In English, dao is translated literally to mean “the Way” or “the Path.” Laozi begins the Daodejing by introducing the concept of dao. He opens by describing the limitations of language when describing the dao, since language can never fully capture all of what it hopes to describe. He writes, “A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way. A name that can be named is not a constant name” (Ivanhoe, 1). Using the word “constant,” Laozi establishes one of the major attributes of the Way. The dao is a force of constant change and is perpetually oscillating between yin and yang, creating either harmony or disharmony. It existed before Creation, “Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and Earth” (Ivanhoe, 1). However, the dao is not only the source of Creation, it is also nature itself; “Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures” (Ivanhoe, 1). Laozi here establishes a dichotomy that is present in the dao; the part that can be named and the part that cannot. When the dao is manifested in our physical environment (i.e. life, nature, and the observable cosmic universe) we can name these observable phenomena. However, the dao’s inner wonders are “nameless” since they capture aspects of the dao which are experiential and thus unnamable (i.e. feelings of “oneness,” enlightenment, and the “flow of the universe”). This creates a type of paradox, since one leads to the other, despite being completely different in purpose and form. This is what Laozi is referring to when he speaks of “[The dao’s unity] is known as an enigma” and includes an even “deeper enigma” which is the question of how individuals can understand the dao (Ivanhoe, 1).

Thus, the dao can be characterized as a Way of nature; one that cannot be wholly felt, seen, touched, or named. Laozi makes this clear in chapter fourteen describing the dao as “looked for but not seen… listened for but not heard… grabbed for but not gotten” (Ivanhoe, 14). The dao represents the highest form in the hierarchy of the cosmos:

In the universe are four great things…

People model themselves on the Earth.

The Earth models itself on Heaven.

Heaven models itself on the Way.

The Way models itself on what is natural (Ivanhoe, 25).

The dao is, therefore, the greatest form. It is indiscriminate since it “turns none [of the myriad of creatures] away” (Ivanhoe, 34). It is also selfless because it “never considers itself great, which is why it is able to perfect its greatness” (Ivanhoe, 34). The Way is omnipresent, indescribable, enigmatic, and the purest form of Virtue because “it is natural” and the dao models itself on what is natural (Ivanhoe, 54).

If the dao is the Way that an individual should seek to imitate, than de is the human agency behind how to actually cultivate it. De is the active expression of the dao. Although difficult to translate in English, de can be used in relation to concepts such as “inner energy,” “integrity,” and “pure virtue.” In the introduction to the translation of the Daodejing, Philip J. Ivanhoe attempts to explain de. He writes, “De accrues to an individual who possess natural calm, compassion, and confidence… [it is] capable of attracting, disarming, reassuring, and pacifying other people… De enables the sage to move others… [To] return to the peace, contentment, and prosperity of the dao” (Ivanhoe, XXVI). Some interpretations, such as that of sinologist Arthur Waley, also translate de simply as “power.” Thus, de is characterized by wei wu wei or a Way of “acting without acting,” – in other words, the sage has the power to inspire others to act in the way of the dao just by possessing Virtue. De is the highest embodiment of the dao; together they make a whole, since de is necessary for an individual to actually live according to the Way.

Chinese Art

A handscroll painting by Wu Yuanzhi depicting Su Shi and his friends traveling on a boat near the Red Cliff (1190 – 1195). Su Shi wrote on the experience himself using Daoist language and evoking concepts such as wei wu wei to describe his surroundings and its flow. He writes:

Master Su said, “Do you know the water and moon? The one flows on, and yet never goes anywhere, and the other waxes and wanes, yet never diminishes or grows. If you look at them from the point of Change, then heaven and earth never stay the same for even the blink of an eye. If you look from the point of what is unchanging, then all things, and I, are inexhaustible, so what is there to envy? Between heaven and earth, each thing has its master, and if it were not mine, even if only a hair, I would not take it. Only the clear wind on the river, and the bright moon between the mountains: the ear receives one and creates sound, the eye meets the other and makes color; you can take these without prohibition, and use them without exhausting them. This is the infinite treasure of the Creator, and what you and I can share and rejoice in” [1].


-          Ivanhoe, J. Philip. The Daodejing of Laozi. Seven Bridges Press. New York. 2002.

"The Arrival of the Croats at the Adriatic Sea" (1905) by Oton Iveković

“The Arrival of the Croats at the Adriatic Sea” (1905) by Oton Iveković

Yugoslav nationalism is a unique phenomenon that credits its historical development to anti-imperialist struggle. It was the culmination of decades of underground nationalist projects, one of idealism and sometimes even pragmatism. Therefore, the growth of a “Yugoslav identity” owes its very formation to a synthesis of many different elements of Balkan culture with the common interest of security against future imperialist powers. That is to say, Yugoslav nationalism had to be created from independent nationalist movements which lacked the power to manifest themselves on their own. Croatia and Serbia were the main players in the creation of this new nationalist vision, forging a nationalist alliance despite differences in interest. It was from here that the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes came into existence and, eventually, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. This essay will analyze Croatia’s ideological contribution to the development of Yugoslavism starting from the creation of its own national awakening up until the establishment of the first Yugoslav project, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

I. Developing a Croatian National Consciousness

In the 19th century, Croatia was a kingdom within a kingdom within an empire. The Kingdom of Croatia pledged its allegiance to the Kingdom of Hungary which was part of the great Austrian Empire. It found relative autonomy in the federation, but feared growing nationalism in Hungary would result in increased Magyarization of Croatia into a Greater Hungary. As a response, the Croatian intelligentsia felt it necessary to revitalize their traditions, folklore, and history in hopes of preserving it. Jonathan Sperber writes in his book The European Revolutions: 1848 – 1851:

[The 19th century] was the period when the smaller, mostly Slavic nationalities of the empire – Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ukrainian – remembered their historical traditions, revived their native languages as literary languages, reappropriated their traditions and folklore, in short reasserted their existence as nations [1].

