right to kill them. It means that we should take a more mature and measured look at history before we decide to valorize a murderer in order to appease people’s misplaced ethnic pride and have the day off.


      • This discussion puts me in mind of Alcibiades, and why nobody who reads Plato would fail to see that he was an extraordinary and remarkable individual and yet (provided, at least, that we know what Plato’s first readers knew and what Thucydides tells us) nobody would mistake him for a virtuous or praiseworthy individual either. In English, the words “admirable” and “wonderful” almost invariably connote approval; in Greek, it would be natural to say that we θαυμάζειν Alcibiades, or that he is δεινός, which we might innocently translate by saying that we “admire” him and that he’s “awesome.” But we can θαυμάζειν things that are terrible, and “terrible” is just as often as not an appropriate translation for δεινός; Alcibiades was certainly terrible. Yet there is something about figures like Stalin, Hitler, and perhaps Columbus — though to be honest I don’t see Columbus as especially remarkable in this respect — that makes them extraordinary individuals. Most people would not have been capable of accomplishing what they did, no matter how perverse their schemes. A person might harbor thoughts and attitudes just as contemptible and wicked as theirs, and yet fail to be remarkable in any respect; virtually all of the white supremacists I’ve seen in documentaries and all the self-styled communists I’ve personally met come to mind as examples, since these have been uniformly contemptible people. But in the case of Stalin, Hitler, Columbus, and Alcibiades it’s just obvious, or should be, at any rate, that however impressive such outstanding individuals are, the attitude we have toward them when we recognize their extraordinariness is not admiration, or approval, or anything inconsistent with a forthright acknowledgment of how horrible they were.

        Plato’s representation of Alcibiades suggests what Aristotle’s explicit discussion of “natural virtue” in contrast to genuine virtue makes explicit: some people possess, more or less spontaneously, astonishingly high levels of traits that resemble virtues in important respects; but they are not genuine virtues, because they are not put in the service of reason rightly understood. I don’t know whether Hitler and Stalin were really like that, because I don’t know how much of how they seem is sheer myth rather than reality; Alcibiades, from our point of view, is virtually a fictional character. Columbus, insofar as we consider his character rather than his objectively documented acts, seems to me to be much more legend than a reality. So I don’t know whether Columbus was the materialistic scoundrel that I was taught about in elementary school (in a Catholic school, no less!) or the Übermensch that Michael imagines. In the former case, he’s worthy of no more than contempt. In the latter, he’s at best a θαὒμα ἰδέσθαι, a “wonder to behold,” but no less δεινός, at least as awful as he was awesome. From where I sit, my money (all $3 of it) is on his being a slightly unusual and lucky scoundrel.

        At the very least, ceasing to celebrate the guy with a holiday would seem to be an act of basic decency.


        • That’s very well put. I wonder whether (to put things anachronistically) thaumazein also has an SMH or WTF aspect to it. It’s hard not to have one those reactions to Hitler’s career. There’s something mind-blowing about Hitler’s rise to power, to be sure, but also a dimension of self-subverting insanity to the way in which he conducted the war, e.g., Operation Barbarossa, his subordination of military strategy to the imperatives of the Holocaust, etc. There’s both a remarkable fixity of purpose and a total aimlessness about him. On the one hand, there’s this iron-willed desire to get lebensraum for Germany; on the other, this grandiose inability to define the actual aims of the war and come up with feasible means of achieving “them.” Unsurprising that he ends up in a bunker with a bullet to his own head.

          Something similar is true of Columbus. For all of the grandiosity of his vision–“discover and acquire” territory for Isabella and Ferdinand–it is totally unclear what Columbus thought he was doing, except to sail westward toward…somewhere west of Spain. The story we’re told is that he was en route to the “Indies.” But in that case, he obviously failed: he never got to the Indies. What I find striking is the recklessness of setting out on a journey for the Indies armed only with the knowledge that if the world is spherical, there has to be a westward passage to any place on the globe to which there is an eastward passage. And if there isn’t, so what? You just acquire land and plant the Spanish flag in it as it comes, converting the heathen along the way.

          One of the most offensive things about Columbus Day is that even if you put aside Columbus’s treatment of the natives, people seem to overlook the fact that Columbus’s plan is the very opposite of what you would expect of a rational person. It has a kind of manic quality to it, like Dr. Frankenstein’s in Shelley’s novel. And yet he’s valorized for his exemplification of Western Rationality. (By the way, I’m taking as common knowledge that Columbus did not demonstrate the sphericity of the world. That was known since ancient times, and was known in Columbus’s time as well.)

          Just as the discussion puts you in the mind of Alcibiades, it puts me in the mind of Prometheus (not that I disagree with what you’re saying about Alcibiades). Columbus’s champions desperately seem to want to turn Columbus into a kind of Prometheus of the modern world minus Pandora. You see this most clearly in the Objectivist discussions I linked to above, which take the usual deformities of Columbus-boosting to previously undreamed-of lengths. The whole thing has the whiff of a fideistic desire to believe–of legendry, myth, and idolatry sanctified by service to Reason. To evade the fact that the Columbus-deity in this case left carnage in his wake, we have to invent a new mythology to the effect that the victims of that carnage had it coming, given how primitive and stupid they were. Then we transpose the whole thing back onto the modern world to say that the casualties of our own Promethean endeavors had it coming–after all, look at how primitive and stupid they are!

          After you’ve spent a week at a seminar with Will Thomas, self-described Objectivist “expert” who tells you with firm conviction that only rational, Westernized, industrialized people have rights (not irrational non-Western primitives), you turn into a monomaniac on this topic like yours truly.


  3. Pingback: From Spain to the New World via Florence and Vermont | Policy of Truth

      • The point of killing the family of the people you depose was to prevent people from championing a nephew or cousin to be king in a counter-revolution, not commit genocide on the entire land you’re occupying.


        • Genocide and the prevention of counter-revolution by murder may be different aims, but they’re certainly compatible with one another. What they share in common is a regime’s willingness or intention to commit murder for political ends. Machiavelli counsels murder so that the prince can consolidate power; Columbus did murder in order to consolidate power.

          Incidentally, part of Hitler’s rationale for the extermination of the Jews was his belief that they constituted a rival to purely Germanic power in Europe. That’s why there was a “Jewish Problem” in the first place. The problem began as a narrowly political one, then took on a life of its own. The Machiavellian rationale blurs easily enough into the genocidal one. Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks is perhaps a better example. But ultimately, they all depend on the same sense of the unlimited expendability of other people’s lives.


          • It occurs to me that there’s a minor quasi-misstatement in something I say in the post: I say that Verrazano made it to the “landmass” of the present-day U.S. but Columbus did not. To be more precise, Columbus did make it to the present-day United States: he made it to what we now call Puerto Rico as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands (both U.S. territories). My point was that he didn’t make it to what we currently regard as the American mainland (“landmass”).


  4. Irfan,

    I do not see what is wrong with having a Columbus Day holiday. In fact, I thought it was kind of sad that the 500th anniversary of 1492 passed by a couple of decades ago, with not a bang but a whimper. What a difference 100 years made! Quite a lot of the neo-classical architecture that adorns Chicago, such as the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, was created for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The discovery by Europeans of the New World, the opportunities it brought to escape the Old, and the successful grasping of those opportunities have been a Good Thing, which deserve to be celebrated.

    It is true, obviously, that the natives who were here when Europeans arrived got a very raw deal. They did not deserve what happened to them. Human nature being what it is, however, I think that outcome was more or less inevitable. Not all European governors and governments took a harsh or callous attitude toward the natives, much less approached them with the rapacity of the conquistadors. I’m thinking of the treatment of the Aborigines by the early governors of Australia, most of whom followed very humane policies (which were deeply resented by their white subjects). But it didn’t change the outcome in the end. I suspect that whenever there is such a large power differential that right and wrong are effectively in the hands of one side alone to determine, the other side must inevitably suffer severely. (If there are any anarcho-capitalists lurking here, that’s something they should think about.) I think we should be sorry for the things we did to the Indians, but I don’t think European Americans should be sorry their ancestors came here or ashamed of the civilization they built. Quite the contrary.

    The other thing the Columbus Day holiday celebrates is Columbus himself, as an intrepid explorer who “discovered America.” I think you have to give him the intrepid explorer part. He explored and charted most of the West Indies in four voyages, and apparently did a pretty good job of it. He endured shipwreck, being stranded—at one point he was stranded for an entire year on Jamaica—severe storms, and all the vicissitudes of ocean voyages to unknown places. During nearly all of this time was ill with Reiter’s syndrome, a kind of arthritis, from which he was sometimes bedridden for months at a time, and which eventually killed him at the tender age of 54.

    I don’t know about you, but I would be terrified to get in a 75 foot (length of the Santa Maria) wooden “ship” of that time and sail anywhere out of sight of land. (Compare: Larry Ellison’s yacht is 450 feet.) I can’t imagine the courage it must have taken to get in one of those boats and sail west over the curve of the earth with no intention of turning around unless land is sighted, knowing full well (however daft he may have been to think that Japan was only 2300 miles away) that there was a very significant chance he would die of starvation at sea and never be heard from again. I don’t see any comparison here with Hitler or Stalin or any politician. (I really don’t see how Hitler and Stalin have reasonably gotten into this conversation at all.)

    You say he was reckless; others would say daring. I’m not sure what to think about this part. As you say, everybody knew at the time (or all the scholars knew, at any rate) that the earth is round. They also knew how big it is. Two generations after Aristotle, Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth accurately to within 66 kilometers! Unfortunately, some of this learning was evidently lost in translation to adventurers like Columbus, who thought the circumference of the earth was only about 3/4 of its true value. He also thought the Asian landmass was vastly greater than it is, so that the distance to Japan, as I mentioned, was only about 2300 miles from the Iberian Peninsula. The reason a series of monarchs rejected his proposed voyage was that their advisors correctly calculated that the distance to Asia was much greater than Columbus thought and much too great to be crossed in a sailing vessel of that time. Columbus was stubborn, and if he hadn’t been lucky he would’ve died well before age 54. Should we celebrate this sort of thing? I don’t know, but I do think we owe something to the risk takers of the world in general, like Columbus.

    With regard to his personal character, it doesn’t seem to have been very good. For example, Ferdinand and Isabella had promised a lifetime pension to the sailor who first spotted land on Columbus’s first expedition. The honor goes to a sailor on the Pinta, but Columbus later claimed to have seen a light on the land himself several hours before the sailor spotted land (at 2:00 a.m.), and thus took the pension for himself. I see no reason to doubt this tale of Columbus’s perfidy—it is documented exactly who made the announcement on the Pinta, and it is extremely unlikely that Columbus, of everyone on the expedition, happened to have seen the land first and said nothing—which shows a mean spirited, petty character. He also, as governor of Hispaniola, meted out incredibly harsh punishments for relatively trivial offences. Especially where they related to himself. Examples (from the Wikipedia article on Columbus) include having a man’s ears and nose cut off for stealing corn and praising the judgment of his brother who had a woman paraded through the streets naked and then cut her tongue out for suggesting that Columbus was of low birth. (Columbus put his brothers and son into official positions.) These punishments were given to European colonists, not natives.

    He was evidently a terrible governor. After only six years as governor of Hispaniola, most of which time he was off exploring, not governing, the colonists were in open rebellion. Ferdinand and Isabella had him returned to Spain in irons, and although they eventually readmitted him to their favor, it was only to finance a fourth voyage of exploration, not to assume control of Hispaniola. The monarchs basically just voided the generous contract they had made with Columbus—which made him governor of all new lands discovered, owner of 10 percent of all revenues generated, and more—for gross incompetence.

    On the matter of his treatment of natives, I have few details. It seems clear enough that he regarded them as a source of revenue and didn’t have too great scruples as to how that revenue was obtained. One thing: the notion that he killed or enslaved three million Hispaniolan natives is false, for the simple reason that there weren’t that many Hispaniolan natives. I doubt there were even 300,000 natives on Hispaniola, and to talk about three million is ridiculous. Compare: In the year 200, the total population of the entire Roman empire—all of it—was just 60 million. The combined populations of the top five cities, Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch, and Apamea, was 1,525,000. (These figures care of Rodney Stark’s excellent sociological study, The Rise of Christianity, 1996.) Now, Hispaniola is an island a quarter the size of Italy. In 1490, it had no cities at all. Its people, the Taino, had a “gardening” level civilization comparable to that of the northeast American Indians. That is, they had crude buildings (wood pole frames covered with straw and palm leaves) arranged in villages, and they farmed small garden plots. They had no domesticated animals, but they hunted. They had precious metals and carved stone implements, but apparently nothing further. This level of technology does not support millions of people in such a small area. (The total population of the island today is only about 21 million.) Responsible estimates of the total population of the whole of North America before the Europeans arrived vary between 2 and 18 million. Most such estimates give a figure less than 10 million. Thus the population of the entire West Indies was probably nothing like 3 million in 1490.

    (Maybe this is the place to interject the most interesting new thing I learned in thinking and reading about all this. It seems the natives got a sort of revenge in the matter of new diseases: syphilis apparently existed only in the New World prior to 1492. It was communicated to the sailors on Columbus’s first voyage, who returned with it to the Old World and proceeded to spread it around Spain and Italy, from which it then spread to the rest of Europe. So new disease transmission wasn’t all one-way, as I would’ve said prior to the past few days. [Ooh, what will Jared Diamond say?])

