The Virtues of Mestizaje: Lessons from Las Casas on Aztec Human Sacrifice

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Winner of the American Philosophical Association’s 2019 Essay Prize in Latin American Thought | Western imperialism has received many different types of moral-political justifications, but one of the most historically influential justifications appeals to an allegedly universal form of human nature. In the early modern period this traditional conception of human nature—based on a Western archetype, e.g. Spanish, Dutch, British, French, German—opens up a logical space for considering the inhabitants of previously unknown lands as having a ‘less-than-human’ nature. This appeal to human nature originally found its inspiration in the philosophy of Aristotle, whose ethical thought pervaded the work of European philosophers at the outset of the early modern period and the modern age of empire. Indeed some Spanish writers—most famously, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (b. 1494)—explicitly appealed to Aristotle’s moral-political philosophy in order to justify the conquest of the Americas in the early sixteenth century, for instance to justify war against the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples. At the time of European arrival, the Aztec civilization was easily the greatest in Mesoamerica—and yet the Europeans generally considered the Aztec people to be ‘barbaric,’ i.e. less-than-fully-human.
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