The intelligentsia in 19th century Croatia realized that national awakening required a universal Croatian language and a literate population to maintain it. At the time, Croatia was broken into many different local dialects and lacked any homogeneity in the way its people spoke. Most Croatians were part of the illiterate peasant class. Thereby, the first step for the Croatian bourgeois class was to facilitate the printing of books to further national consciousness. Maksimilijan Vrhovac, a bishop from the city of Zagreb, is credited as one of its prime ideological architects by collecting many of the nation’s “spiritual treasures,” translating the Bible and other texts into Kajkavian Croatian (a dialect spoken in the north), and even appealing in front of the Croatian parliament in hopes of opening a public library in capital [2]. Vrhovac would set the foundation for what would decades later become the Illyrian Movement.

Statue of Ljudevit Gaj in Zagreb, Croatia

Statue of Ljudevit Gaj in Zagreb, Croatia

In the beginning of the 1830s, a group of young Croatian writers assembled in Zagreb calling for the unity of all Slavs within the Habsburg Monarchy. These young writers were led by Ljudevit Gaj who published Brief Basics of the Croatian-Slavonic Orthography in 1830 which was the first text that established a common Croatian writing system [3]. The goals of the Illyrian Movement then became actualized into tangible demands; the Illyrians wanted a standard language and culture to counterbalance growing Hungarian power. A single language, they felt, was the only way to achieve national revitalization. Gaj penned a proclamation in 1835 outlining the goals of the movement:

There can only be one true literary language in Illyria… It is not found in a single place, or a single country, but in the whole of Illyria… Our grammar and our dictionary is the whole of Illyria. In that huge garden there are beautiful flowers everywhere: let us gather everything of the best in one wreath, which will never wither [4].

For the Illyrian movement, national consciousness extended far beyond what is today modern-day Croatia – they took their inspiration from the commonality of being historically “Illyrian.” The Illyrian people were a group of Indo-European tribes who mainly lived in the Western Balkans. The historical group spanned from modern Slovenia all the way down to Macedonia. The Illyrian movement would become the spiritual precursor to Yugoslavism, encompassing the same lands in hopes of creating a unified Southern Slavic people.

The movement proved to be immensely successful within Croatian upper-class, but found little support from the peasant class and those living outside the Kingdom of Croatia [5]. Within where it was popular, however, it found literary success. Epic poems were published in “Illyrian grammar” (which would eventually evolve into Serbo-Croatian), the future Croatian national anthem was written by lyricist Antun Mihanović, and Croatian newspapers were allowed to be published starting in 1834. Ljudevit Gaj was responsible for establishing the first one in 1835 and thus was the pioneer of the beginning of Croatian journalism [6]. He also began the literary journal Danica as an attachment to the paper to further Croatian literary achievements. Each issue contained the motto of “[a] people without a nation/is like a body without bones” fully capturing the spirit and vigor of the Illyrian movement’s idealism. In the 1838 edition of Danica, Gaj further outlined the goals of the Illyrians against its detractors and critics. He writes:

Our intention is not to abolish individual names, but unify them under a general name, because each of the individual names carries its own individual history, which gathered together, comprise a more general history of the Illyrian nation [7].

Reading rooms were established in Zagreb for Illyrians to meet and discuss the growing linguistic developments. The first Croatian opera was written by composer Vatroslav Lisinski in 1846. The Illyrian movement thus achieved significant success throughout the Croatian intelligentsia, only to be suppressed in the wave of revolutions that would sweep Europe in 1848.

Despite these national developments, the Illyrians found themselves at odds with the Hungarian nobility and those supporting it. In 1843, the use of “Illyrian” was banned by Hungarian authorities [8]. Tensions surmounted on July 29th 1845 when the People’s Party (alternatively called the Illyrian Party) felt cheated when a Hungarian-allied candidate won during the elections held for newly-established Zagreb County of the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia. Members and supporters of the People’s Party filled the square in protest which angered the Croatian ban, ethnic Hungarian Fancis Haller, and the Austrian army was called to subdue the protestors. Thirteen protestors were killed and over two dozen were injured in the ensuing violence which would be remembered as the “July Victims” [9]. Croatian opinion in Zagreb was split – those of the Illyrian movement felt that the only means of securing a Croatian future was the establishment of an independent Croatian state whereas some Hungarian-Croats and other ethnic Croats felt that Croatia was best served through close relations with Hungary. With fear as an impediment to further progress, the Illyrian movement would have only one major victory after 1845. In October of 1847, with the help of politician Ivan Sakcinski, Croatian replaced Latin as the official language of the kingdom through a unanimous vote in parliament [10]. However, this major victory would be overshadowed by censorship and a crackdown on dissent in 1849 by Emperor Francis Joseph. A new constitution was created by the Austrian autocracy and the Danica soon went out of print. This effectively put an end to the Illyrian movement and any hopes of a unified Pan-Slavic state, but its spiritual adherents kept the fire going covertly, enough to influence the future trend of Yugoslav nationalism in the decades ahead.

