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