    How Columbus should be judged on his treatment of the natives is obvious: he should be judged badly. But how he should be judged overall is not so clear. His treatment of the natives was merely Spanish crown policy, much more thoroughly pursued by other people than Columbus. But I’m not sure he should be let off the hook for that. On however small a relative scale, he was apparently a very willing participant in the policy. I think the judgment should depend on how great a proportion it was of his career. If he had been a conquistador, for example, then in honoring him we would be honoring a conquistador, which wouldn’t sit too well with me. But in fact being governor of Hispaniola seems to have been a minor part of his career, which he botched anyway and was dismissed from in shame. Whereas what he seems to have been good at and spent most of his time doing was conducting voyages of exploration. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to honor him for that and let the rest be a black mark on his remarkable career.

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    • I think all of your points in favor of Columbus were addressed already in Irfan’s reply to Michael and my supplement to it. But an additional point against him is that to celebrate the “discovery” of the “New World” need involve no celebration of Columbus at all, and to the extent that you’re right that all of this was “inevitable,” that counts as a reason not to make Columbus the stand-in for what would have happened without him anyway. Most of all, however, I’m unimpressed with what seems to be your reasoning here: X had some good consequences, so let’s celebrate X. Even a consequentialist should reject that reasoning, since even a consequentialist should admit — and many do — that even an action that is justified by its consequences may involve doing a great deal of bad and for that reason be regrettable and not to be celebrated. But it’s hard to imagine even the least squeamish consequentialist maintaining that Columbus’ acts were justified; even supposing that the overall consequences have been better than worse — which is not a claim that I am willing to concede is even coherent, mind you — it’s hard to suppose that Columbus had any reason whatsoever to believe that that would be the case. That you are supposed to be far from a consequentialist and a believer in inalienable human rights makes this reasoning even more bizarre.

      Perhaps we should not have an anti-Columbus holiday. Minimally, however, it seems perverse for us to have a national holiday honoring such a person. Even if it were true that we would not enjoy all the good things we now do without him, that would hardly be reason to honor him. I probably wouldn’t exist if Hitler hadn’t been a genocidal maniac, since the route my grandparents on both sides took in life was crucially affected by the war. I do not honor Hitler because I wouldn’t be alive without him. Your reasons for honoring Columbus seem only slightly less bad.

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        • I don’t think it’s chance, no. It’s choice, upbringing, habituation. But then, I’m operating with an Aristotelian notion of chance; I suppose in some broader and looser sense it’s chance.


      • I’m afraid nearly everything you say here depends on misconstruing me. I have three remarks.

        First, you say:

        But an additional point against him is that to celebrate the “discovery” of the “New World” need involve no celebration of Columbus at all, and to the extent that you’re right that all of this was “inevitable,” that counts as a reason not to make Columbus the stand-in for what would have happened without him anyway.

        I did not say the discovery of the New World was inevitable (and I wouldn’t be inclined to). I was talking about the destruction of the natives. Now, destruction is not good! So its supposed inevitability hardly steals Columbus’s thunder.

        However, if we were talking about something good, there would be little force in your argument. Compare: Lots of people were working on flying machines around the time of the Wright brothers, so the invention of flight at that time or soon after was probably inevitable, so we shouldn’t celebrate the Wright brothers or their achievement.

        Second, you say:

        Most of all, however, I’m unimpressed with what seems to be your reasoning here: X had some good consequences, so let’s celebrate X.

        And the rest of your reply to me proceeds from this idea, that my approach is to somehow tot up all the utiles contributed to the world as the result of Columbus’s actions, then tot up the disutiles, subtract B from A, and then if the result is a net positive, to say let the party start. But I never said anything remotely like this, nor anything to suggest it. And I wouldn’t. I don’t think that is the way to evaluate a person’s life or achievements.

        To the extent that Columbus Day is literally about Columbus (as opposed to the discovery of the New World and as it were the fresh start for humanity that resulted), we should evaluate his life and achievements. How good a man was he? What is the importance or status of what he accomplished? I don’t have a pat set of principles for such evaluation, but I assure you they aren’t utilitarian! They will be things like: How difficult were the things accomplished? How much perseverance was required? How much grit, integrity, courage, persuasiveness, wisdom, self-control? How much historical impact did they have? Did what he do change the world much? In all this, I would want to take his historical and cultural context as a given and be sensitive to the fact that every person is necessarily a creature of his time and place and starts from there. I was sympathetic to Moataz Kadada’s comparison with evaluating the Roman Empire. Perhaps a better example would be classical Athens. There were many, many things wrong with classical Athens. But it would seem perverse—to me, anyway—to refuse to honor their achievements because of the horrible things they did.

        Finally, you say:

        That you are supposed to be far from a consequentialist and a believer in inalienable human rights makes this reasoning even more bizarre.

        Why am I supposed to be a believer in inalienable human rights? I say nothing about the issue in my comment. However, in my last comment, in the thread “Rethinking rights (3),” in which you participated, I argued expressly for the thesis that inalienable rights do not exist. I also argued that there are no rights outside the society that constitutes them. Since this was the situation between Columbus and the Pre-Columbian Indians, neither had any rights with respect to the other. Encounters between peoples aren’t constrained by rights. They are only constrained by other principles, such as wisdom, efficiency, benevolence, and humanity.


        • Well, I’m happy to let you be the authority on what your views are. But I don’t think my response failed to target things you actually said. Since I didn’t express myself carefully enough, though, I’m certainly not going to complain if you clarify what you say.

          What I should have said about inevitability was that to the extent that you want to celebrate Columbus because of the long-term consequences of his so-called discovery of the New World, the inevitability of those consequences counts against making him their symbol. Since you’re not claiming that the discovery was inevitable, this point is somewhat irrelevant. But I don’t think your Wright Brothers example tells against my point. If what’s valuable is the consequences, and the consequences really were inevitable, then it’s mere sentimentality to celebrate the particular individuals who happened to get caught up in the process that initiated the chain of inevitable consequences. It wouldn’t be true to say, “Without Columbus, Europeans would never have discovered the New World, and hence all of the wonderful consequences of that discovery would never have come to pass.” I don’t think it makes a great deal of sense to celebrate the Wright Brothers for the consequences of their invention if it really is the case that flight would have been invented even if they hadn’t invented it. It makes sense to honor them for their actions, but not for my ability to get from the United States to Europe in less than a day.

          But your Wright Brothers example does undermine your effort to dismiss all the nasty things Columbus did on the grounds that they were inevitable. No, we shouldn’t refuse to celebrate the Wright Brothers’ actions on the grounds that somebody else would have done what they did if they hadn’t. But by the very same token, we shouldn’t refuse to condemn Columbus on the grounds that somebody else would have done what he did if he hadn’t.

          As for my impression that the consequences were in fact crucial to your case, I perhaps gave too much weight to your initial statement that “The discovery by Europeans of the New World, the opportunities it brought to escape the Old, and the successful grasping of those opportunities have been a Good Thing, which deserve to be celebrated,” apparently as the main reason why you “do not see what is wrong with having a Columbus Day holiday.” Insofar as you take these consequences as giving us any reason to celebrate Columbus, I see no reason to modify my earlier claims to the contrary. I suppose I might have hastily assumed that this was where the weight of your argument was supposed to lie, because it seems quite obvious that if we simply seek to “evaluate his life and achievements,” we don’t have good reason to celebrate him. If you still think we do despite all the considerations Irfan has raised (or even despite all the things that you yourself noted), then I’m not sure we can have a productive discussion about this.

          As for “inalienable rights,” I was just being sloppy and using that expression as a shorthand for the recognition that we owe justice to other human beings. I can’t excuse that sloppiness in myself, because I ordinarily insist on the difference. Nonetheless, your final comment makes me doubt whether you think Columbus could have treated the natives unjustly, as opposed to inhumanely or non-benevolently. I would argue to the contrary, but I’m not sure the difference would affect the ultimate verdict: unless you think his malevolent and inhumane treatment of the natives is somehow consistent with his being an admirable human being, then he wasn’t. And if you think they are so consistent, then, again, I’m not sure I can say anything else to convince you that hasn’t already been said.


          • As is probably obvious, I agree with Riesbeck on this, except that I think we’re still operating in “productive discussion” territory.

            Columbus Day is obviously about Columbus, the man and his achievements. It’s not about “the discovery of the New World,” itself a dubious idea. What I would insist on is that you cannot evaluate a person’s character by abstracting from the moral status of his aims. You can’t take snapshots of his grit, self-control, etc., and conclude that the expression of those traits in snapshot form is virtuous even when it aims at egregious injustice, including murder, slavery, conquest, and forced conversion. Think of the grit and self-control it took to work for the SS or NKVD. Think of the “courage” it took for Orval Faubus to defy the U.S. Army in Little Rock–or for Osama bin Laden to do the same from Kandahar. Think of how “daring” it is to walk into a bank, put a gun to the teller’s head, and demand money. It takes a certain boldness, initiative, and defiance of the odds to rape someone–but that isn’t courage. These examples are all just obvious and familiar instances of the same principle (unlike Columbus, who’s a controversial instance of it). The shameless person looks courageous until you figure out what he’s really up to. Both defy risk and control their fears, but only one does it in the right way, at the right times, for the right reasons, etc. Columbus is not virtuous, but shameless.

            As for classical Athens or Rome, I don’t see why anyone would find themselves in the predicament of deciding whether or not to “honor classical Athens” or “honor Rome” under that description. No one (here) feels the need to “honor Islamic civilization” because Khwarizimi invented algebra. Few Westerners feel caught up by the conundrum, “Well, they invented algebra, but they killed a lot of people via conquest, so what is our net verdict on ‘Islamic civilization’?” That conundrum is escapable by avoiding the need to produce a net verdict on a morally heterogeneous phenomenon like a “civilization.” The same is true of classical Athens or Rome. There is no need for an all-things-considered moral verdict on things like that, and no rational way to offer one. Slavery is not worth celebrating, but the Posterior Analytics is. We can make those judgments on a case-by-case basis without having to ask, “OK, but now what is our evaluation of classical Athens as such? Good or bad?” There is no answer to that question, and no need to ask it. Unlike a person, a historical epoch is not a unified moral agent susceptible of a univocal moral verdict.

            When it comes to people we intend to celebrate, univocal moral verdicts are what we need, and as I’ve said ad nauseum, my verdict on Columbus is negative. It’s bad enough that our nation’s capital is located in the District of Columbia, that two state capitals are named after Columbus (Ohio and South Carolina), that an Ivy League university is named after him (Columbia), that a river is, and that a whole country is (Colombia). Dedicating a full day to his honor is bad enough for its excess, if nothing else.

            Postscript: In fact the supposed “need” to pass judgment on “Rome” is the subject of the quotation from Strauss in the original post. It’s Machiavelli who sings praises to the glory of “Rome” despite its being founded on the Romulus-Remus myth. “Is a city praiseworthy if it’s founded on a senseless murder but it invents the aqueduct?” The question makes no sense.


      • Columbus — reply comment 3
        David R,

        Mostly what you are saying here is that if only I had made the claims you misattributed to me, your arguments would have been bang on. Point granted.

        You also make a new argument that the Wright brothers example undermines my “effort to dismiss all the nasty things Columbus did on the grounds that they were inevitable.” But since (of course) I didn’t say that either, this is really just another instance of the above.

        I want to raise one more point. You say:

        I suppose I might have hastily assumed that this was where the weight of your argument was supposed to lie, because it seems quite obvious that if we simply seek to “evaluate his life and achievements,” we don’t have good reason to celebrate him. If you still think we do despite all the considerations Irfan has raised (or even despite all the things that you yourself noted), then I’m not sure we can have a productive discussion about this.

        So in other words it’s not so much that you were a careless reader as that you were being charitable. Since it’s so “obvious” I’m wrong about the main point, you were trying to credit me with a clever argument instead of my own, obviously wrong ones. This would fit with the opening line of your original comment to me:

        I think all of your points in favor of Columbus were addressed already in Irfan’s reply to Michael and my supplement to it.

        So according to you everything I wrote was a waste of time, having already been answered by Irfan and yourself, and really the only question remaining is how I could be so dim as not to realize it. What impact on me did you expect this remark to have? Did you think at all before you wrote it?

        If your remark were the opening of some sort of argument or presentation of evidence which would back it up, fine. But it isn’t. Nothing whatever is said in support of it. It is just your bald assertion. Well, since I don’t agree, and you knew that, really what was the point?

        You speak of having a productive discussion. Please remember that prerequisite for a productive discussion is that one refrain from dogmatism and make the effort to understand what one’s interlocutor is saying before criticizing. Irfan, for one, has had no trouble understanding me and responding appropriately. I’m sure you can too.


        • Yes, in part I’m saying that if that had been your argument my criticism would have been warranted. But since you had not only claimed that it wasn’t your argument, but claimed that my criticism wouldn’t have been warranted even if it had been, I don’t see why I should be faulted for arguing that it would have been. I myself noted that it wasn’t relevant to what you had clarified your main point to be. But I take my response to be relevant to the objection you made to the claim aside from the fact that it was targeted at a claim you hadn’t made. I’d also hoped, more importantly, that it would clarify the different ways in which inevitability should affect our attitudes. So no, I was decidedly not simply saying that if you had made a different claim my argument would have been good.

          Since you accuse me of being a careless reader rather than allowing for the possibility that what you wrote did not make the structure of your reasoning entirely clear, I’ll refrain from supposing that I understand entirely what it is that you claim in paragraph two not to have said. But here’s an effort to articulate why what I said is not irrelevant to what you (seem to me to) have said: you rightly point out that even if someone else would have done what the Wright Brothers did if they hadn’t done it, that’s no reason not to celebrate what they did; I agree, but observe that the same is true of Columbus and our reasons for refusing to celebrate him. Maybe I’m careless or just stupid, but I took your initial claim to be that all the nasty things that Columbus did don’t count against him because they would have happened anyway. If you weren’t making that kind of claim, you’ll have to be clearer to help me understand just what kind of claim you were making, both in the original post and in your initial response. If the parallel reason in the case of the Wright Brothers does not count against that claim or any other claim you’ve made, I’d like to know why.