With the suppression of the Illyrian movement, new beginnings had to be made to ensure the progress achieved was not in vein. Writers from mainly Croatia and Serbia (including one individual from Slovenia) met in Vienna in March of 1850 to discuss how Southern Slavic literature could be unified under a common banner to fight the growing empires that existentially threatened it [11]. The agreement that followed among them would become known as the Vienna Literary Agreement which established a basic method of writing for mainly Serbians and Croatians. The agreement was not formalized institutionally of course, but it provided inspiration for the codification of Serbo-Croatian as one especially during the years of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the latter half of the 20th century.

II. The Beginnings of Yugoslavism

With the suppression of the Illyrian movement, the Pan-Slavic project had to find a new name. While the Illyrian movement was mainly a literary and linguistic ideal, future calls for a Pan-Slavic state had to be put in the context of institutions and governmental structures. Whereas the limitations of the Illyrians were that they focused only on language as a means of uniting Southern Slavs, its successor needed to transcend these limitations and appeal directly to cultural and historical unity. The Illyrians’ spiritual heir soon became Yugoslavism and its most passionate adherents. Once again, Pan-Slavism found its face in the Croatian intelligentsia.

In the later-half of the 19th century two Croatian Catholic bishops, Josip Strossmayer and Franjo Rački, were the main partisans for the Yugoslav cause and supported academic institutions in both Serbia and Slovenia. However, nationalist competition between Serbia prevented their ideas from being spread outside of the Croatian bourgeois class and they faced similar problems that the Illyrians faced decades prior. Yugoslavism also failed to penetrate the majority peasant class in Croatia, appealing to mostly liberal Catholic clergymen and the literary elite. As Lenard J. Cohen writes in Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition, “Obstacles… to the Yugoslav idea… down to the lower strata’s predominant emotional commitment to its own individual locales, can, to a certain extent, be explained by the educational backwardness of Croatia’s agrarian population in the nineteenth century” [12]. The Croatian peasant class also lacked the “information about other South Slav regions and people” and thereby could not even conceive of a Yugoslav position. Most of the Serbian upper-class faced similar issues in mobilizing their largely poor agrarian population, whose “lower social layer lived like the Croats, as a subordinate agricultural stratum within the confines of the oppressive Ottoman imperial system, and also suffered from education deprivation” [13]. Most of the Serbian intelligentsia also scoffed at the idea of a Pan-Slavic identity and instead focused on Serbian aims at freeing themselves from Ottoman rule. They found little benefit in joining a union with the Croats against the Austro-Hungarian Empire; they had their own struggle against the Ottomans.

However, in the mid-1860s this pattern of non-cooperation between Serbian and Croatian interests was interrupted. Josip Strossmayer and Serbian foreign minister Illija Garašanin agreed on a plan that would begin the process of creating a Yugoslav state independent from both Austria and Turkey [14]. Nevertheless, Serbians lacked commitment to the issue and the plan fell apart within two years. This was because Illija Garašanin was not attracted to the romanticized Yugoslav ideal espoused by Croatian thinkers; rather, Garašanin realized that Yugoslavism fit nicely into his conception of a “Greater Serbia.” He was one of the founders of the concept, writing in his 1844 text Načertanije: “A plan must be constructed which does not limit Serbia to her present borders, but endeavors to absorb all the Serbian people around her”[15]. Thus, the question just who was Serbian became increasingly relevant among the Serbian upper-class. Vuk Karadžić, a prominent Serbian linguist of the 19th century, argued that “Serbians” encompass all those who spoke the Štokavian dialect which included large areas of Croatia and most of Bosnia. For Karadžić, these people were “Serbs who did not accept the name” and were to be assimilated into Greater Serbia [16]. It was these differences that further alienated the goal of Croatian Yugoslavism and that of Greater Serbia. Soon, Serbia’s expansionist aims would find cover in their support for Yugoslavism which gave them a platform with which to justify Serbian hegemony and power in the 20th century.

III. Struggle, Terrorism, and the Birth of the Yugoslav State        

Yugoslavism remained relatively unknown and too idealistic until the turn of the 20th century. In 1908, Bosnia and Herzegovina was annexed was by Austria-Hungary which angered Southern Slavs as they began they themselves collectively as a victim of foreign imperialism (i.e. Yugoslavs). Famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović  began writing poetry arguing for a “Yugoslav race” and even built a sculpture commemorating Serbian folk hero Prince Marko at the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911. He wished the bridge the cultural and artistic gap between Serbians and Croatians through his work, becoming immensely popular during his lifetime. In 1912, the Balkan War added another reason for the necessity of a Southern Slavic union. With a weakening of the Austrian Empire and the end of Ottoman occupation in the Balkan states by 1913, the Yugoslav project was on the verge of being actually realized.

Gavrilo-Princip-arrested after murdering the Austrian Archduke and his wife. He was only nineteen, one month shy of his twentieth birthday.

In the following years, the Balkans would violently erupt and organize itself on different lines. Serbia began funding paramilitary groups that would engage in anti-imperialist struggle in hopes of creating a “Yugoslav state” with Serbia as its national leader. The group Young Bosnia came to prominence in the early 1900s composed of Serbians, Croatians, and Bosniaks. Their ideals were inspired by revolutionary youth movements and the works of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and socialist/anarchist politics. After multiple failed attempts on state leaders, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on the 28th of June, 1914. Angering Austria-Hungary, the empire issued an ultimatum against Serbia to stop its violence and made a list of concrete demands.  World War I ensued a month after the assassination, against the interests of the Austrian-Hungarian autocracy. During Princip’s trial, he loudly proclaimed “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria” [17]. For many Southern Slavs, the creation of a Yugoslav state seemed inevitable.

