Christopher Columbus and Humanism

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Humanism: the belief system that laid the foundation for the Renaissance to reshape Europe. A movement of forward thinking men and philosophers who used ancient Greek and Roman texts to reshape their views of the world and reject the Medieval ways of thinking, breaking tradition by shifting man’s focus from the ethereal to the temporal. No longer would men accept religious or societal standards just because some dignitary declared them to be so. Instead, they would be lauded for thinking for themselves, learning, researching, analyzing, creating, and improving their earthly quality of life. These new European beliefs however, were put to the test with Columbus’s discovery of the new world, and in some cases they were abandoned completely.

In 1492, Columbus set sail for India and inadvertently stumbled upon a land full of riches but yet undiscovered by Europeans, the New World. A year later in his letters home to Ferdinand and Isabella, he describes the new land and the people he has found there. He describes the natives as incredibly timid and fearful of the Spaniards but goes on to explain that, “they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelously good account of everything,” and that their fear is due to the fact that they, “have never saw men wearing clothes or the like of our ships.” Here Columbus demonstrates the ideals of humanism, valuing the natives for their excellent sea faring skills and the knowledge he gains of the surrounding lands from their stories. He also takes into consideration their own life experiences such as having never seen men or ships such as his before. And while Columbus does take advantage of the natives’ extreme generosity, he makes a small attempt to prevent his men from completely swindling them, declaring that he forbade his sailors from trading trash such as broken glass with the natives in exchange for great quantities of gold. This application of Humanism’s ideals is a sharp contrast to Cortez’s interaction with the Aztec’s of the modern day Mexico.

In 1521, almost 30 years after Columbus first discovered the New World, Hernando Cortez defeated the Aztec people and took their capital, Tenochtitlan. In the description of the city’s fall, Cortez and his soldiers are portrayed as vicious and cruel by the Aztecs, forcing their leader to watch the destruction of his city and people, and caring only for gold, completely ignoring the precious jade, turquoise and quetzal feathers much to the Aztecs’ confusion. The Spaniards branded the warriors faces, blocked the roads to prevent the natives from fleeing, and searched all of then men and women, who in their desperation attempted to hide their valuables in their loincloths and dresses. Many of the Aztecs went out into the water to try to escape the invaders, some of them drowning. Here, Cortez displays none of the ideals of Humanism. He does not view the Aztecs as human beings like himself. He has no value for them as individuals, no care for their abilities or creativity. He destroys their city, their art, and much of their history in his lust for more gold. And although many people back home in Europe may have had the same view as Cortez of the New World natives, believing them to be less human and unequal to themselves, there were enlightened Humanist thinkers such as Montaigne, who condemned this treatment of the natives.

In his Essays Montaigne, a French aristocrat and scholar, describes what he has learned of the New World from another man who traveled there. From this information, he concludes “there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to.” He further drives his argument home by pointing out that this judgment has happened throughout history with even the Greeks calling all foreigners barbarians regardless of their actions. Using logic and facts to analyze and form his opinion of the people of the New World...
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