Civilization – Nature – Subjugation

Variations of (De-)Colonization

by Christoph Haar (Volume editor) Matthias Kaufmann (Volume editor) Christian Müller (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 362 Pages
Series: Treffpunkt Philosophie, Volume 20


This volume offers an interdisciplinary approach to some pivotal topics of (de-) colonization. It examines the early modern debate on just war, transatlantic conquest and slavery, followed by the shift of the debate in the 18th and 19th centuries towards assertions of racial hierarchies based on supposed matters of fact, and finally the philosophical discussion regarding decolonization. Two central themes emerge: first, the political circumstances and the exploitation of the available terminology resulted in the production of new meanings or "translations" during the 17th and 18th centuries, and second, the adoptions of established justifications of colonial activities and enslavement brought about models of natural science that increasingly developed a momentum of their own.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Section One: The Debate on Just War, Conquest and Slavery
  • Luis de Molina on iura peregrinandi, degendi ac comercii and the French presence in Brazil
  • Slaves as owners. Dominium of and over humans in Molina’s De Iustitia et Iure
  • Land ownership and conquest: Alonso de la Veracruz on indigenous property rights in 16th-century Mexico
  • Francisco José de Jaca’s (c. 1645–1689) and Epifanio de Moirans’s (1644–1689) plea for the liberation of enslaved black people in Latin America
  • Reason of State and the question of the forced labor of Indians in Solórzano y Pereira’s Política Indiana
  • Hugo Grotius on sacred history and colonialism
  • Gerechter Krieg gegen veri domini vs. Besiedlung der terra nullius. Rechtfertigungsstrategien der Kolonisierung
  • Hegel and colonialism
  • Section Two: From Sins against Nature to Matter of Fact: Justifications of Racial Hierarchies
  • Bringing order to an unorderly mankind: The savage stages of mankind and the concept of time
  • Sins against nature as reasons for just war
  • Pathologien des Schwarzen: Rassenmedizin, Sklaverei und Abolitionismus
  • Section Three: The Decolonization of Reason
  • A dangerous alliance: Martin Heidegger and the decolonization of reason
  • Decolonisation and reverse anthropology. Capitalist extractivism in the mirror of Amerindian anthropology
  • Carl Schmitt on Francisco de Vitoria’s just war theory
  • Why the life of the other matters—The decolonial ethics of exteriority in Dussel, Quijano and Mignolo
  • About the authors

Christoph Haar and Matthias Kaufmann


The present volume approaches Civilization, Nature and Subjugation from an interdisciplinary perspective. It commences with examinations of the debate on just war, conquest and slavery in the early modern period, followed by the shift of the debate in the 18th and 19th centuries towards natural science and assertions of racial hierarchies based on supposed matters of fact, and finally the philosophical discussion regarding decolonization. Two central themes emerge: firstly, the political circumstances and the exploitation of the available terminology resulted in the production of new meanings or “translations” in the transatlantic arena during the 17th and 18th centuries. Secondly, the various adoptions of established justifications of colonial activities and enslavement brought about models of natural science that –appearing in part in traditional language –increasingly developed a momentum of their own.


Although the 16th century presented intellectual challenges the European world had not seen before, most of the conflicts political leaders, lawyers and theorists had to cope with demonstrated a more or less traditional character: While the Reconquista had come to an end on one side of Europe in 1492, ongoing conflicts with the Muslim world were taking place on the other side, mostly involving the Turkish conquerors. In time, the Protestant reformation split Christianity, and intense and violent theological conflicts remained commonplace until the second half of the 17th century. Renaissance humanists had been challenging the scholastic ideal of knowledge since the 15th century, and in Italy even since the 14th century. These circumstances made it necessary and unavoidable to come up with new and different theories that altered the intellectual landscape and moreover created new forms of global narratives that exceeded the boundaries of the previously known world. But these changes did not happen overnight; rather, a very slow process developed over the course of the early modern period. At best rudimentarily aware of the dawning of a new age, scholars started to discuss questions raised by the discovery of the Americas and the diverse implications arising from it. The instruments of European natural philosophy, theology and jurisprudence that were utilized were derived from medieval interpretations of the ancient world, the Holy Bible and Arab influences. However, disputes remain as to how far the tremendous intellectual innovations that occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries were connected to the so-called discovery of the New World.