However, before a Yugoslav state could be constructed, it had to be agreed on just what was to be established in the years ahead. Croats (including the Croatian Peasant Party and other social democratic parties) and the Serbian diaspora living in Croatia and Bosnia preferred a federated system of governance which would allow different Southern Slavic ethnic groups to cooperate amongst each other. Conversely, Serbs living in Serbia had plans for a Greater Serbia or a centralized Yugoslavia dictated by Belgrade, Serbia’s capital [18]. While Serbia was funding paramilitary groups aimed at uniting Southern Slavs, Croatia organized the Yugoslav Committee which was given the task of mapping out the future state. Its board was composed of mostly Croats and a few Serbian and Slovenian members. Although Serbian and Croatians aims for a Yugoslav state were fundamentally different, the Yugoslav Committee signed a compromise declaration with the Kingdom of Serbia in 1917 [19]. The declaration allowed for a parliamentary monarchy, composed of three nations, universal suffrage, and two different alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic) that were equal before the law. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established in 1918 with support from the Allied Powers. And it was then that the Yugoslav project became realized, albeit not as many Croatians had envisioned it.

IV. Conclusion and Remarks

Yugoslav nationalism was the product of literary romanticism, idealism, and anti-imperialist politics. However, it began very different in Serbia than it did in Croatia. Concepts of “Greater Serbia” constantly clouded any hope of a truly federalized cooperative state among Southern Slavs and instead replaced it with Serbian hegemony. This became apparent in the years following the formation of the Yugoslav Kingdom and the Serbian monarch’s established dictatorship in July of 1929, much to the outrage of the other ethnicities within Yugoslavia. Thereby, Croatians are hesitant when Serbian leaders speak of “Yugoslavia” in good light; for most Bosnians and Croatians, “Yugoslavism” has become synonymous with Serbian hegemony and power which has manifested itself in virtually every attempt at “brotherhood and unity” within the Balkans. The failed attempts at unification have stalled any proposals for federative unity within the Southern Slavic region; instead, individual nations have turned to nationalism and self-reliance as a means of coping with larger powers. As this proves ineffective, since Balkan states lack any bargaining power against Western nations, feelings of the Illyrian Movement and Yugoslavism might again return. However, it will return with another name as has been the cyclical case in the Balkans ever since national consciousness took hold in the tumultuous region during the 19th century.


1.     Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851.”(Cambridge University Press,                 2nd Edition, 2005)

2.     Šanjek, Franjo. Christianity in the Croatian Religion. [Kršćanstvo na hrvatskom prostoru].                     (Kršćanska sadašnjost, 1996).

3.     Becker, J. Carl. A Modern Theory on Language Evolution. (iUniverse, Inc. 2004).

4.     Vukcevich, Ivo. Croatia: New Language, New Nationality, and New State. (XLIBRIS, 2013).

5.     Marc, L. Greenberg. The Illyrian Movement: A Croatian Vision of South Slavic Unity. (Oxford                                 University Press, 2011).

6.     Ibid. 3.

7.     Gaj, Ljudevit. “Danica.” (National and University Library in Zagreb)

8.     Fishman, Joshua. Garcia, Ofelia. Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The                                 Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts, Volume 2. (Oxford                         University Press, 2011).

9.     Hawkesworth, Celia. Zagreb: A Cultural and Literary History. (Signal Books, 2007).

10.    Press Office. 165 Years Ago Croatian Parliament Proclaimed Croatian as Official                                  Language. (Croatian Parliament, Web).

11.    Greenberg, D. Robert. Language and Identity in the Balkans. (Oxford University Press,                          2008).

12.    Cohen, J. Lenard. Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in                               Transition. (Westview Press, 2nd edition, 1995).

13.    Ibid.

14.    Göransson, Markus Balázs. A Cultural History of Serbia. (Web, 2013).

15.    Garašanin, Illija. Načertanije. (Croatian Information Center, Web).

16.    Greater Serbia: From Ideology to Aggression. (Croatian Information Center, Web, 1993).

17.    Andjelic, Neven. Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. (Routledge, 2003).

18.    Djokić, Dejan. Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918–1992. (University of Wisconsin               Press, 2003).

19.    Dragnich, Alex N. The First Yugoslavia: Search for a Viable Political System. (Hoover                             Institution Press, 1983)


Novalis (1799) by Franz Gareis

I. Introduction

The Latinized “de Novali,” the pen name of romantic poet and author Georg Phillip Friedrich Hardenberg, means “the one who clears new ground.” He adopted it in 1798, only three years before his death at age 28, and it was a fitting one. It was a statement of the times; the American colonies had declared their independence just a few decades prior, the French revolution descended into chaotic violence, the Haitian slaves were fighting to liberate themselves from colonial rule – much of the world was, indeed, “clearing new ground.”

Novalis was born in 1772 to a low German noble family in modern-day Arnstein, Germany. He spent much of his childhood on the family estate and was particularly fascinated with nature. He began his education through private tutors and then attended a Lutheran grammar school in Eiseleben where he became educated in standard rhetoric and the classical Western canon. He went on to pursue law at multiple locations, passing his exams with honors, and befriending many poets and philosophers who later influence German Romanticism. It was after these studies that he fell in love with Sophie von Kuhn in November of 1794, who was twelve years old at the time. Although their “relationship” was elevated to mythical heights by later German Romantics, it was largely uneventful and brutishly short. They became engaged when she was thirteen, a few months after which she became deathly ill. She passed away in 1797 at only 15 years old. This tragedy had a huge impact on Novalis and further radicalized his conceptions of beauty, freedom, and religion. To him, Sophie represented a romanticized ideal. This ideal, mixed with grief, would become the basis of his poetic work Hymns to the Night, published in 1800.