          As for point 2, I don’t know how charitable I was being, but you don’t seem to be being very charitable yourself. As I said, I’m happy to let you be the authority on what your original post meant. But you opened up with what seemed to be the argument that we should celebrate Columbus because his activities led to a Good Thing, and you then spent a while pointing to evidence that he was not a virtuous person along with some reasons to think that he was. Irfan and I had already addressed arguments of the latter sort, and I endorse the main lines of Irfan’s objections as well as my own. Does that mean that what you wrote was a “waste of time?” That wasn’t my claim. My claim was that I didn’t see how what you’d written answered the objections that had been raised, which I did not think needed to be repeated. When I say that it seems obvious, I mean that the objections already raised seem obviously right to me (not that there is no need for argument). Nothing you said addressed them at all as far as I could see. What was the point of saying it? Perhaps inviting you to say something in defense of those claims that would meet those objections, or to clarify why those objections didn’t apply to your claims. What impact did I expect it to have on you? Perhaps considering whether you could offer responses to the objections. You can still do all that, if you want. But given that those objections seem decisive to me and that no amount of pointing to Columbus’ extraordinary characteristics strikes me as sufficient to undermine them, I already wasn’t sure we’d get anywhere before you took to lecturing me on dialectical manners.

          In other words, I plead not guilty to the charge of dogmatism, and I don’t think my apparent misunderstanding of the exact structure of your argument had nothing at all to do with what you actually wrote. I still see no reason to think that your initial post gives us any good grounds to celebrate Columbus, why the original post doesn’t fall to the objections already raised, or why your considerations about inevitability and good consequences lend any support at all to the case for celebrating him. If you’ve given any reason for me to think otherwise, I’ve missed it. If you want to keep on interpreting my responses in a hostile light and accusing me of not even trying to understand you, I guess I can’t stop you. But I can think of better ways for both of us to spend our time.


          • I believe this is the point at which your irresistibly handsome host breaks in and tries to mediate between his disputatious guests. Luckily, this task is eased for me by virtue of the fact that I am currently taking PSYC 510 Marital and Couples Counseling, and reading Susan M. Johnson, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. Now, I realize that the two Davids are not precisely a couple, but mutatis mutandis (talk about handwaving), the same principles apply to blog conflict as to marital conflict. So I’d like to restructure and reframe this interaction via empathic conjecture about what each side is trying to accomplish. Hopefully what I say will be so fucking annoying that you’ll stop trying to beat one another up, and come after me instead.

            So the situation here is driven by the fact that the moral/emotional stakes are high, and that each side’s arguments are slightly baffling to the other. It’s worth remembering that a huge part of the bafflement arises from the medium. (Yes, let’s blame technology.) Blog commenting is good for a lot of things, including philosophy, but it’s very hard to be fully clear and explicit about every complexity of a complex issue in a combox. I don’t think Riesbeck is a dogmatist, and don’t think Potts is a brute or a psychopath. You’re both fine, upstanding fellows, which is why you’re bloggers for this stimulating, sophisticated, and altogether clean-living blog.

            The bottom line is, it’s difficult within a medium like blogging to do justice to (a) your interlocutor, (b) the complexity of the argument, and (c) the inevitable need for the straightforward expression of one’s attitudes about moral issues, based on the arguments one “has” and would articulate if one had all the time in the world to do it. The frustrating thing about blogging is that you touch on deep and charged issues, but from within logistical constraints that prevent you from doing justice to them. That’s really why you’re pissed off at each other. Each interlocutor thinks that the other has been insufficiently charitable or attentive. But the logistical constraints of adversarial philosophical blogging are themselves at odds with that.

            So let’s blame technology. Gee, that was easy.

            OK, so I’m not on any insurance panels, so I’ll be expecting payment out of pocket for services rendered for this session. But I’ll give you a receipt with a DSM diagnosis, which you can then present to your insurance company for reimbursement. See you next week!


            • Not nearly annoying enough, sorry. For what it’s worth, I have never intended to suggest that DP is a brute or a psychopath. I haven’t been trying to communicate any hostility at all. I suspect part of the problem here is that I’m accustomed to commenting on posts by people with whom I can just say bald, blunt things without worrying that they’ll take it as an expression of personal hostility, and hence I’m not sufficiently careful to formulate things so as to avoid such connotations. This issue is emphatically not a highly emotional one for me, so if I’ve seemed emotive it’s just because writing blog comments is a form of relaxation for me, and hence I am prone to be too lazy to take all due precautions to ensure that I seem as untroubled as I am. That said, the more “did you think at all before writing that?” style comments I receive, the less non-hostile I am likely to become.


              • So David R, I’m hearing that the session didn’t annoy you, didn’t change your mind about anything, that it isn’t an emotional issue for you, but that some of David P’s comments have made you less non-hostile than you were.

                Whoops! I think that’s all the time we have for today’s session. So…let’s see, our final item of business today is….that’s right, payment! I accept all major credit cards, personal check, or cash.

                Come on, admit it–that was annoying. If not, [sigh] I’ll just keep trying…


                • Moreover, while I am in no position to criticize you for misinterpreting me, if you’re going to be a therapist you might be a bit more careful. I didn’t say that anything had already made me less non-hostile. I said that a certain sort of discourse would make me less non-hostile. Future potential. But I blame English more than you on this. Had I written it in ancient Greek, the optative with ἄν would have been unmistakable.


      • David R.,

        I’m sorry for my part in this little squabble, which was to take offence at something you said, even though I knew perfectly well that you said it carelessly, not maliciously. It is a fault of mine not to be able to overlook petty slights of this kind very easily. I’ve known I have this flaw for a long time, but I haven’t been able to expunge it. So much for my own efforts at character development! Anyway, perhaps we can put this behind us and move on to happier—or anyway more philosophical—topics.


      • Irfan,

        You say:

        Columbus Day is obviously about Columbus, the man and his achievements. It’s not about “the discovery of the New World,” itself a dubious idea.

        It is not at all obvious. More important, it seems to me, it is not true. Columbus was not given a national holiday because of his character and achievements any more than Washington or Lincoln were. In the case of Washington, he was our war leader in the Revolutionary War, and on the strength of that became our first President. So he gets a day. Plenty of other people, at the time and since, have had better characters than Washington and done more outstanding personal achievements. (Benjamin Franklin, for example.) It’s not the matter of achievement that gets Washington his day, it’s the particular event and its meaning and importance for our nation. He successfully led the nation through a crisis. We honor such people because of the importance to us of what they did.

        It’s the same with Columbus. The European discovery of the New World was a very big deal, and we think of it as a great thing, and he gets the credit for it, so he gets a day. I really think it’s just about that simple. The courage and skill and so forth are important too. If it were easy, if it were something just anyone could’ve or would’ve done, we wouldn’t honor him for it, of course. But similar—indeed, much greater—“courage and skill and so forth” wouldn’t get him a day for anything else. And as for character, that has almost nothing to do with it. This is not the Catholic Church examining someone for sainthood, or the evaluation of a prospective spouse. No one read a character profile of Columbus in a history book and said, “What a guy! He should have a national holiday!”, any more than in the case of George Washington. We do not honor them for their character. Rather, we honor them for the importance of what they did, and hope to hell their character wasn’t so bad as to spoil it all. (To the extent that character does enter in, it’s after the fact. Because we—it’s a human foible—must have our heroes pure white and our villains pure black, we naturally wish to believe that Washington & Co. had sterling characters. We make up fairy tales about chopping down the cherry tree, etc. But this is all quite secondary.)

        Therefore, to a significant extent, Columbus Day is less about Columbus than about politics. And the fight over Columbus Day has really nothing to do with Columbus and everything to do with politics. The fight is over whether the civilization that was built here, mostly by Europeans, is a glorious thing or whether it is overshadowed and even negated by the price that was paid for it by the American Indians. I mean, was the coming of Europeans to the New World a good thing? As a rule, the people who are against Columbus Day think not. Or at least, they think it is tainted by such a grievous amount of sin that it should not be spoken of except in the confessional.

        Take Kirkpatrick Sale. His 1990 book, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of 1492, was written specifically to demonize Columbus in the service of Sale’s leftwing anarchist, “secessionist” political ideology. It is basically a propaganda tract. (On this see the review of Sale’s book in the New York Times: This doesn’t mean everything Sale says is false, obviously. But it does mean that his claims can’t be trusted implicitly. The point, however, is that Sale’s character assassination attempt was done precisely because he thinks Indian life here was a beatific paradise where the noble yet humble natives lived as one with the Earth, and that this paradise was destroyed by the Europeans and their evil civilization, a civilization he advocates dismantling entirely, or at least to the maximum feasible extent. He thinks, for example, that the United States should be broken up, that we should all just secede from all governments, and certainly from the federal government, and live in small, “human scale” social units.

        This, then, is what Columbus Day is about, or the controversy over Columbus Day. In the larger scheme of things, arguments about Columbus’s achievements and character are just a proxy war.

        You also say:

        What I would insist on is that you cannot evaluate a person’s character by abstracting from the moral status of his aims. … Think of the grit and self-control it took to work for the SS or NKVD. Think of the “courage” it took for Orval Faubus to defy the U.S. Army in Little Rock–or for Osama bin Laden to do the same from Kandahar.

        Here is one of the few theoretically interesting points in this discussion. I would be happy to hear you elaborate this. It doesn’t sound right to me. The examples don’t help. My reaction is to say yes, certainly those could be instances of grit, self-control, courage, etc. Why not? After 9/11, politicians denounced the actions of the terrorists as “cowardly,” among other things. This is typically what politicians say after such events, and I always think, it doesn’t seem cowardly to me! Despicable, yes; cowardly, no.

        The shameless person looks courageous until you figure out what he’s really up to. Both defy risk and control their fears, but only one does it in the right way, at the right times, for the right reasons, etc.

        I get the reference to the revered Philosopher, but remain unmoved. I believe it was common in antiquity to hold that virtue could never be or result in anything but good. But I’m afraid I’ve never really understood why this should be true. I’m perfectly willing to be persuaded about this. I have no very strong or articulated theory of virtue (more’s the pity). But it seems like showing this will be an uphill slog.


        There is no need for an all-things-considered moral verdict on things like [Rome and Athens], and no rational way to offer one. Slavery is not worth celebrating, but the Posterior Analytics is. We can make those judgments on a case-by-case basis without having to ask, “OK, but now what is our evaluation of classical Athens as such? Good or bad?” There is no answer to that question, and no need to ask it. Unlike a person, a historical epoch is not a unified moral agent susceptible of a univocal moral verdict. When it comes to people we intend to celebrate, univocal moral verdicts are what we need…

        We may seldom need an all-things-considered moral verdict on a whole society, but we make them nonetheless. I don’t see anything necessarily incoherent about it. We somehow balance all the relevant considerations and say thumbs up or down. And any all-things-considered evaluation, whether of a movie, a person, a building, or a civilization, is going to suffer the same limitations. Mainly, I guess, that so much information is lost through such a judgment. What I definitely don’t see is why a person is any different in this regard. Every person is a mixed bag of good and bad. To make an all-things-considered judgment on a person requires balancing a multitude of good and bad points, not all of which are obviously commensurable. All-things-considered judgments on people are of limited value, in my opinion, for precisely this reason, which is the same as in the case of a civilization. Fortunately, we needn’t make them very often.


        • David P (I’m responding to your 10/22 at 4:10 pm),

          I’m going to confess up front that I can’t deal in a combox comment with your deepest theoretical concern–a defense of the unity of virtue. I realize that a defense of that thesis underlies what I’ve said, but it’s not the kind of thesis that can be defended in a space like this in the time at my disposal. So I won’t try. But I don’t need to go that far to say that if a person is guilty of engaging in or abetting mass murder, kidnapping, rape, slavery, and forced religious confession, he isn’t morally admirable. I’ve asserted that Columbus is guilty of all those things. You haven’t disputed it. So apart from whether you think the day ought to be devoted to celebrating him, do you think he is morally admirable?

          I’ve said that we can judge moral agents but not civilizations. You’ve said that we can judge both. But your judgments of Columbus the person are rather coy. You admit that he’s not a saint. You say that he’s not a nice guy. Etc. But that doesn’t really engage in a serious way with what I’ve ascribed to him in the way of depredations. A murderer is not plausibly described as having a “mixed” character–a “mixed bag of good and bad points,” or “not a saint” or “not a nice guy.” If the word “evil” has any application, it has application in Columbus’s case (as well as that of his comrades). I don’t need the unity of virtue to argue that Columbus is evil. I just need to identify what he’s done and to rely on the claim that that’s evil. If someone now wants to say that virtue is compatible with evil, fine. But that puts such a person in the position of saying one of two things: either Columbus’s virtues are compatible with his being evil, and we unapologetically celebrate an evil man because of the good that his evil brought us at the expense of others; or Columbus Day is about the discovery of the New World in a way that has literally nothing to do with Columbus, the man (whom we should effectively ignore, despite the fact that the day is named after him). Neither of those options seems plausible to me, but adopting them requires the adoption of a conception of Columbus Day that’s just about as revisionary as mine. If I pushed a defender of Columbus Day into that corner, I think I’d say, “Well, if we celebrate Columbus Day under that description, I’ll be content.”