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Using the intellectual tools available to them, scholars attempted to cope with questions about how Christians should deal with human beings who did not profess any of the monotheistic religions (and who were described by Europeans in rather divergent and contradictory ways). As far as the ius gentium or law of nations was concerned, one of the topics of discussion revolved around the justification of conquests and warfare that had already occurred. A further task was to come up with juridical and moral guidelines for future encounters. Above all, it was clear to these scholars that the customary justifications of warfare, diplomacy, trade and hospitality –that is notions that Christianity had to be protected from violent encounters –could not be used as means of justification for war. Therefore, natural law, and in particular the ius gentium, had to be modified in order to validate the conquest of the New World and the establishment of colonial regimes. Occasionally, this happened by reference to St. Paul’s affirmation in his letter to the Romans (2:14–15) that natural law was written into the hearts of pagans, so that, consequently, if they violated natural law – as identified by the Spaniards – they could be punished by war.

But at the same time, criticisms arose among theologians – mainly Dominicans and Jesuits – regarding the cruelties perpetrated by the predominantly Spanish conquistadores and encomenderos in Central and South America. The first, passionate sermon against them was held as early as December 1511 by Antonio de Montesinos in today’s Haiti. Following this reproach, the Spanish crown established several laws concerning cruelties against, and the enslavement of, indigenous peoples. Impressed by the arguments of scholastic authors from the “School of Salamanca”, such as Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto and Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish king Charles V. (Soto was his confessor) ordered the promulgation of the New Laws in 1542 (partially rolled back in 1545) that were intended to protect the Amerindians and established the Junta de Valladolid (1550/51) to debate the Spanish conduct with these peoples. On that occasion, the humanist jurist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda employed Aristotelian arguments to prove that the Amerindians were slaves by nature, whereas the Dominican las Casas defended the rights of indigenous peoples. Regrettably, las Casas initially proposed to replace the Amerindians with the physically stronger African slaves, before he developed a critical stance towards all kinds of slavery. Still, it would appear to represent an unsustainable overstatement to portray him as an ardent proponent or even initiator of the enslavement of Africans at the onset of the Atlantic slave trade.

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During the second half of the 16th century, the transatlantic slave trade to the plantations in South America and the Caribbean islands intensified and reached a cynical, highly efficient economic rationality that relocated about 12 million Africans to the Americas over the course of roughly three hundred years. It remains unknown how many died during the voyage; estimates indicate that this number is most likely in the millions. To what extent was the slave trade driven by the increasing demands placed on the labor force, especially since the majority of Amerindians had died as a result of violence and diseases, and because the ban on the enslavement of (and the war on) the Amerindians was never really respected by the encomenderos?

For centuries, theologians (Catholics and Protestants alike), legal scholars, and philosophers of humanist and other backgrounds got involved in efforts to justify both the enslavement of African and other peoples as well as the occupation of new territories. The reality of colonization implied a variety of systems of inclusion and exclusion. On this basis, a second discourse made its way into the legal debates about the status of indigenous peoples from the 16th century onwards. It was a discourse that extended the discussion of colonization and slavery to related topics and newly emerging scientific fields. Theorists such as Enrique Dussel even contend that theoretical philosophy was complicit in this effort. Perhaps authors were merely trying to provide reasons as to why the facts on the ground created by discoverers and conquerors were somehow justified, often making reference to the lesser “worth” of non-European peoples. What criteria for the establishment of colonies did discoverers and seafarers use when estimating the value of the land and the peoples living there?