II. The Realm of the “Infinite”

Novalis’s work vividly intersects with individualism and libertarian philosophy through his romantic imagery. Part of his “revolutionary” ethic was his adoption of a new identity to represent his romanticist prose. Dennis F. Mahoney writes in his book review of Novalis: Signs of Revolution by William Arctander O’Brien, “Novalis and his unique blending of literature, philosophy, politics, religion, and science are ‘Signs of Revolution’ in that they simultaneously hearken back to the past while announcing a new beginning” (Dennis, 313). The creation of the “new beginning” is what separates the character of “Novalis” from the man, Georg Phillip Friedrich Hardenberg. And moreover, the cause of his shift is explained through his love for Sophie, who fuels his work more so after her death than when they were engaged.

Much of Novalis’ philosophy can be explained through the distinction of “infinite” and “finite,” a radicalization of his Christian Protestant upbringing. He writes in Pollen (Blüthenstaub), “we seek everywhere the unconditioned and we always find only things” (Versulius). Leonard P. Wessell, Jr. argues in Novalis’ Revolutionary Religion of Death that the quote fully encapsulates “the whole of [his] religious thinking” in that it captures Novalis’ repeated desire for “the infinite” but being held down by the “limited and transitory things.” (Wessell, 425). For Novalis, the problem of finiteness brings about grief, pain, and suffering. And it through his interactions with “things” that he discovers its ultimate destruction – the death of Sophie. Wessell, Jr. writes:

Novalis had sought to transcend to solitude of his own finiteness (i.e. his own ‘thing-ness’) by reaching out and touching, in an act of love, the finite solitude of Sophie and then had lost her. Sophie’s death – the destruction of a “thing” – threatened to cast Novalis into a vortex of despair (Wessell, 426).

Thereby, Sophie’s death represents the ultimate end of meaning in the “finite” for Novalis. He writes in Hymns to the Night:

I shed bitter tears… dissolved in pain, my hope dissipated and I stood alone by the [grave of Sophie], which hid the form of life in a narrow dark room – alone as ever a person was alone, drive by unspeakable fear – powerless, only a thought of misery (Wessell, 426).

More broadly, the “finite” is symbolic of everything beyond Novalis’ self. It is here that Novalis’ romanticism finds solace in 20th century existentialism. To Novalis and everyone else, Sophie is merely a thing; she is finite. Although he wishes to fully understand her, the only reality he knows is his own. The irony for Novalis is that it is only through the Other (i.e. Sophie) that he is able to actually achieve his conception of being “infinite.” He is dependent on Sophie to reach the ideal, but will tragically never comprehend her completely.

It is through Sophie’s passing that Novalis views death as a “specter haunting man’s entire history, his highest cultural achievements.” For Novalis, death is the ultimate apocalypse (i.e. the end of our “finiteness”). It is the end of the only reality which we know. Therefore, while under the shadow of death, man is left frustrated and meaningless. Novalis furthers this idea by connecting time and displeasure as complicit in life’s end.

Time originates with displeasure. Thus, all displeasures [are] so long and all joy so short… displeasures are finite like time. Everything finite originates out of displeasure (Wessell, 427).

It is through this lens that Novalis places the death of Sophie in perspective; the absolute joy he experienced while with her negated the despair which time brings upon any man. For Novalis, this is the cure for existential crisis – the reflective ability to escape one’s finiteness by achieving “absolute joy” that is profoundly “eternal – outside all time.” He saw the existentialist solution as one of turning “displeasure into joy, and with it time into eternity.”

Novalis was a student of Greek Classics and his ideas on “finiteness” resembles Plato’s theory of forms. In Platonic theory, there are two realms – those of forms (realm of being) and those of our senses (the realm of becoming). The realm of becoming is riddled with imperfections; the realm of being is abstract and transcendent. Therefore, behind every tangible object is an idea. This can be properly explained with a simple question. Let’s take, for example, a chair – if you destroyed all physical manifestations of a chair, what would remain? All that would remain would be the idea of the chair which is transcendent of space and time. In the same vein, Novalis’ conception of the “infinite” (being) and “finite” (becoming) is a more romanticized approach to Plato’s forms, albeit with different implications. The difference being that, for Plato, the realm of forms can never be reached since it is an ideal. Novalis sees the “infinite” as a potential destination, able to be reached through “absolute joy.”

III. Defining the “Self” within a Philosophy of Freedom

The struggle, then, is realizing how to live within the finite and with the specter of death constantly looming. Firstly, Novalis makes it a point in his writing to define individualism. His definition of the “self” has its influences from the work of philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. The concept of “self” can be divided into two parts. On the one hand, there is just mere consciousness. This is what Novalis calls the “pure I” in that it is universal, regardless of the conditions that surround us. The other, more crucial, aspect of the self is that which we are not. Novais calls this the “empirical I.” He writes, “for the ‘I’ to be able to establish itself, there must be a ‘non-I’” (Gasparov, 13). Therefore, one’s sense of self is a reflection of all the things one is not. Each individual is dependent on social forces to develop as an “I.” For Novalis, the simple Cartesian equation of “I am I” is a tautology since we are all creations of society. Therefore, the statement does not reveal the essence of identity; it only rhetorically proves our mind exists.