          Now, on the more specific claims: Your claim that Columbus Day is about the discovery of the New World rather than Columbus himself flouts two sets of facts. First, it flouts what the day’s defenders and designers have said about why they made it a day. It also flouts the fact that Columbus didn’t discover the New World. The enabling legislation and rhetoric that gives Columbus Day its official meaning either honors the man or falsely claims that he discovered the New World. Mostly it does the former.

          On the first point. Here’s a link to a newspaper item describing LBJ’s making Columbus Day a federal holiday. The purpose of Columbus Day, it says, is “to honor the Italian explorer.”

          Here is the Columbus Citizens Foundation, essentially a pro-Columbus lobbying group.

          The parade celebrates the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition and the important contributions Italian-Americans have made to the United States.

          Behind the somewhat pathetic reference to “important contributions” is the attribution of courage to Columbus, and the implication that he is being honored on the day. They tell us that the dramatic climax of Columbus Day is the laying of a wreath at the statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle in New York. (Dramatic climax because it’s the last event of the day.) On your interpretation, a wreath laid at the foot of a statue created to honor a man is not intended to honor the man. If so, I don’t see what other purpose it could have. By the way, New York is hardly exceptional; this sort of thing happens wherever Columbus Day is celebrated.

          Here is the National Christopher Columbus Association, explaining why “we” honor the memory of Columbus with a day dedicated to him. Whatever you think of the unity of virtue vs. its non-unity with respect to moral judgment, their description makes it obvious that the day is about honoring the Columbus the man. There would be no point to having such a page if the day weren’t about honoring the man.

          I can’t link to every single page of this site, but virtually every page underscores the point I’m making, including the testimonial letters from various presidents (Taft, Bush, Clinton). All of them make reference in some way to Columbus’s character as the thing we’re celebrating on Columbus Day.

          From the Virginia enabling legislation:

          The second Monday in October — Columbus Day and Yorktown Victory Day to honor Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), a discoverer of the Americas, and the final victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, in the Revolutionary War.

          I think this example makes clear that if you want to celebrate “The Discovery of the New World,” you name the day “New World Discovery Day,” whereas if you want to honor Columbus, you name the day “Columbus Day.”

          Here’s Iowa (my emphasis):

          The governor of this state is hereby authorized and requested to issue annually a proclamation, calling upon our state officials to display the American flag on all state and school buildings and the people of the state to display the flag at their homes, lodges, churches, and places of business on the twelfth day of October, known as Columbus Day; to commemorate the life and history of Christopher Columbus and to urge that services and exercises be had in churches, halls and other suitable places expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.

          In New Jersey, we have a New Jersey Italian and Italian-American Heritage Commission, which is the political force behind Columbus Day. Here’s a video of the scintillating 2014 celebration in Trenton, the state capital. Insofar as there is any discernible purpose to this celebration, it’s two-fold: (a) a celebration of Columbus the man, (b) generalized ethnic cheerleading designed to distract attention from (a).

          Here’s some more in the same vein. And some more. Even this author, who wants to shift the focus elsewhere, admits that Columbus is the one being honored by the day (my emphasis): “we honor Columbus for his discovery….”

          As for Lincoln and Washington, I think it’s equally obvious that their birthdays are celebrated to honor them. Whether correctly or incorrectly, they get days because people regard them as praiseworthy human beings. Likewise MLK. Likewise Cesar Chavez: no one thinks that (say) Cesar Chavez Day is about the virtues of grape-pickers in general, rather than about the accomplishments of Cesar Chavez, the man.

          Incidentally, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday is celebrated. I suspect that the reason it’s not celebrated more widely is that Americans are uncomfortable celebrating a man who comes out and offers a celebration of sexual promiscuity: “Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace…” I recently encountered a popular magazine with an article praising Franklin’s virtue, and quoting from his Autobiography to make the point. The editors prudently edited out the preceding quotation, leaving the impression that Franklin was a devotee of “chastity” full stop. Also, unlike Washington and Lincoln, Franklin doesn’t come across as a man of decisive action. But that, too, is a judgment of character: it reflects the widespread moral judgment (among Americans) that bold, resolute action is to be prized over mere discourse, invention, and diplomacy.

          You say that the European discovery of the New World was a big deal. First of all, even by that standard, the New World was not discovered by Columbus. Leif Erickson was here well before Columbus. Arguably, so were others. More importantly, there is no plausible construal on which Columbus discovered the New World at all. You can’t “discover” something’s being X if you think that it’s ~X. Columbus thought the “New World” was the Indies. But the Indies were part of the Old World. How is that a discovery of the New World? He thought Cuba was a continent. It isn’t. He thought South America was China. It isn’t. He then decided to describe the Caribbean as the “West Indies.” But it’s not in India. Worse, it’s east of India. This is not a “discovery” but an obstinate series of errors by an epistemic reactionary–a man who will fabricate a whole geography in order to suit his dogmatic belief that he’s discovered something. What you describe as his “discovery” of the New World is better described as a blundering into North America followed by predation on the people he found here, paving the way for imperialism and theocracy by his successors.

          You say that the fight over Columbus Day is less about Columbus than about politics. I don’t see why things have to be formulated disjunctively or comparatively. The fight about Columbus Day is about both things: it’s about the politics that Columbus believed, embodied, practiced, and bequeathed to us. As for the question, “Was the coming of Europeans to the New World a good thing?” I’d say that it’s an ambiguous question because “the coming of Europeans” is an amphiboly. In one sense, it refers to the actions of the first Europeans who got here. In another sense, it refers to historical actualities that arose as a result of their getting here. In the first sense, it was a bad thing. In the second sense, it’s a good thing, i.e., good for later generations that Europeans got to the New World. But the latter judgment doesn’t given the first set of agents credit for what happened as a result of their coming here. They don’t deserve that credit. The problem is, that is the credit we now give Christopher Columbus. It’s as though because he blundered his way here, he gets credit for every positive causal consequence of European immigration here, even when he intended and actually brought about the negative consequences.

          On Kirkpatrick Sale: I think your critique of Sale commits the fallacy of poisoning the well. I relied on Sale’s book to document two sets of facts: (1) facts about Columbus’s depredations against the natives, and (2) facts about the demographics of the native population of North America. If you disagree with the facts that Sale cites, the appropriate thing to do would be to dispute the factual issues. But no part of your anti-Sale polemic does that. An author can be left-wing anarchist and still be right about Christopher Columbus. His book can be a straightforward work of advocacy and still be correct on the essential points (at least the points I relied on). It’s true that Sale has an overly romantic view of the lives of native Americans prior to colonization, but neither (1) nor (2) relies on those romanticizations. What Sale thinks about contemporary secession has no bearing (at all) on the cogency of the case he presents against Columbus. And he is, in any case, pretty forthright about saying that all claims about post-colonial America are speculative, including his own. Nothing in my case turns on those speculations.

          The McNeill review you cite (I’d read it before) strikes me as a contemptible piece of rhetorical ad bacculum driven by McNeill’s unargued historiographic dogma that historians should refrain from engaging in advocacy or making sharp moral judgments. This, in particular, is irresponsible and dishonest:

          Silly remarks and callow, sweeping judgments disfigure the rest of the book as well, and tend to obscure a few worthwhile challenges to received opinions that Mr. Sale scatters through his pages.

          This is really just a handwaving way of dismissing the book’s argument without having to deal with it. It’s cleverly ambiguous as between “silly remarks are scattered throughout the book” and “silly remarks are so ubiquitous that they sink the thesis of the book.” The first is true, the second is not, and McNeill knows that he hasn’t done a thing in this review even to hint at the evidence for the second. He also knows that he has the sort of reputation that permits him to get away with claims like this. Whatever the flaws of Sale’s book (plenty), I regard McNeill’s epistemic authoritarianism as the greater enemy of honest inquiry than Sale’s forthright zealotry.

          (Incidentally, the very next passage in the review, is a technically correct but extremely misleading characterization of Sale’s view: “On the positive side, I was struck, for instance, by his argument that Columbus recognized that he had in fact discovered a new continent in the course of his fourth (and final) voyage…” I don’t have Sale’s book with me here, but I’ll reproduce what Sale actually says at some point, and you can judge for yourself whether McNeill’s summary actually captures what he’s saying–and whether McNeill’s “positive” judgment coheres with the dismissive judgment that precedes it.)

          On judging civilizations vs judging agents, the best I can do is to eleborate a bit on what I said: “Unlike a person, a historical epoch is not a unified moral agent susceptible of a univocal moral verdict.” A person initiates action, intends actions, and has relatively clear identity-conditions (at least as compared with a civilization). A civilization does neither of those things, and lacks relevantly clear identity-conditions. So I’d say that if it’s difficult to make all-things-considered moral judgments of persons with mixed traits, a fortiori it’s more difficult to make them of civilizations. A moral judgment on a civilization presupposes a set of moral judgments of the leading lights of that civilization. The judgment of those persons is a necessary condition of the judgment on the civilization–but a long, long way from being sufficient.


      • Irfan,

        Other than the factual matter of the extent and degree of Columbus’s “evil” deeds and intentions, our disagreement seems to boil down to the following.

        First, I say that the Columbus Day holiday is not just about Columbus’s personal character and achievements (as you say it is). I say it’s also due to his role in an event of great importance for the United States, namely the European discovery of America. Personal character and achievements alone do not get awarded national holidays. Otherwise there would be a lot more national holidays, and Columbus Day would be pretty far down the list in terms of importance. There has to be the context of an event of historic significance for our country for a national holiday to be awarded, and the holiday is largely a commemoration of that event.

        Second, you say Columbus is evil and I say he isn’t. This difference hinges in part on the factual matter I mentioned above, but mostly I think it hinges on our different ways of approaching the evaluation. You seem to think that if Columbus ever did anything significantly evil, then he is evil, and there’s nothing more to talk about. Maybe I’m overstating your view here. If so, please correct me. Whereas I don’t think it’s that easy. People are not unitary essences. There is no Calvinist division of humanity into the “elect” and the “damned.” People’s characters often differ by situation and context and are in some ways good and in other ways bad. To be evil, in my view, requires a very strong preponderance of the bad that pervades a person’s life. In addition, I think an evaluation should be sensitive to a person’s social, historical, developmental context. Standards are different in different times and places. We all start from our embedding in our family life, community, nation, historical period, etc. And we have human limitations. We aren’t infinitely or easily malleable. What is important is what a person does within these constraints. So I don’t think a person necessarily should be called evil if he acts like most of his countrymen, if he fails to transcend limitations that very few people manage to transcend. Now, this discussion has been pretty abstract. That’s why the analogy to the judgment of cultures is helpful. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say, for example, that the culture created by classical Athens was good and even great, in spite of its many evils. We make such an evaluation by invoking the kinds of considerations I just outlined, and we can and should do the same with individuals. You object to this, as far as I can see, on the grounds that it’s impossible (or extremely difficult) to evaluate a culture. But it isn’t. We can do it if we want to or have to, and the evidence is that we do. This is exactly the sort of thing we often say about cultures. Of course, such evaluations suffer in the ways you indicate. But so do our overall, all-things-considered evaluations of individuals. And I’m no fan of all-things-considered evaluations of individuals, as I already indicated.

        Now to address some of your specific points.

        On the Columbus Day holiday, you dig up the text outlining what the holiday is for from various sources, for which thank you. It’s more than I bothered to do. However, I can’t agree that they provide very strong support for the idea that Columbus Day “is about honoring Columbus the man.” For instance, the first quote speaks of celebrating “the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired” Columbus’s expedition and then about celebrating Italian Americans (!). Columbus the man isn’t mentioned. The most important of the items you find is the one labeled “Iowa.” It turns out to be the text of the United States Code for the national holiday (see It reads:

        Sec. 107. Columbus Day

        The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation –
        (1) designating the second Monday in October as Columbus Day;
        (2) calling on United States Government officials to display
        the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on
        Columbus Day; and
        (3) inviting the people of the United States to observe
        Columbus Day, in schools and churches, or other suitable places,
        with appropriate ceremonies that express the public sentiment
        befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.

        (Pub. L. 105-225, Aug. 12, 1998, 112 Stat. 1256.)

        There is no mention of Columbus the man here either. It speaks of expressing public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America. My point exactly.

        Minor point on Ben Franklin. You write:

        Incidentally, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday is celebrated. I suspect that the reason it’s not celebrated more widely is that Americans are uncomfortable celebrating a man who comes out and offers a celebration of sexual promiscuity: “Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace…” […]

        I gotta say, Irfan, this is a strange paragraph. To start with, the celebration you refer to is hardly a national holiday. It isn’t even a City of Philadelphia holiday. It’s a private event (and good for them). But do you really mean to suggest that Franklin might have a national holiday if only he hadn’t celebrated sexual promiscuity (and been a man of action—though it seems to me he took plenty of action)? In that case, you’re in some trouble, because the passage you cite is hardly a celebration of promiscuity. Quite the opposite, it says one should rarely have sex except for health or offspring, and then lists additional restrictions on sexual intercourse. I would agree that the passage shows he didn’t interpret “chastity” to mean never having sex, or even to mean never having sex outside of marriage. But that is hardly the same as endorsing sexual promiscuity. (In the same vein, Hume castigated chastity as being among the false, monkish “virtues.” But I don’t think Hume was advocating sexual promiscuity either.)