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The 17th century witnessed a variety of developments in natural history and legal theory; consequently, the justifications for further endeavors involving the conquest, colonization and subjugation of “inferior” peoples by other European powers besides Spain and Portugal were further refined. France, and Protestant or reformed countries like England, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Denmark and Sweden, developed their own forms of legal and moral justification for colonization and enslavement. Protestant legal and natural theories largely relied on the arguments stemming from the School of Salamanca and related authors. They reconceptualized them with the aid of humanist interpretations of classical ancient texts, thus depending less on medieval Catholic authorities. A significant difference seems to lie in the fact that Protestant authors had to expend more time and effort into coping with the justifications involving the settlers’ practice of considering the land they occupied as devoid of legal entities, that is, as a kind of terra nullius, consequently waging private wars – as defined by Hugo Grotius – to defend it. By contrast, Spanish and Portuguese authors attempted to provide justifications for the public wars of their crowns. Even where the activities concerning colonization and slaveholding were rather similar, as in the English plantations on Barbados, the narratives seem to have been based more on an individualistic perspective than those of Catholic powers.

From the late 17th and early 18th century onwards, in the light of a shift to a more secularized interpretation of man’s position in nature, the borders between the denominations were blurred even more than they had been in the previous century. It was here that new or suppressed concepts received increased attention and gained importance. Natural philosophy, natural history, anthropology and the emerging, new understanding of science all played a significant role in the novel conception of nature as a unity. One of the concepts used in these justifications of colonization and enslavement was that of race. It gave rise to theories concerning the hierarchies between different races. Even though the notion of race was never consolidated into a single theory, nor had there ever been one dominant theory of race accepted by most scholars until the end of the 18th century (if not even later), the concept played an enormous role in the apology of colonial domination. White domination seemed inevitable, given the “factual” inferiority of the other races that needed guidance. The inception of race – as a rather modern concept – occurred around 1500, yet it lacked a comprehensive narrative and lacked the recognition of contemporary biblical interpretations of nature. Eventually, the shift in the understanding of what science is, or should be, in the 16th century – most notably in the aftermath of Bacon and Descartes – gave way to new forms of knowledge and scientific understanding, eventually paving the way for a radicalized and racialized anthropology. In this way, the concept of race became interwoven with natural law and anthropological debate from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Given the suspicion that rationality – so-called Western rationality – itself belongs to a colonial way of thinking, the final part of the present volume is dedicated to the topic of decolonization: what the term signifies, its implications, and whether decolonial authors should see any critic of “Western” rationality (including thinkers like Heidegger and Carl Schmitt) as their “natural” ally.


Section One: The Debate on Just War, Conquest and Slavery

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Cláudia Teixeira begins at the chronological starting point of the conference in the 16th century with the claim that the competition between colonial power led the Jesuit Luis de Molina to limit the right to travel and trade under the law of nations as presented by his Dominican predecessor Francisco de Vitoria. Vitoria used the ius peregrinandi and dominium to focus on the political legitimacy of the native Americans while at the same time justifying the war against them. Molina, by contrast, employed these two Roman law concepts with the political competition in Brazil in mind. In Brazil, French aspirations from 1555 to 1575 to establish a colony threatened the Portuguese hegemony and, more generally represented one instance of many to come that would put the order established by the Treaty of Tordesillas into question. Molina’s different stance from Vitoria reflects a reaction to this circumstance. Danaë Simmermacher underlines the extraordinary role of the Spanish Jesuit in Portuguese services with her claim that Molina tied (subjective) right or ius to the individual qua homo rather than to his political or religious identity. Molina thereby offered the foundation for a theory of fundamental rights, although they are not to be equated with human rights, not least because the rights he envisaged were alienable. Jörg Tellkamp considers the hitherto little regarded Augustinian friar Alonso de la Veracruz who was taught by Vitoria and Domingo de Soto and spent many years in Mexico. Tellkamp shows that Veracruz defended the rights of indigenous peoples over the land in central Mexico, while at the same time takes the rightfulness of the Spanish colonizing efforts in the Americas for granted. In this way, he used his practical experience to support the general theory of dominium and rights articulated in the late scholastic tradition.