Novalis established two aspects of the “self” – the pure “I” and the empirical “I.” Both are equally crucial, but second category is of particular interest to the young poet. Since identity is a construction of conditions around oneself, is not language also a similar creation? Novalis viewed language as “a multitude of fragments involved in never-ceasing commotion” (Gasparov, 13). Remarkably, this is also one of same ideas Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin had over 100 years later. Called a “dialogic,” Bakhtin also viewed language as an endless process of re-describing the world, building off others, and a constant flurry of change. Novalis was keen to recognize this fact in the late 18th century and was able to go beyond constant dialectics to a more understanding, democratic method of engaging others through dialogical discourse.

By universalizing this mode of analysis, Novalis establishes the precursor to Hegelian dialectics. Wessell, Jr. writes of his ideas:

Dialectical thinking… denies that any determinate category can exist in isolation, rather it [requires] its opposite. For instance, small is only meaningful placed in the context of large. Affirmation is only possible because of negation. Indeed, the very mean of any A entails the meaning of non-A as part of its essence (Wessell, 430). 

Hegelian Dialectic

Furthermore, each of these descriptors is found in a greater totality. To give one example, “small” and “large” are both located in the context of “size,” which unites these two contrary terms.

Thus, any conception of “freedom” must be viewed as being either a totality in and of itself, or as an opposite to another category. Making the distinction, Novalis writes, “the opposite of all determinateness is freedom” (Wessell, 430). Thus, the concept of freedom cannot be conceived without its opposite, one’s life being determined for them (i.e. oppression). Both of these concepts, freedom and oppression, exist in a greater totality – in contemporary society, this totality is capitalism. However, the point that can be derived from Novalis is that this contradiction is not constant and unchanging. Rather, it is held together by the capitalist totality. The point is, therefore, to break this contradiction – the point is to reach an existence where these words lose their meaning, where freedom is not described, it simply is. In order for true freedom to exist, it must be a totality all by itself.

Novalis’ descriptions of the “infinite” are poetic interpretations of absolute freedom. All of his philosophy – discussions on self, dialectics, language, death – is merely reflections of his desire to transcend the bounds of the physical world. Novalis worked to universalize meaning; he wished to find the means to create individual essence while living life in the specter of death. Thus, he could be called one of the first existentialists, although a romantic poet at heart. He writes:

To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite (Rorty, 294).

Novalis romanticized his environment and found solace by doing so. Just with the imagery alone, he is able to capture authentic individualism in poetic form. He describes it as something “infinite” and “extraordinary,” which fully encapsulates the beauty of liberty in every sense of the word. Perhaps, more importantly are the implications of Novalis’ idealism and how it should induce us to act. The romantic answer may be found in a simple aphorism from a French political poster dated May of 1968: “La beauté est dans la rue (beauty is in the streets).”


- Mahoney, F. Dennis. “Novalis: Signs of a Revolution Review.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 96, No. 2. 1997.

- Versulius, Arthus. Novalis. “Pollen and Fragments.” Phanes Press. 1989.

- Wessell Jr., Leonard P. “Novalis’ Revolutionary Religion of Death.” Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 14, No. 4. 1975. pp. 425.

- Higgins, Dick. Novalis. “Hymns to the Night.” McPherson. 3rd Edition. 1988

- Gasparov, Boris. “Speech, Memory, and Meaning.” De Gruyter Mouton, 2010 pp. 13

- Rorty, Amelie. Novalis. “Philosophers on Education: New Historical Perspectives.” Routledge. 1998

Despite changing its appearance, the United States remains relatively conformist in the 21st century. Decades prior, during the 1950s, conformity translated to the nuclear family and discipline. Conformity meant to avow gender roles and affirm the institutions that were above you. In retrospect, only difference between youthful rebellion of the 1950s and now is simply how they carry themselves. Rather than challenging systems in power, both groups hold hedonism above all else, and keep their hands clean in case any power bothers to ask what they are doing.


Movie poster for Fight Club.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek in an interview with Vice Magazine compares authentic rebellion to the 1999 movie Fight Club. In one scene of the film, the narrator punches himself in the face as an act of defiance in front of his boss. For Zizek, this scene demonstrates what is necessary in objective criticism. In order to properly critique the system one is a part of, one must essentially commit existential suicide. In other words, one must kill society’s expectation of oneself. Zizek argues that in order for an individual to truly view life outside of Western conformity, the individual must sever all ties with the existing social order. In an act of ultimate defiance, only then can the individual step back and look at life in new light without the baggage of Western ideology.

In many ways, Zizek’s interpretation of “rebellion” is comparable to Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums in its attitude toward the conventional and its adoption of non-Western methods to achieve enlightenment.  Japhy Smith, one of the main characters in the novel, represents what it means to go against the grain in 1950s.

I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom. That’s why I was always sympathetic to freedom movements… (Kerouac, 23).

Japhy embodies many of Zizek’s qualifications. He has cut off his Western obligations and expectations – committing social suicide – to live outside of it just for the sake of it.

The problem of any “Japhy” in the 21st century is that, in the digital age, there is no “outside” space. Each and every one is occupied by Western lines of thought. The digital world has managed to transcend communication, globalizing our conception of community, but also making essentially every space “occupied.” In other words, a Jack Kerouac-esque figure would be relatively impossible in the 21st century – there is simply no “room.” This realization makes the 21st century rebellious youngster work within the space he is given, rather than outside it. Thus, for the hip liberal racketeer, you always need to be plugged in and connected. The technological “essentials” are seen as absolutely necessary, to keep one up-to-date on the latest cause and commenting on them to show some temporary solidarity.

