The following is from David Gress’ “From Plato to NATO”: “[Dominican friar Bartolome de] Las Casas, in 1551, decided to attack [humanist and classicist Juan Gines de] Sepulveda’s argument [in defense of colonial conquest of peoples who were by nature inferior] not at its weakest point, the Aristotelian claim that the Indians were by nature subordinate, but at its strongest point: the claim that any means available were justified in putting a stop to the absolute evil of mass human sacrifices. Las Casas began by noting that while it was true that cannibalism and human sacrifice were bad themselves, that did not necessarily entitle one to go to war to stop them, for such a war might be a worse evil than the evil it was supposed to remedy. He then claimed that, for the Aztecs, human sacrifice was the law of the land, and all people were required, by natural justice, to obey the law of their land.”

“Las Casas then entered upon an anthropological and philosophical argument that was sensational for its time. He concluded that using force to stop human sacrifice was wrong. He used two avenues to reach that conclusion. The first was that several instances in the Scriptures proved that God did not necessarily find human sacrifice detestable. Nor was cannibalism unheard of among Europeans, in case of dire necessity. The second avenue of argument was the more elaborate. This consisted in saying that the Indians like all human beings, had an inborn and instinctive sense of God. All people, granted this inborn sense of a supreme power, worshipped this supreme power according to their manner and devotion. The greatest gift one could make to the supreme power was the gift of life:
The most powerful manner of worshipping God is to offer him a sacrifice. This is the only act by which we show him to whom it is offered that we are his subjects, who are under obligation to him. Further, nature teaches us that it is right to sacrifice to God, whose debtors we are for many reasons, precious and excellent things, because of the excellence of his power. Now according to human judgment and truth, nothing in nature is greater or more precious than human life, the human being himself. That is why nature herself teaches and instructs those who have neither the faith, nor grace, nor doctrine, those who live by natural understanding alone, that without any positive law to the contrary they are bound to sacrifice human victims to the true God or to the false god whom they consider to be true, so that by offering him a supremely precious thing they can express their gratitude for the many favors they have received.”

I’m almost finished with the book, and I don’t highlight that because it is in any way representative, but because it was interesting. Perhaps distance from the 90s “culture war” of “western civ has got to go” makes me find the rest interesting, but particularly towards the end I became less enthusiastic about the book. I suspect many progressives will have little patience for his attempt to impart empathy towards traditionalists that veered toward illiberalism after, say, 1848. I know I did, and I spend an unusual amount of time reading self-described reactionaries. Perhaps rather than asking how to morally evaluate these figures he should have just said what their ideas were and why the reader should find them interesting (even if quite wrong). For my own part I was confused what was so bad about “the bourgeois pathology” that he repeatedly insists is not the totality of liberalism.

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