The step into the 17th century and from the political to the linguistic context is made by Roberto Hofmeister Pich, who takes a closer look at the link between colonization and Christian mission in religious language. This link led to the emergence of a socio-political order that expressed itself in particular in black slavery. Francisco José de Jaca and Epifanio de Moirans interpreted this development as the corruption of the Christian religion and criticized it with the weapons of religious language. Norbert Campagna provides an analysis of Juan Solórzano y Pereira’s Política Indiana of 1648 with regard to the doctrine of razón de estado or reason of state. He argues that Solórzano y Pereira, who spent 17 years in Perú, adjusted the legal and moral regard for indigenous people at the level of activity for the common good. Distinguishing between good and bad reason of state, Solórzano y Pereira claims that labor for the common good should be undertaken by both the Indians and the Spaniards, but forced labor for personal services was not to be permitted. Christoph Haar considers the idea that America was undeveloped or uninhabited. He argues that Hugo Grotius used his scholastic anthropology, peculiar to his late work De Iure Belli ac Pacis, to grant indigenous Americans sovereignty on the basis of their natural, simple way of life and their political organization. At the same time, however, Grotius emphasized private property rights that European settlers could claim and defend in unoccupied areas.

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Matthias Kaufmann outlines two types of justification for colonial activity and enslavement in the early modern period. In the 17th century, the traditional public-law figure of the just war against true owners of their territories, veri domini, was supplemented by a private-law argument that emerged based on the legal figures of first occupation and a labor theory of property. This dynamic went hand in hand with anthropological assumptions, which, with narratives increasingly couched in the language of natural science, brought about the supposedly self-evident lesser value of non-European, non-Christian, non-white populations. The frequent repetition of the hypotheses that could justify colonial practices were thus transformed by the later 18th century into simple statements of fact, considered obviously true to the extent that they did not require any proof or explanation anymore.

Moving to the turn of the 19th century, Alison Stone interprets Friedrich Hegel’s understanding of freedom as relying on a political purpose rather than exclusively on a detached philosophical enterprise. She develops the thesis that the teleological structure of Hegel’s thought signified an endemic colonialism: freedom in the true sense of the word comes to the fore at such a late stage of a political community that colonial practices are philosophically included in all previous intermediate steps.

Section Two: From Sins against Nature to Matter of Fact: Justifications of Racial Hierarchies

Connecting the concepts of race with time, Christian Müller demonstrates that late Enlightenment and idealist thinkers considered human development as a steady progress that had a beginning and an end. In the final analysis, in one respect time became a way to measure the distance between different cultures on this scale, in another respect time was used to naturalize cultural traits and make them appear biological. Manuela Massa considers the concept of sins against nature in relation to the early modern Spanish justifications for waging war. She examines in what senses this justification was deemed insufficient, and ties this line of argument to the philosophical debates surrounding the notion of eurocentrism.

Suman Seth examines the appearance of race medicine in the British colonies of the mid to late 18th century. He points out how in this period race and medicine were connected in way that produced race pathologies rather than anatomies. The result was that the physical side, not the traditional intellectual side, became decisive for medical theory formation and practice, and thence for discourses of colonialism and abolition.

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Section Three: The Decolonization of Reason

Gregory Fried examines the work of Heidegger to consider the project of decolonizing reason. Heidegger may turn out to represent a useful resource for this project insofar as his oeuvre could support the search for a rationality that balances the claims of universal justice with the situated nature of human understanding as it exists in historical communities.

Giuseppe Tosi analyses Carl Schmitt’s interpretation of Vitoria’s lectures De Indis in the context of Schmitt’s claim that the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 marked a founding moment of modern international law understood as a legal order of sovereign states, which he calls the ius publicum Europaeum. Tosi argues that Vitoria does not fit easily into Schmitt’s categorization of the Salamancan theologian as part of the medieval tradition of ius gentium and just war. In sum, he claims change in the international legal order was not mainly stimulated by the disappearance (in the 17th and 18th centuries) and return (in the 20th century) of just war theory, as Schmitt had supposed, but rather by the end of the absolute sovereignty of states in the second half of the 20th century.