The contemporary “rebellious” youth stands in stark contrast to the hipster and jazz subculture of post-WW2 era. Norman Mailer in The White Negro speaks of their mentality as fragile and conscience of their life’s futility. He writes:

It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist—the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war… or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled. (Mailer, 2)

The white hipster culture of the 1940s was characterized by an influence of African American music, particularly jazz.

The white hipster culture of the 1940s was characterized by an influence of African American music, particularly jazz.

The 21st century youth would be a reversion of Mailer’s description. If anything, Americans find themselves too flexible when it comes to their own lives. For the contemporary college graduate, “our collective condition is to live” with a career – less risk and more reward. For the 21st century generation, risk is seen as relatively obscene. Raised by the Baby Boomers, the current preppy teenager is raised in a state of constant surveillance. Occupying a space, they are forced to work within it, and take it for granted that their parents were likely riskier than they were in their youth.

However, similar to Mailer’s hipster, the contemporary “troublemaker” finds himself intensified on certain aspects of culture as their outlet of creativity. In other words, “at the expense of expressing only a small portion of [themselves], [their] small portion [is] expressed intensely” (Mailer, 7). This “small portion” finds itself through contemporary identity, since everyone needs a unique career path and a certain biography to go with their internet page. Thus, for the modern young adult, the maxim is appearance above all else. To put it simply, what people think you are will pass for what you actually are. Modern youth finds itself split between two camps, the virtual and the Real, and find themselves increasingly more comfortable in a space already predetermined (i.e. social networking).

Therefore, contemporary society is no less conformist than it was in the 1950s. Despite the change in demeanor, the youth of before and now are both mediated by a bourgeois big Other. Living in minimum-risk environment, the collegiate body of today is cautious, but efficient. Valuing their own space above all else, they cherish their identity. And as a consequence, it has left the upcoming generation of career-makers dangerously lethargic to grander politics. Always plugged in, it has made them devoid of any substance beside their social expectations. As Zadie Smith writes in “Generation Why?” in the New York Review of Books:

[Facebook is] the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul… When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Thus, now in the Internet age, relationships are watered down to their bare essentials. Thus, a life as in Dharma Bums comes off as an antiquated portrayal of something that once was, but can never be brought back. There is simply no space for such activity.

Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running – that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sight of the sea… (Kerouac, 4)

When looked through a modern lens, the 21st century American can relate to Kerouac, but it cannot do the same. Bogged with work and petty-bourgeois individualism, the only place they can experience anything close to as euphoric is in the much more convenient virtual plane.

Therefore, in the 21st century, conformity is the rule rather than the exception. Just as it was the 1950s, politics are still inherited through generational lines. Misleading truisms such as “success comes to those who work hard” are taken as unequivocally true, embraced by the white collegiate students who have the same glimmer of hope their parents did. In contemporary society, everything is technological – and it is inevitable. Consequently, modern youth find themselves more stimulated, more entertained, than any other generation thus far.  They have been given a “space” larger than anybody before them; they have been granted permission to express themselves in the virtual. However, with this freedom comes a dual-personality. It also brings expectations and excessive optimism. In other words, the modern American is too entertained and too satisfied.

Modern young America can best be described as “pseudo-rebellious.” In a paradox of development, they are left more lethargic by being given more freedom. They fantasize the personality of the “rebel.” They caricature and make it an exact science, crafting that trendy image online, all while making it devoid of substance. It becomes a type of person, a commodified personality, rather than the fullest expression of individualism. Ironically, in this new cultish desire to be an “individual” and “unique,” we have conformed. As Erich Fromm writes in his book, On Disobedience:

As long as I am obedient to the power of the State, the Church, or public opinion, I feel safe and protected… My obedience makes me part of the power I worship, hence I feel strong. I can make no error since it decides for me; I cannot be alone, because it watches over me. I cannot commit a sin, because it does not let me do so, and even if I do sin, the punishment is only the way to returning to the almighty power (Fromm, 9).

Only rebellious by appearance rather than attitude, modern conformity feels as refreshing as ever. So refreshing, we don’t even have to call it “conformity.”


-          Zizek, Slavoj. “Vice Magazine Meets Slavoj Zizek.” Personal interview. 4 Oct. 2013.

-          Kerouac, Jack. “The Dharma Bums.” Penguin Books, 1971. Print.

-          Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” Dissent Magazine. 1957. Print

-          Smith, Zadie. Generation Why?New York Review of Books. N.p., 25 11 2010. Web. 9 Dec 2013.

-          Fromm, Erich. “On Disobedience.” Harper Perennial. 2010. Print

In Book 3 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle establishes three distinct categories of action: voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary. With these distinctions, Aristotle hopes to explain when it is appropriate to hold an agent responsible for his/her actions and under which specific circumstances this responsibility can be properly applied. More specifically, Aristotle defines these actions in an attempt to find virtue within the spectrum of possible human activities.