        Now, speaking of discovering America, you insist that Columbus did not, and produce a series of ironic and amusing facts to the effect that he insisted he’d discovered a route to Asia, not a new world, that he never made it to North America, that Leif Erikson got here first, that the “West Indies” are east of the East Indies, and so forth. But really, what of it? None of this is relevant to the material point, which is that it was Columbus who showed Europeans that land could be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic. That news made it inevitable that Europeans would properly identify and begin exploring the Americas. But it was Columbus who took the significant step. Leif Erikson’s earlier adventure was unknown, so it didn’t have this effect and is historically insignificant. That is to say, as far as subsequent history is concerned, Erikson may as well never have sailed. This fits with what I’ve been saying, that the important thing about Columbus is the significance of what he did for us. He made the breakthrough that set in motion the chain of events that led to the English colonization of North America and eventually to the establishment of the United States. This remains true regardless of Columbus’s errors or the doings of other explorers.

        You suggest that Columbus is now given credit “for every positive causal consequence” of subsequent European immigration to the New World. I would say this is true only in the sense I just mentioned: he made the key breakthrough. In that limited sense we can say is responsible for subsequent history. But, first, obviously nobody thinks Columbus is himself directly responsible for anything but his own actions. And second, I would say he is given responsibility (in the limited sense) for all the subsequent history of the New World, the bad along with the good. If we think of his discovery of the New World as a good thing—those of us who do—then we tend to emphasize the good and neglect the bad (just as with the Greeks). This is natural enough. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.

        On my claim that the controversy over Columbus Day is about politics more than Columbus’s personal character and actions, you ask why it should be more one rather than the other. Why can’t it be about both equally? Answer, because it is only subsequent history that makes Columbus’s character and actions of such significance. The importance of the latter depends on that of the former, so the former is the dog and the latter is the tail. Moreover, as David R. pointed out, Columbus’s actions took place 500 years ago. Such distant events do not naturally arouse strong feelings. On the other hand, present politics does arouse strong feelings! It is the politics people really care about.

        As evidence, consider the following from the Wikipedia page on U.S. public holidays, concerning proposals to abolish various holidays. Here is the full text from the section on Columbus Day (

        Columbus Day

        Wide protests by the Native American community as well as some Italian Americans support the abolition of Columbus Day, mainly due to its ideology in “forcefully” conquering and converting whole populations with another and encouraging “imperialism” and “colonization.” Glenn Morris of the Denver Post wrote that Columbus Day “… is not merely a celebration of Columbus the man; it is the celebration of a racist legal and political legacy – embedded in official legal and political pronouncements of the U.S. – such as the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.”

        For Morris, then, apparently if Columbus Day were merely about Columbus, it would be all right!

        I would bet money that the average person who opposes celebrating Columbus Day doesn’t know 10% of what you—or even I—know about Christopher Columbus. That’s because opposition to Columbus Day is about politics, not Columbus. And it seems to me that the politics ultimately boils down to making European Americans feel guilty and ashamed for coming here and building the civilization they did. This seems to be Sale’s game, for example. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a reason to support Columbus Day.

        With regard to Columbus’s supposed depredations, my impression is that your account of them is one-sided and exaggerated, and would not be accepted by the average qualified historian. (I think the same is true of Sale’s account.) For one example, consider the encomienda system by which the Spanish managed Indian labor in the Americas. I had never heard of it until I read your references to it in this thread. The impression I got from your discussion was that Columbus invented the encomienda system for the express purpose of enslaving and exploiting the local population at hard labor until they were used up, like a series of Nazi or Soviet slave labor camps (your own analogy). But the slightest fact checking reveals that none of this is true.

        A few points: First, Columbus did not invent the encomienda system, which had been used to manage conquered peoples for a very long time in Spain before Columbus ever sailed. Second, the purpose of the system was not just to exploit the labor of the people subjected to it. It was also intended to protect them from abuse and to give them instruction in the Spanish language and Christianity. Third, it is not clear that Columbus introduced the system at all from what I’ve been able to uncover—though it would be unsurprising if he did, since this was the standard Spanish way of doing things. At any rate, the encomienda system was not officially introduced until 1503, after Columbus was no longer governor. Fourth, the abuses of the system, which evidently were horrific, were mainly the doing of the encomenderos—the Spanish colonists who were given tracts of land and the right to manage their Indian populations—not the government authorities. Indeed, the government tried repeatedly to curb abuses but was thwarted by the fierce resistance of the colonists. The situation reminds me of the system of prisoner assignment in Australia during the years when it was an English penal colony. Exactly the same sort of thing went on—assignment of prisoners as free labor to colonists, sometimes savage abuse of the prisoner laborers by the colonists, and attempts to curb abuse by the local governors in political battles that were nearly always won by the colonists.

        I don’t mean to suggest that the Spanish governors were all humanitarians, or that any were—though some might have been, I don’t know. But it has to be admitted that the Spanish in general were out to exploit the natives for their labor and anything else they could extract from the New World. Sadly, I think that is a fact. But there are two points I would make about this. First, this was just Spanish culture, which was feudal and backward and ruined nearly everything it touched. It wasn’t just the Moors and Jews in Spain who were exploited. Though the general Spanish population weren’t managed in encomienda, most of them were serfs tied to the land in a vast system of unproductive feudal estates. In other words, they didn’t treat their own people much better than they did the Native Americans. This undercuts the idea that racism had a whole lot to do with their treatment of the Native Americans (though I wouldn’t say it had absolutely nothing to do with it). Moreover, the Spaniards’ whole approach to empire building was repressive and extractive (as was the Romans’ before them). For example, during this same general period, Charles V managed to gain control of all the great northern Italian merchant cities (particularly Genoa, Milan, and Florence) except Venice and proceeded to impose repressive laws and taxes that destroyed their economic activity and in effect killed the goose whose golden eggs made them attractive prizes to begin with. The story is even worse in the case of Bruges and Antwerp, which Charles V gained control of when he bought the Holy Roman Emperorship. In 1555, when he put his son Philip in charge of the Spanish Netherlands, Antwerp was a thriving commercial and financial center (“the fulcrum of international capitalism,” according to Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason, 2005), a city of 100,000 inhabitants. In 1589, after 34 years of taxation, repression, and religious warfare to crush Dutch Calvinism, Antwerp was a relatively stagnant town of 42,000, and free Amsterdam had become the commercial center in its place. Thus, everything the Spanish imperialists touched turned to shit, even if it had been golden before. It would actually be surprising if this had not happened in those parts of the New World controlled by the Spaniards.

        Hence, the second point is that Columbus isn’t particularly responsible for these events, though you imply that he is. At least, I think that’s a fair reading of your statement that Columbus “gets credit for every positive causal consequence of European immigration here, even when he intended and actually brought about the negative consequences.” That he intended and brought about all the negative consequences of the next 300-400 years of Spanish rule is surely false. He did not set in motion events that otherwise would not have occurred. The negative consequences were the result of Spanish policy. And as far as his intentions are concerned, he could not possibly have known or controlled what was to come, and so he could not have intended it. I doubt very much whether he intended all the negative consequences he did bring about, inasmuch as incompetence at governing seems to have been a large part of his trouble. You will say, as you have already said, that whether or not the negative consequences would have happened without him, he was in fact a willing agent of the Spanish crown and participant in bringing them about. I don’t deny it; I agree that he shares some degree of responsibility. But here is where, in evaluating him morally, we need to be sensitive to historical context. Columbus could have opposed Spanish imperial policy with respect to the Native Americans, it is true. But this would have taken a morally extraordinary individual. Even “Protector of the Indians” (an official administrative post, by the way) Las Casas was an encomendero for some twelve or thirteen years before he gave up his encomienda and began agitating on behalf of the natives. Columbus was only governor for six years or so, and absentee for much of that time. I do not think it is right to condemn someone for failing to be morally extraordinary.

        I should say that I think my attitude would be different if governing and extracting goods from the New World had been Columbus’s whole career. For example, I would have a hard time honoring someone like Cortez. Not that I know much about Cortez, but what I was taught as a school child was that his whole career—or what is considered significant about it—was to conquer the Aztecs and ship tons (literally) of gold and silver home. I wouldn’t be inclined to accept the historical context argument (“those were the times”) in such a case, because we don’t honor people for such things, no matter what the times. I think similarly about Alexander the Great. What he did was truly amazing, even awe-inspiring, but still his career consisted of conquering people. Mary Renault defends him on the grounds that “that’s what you did in those days” (not her literal words, but her attitude). I reply that that may be so, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad thing to do. However, none of this really applies to Columbus. He wasn’t a conquistador. His dealings with the Indians were a relatively small part of his career, and I propose to honor him in spite of those dealings, just as we honor classical Athenian culture in spite of their keeping slaves (and treating them abominably, by the way) and many other wrong-doings.

        Here is one more example to illustrate what seems to me the unreasonable nature of your claims about Columbus. You insist that the Spanish are responsible even for the deaths of Native Americans from disease, on the ground that if they hadn’t died from disease, they would have died from abuse by the Spanish. But there’s no necessity in this. If conditions on all of the encomienda were really so bad that all their Indian inhabitants would have died of abuse (which I don’t think is true), why wouldn’t such a humanitarian disaster have triggered a humanitarian response? The New Laws of 1542 were just such a response, and if the colonists’ behavior had been several times more savage than it historically was, the response might well have been correspondingly vigorous. African populations, where disease was not such a factor, were not wiped out. Spain didn’t have African colonies, but Portugal did, which may amount to about the same thing in terms of intentions. But their populations (mainly in the areas that are now the countries of Angola and Mozambique) were not wiped out. For that matter, neither were the Indian populations of Central and South America. The populations of the Aztecs and Incas, after their initial rapid decline, slowly recovered through the rest of the colonial period (per Linda Newson, “Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America,”

        Finally, on Kirkpatrick Sale, you accuse me fallaciously arguing that just because Sale is an ideologue and his book is propaganda, his claims must be false. But (of course) I didn’t argue that way. (What, commit a fallacy? Moi?!) Rather, I said that because he is an ideologue whose book is propaganda, his claims can’t be trusted implicitly. Nothing controversial he says, where it is possible that his biases are influencing him, can be taken at face value. Indeed, it is positively irrational to trust anything of this kind he says. He may be saying true and valuable things, but before they can be believed, they need to be independently verified. Similarly, research sponsored by cigarette companies showing that cigarettes are healthful may be presenting true and valuable findings, but it can’t be believed implicitly; it needs independent verification.

        As an example of Sale’s trustworthiness, consider his claim, which you quoted, that “the two leading researchers” of the population of Hispaniola at the time of Columbus are Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah, whose estimate of the population of Hispaniola prior to Columbus’s arrival is 8 million. The tone of Sale’s discussion, which you quote at length, is that in the old days it was “assumed” (not estimated or seriously thought about, apparently) that the pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola was only in the realm of 200,000 – 300,000, but then scholars turned serious attention to the matter and, led by Cook and Borah, figured out that 8 million is a more reasonable figure. None of this is true. See the paper I just cited, and also William Denevan, The Population of the Americas, 1492 (Google Books has a copy), pp. 36–38. Cook and Borah’s figure is extremely controversial; it is not accepted by most experts. Other researchers (Rosenblat and, separately, Verlinden), writing after Cook and Borah, and critical of them, have proposed figures of just 100,000 or even less. Cook and Borah’s procedure apparently was to accept an estimate of just under 4 million (for reasons of the sort you quote from Sale) in the year 1496, and to extrapolate backwards on the assumption of a constant, disease-driven rate of decline to arrive at a figure of 8 million in 1492. But if this were true, there would surely be reports of epidemics from this period. (I mean, that’s a million people dying per year in a relatively small place, more than ten percent of the supposed population in the first year, and of course even greater percentages in subsequent years. People would have noticed.) But there are none. What makes Cook and Borah “the leading researchers” in this area, in view of the truth, which is that they are just two out of dozens? Well, pretty clearly, they are “the leading researchers” because they give a very high estimate of the population that Columbus is supposedly responsible for murdering, which is what Sale wants. (Per Denevan, by the way, Las Casas’s book is also “propaganda.” He is careful to note, of course, that much of what it says has been independently verified and is true.)

        In considering this 8 million figure, by the way, just to keep a sense of perspective, consider that the population of the thirteen colonies on the eve of the Revolutionary War was just 2.5 million. Again, the population of Spain (the combined kingdoms of Castile and Aragon) in 1492 was just 7.2 million. Yet we are supposed to believe that people on the island of Hispaniola (land area smaller than South Carolina), who survived by hunting and fishing and a little gardening, who didn’t have the plow or beasts of burden, numbered 8 million.

        You also accuse the author of the New York Times review of Sale’s book of “rhetorical ad baculum.” But you don’t really explain how there is any ad baculum going on in the review, and I do not see it. What threat is Sale under? What’s this guy going to do, write a letter denouncing Sale to his editors at The Nation? Obviously, Sale has no reason to care what the Times reviewer thinks or to feel threatened by him. I also don’t see anything scurrilous (“contemptible” is your word) about the review or its tactics. I don’t see what is “cleverly ambiguous” about the statement that “silly remarks … disfigure the book … and tend to obscure the few worthwhile challenges [Sale offers].” The statement does say more than that there are merely some silly remarks in the book; it says there are enough of these to obscure what little of value Sale has to contribute. That means there are plenty. The reviewer has a right to his opinion (more right than you or I, actually), which is that Sale has undertaken to “rewrite the past” for political purposes. If true, then this is what is contemptible, as far as I’m concerned, and Sale deserves to be outed for it. It is true that the reviewer does not detail Sale’s distortions, giving chapter and verse. But it’s a pop media book review, so what do you expect? Look at all the words I consumed just now talking about the population estimate of Hispaniola, a minor point. I doubt Sale’s distortions and slanting of the picture is a matter of some Big Lie that could be described in a pop book review. It’s surely a matter of a very large pile of relatively smalltime falsehoods, exaggerations, and unbalanced judgments that the typical Times review reader doesn’t care about and doesn’t want to read about. I am not saying, I should emphasize, that the Times review has to be believed implicitly—certainly not. But it shows that Sale’s book is controversial. Sale is not presenting the plain truth as accepted by mainstream historians.