Arguing in the tradition of specifically French philosophy, Jean-Christophe Goddard interprets decolonization essentially as a struggle against the exploitation of (formerly) colonial territories, accompanied by a “reverse anthropology” on the part of the autochthons. Stefan Knauß analyses the history of racism and its consequences up to the present from a decolonial perspective, referring to the concept of the coloniality of power in the work of the Latin American authors Enrique Dussel, Aníbal Quijano and Walter Mignolo. Constitutive for this perspective is a heuristic position “outside” European modernity, based, among other things, on Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of exteriority. Knauß suggests that the systematic position of this viewer’s perspective and the associated coming to terms with, and criticism of, colonial racism should be seen as an alternative, intercultural justification of human rights.

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Section One:The Debate on Just War, Conquest and Slavery

Cláudia Teixeira

Luis de Molina on iura peregrinandi, degendi ac comercii and the French presence in Brazil

Abstract: This paper addresses the commentaries made by Luis de Molina in 1574 and 1593 on the title of naturalis societatis et communicationis (Francisco de Vitoria, De Indis recenter inventis relectio prior), arguing that the limitations Molina imposes on the iura peregrinandi, degendi ac comercii (rights to travel, dwell and trade) may have been influenced by the French attempt to establish a colony in Brazil (1555–1575), threatening the hegemonic control of the Portuguese Crown over the region. In this sense, the limitations imposed by Molina on these rights constitutes a sign of the paradigmatic shift that will occur from the end of the century onwards, conditioned by the emergence of competing powers who claimed access to the overseas territories and threatened the world-order established by the Tordesillas Treaty.

Keywords: colonization, Portugal, Brazil, Huguenots, rights to travel, dwell and trade.

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The considerations on the iura peregrinandi, degendi ac comercii (the rights to travel, dwell and trade) made by Luis de Molina (1535–1600) in his commentary on Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Secunda Secundae, question 40 (De bello) in 1574/5 and, later, in the De iustitia et iure, published between 1593 and 1613, are largely indebted to the theory formulated by Francisco de Vitoria (1480–1546) in De Indis recenter inventis relectio prior (1538/1539). Vitoria, professor of theology at the University of Salamanca, as Green observes, «seeks to answer three questios or questions. The first question is on the ‘dominion of the barbarians’; the second question asks, ‘By what unjust titles the barbarians of the New World passed under the rule of the Spaniards’; and the third question concerns ‘the just titles by which the barbarians of the New World passed under the rule of the Spaniards.Vitoria answers these questions in turn and as such the lecture is divided into three sections».1 In response to these questions, Vitoria argues that before the arrival of the Spaniards the Indians possessed true dominium2 over their things, both in public and private affairs;3 then, he dismisses the titles traditionally used to justify the Spanish rule over the Americas;4 and finally, in the third part of the Relectio, the Spanish professor begins to discuss the titles that could have given the Spaniards the right to access the Indies. The first title to be listed, that is, the title of society and natural communication (naturalis societatis et communicationis),5 granted to all people by the Law of Nations, gave the Spaniards a set of rights which included the rights to travel, dwell and trade among the barbarians, as long as they do not harm them. Despite the neminem laedere limitation, as Chetail observes, “(...) the right of communication (…) remains a truly universal rule binding all nations. It is accordingly applicable to both Christians and Indians on equal footing».6 In consequence, the denial of those rights to the Spaniards would constitute an injury that would give them a just cause of war.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 362 pp.

Biographical notes

Christoph Haar (Volume editor) Matthias Kaufmann (Volume editor) Christian Müller (Volume editor)

Christoph Haar received his BA in history and politics from Durham University and his MPhil and PhD in intellectual history from the University of Cambridge. He is Lecturer in Early Modern History at Goethe University Frankfurt. His research interests include early modern political thought, cultural history and intellectual history. Matthias Kaufmann studied mathematics, philosophy and political science. He was Professor of Philosophy (Ethics) at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. His main fields of work are political philosophy, philosophy of law, applied ethics and early modern philosophy. Christian Müller received his MA in philosophy and history from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. His research interests include history of science and philosophy.


Title: Civilization – Nature – Subjugation
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