    • David P,

      It might help for me to make a few of my assumptions more explicit to indicate how I’m reaching the conclusions I’m reaching. I realize that they’re big assumptions.

      1. We ought only to honor people for their virtue, not for their success per se, or for their perceived success. A person is worthy of honor when his virtue explains why he’s succeeded at some great task, ruling out luck or immorality. If we don’t introduce virtue into the equation, we run the risk of honoring (a) lucky people who succeed through sheer luck, or (b) immoral people who are successful despite being immoral. But neither deserve honors.

      On (b), I would insist that no person guilty of serious immorality deserves to be honored, regardless of the nature of her achievement, even if she’s being honored for an achievement in a part of her life unrelated to the accomplishment. On my view, if we discovered that Einstein or Edison regularly beat their spouses or children, they would forfeit any entitlement to being honored for their otherwise undeniable achievements in physics and invention respectively. We might be grateful for their accomplishments, but we couldn’t legitimately honor them as persons.

      2. Virtue is a unity. There are many versions of this thesis. I’m not entirely sure which version I accept, but I know I accept some version. There is no plausible version of the thesis that allows a person to be systematically unjust and yet admirably virtuous in some other respect. A systematically unjust person may have a great deal of talent or skill and may succeed at employing it to great (even beneficial) effect, but that is not an instance of moral virtue. There is, as far as I’m concerned, no such thing as an unjust person of courage or integrity, or an honest practitioner of evil, etc.

      3. Columbus was systematically unjust. His injustice wasn’t just an incidental feature of a few actions here and there that he happened to perform. His aims were unjust, his means were unjust, and he took virtually every opportunity at his disposal to practice systematic, barbaric, even obscene injustices of a kind that fully bear comparison with the Nazis or the Soviets. I’ll elaborate more on this below, but I think you’ve systematically understated Columbus’s injustices in your comment. What he did was much worse than you’ve made it: his being governor was not incidental to his mission; his faults as governor were not incidental to his character; and he was a willing, enthusiastic agent of the Spanish Crown—a regime responsible for the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain, among other things. His voyages were extensions of the same theocratic and imperialist policies in the New World. If you don’t want to compare him to Hitler, I’m willing to bargain down to a comparison of Columbus to Eichmann or Heydrich, but I wouldn’t bargain any further down than that.

      4. Given the preceding, Columbus is unworthy of any honor that anyone might confer on him. He was unworthy of it in 1500, and he remains unworthy in 2015. I don’t happen to think that his accomplishment was all that great either, but perhaps we could chalk that up to my deficient knowledge of seamanship. My point is, no matter how great an accomplishment of seamanship he performed, his injustices nullify his claims to honor for virtue. I’m willing to concede that he had skill as a sailor, but I wouldn’t concede that he had genuine virtue as a human being—any virtue, of any kind. (Incidentally, his skill as a sailor is much contested, as is his achievement as an explorer. On the latter, contrary to the hype made on his behalf, I don’t really think he made any significant discoveries of any kind. I touch on that below, but it’s a long story that I’ve mostly skirted here.)

      Now, let me get to some of the specifics of your argument. Unfortunately, I can’t deal with every claim you make.

      First, you admit that the natives got a raw deal at Columbus’s hands. I’m going to assume that that is equivalent to saying that he was “systematically unjust.” Would you at least grant that on my assumptions (1)-(3), my inference to (4) is valid, even on your estimate of Columbus’s moral standing? You may not grant the premises, but isn’t the argument itself valid (or enthymematic)? Much of what you say, after all, is really grist for my mill; you’re conceding a great deal about Columbus that his enemies are anxious to insist on.

      Second, I would flatly dispute that any of the “raw deal” part of the interaction was “inevitable.” Didn’t Columbus have free will? If he didn’t, how does he get credit for being an intrepid explorer or for anything else he did? There seems something ad hoc about claiming that the injustices were inevitable, but the “accomplishments” (or supposed accomplishments) were credit-worthy.

      I’m going to assume that he did have free will. In that case, the injustices he committed weren’t inevitable: they are explained by the defects in Columbus’s character as well as the character of the people he brought with him on his voyages (for which the relevant characters were responsible). The injustices were made inevitable not by the power disparity between the two parties but by Columbus et al’s explicit, self-conscious commitment to promoting Spanish imperialism (itself voluntary). Columbus voluntarily went on his voyages as an agent of the Spanish crown. The Crown’s aims weren’t somehow incidental to his going or to his own aims; their aims were his aims and vice versa. That, after all, was the quid pro quo by which he got support from the Crown in the first place. Nor was he bluffing about his commitment. As his journals make clear, he really believed in the mission he was given and had accepted. He may have been lying about that (his journals are in fact full of lies) but in that case, we’d have to convict him of dishonesty, which doesn’t help his case.

      Further, Columbus’s voyages were funded by money confiscated by the Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula by Ferdinand and Isabella (something he knew). The (supposed) proceeds of his voyages were earmarked to fund the reconquest of Jerusalem from the Muslims (something he requested). He was given a mandate not simply to discover but to acquire any territory he was able to acquire, regardless of anyone’s prior claim to it, and to convert (by force) the heathens he found there. And that’s exactly what he did. Ferdinand and Isabella had presided over the Inquisition, so it can hardly be a surprise that Columbus regarded himself as a de facto prosecutor for the Inquisition. He fully acted the part, functioning as inquisitor to both the natives and his own comrades. He forcibly converted the natives and coercively policed the heresy of his own “subjects.” He had people—lots of people–burned at the stake for crimes against religious orthodoxy.

      Given the mandate to acquire territory, Columbus’s mission inherently committed him to becoming governor of the territories he acquired. It’s not as though he intended to sail to God-knows-where, plant the Spanish flag there, and then sail back to Spain in search of a suitable governor for the places he acquired out of the modest realization that he was unfit for the job. He went in the full knowledge that he would govern in the name of the Crown (and of God)—and with the full intention of doing so. So we definitely can’t let him off the hook for his time as governor. Nor is it a “minor” feature of his career. It was a central part of his mission. The most obvious proof of his desire to be governor is that when in 1500, he was recalled to Spain in chains for dereliction of duty as governor, he didn’t merely ask to be pardoned for his crimes—he asked to be reinstated as governor!

      And he wasn’t just a “terrible” governor. He was a psychopathic governor. Some of your examples make that clear, but here is one highlight from a very long list of candidates: when he “discovered” the island of Cuba, he was convinced that it was the land-mass of Asia (that’s about the caliber of most of Columbus’s “discoveries”). Not content with getting the geography wrong, he insisted that his comrades swear an oath to God never to call Cuba an island, on pain of their tongue’s being cut out of their mouths! (As you note, tongue-cutting seems to have been a thing with him.) He insisted on this oath (and the punishment for it) long after everyone (including his own men) had come to realize that Cuba was an island. Even by the standards of his time, this was insanity. If he wasn’t fit to govern, he shouldn’t have taken the job. But he was the one who insisted on it.

      I think it’s also worth being explicit about the “raw deal” that the natives got. “Raw deal” is a colossal euphemism for what Columbus actually did, a phrase more appropriate to being cheated by a used car salesman than to events in the New World under Columbus’s tenure. A short list of the Columbian rap sheet would have to include mass murder/homicide, mass rape, mass kidnapping, mass torture, wholesale enslavement, mass exploitation (meaning: being worked to death in fields, mines, etc.), and coercive conversion to Christianity. On top of that, the natives’ habitations were destroyed, they were themselves displaced en masse, and the environment they lived in was not “improved” (as is so often asserted) but left in ruins. It’s common knowledge that the Spaniards were themselves subject to Columbus’s tyranny as well, which I cheerfully add to Columbus’s rap sheet.

      I can supply details if you want, but for now I’ll just leave it at those bare assertions with the assurance that I can document it all, and that none of it is an exaggeration. But if I’m right about that, I don’t see why it’s inappropriate to bring Hitler and Stalin up in this context. The difference between modern totalitarianism and Columbian theocracy was simply one of scope and power; modern totalitarians had greater technological capacity at their disposal to start wars, and destroy whole nations and ethnicities. But a Columbus with Hitler’s or Stalin’s resources and technology at his disposal could—and would—very likely have done just what Hitler or Stalin did. The differences here are quantitative, not a matter of fundamental moral principle. Columbus’s politics were explicitly totalitarian. He was a virulent, fanatical racist. He explicitly hated and wanted to destroy the natives on racial grounds—but he also saw the benefit to be gotten from exploiting their labor, even if his doing so drove them to death. So he acted accordingly—he killed some outright; he enslaved others, allowing them to die a slow death that way. What part of the comparison to Nazism is so inapt? How different was the Spanish encomienda system to one of the Nazi or Soviet slave labor camps?

      On the question of numbers, I have two different responses.

      The first response is that even if the De las Casas figures I cited in my original post are wrong, they don’t affect the fundamental moral point De Las Casas was making (and I was making)—which was the real point of my excerpt. The fundamental moral point is that Columbus was responsible for and guilty of the wholesale near-destruction of the Indian population. It doesn’t matter whether we begin from a baseline of 3 million and work our way down to the destruction of 98% of that figure, or start from a baseline of 30,000 and work down to the destruction of 98% of that. Either way, De las Casas’s point remains correct: the Columbians destroyed the Indian population nearly to the point of extinction. This is just an undeniable fact, and whatever its etiology, it argues against celebrating Columbus Day, even if all that death was just one big accident. To celebrate an event that leads to the wholesale destruction of a population is essentially to dance on the graves of those who died and to exhibit profound disrespect for their descendants. Whatever you think of the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II, a celebration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be obscene. But Columbus Day is a similar obscenity. The use of the atomic bombs can at least be justified, prima facie, on grounds of military necessity in a just war. Almost none of the killing that Columbus et al did can justified that way.

      Nor does it exonerate the Spaniards to suggest that disease played a larger role in the extinction than deliberate killing. Suppose that disease killed 80% of the population and mistreatment killed 20%. The relevant question is not whether disease killed 80% in the actual case, but whether in the absence of disease, the mistreatment in question would have produced an equivalent mortality rate. Once you grasp what the mistreatment was—working people to death without regard to their living conditions—the answer is easy enough to figure out. It would have. Given Columbus’s aims and methods, mortality by disease merely served to mask the fact that those who didn’t die by disease would most likely have been killed by being worked to death (or, if they rebelled, as casualties of war). In other words, if we factor disease out of the equation, we’re merely left with a disease-free population more liable to enslavement than those who died prematurely from disease. And given conditions in the encomienda, those people would have been marked out for premature death just as surely as someone slated for a Nazi or Soviet slave labor camp.

      My second point, however, is that De Las Casas’s figures are not as implausible as you’re suggesting. Note that De Las Casas describes a mortality of three million over fourteen years, not three million at once in the year 1490. That’s an annual mortality rate of about 215,000. Maybe that’s too high, but it’s not obvious to me that it is. In The Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale spends a few pages discussing the 3 million figure (pp. 160-61):

      For a long time in this century it was assumed that the population of the Caribbean islands in 1492 could not have been much more than 200,000 or 300,000, and estimates by Las Casas among others of “more than three million” were discounted as reckless exaggerations of amateurs. In recent years, however, considerable scholarly interest has been focused on the population issue, thorough searches of contemporary records have been undertaken, and a more reliable count has been arrived at.

      In the case of Espanola [Hispaniola], for example, by far the most populous of the islands, we now know that in 1496 Bartolome Colon, acting while his brother returned to Spain, authorized a headcount of Indian adults, presumably in order to keep track of the tribute system, and came up with a figure of some 1.1 million. Inasmuch as this did not count children below fourteen, the aged, kasekes, and some others—estimated at perhaps another 40 percent of the population—and covered only that half of the island in Spanish control, a more accurate figure for the whole of Espanola would be something closer to a little more than 3 million. Moreover, the Bartolome survey was taken four years after the initial contact with European pathogens and two years after the imposition of debilitating European rule, so we may assume that the population of 1492 was even larger than that. The two leading researchers here, Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California at Berkeley, have calculated the rate of population declined after 1496, extrapolated from that a curve going back to 1492, and come up with an estimate of the original island population at just under 8 million people.

      According to Sale, the Cook-Borah research shows a population reduction in the native population from 8 million to 28,000. I’m not qualified to comment on whether 8 million is a responsible baseline figure or not, but the moral point I’m making doesn’t turn on the precise figures.

      That said, I also don’t see a priori why the larger figures have to be wrong. You say, “This level of technology does not support millions of people in such a small area.” Why not? The population in question is about one third of the current population of, say, Cuba. Is there something that makes it impossible for people in small villages engaged in low-level farming to support that level of population if they’re living at, say, the subsistence level? Not that I would want to live at the subsistence level, but people do live at it, and if they do, their technology, however primitive, does support their doing so. In any case, unless it’s ruled out, it seems to me that the De Las Casas’s claim is at least in the running; it can’t summarily be dismissed.

      Some of what you say about Columbus just supports what I’ve been saying all along, so I’ll just note that fact, and leave it there. But I disagree profoundly with this:

      The other thing the Columbus Day holiday celebrates is Columbus himself, as an intrepid explorer who “discovered America.” I think you have to give him the intrepid explorer part. He explored and charted most of the West Indies in four voyages, and apparently did a pretty good job of it. He endured shipwreck, being stranded—at one point he was stranded for an entire year on Jamaica—severe storms, and all the vicissitudes of ocean voyages to unknown places. During nearly all of this time was ill with Reiter’s syndrome, a kind of arthritis, from which he was sometimes bedridden for months at a time, and which eventually killed him at the tender age of 54.

      We usually think of “America” as referring to the United States. In that sense, Columbus absolutely did not discover America. He never made it to America at all. What he discovered, if anything, was South America—which he claimed for his whole life to be “the Indies.”

      Consider incidentally the total absurdity of the phrase “the West Indies” (a phrase coined by Columbus). The concept of “West Indies” presupposes an “East Indies.” How is it, exactly, that the East Indies is west of the West Indies, and the West Indies is east of the East Indies? While we’re on the question, how is it that the two “Indies” are separated by a continent and an ocean? The answer is that the “West Indies” had nothing at all to do with India, and by the time Columbus coined the phrase, he fully knew that it didn’t. He knew that he was nowhere near India. He also knew that Vasco da Gama had found an easterly route to the actual India around the Cape of Good Hope. But it was an axiom to Columbus that somehow, he had to have discovered India. That, after all, was the whole point of his various voyages, and admission of failure was too much to handle. So the “India” he “discovered” remained stubbornly in the Western hemisphere. It “therefore” became the “West Indies,” which is what we call it today in deference to Columbus’s delusional belief that he had made it to India when he himself knew that he had not. The supposed value of “charting” the West Indies seems to me nullified by the fact that the West Indies was not in any coherent sense Western India. (Does it get more confusing than the fact that the West Indies are now populated both by Native American Indians and Indians from India?)

      Re Columbus’s shipwrecks: you omit the facts that the shipwrecks were a result of his own negligent seamanship; that the storms he encountered were storms he deliberately sailed into; and that he only survived his time on Jamaica because he and his men were kept alive by the Taino natives of Jamaica. Had it not been for the Tainos’ assistance, Columbus and his men would have died ignominious deaths in Jamaica. Not that their assistance inspired any gratitude in him to them. He ultimately treated the Jamaican Taino just the way he treated all the other natives—as dispensable semi-humans that he would enslave at will. As for the Reiter’s disease, it probably explains the delusional character of much of his thinking, but terrible as it is, it’s not a reason to honor him for anything.

      As for Columbus’s intrepid nature, I’d just say that a fearless response to danger is not necessarily indicative of a person’s possessing the virtue of courage. I would be frightened at the prospect of undertaking a voyage like Columbus’s, but I’d also be frightened at the prospect of bungee jumping, skydiving, robbing a bank, or flying a plane through a building. The presence of fear tells us nothing about the moral value of the action. And the capacity to face down fear tells us nothing about the moral standing of the person facing it down—especially, as in Columbus’s case, if the person believes in an afterlife.

      One last point, and I’ll let this go: People often describe Columbus’s discovery of the New World as though it created “opportunities” for the people of the New World. I agree with what Riesbeck says about this, but would take the point one step further. We should remember that Columbus discovered Carribbean and South America, not the United States and Canada. So in evaluating Columbus, we should erase from our minds all the pictures we have of the U.S. and Canada as lands of wealth and opportunity. That has literally nothing to do with Christopher Columbus and his colleagues. (Columbus was most likely preceded in North America by the Vikings and by English cod fishermen. But be that as it may, he never got here.)

      We should look instead to the world south of our border. If we look there, what we discover is that Columbus and his successors introduced a centuries-long injustice–the form of feudalism that exists to this day in Central and South America, the successor of the encomienda system Columbus himself introduced. That feudal land tenure system has been the cause of untold centuries of misery in Central/Carribbean and South America, and is part of the reason why socialist/communist governments have been so popular south of the border: socialism sells down there because it cloaks itself in the garb of land reform, a perfectly legitimate cause, and something necessary to rectify the injustices introduced by the encomienda system. I don’t see how Columbus gets the credit for “creating” opportunities in a part of North America he never set foot in, but fails to get the blame for the centuries-long injustices he introduced in the parts of South and Central America he supposedly “discovered.” It only makes things worse that he didn’t really discover them.


  5. I see the connection you’re making Irfan, but I think its a fairly esoteric point. Certainly he was hardly breaking ground in that sense; his methodical approach to politics as it is usually played (between elite groups,) however, always impressed me. I like to reread the Prince about once a year and reflect on its lessons, in the appropriate contexts.


    • I don’t dispute Machiavelli’s greatness as a political theorist, at least in the value-neutral sense of “greatness,” but I essentially subscribe to Strauss’s view of him:

      We shall not shock anyone, we shall merely expose ourselves to good-natured or at any rate harmless ridicule, if we profess ourselves inclined to the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil. (Thoughts on Machiavelli, p.9).

      He really was. Heroic efforts have been made to turn him into something more benign, but I don’t buy them. The attempts to rehabilitate Machiavelli and Columbus strike me as being of a piece, because Machiavelli’s theorizing is just an ex post facto rationalization for what Columbus tried (ineptly) to do–to appear good and virtuous while carrying out monstrous injustice, and then rationalizing it all in terms of the “benefits” it brought “our people,” with emphasis on the pronoun. As I see it, whether they realize it or not, Columbus’s modern-day defenders are finishing Machiavelli’s and Columbus’s work. Columbus Day is Machiavellianism by other means.

      I read The Prince about once a year, too. When I was in Palestine this summer, I taught The Prince to Palestinian students as a guide to the Israeli occupation. It was the one text that really resonated with them. It divided the class into those who wanted to be the prince(s) of their own Palestinian principality, and those who wanted to strike the Israeli prince down and find a new way to live–one that didn’t involve a Machiavellian prince. But both camps agreed that Machiavelli was the best blueprint of the occupation they’d ever encountered. “For it must be noted that men must either be caressed or else annihilated….” That just about captures it.


      • Machiavelli is the first political scientist in history after Aristotle’s study of constitutions. He is, like Nietzsche, like Darwin, like Hume, trying to drag us out of the mysticism of the medieval era.

        I think the case against columbus has been negative for all of the 20th century. He’s interesting only because he managed to convince the state to take the risk, and did it with shoddy equipment of the time. As a governor he was terrible. but then, I have a rather amoral view of history: either invent guns germs and steel, immediately adopt guns germs and steel, or be exterminated by guns germs and steel. The world is not a nice place, and never has been. The universe is a less nice place. Neither of them care for us.We must survive against superior competitors. Cooperation is only superior to conquest because of externalities it produces.


        • Isn’t Machiavelli’s conception of fortune fundamentally mystical? He personifies it (her) in such a way as to blur the distinction between fortune’s being an impersonal force of nature and fortune’s being a malign goddess operating behind nature. The prince therefore ends up needing a sort of predictive knowledge that blurs the distinction between prediction based on inductive-causal knowledge and prediction based on something like religious prophecy. Columbus’s journals exemplify the same sort of ambiguity, except that they refer to divine providence rather than Machiavellian Fortuna.


      • I’m quite interested in your palestinian skirmishes. Do you think the students you taught are receptive to a two state solution. The palestinian side seems to garner quite a bit of hyper nationalism within it in response to the hyper nationalism of the Israelis.


  6. Well djr,

    History is a discipline. That discipline can be pursued objectively(truthfully) or subjectively (falsely).
    As far as I know, truthfulness is the most moral and trustworthy demonstration possible.

    History tells me that man is a predator who cooperates when it’s to his advantage and preys when it’s to his advantage.

    That cooperation under risk is an expensive and intolerable burden. And that conquest to reduce risk is rational and evident.

    That the empowerment of competitors appears not to produce beneficial returns.

    That conquest has lead to prosperity by the centralization of rents in exchange for the suppression of local rents and parasitism, and the consequent decline in local transaction costs.

    That his history is one of increasing aggression.

    That increasing aggression made cooperation more preferable.

    That to attribute change in incentives to change in man himself is the fallacy of wishful thinking.

    That if we act as if man has changed rather than his incentives that we will be conquered by the next higher wave of aggression.

    And that the only means of preserving cooperation is to preserve the incentives to cooperate rather than prey upon one another.

    Not to preserve in a fallacious history or properties of man.

    So I suggest the opposite: that a man is both untrustworthy and dangerous if he advocates falsehoods even If he casts them as noble lies.

    The search for blame in history is generally not reversible. Like religion it is a self satisfying means of resenting the envy of the status quo. And that we can but learn how not to repeat past mistakes of conquest or defeat by making incentives for conquest and defeat impossible.


    • Well, those are some curious assertions. Most of them strike me as either empirically false or vacuously true by virtue of empty formal definitions of “advantage.” Since you haven’t given anything resembling an argument for any of them, I’m not inclined to give anything resembling an argument against them. But for someone who praises Hume, you seem to have quite a blind spot for benevolent and sympathetic motives in human beings. Go read more Hume. And while you’re at it, read some Hobbes, who acknowledges all that is true in your sweeping generalizations about human beings and yet recognizes that co-operation, justice, and benevolence are in our interest, and not in a merely contingent way, but a way stable enough to count as what he calls laws of nature. I’m no Hobbesian, but I’d trust Hobbes to watch my house while I went on vacation. You, on the other hand, aren’t setting foot into my house with attitudes like that.

      But that’s immaterial, because I don’t have a house.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m no Hobbesian, but I’d trust Hobbes to watch my house while I went on vacation.

        I would too, but I’d make sure no one was in it! I’m teaching exactly this part of Hobbes right now. His view is that the male head of the household stands to the rest of the household as its absolute sovereign. If the head of the household transfers that power to X, X becomes its absolute sovereign. That means that X can do whatever he wants to the household, unless either the head of the household or the Sovereign explicitly dictate otherwise.

        So if I’m a Hobbesian babysitter, and you leave your kids with me and go off on vacation, but (i) you don’t give me an explicit proscription against corporal punishment, and (ii) there is no explicit proscription against corporal punishment in the law, and I sincerely regard corporal punishment as sometimes necessary–and the kids act out–I can kick the crap out of them at will. If you come home from your vacation and say, “Hey, why is my kid in the hospital?” Hobbesian Babysitter can legitimately respond, “Well, you didn’t say I couldn’t break the kid’s bones. And your kid is a bit of a handful. I didn’t want to bother you on vacation, so I relied on my own judgment. The kid was acting out. I yelled at him, but the tyke got worse! So I had to take control of the situation. I mean, if I didn’t, anarchy would have been the result. And surely anarchy is worse than a few broken bones. So there ya go. He’s quiet now!” Mutatis mutandis for wives, girlfriends, pets, etc. Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 22, para. 26 (p. 107 in this link).

        I guess this is why there are no Hobbesian babysitter movies.

        Of course, this might be immaterial if you don’t have a house and don’t have kids. But don’t leave your wife at home. Or your dog.

        PS. Put more seriously, Hobbes has no objection in principle to behavior like this. The wrongness of the action turns on the details of Saudi law. If the law says it’s OK to chop your servant’s arm off, it’s OK to chop your servant’s arm off (unless you both signed a contract that said, “You can’t chop her arm off”). I don’t know what Saudi law actually says on this, but imagine a Saudi-esque regime in which polytheists are chattel slaves (Saudi Arabia only abolished slavery in 1962). Then arm chopping would be OK. Mercifully, since there’s no free speech in Saudi Arabia, no one has access to Hobbes’s Leviathan, not that they need it.


      • I think you’re giving Hobbes short shrift, but I’m not going to try to defend him seriously. What he says about justice and law seems to me not only objectionable, but at least in serious tension with what he says about the laws of nature. These include: seek peace and follow it; be contended with as much liberty against other people as you would allow them of yourself; what you require others to do for you, do that for them; what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others; a covenant not to defend myself from force by force is always void, as is a covenant to accuse myself without assurance of pardon; keep valid covenants; everyone should seek to accommodate himself to the rest; pardon offenses of people who sincerely regret them; limit retribution in accordance with the future good it will do; do not declare contempt or hatred for others; submit intractable disputes to an impartial arbitrator; judge disputes between others impartially; no one who stands to gain more from deciding a dispute one way rather than another should be permitted to serve as an arbitrator; things that cannot be divided should be enjoyed in common; etc. I don’t say that these are all necessarily unobjectionable principles, or that Hobbes’ account of them is right. I simply say that, insofar as he emphasizes these purported laws of nature — “laws of nature, dictating peace, as a means of the conservation of men in multitudes” — he’s not the caricature that he’s often presented to be, and he should, even if he doesn’t, hold sovereigns and laws accountable to these standards.

        As for the babysitter, I’m not sure Hobbes is committed to thinking that when I leave you in charge of my house I’m transferring to you my power as absolute sovereign. At the very least, Hobbes himself would be smart enough to realize that beating my dog is not what I want him to do. If his theory really leaves him off the hook for that, then I’m afraid this is just another case where he should have been a more consistent natural law theorist and less of a dirty contractualist.


        • I don’t disagree with anything you say in the first paragraph, but I would stick to my interpretation of the Hobbesian Babysitter. Despite the natural law aspects of Hobbes, the fact remains that there is also a positivist aspect to his thinking, and what I said about the Hobbesian Babysitter is perfectly consistent with what he says. Hobbes may be smart enough to know that beating your dog is not what you want the babysitter to do, but he still thinks that if you don’t want it beaten, you should be smart enough to tell the babysitter not to beat it, and if you omitted that, and the babysitter sincerely believed he needed to beat the dog to carry out your express request to keep order in the household, then you have no room for complaint when the dog is beaten. (You’d have room for complaint only if the dog were gratuitously or sadistically beaten.)

          That’s why Part II of Leviathan is full of claims that Hobbes-sympathetic readers would prefer to ignore–claims that seem to issue from an author traumatized with a form of PTSD, and that serve as a playbook for rulers like Qaddafi, Asad, Saddam Hussein, Abdel Fattah Sisi, or Benjamin Netanyahu (or more obviously, James I). One of my favorite lines: “For all uniting of strength by private men is, for evil intent, unjust; if for intent unknown, dangerous to the public and unjustly concealed” (!) (near the end of chapter 22). People who call an assembly and can give no “just account” of it are guilty of sedition.

          By the way, I’m in the middle of re-reading Mark Murphy’s “Was Hobbes a Legal Positivist?” Ethics 105 (July 1995). If I get a chance (I say that a lot), I’ll try to blog on it. I’m also interested in Kraut on Hobbes on tranquility (discussed in What Is Good and Why).


          • I’m generally a fan of Murphy’s, and I’ve been meaning to have a look back at Kraut. So I’ll see if I can get a chance to look at both and we can Hobbize a bit. I’m interested in figuring out where Hobbes goes wrong, and whether it’s just PTSD or something with deeper philosophical roots.


            • The rest of October is hectic for me, but sometime in early November I have a few serious posts in mind on Machiavelli and Hobbes. (Believe it or not, I sometimes have serious thoughts about philosophy, not that you can tell from what I write on the blog.) I’m trying to figure out where Hobbes goes wrong myself, and though I wouldn’t discount PTSD (since I said it), I think the philosophical roots lie deeper. What I find particularly interesting is how those roots interact with Rand (something I addressed in this admittedly cryptic post a few years ago). I still kind of like that dialogue, by the way. I got a lot of grief from readers for writing it.


  7. I think this issue can be broadened even further.

    One can appreciate the superiority of Western civilization and the benefits that the colonization of America had without endorsing the millions of deaths this caused or the profane attitude that many settlers had, not just to the lifestyle of the natives, but to the natives themselves. This is not dissimilar to the way that we can appreciate the achievements of the Roman empire and all the good that it brought about while not having to endorse the brutality, slaughter, excess, and infighting the Romans engaged in.

    I imagine that objectivists argue that those parts of history are not “the important parts”. They aren’t what permitted the levels of freedom and prosperity we take for granted today.

    What’s interesting, particularly in one of the replies of djr, is to read the justificationist framework that the Aristotelian and platonic traditions are mistakenly attached to.

    Then again, it seems that a lot of people like to feign moral outrage as a way of disguising what is really nothing more than a personal preference.


    • What exactly is the “justificationist framework” to which the Aristotelian tradition is supposedly attached? And why is it mistaken? What is supposed to take its place? Why is it supposed to be superior?

      For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve written here as expressing “moral outrage,” but while I suppose I do have a “personal preference” for justice over injustice and for not honoring the perpetrators of the latter, I take that preference to be as rationally well grounded as just about any belief. So I do hope you’re not accusing me of “disguising what is really nothing more than a personal preference”; as far as my mere preferences go, I’d just as soon ignore Columbus and the whole business and get on with something else. I find it difficult, alas, to have very strong feelings about what happened to a bunch of people over 500 years ago. But this discussion isn’t about feelings, except perhaps rather incidentally. It’s about whether our government should honor a person like Columbus. You’ve said nothing at all to meet the case that Irfan has made that we shouldn’t.


      • I think he’s referring to the fact that the whole Platonic and Aristotelian tradition is misleadingly woven together with demands for justification. the quest for justification can easily obstruct the search for truth. Some will also argue that it is totally unnecessary and unattainable. Nowadays I think the phrase is “defeasible justification” which sounds like academic double talk for “a guess that could be wrong.” I think its purpose originally, in Plato’s Meno, was to make a distinction between right opinion and genuine knowledge


      • Well, with nothing more than that to go on all I can say is that I don’t think the Platonic, let alone the Aristotelian, tradition is “misleadingly woven together with demands for justification,” and that I don’t have the slightest clue how distinguishing justified belief from true belief or justified action from correct action should be taken to yield anything unnecessary or unattainable or to obstruct the search for truth. That we can have good or bad reasons for our beliefs and actions, and that we can have good reasons but still be mistaken, both strike me as close to platitudes that anyone who is capable of reasoning accepts (and cannot but accept) in some form or other. Certainly nothing that’s been said here casts a shadow of a doubt on these claims.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Irfan, in place of Bon Jovi and Demi Lovato, I would like to nominate Pat Martino or Frank Zappa for “Italian worth celebrating”. And for South-Asian worth celebrating, I would like to nominate Rudresh Mahanthappa, or that actress from the new TV show Quantico. Can I place these nominations with you, or could you provide the link?

    Also, no offense to Chris Sciabarra, but Marisa Tomei is the sexiest Italian American of all time.

    Finally, please don’t trivialize cannoli.

    Liked by 1 person

    • By request, ladies and gentlemen, Pat Martino.

      Re Sciabarra vs. Tomei, I think we may well have a case of incommensurability. Let’s just call it a tie.

      Re cannoli, mi dispiace. I know you Italians have hot tempers, so I should probably avoid stereotypical references like that. I mean, I try to keep this a family-friendly blog with a real sense of omerta.

      For the uninitiated, here’s “Rudresh Mahanthappa.” The Quantico actress is Priyanka Chopra. Funny, you don’t manage to mention any Muslim South Asians. Not that I’m accusing you of anything.


    • I don’t know what it is about Marisa Tomei, but I’ll take Sciabarra over her. Then again, I can see how Sciabarra might be a controversial figure to nominate for public celebration. How far back in history are we allowed to go here? Can we just go with Vergil and let it rest? I’m sure some people would object that he was an apologist for empire, but they could probably just read some Michael Putnam or Richard Thomas and be satisfied. Vergil, for what it’s worth, strikes me as a much better model for how to celebrate the origins of your nation than the Columbus worshipping we’ve seen on display. However much he glorifies the foundations of what was to come, he never lets us forget about the price that was paid along the way. Like most good epic, Vergil is more tragic than hero-worshipping.


        • Why wasn’t he really Italian? He was born in Mantua. That’s Italy. At the time of his birth I think it was still considered part of Cisalpine Gaul, but the Romans called that Gallia togata for a reason, and it was officially regarded as part of Italia before Vergil wrote the Aeneid. So I say that counts as Italian. But I can go with Dante, too. The Christians might prefer that.


          • Well, I don’t want to get into a tangle with our resident classicist on this one. I was just operating on the naive premise that “Italy” in the political sense doesn’t really come into existence until the Renaissance. (I can already hear the objection: “Then why not say that Italy doesn’t come into existence until the mid-nineteenth century? In which case even Dante fails to be Italian.” Oh fratello.) I mean, would we want to say that the Emirate of Sicily was “Italian”? Doesn’t sound right. Further, the omniscient and infallible source Wikipedia lists Virgil’s nationality as “Roman,” so QED, to use that old Italian expression.

            I’m trying really hard to work the old Ragu commercial into this conversation, so that I can gratuitously say, “That’s Italian!” Which probably only proves how far this conversation has descended into ludicrousness and frivolezza. Or do I mean sprezzatura.


            • I’ll give it to you on linguistic grounds: Dante spoke Italian, Vergil didn’t. If the criterion were “national,” neither of them would be Italian for the reasons you gave. But language transcends nationality, as we know well.


  9. I have to say I love Pat Martino. I still don’t have a theory why there are so many remarkable Italian jazz guitarists: Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Gene Bertoncini, Al Di Meola, John Pisano, Bucky Pizzarelli and his son John, Joe Puma, Joe Giglio, Frank Vignola, Al Viola, Joe Diorio, Bob Gallo, and my own bro, Carl Barry. But getting back to the discussion, Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny”… I just can’t compete, folks. She embodied, epitomized the role of every cuginette I’ve ever met in Brooklyn, and deserved her Oscar.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “Columbus’s voyages were funded by money confiscated by the Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula by Ferdinand and Isabella (something he knew). The (supposed) proceeds of his voyages were earmarked to fund the reconquest of Jerusalem from the Muslims (something he requested). He was given a mandate not simply to discover but to acquire any territory he was able to acquire, regardless of anyone’s prior claim to it, and to convert (by force) the heathens he found there. And that’s exactly what he did. Ferdinand and Isabella had presided over the Inquisition, so it can hardly be a surprise that Columbus regarded himself as a de facto prosecutor for the Inquisition. He fully acted the part, functioning as inquisitor to both the natives and his own comrades. He forcibly converted the natives and coercively policed the heresy of his own “subjects.” He had people—lots of people–burned at the stake for crimes against religious orthodoxy”

    I think his motives and the Royal ones were different. Colombus was pretty much out for personal fame and fortune. Monarchs were out to grab as much as possible for power. Trade was the big thing, which relied on manufacture.

    Certainly later, with the discovery of gold and silver, Spain and Portugal went down a different route: they didn’t need to stimulate manufacture when they could just buy what they wanted (palaces, jewels, armies) with plundered precious metals.


    • A desire for fame and fortune is perfectly compatible with a desire to plunder the Jews, fund the Reconquista, and be an inquisitor. But here are some representative passages from his writings (three different passages from three different sources):

      I declared to Your Highnesses that all the gain of this my enterprise should be spent in the conquest of Jerusalem; and Your Highnesses smiled and said that it pleased you, and that even without this you had that strong desire.

      At the moment when I undertook to discover the Indies, it was with the intention of beseeching the King and Queen, our Sovereigns, that they might be determined to spend the revenue possibly accruing [!] to them from the Indies for the conquest of Jerusalem; it is indeed this thing which I have asked of them.

      This enterprise was undertaken in the intention of employing what would be gained from it in restoring the Holy See to the Holy Church. After having gone thither and having seen the land, I wrote to the King and to the Queen, My Sovereigns, that from that day for seven years I would require fifty thousand foot soldiers and five thousand horsemen for the conquest of the Holy See….

      Columbus’s version is confirmed by Bartolome de las Casas:

      …he begged Queen Isabella to make a vow that she would spend all the wealth gained by the Crown as a result of the discovery in winning back the land and the House of Jerusalem, which the Queen did (Historia de las Indias, I.2, quoted in Tzevetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, p. 12; the preceding three quotations are from p. 11).

      As the third passage makes clear, the disquieting thing is that Columbus thought he was close enough to Jerusalem to do the job himself.


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  12. I agree with David potts on this. Moataz Kadada’s remarks about the roman empire seem to strike a very good point about praising the good without pretending or glossing over the bad stuff. I think the holiday should be renamed, since there are much better icons of western civilisation than the likes of colombus. I’d also add some of the better elements of the native civilisations into there as well.


  13. Irfan you say: “Unlike a person, a historical epoch is not a unified moral agent susceptible of a univocal moral verdict.” A person initiates action, intends actions, and has relatively clear identity-conditions (at least as compared with a civilization). A civilization does neither of those things, and lacks relevantly clear identity-conditions. So I’d say that if it’s difficult to make all-things-considered moral judgments of persons with mixed traits, a fortiori it’s more difficult to make them of civilizations. A moral judgment on a civilization presupposes a set of moral judgments of the leading lights of that civilization. The judgment of those persons is a necessary condition of the judgment on the civilization–but a long, long way from being sufficient.”

    a historical period involves actions though and those can be judged. western civilisation is an amalgmation of many things after-all. there is the good, the bad and the ugly. I see no reason to pretend that we somehow cannot judge those actions. And of course there are individual differences but also general trends.


    • Of course we can judge specific actions. I’m not disputing that. What I’m suggesting is that judging the actions that constitute a civilization to give an overall verdict on the civilization is (to put it mildly) a much, much harder task than judging the actions that constitute the character of a person. It’s so hard that I don’t ultimately regard it as a do-able task.

      One crucial difference between persons and civilizations is that it’s clear what a person is, but not clear what a civilization is. A person has a relatively clear identity from birth to death, and there are relatively clear ways of attributing actions to a person. It’s not comparably clear what a “civilization” is and what actions can be attributed to “it.” Now, it’s complicated enough to add up the good and bad in a person and come to an overall verdict. But precisely because a civilization is not a person, there is no reason to expect its various traits to function as interacting parts of a single unified system susceptible of a judgment(like the traits of a person). In other words, in the civilizational case, it’s not clear what you are judging. You can’t just “add up” the actions of a “culture” and judge the sum as though it was a sum of commensurable units. The actions that led to Brahms’s symphonies were good, but those that led to World War II were bad. But you can’t come up with a verdict on German culture by subtracting Brahms from Hitler.

      One is then left wondering how to come to a verdict on an “entity” capable of wildly different things, like genocide and high art. For simplicity’s sake, imagine a civilization that did exactly two things: it committed genocide and it generated Brahms’s symphonies. Now suppose someone insists on asking the question: is it good that this civilization came into existence? I would say that the question is illegitimate and impossible to answer in that form. There is no inherent causal connection between genocide and Brahms. It’s not as though a civilizational package that includes Brahms inevitably has to include genocide. Nor is it that Brahms leads to genocide or vice versa. So what is the rationale for the question whether some X “capable of producing” both genocide and Brahms is a good thing or a bad thing? My claim is that it’s not really a unified thing at all. Genocide is bad and Brahms is good, but the “thing” that generated both is not an object of moral judgment.

      This is a long story, but I’d say that “Western civilization” or “European civilization” are even more equivocal than “German culture,” and even less susceptible of an overall verdict.


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