Voluntary actions can be defined by the principle that the agent does the action deliberately and intentionally. More importantly, any act done after a choice is considered voluntary. However, this does not mean that a voluntary action implies choice. As Aristotle argues, both children and lower animals engage in voluntary actions, but lack choice, which is why they are less responsible for their actions. They act on impulse, which is still voluntary, and do not justify their actions through reason. It is from here that we can establish another principle for voluntarism – it is contingent on if the agent is able to freely perform or stop the act. This specific rule is crucial in ruling out bodily functions (i.e. the beating of one’s heart) as a voluntary act, since the individual has no means of putting a stop to it intentionally short of death. Therefore, these acts fall under the category of “non-voluntary.”

aristotle_000We have now established two basic principles of a voluntary act. (I) It must be dependent on the agent if the action is performed or not. (II) The agent is aware of the condition and environment during which the action is performed in. For Aristotle, this second principle highlights the problem of ignorance in determining voluntary acts.  From here, he distinguishes between two types of actions – actions caused by ignorance and actions done in ignorance. For the former, it is an action done when the individual is not aware of the full extent of his environment. An example would be drinking hemlock thinking it was wine. Although the act is voluntary in that the individual chose to drink the wine, it is considered involuntary because the individual also was not aware of the contents of the drink and expresses regret. Hence, he is not responsible for the act. On the other hand, actions done in ignorance are voluntary. Individuals that commit these acts are ignorant of what Aristotle would call “universals.” They are ignorant of the kinds of actions which are to be avoided. An example of this would be a thief robbing another man; the thief is fully aware of his actions, but is not aware of it being universally wrong. This principle is derived from Socrates’s idea which is that “no one does evil knowingly.” Such individuals would not express remorse for their actions, making them voluntary. Therefore, actions caused by ignorance are involuntary if they induce regret; actions done in ignorance are voluntary since they are done without regret.

Aristotle outlines two large categories of actions: what is voluntary and what is not voluntary. It is within the second category that he describes two smaller types called non-voluntary and involuntary actions. Involuntary acts are either pardoned or pitied. It also requires remorse on the agent after doing the act. It is only when the agent expresses regret that the action can be considered involuntary, since it goes against his character. Involuntary acts can thus be said either to be by force or done in ignorance (discussed prior). In the case of compulsion, the act itself must not originate from the agent himself. An example would be if an individual was pushed and by consequence knocked someone over. Such an act would be entirely involuntary if the agent that was pushed felt remorse afterwards. However, Aristotle argues that choices made under threats are still voluntary albeit mixed since they are partially compulsory. An example of this would be being held at gunpoint and then being forced to hand over your wallet – since a clear choice is involved, to give or not to give the wallet, the action is voluntary, but under constraint. Aristotle does not elaborate on the moral responsibility of the agent involved in this scenario; rather, he simply argues that victim’s action is voluntary in that there is a choice involved.

An action which is non-voluntary falls under the category of being “not voluntary,” but is still different than an involuntary act. The following example can be used to illustrate the difference. In this particular scenario, there is a hunter who is looking for venison to eat. He needs to kill a deer. However, he accidentally kills another animal, thinking it was a deer from a distance. In order to categorize this act, it is first important to establish if the hunter feels remorse for his actions. If he does, the act goes against his natural character and is therefore involuntary. If he feels no remorse, considering he would have killed the animal anyway, than his action is non-voluntary. The killing of the animal is still accidental, but the hunter does not feel remorse, and therefore does not fit into the category of being an involuntary act. Another non-voluntary example would be the beating of one’s heart (or any bodily function), which does not induce remorse, but cannot be controlled by the individual.


Thus, Aristotle establishes the difference between involuntary and voluntary acts on whether the agent expresses remorse. Acts which are caused by ignorance are either involuntary or non-voluntary, depending on the reaction of the individual. Actions done in ignorance, however, are voluntary since agents knowingly commit the act without regret.


- Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

                                             Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

I. The Merging of Catholic and State Power

“The empire on which the sun never sets”

This phrase encapsulated Spanish pride during the 16th and 17th centuries. Behind all of that however, the Spanish Golden Age involved the systemic subjugation of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their natural resources, and assimilation of their respective cultures. Generations destroyed by Spanish (and other Western) colonialism left a crippled continent that lacked the capital to upstart its uphill battle from subservience, even to this day. As Uruguayan journalist writes in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations.” And with the arrival of Spanish boats on the Latin American continent emerged a new chapter in their once-proud history; one marked with decline and subservience to a power that simply saw their blood as money. The Spanish invasion of Latin America Howas not a spontaneous ordeal of military intervention. Rather, it was facilitated by the institutions that held Spain and its Habsburg royal family by the handles. These included mineral profiteering, religion, and finance. Ideologically, the Catholic Church and its thinkers played a crucial role in legitimizing colonial expansion. Monetarily, the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonial plunders financed the growth of arms and territorial expansion. This vicious cycle was largely made systemic until the steady decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century.

RequerimientoBefore creating conflict, presumably war, it is essential to have academic backing beforehand to hold popular support. Despite being an autocratic monarchy, an ideology was necessary to justify Spain’s colonial ventures. The Catholic Church proved to be a viable outlet since its power was diminishing on the European stage. Critics, such as Martin Luther, questioned the Papacy and threatened the Catholic rule that had been the status quo for over a millennium. The Church struggled to counteract the powers that were splintering its unity and it found leverage in Spanish politics. Given the expansionist aims of Spain, the Catholic Church viewed this as a proper opportunity for evangelical expansion. Therefore, the Spanish state and the Catholic Church worked hand in hand but for different reasons – the former wanted to reap profit and the other wanted to expand its mode of theological thinking. Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose – it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.

The marginalization of the New World began with the creation of administrative regions of control. The North and South American continents were carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the Spanish Crown and Portugal. Another treaty was signed between them in 1529 titled the Treaty of Zaragoza, which aimed at determining their respective regions of control in Asia. With the territorial lines set, the Spanish empire could now employ its ecomienda system of labor which institutionalized the enslavement of indigenous peoples and spread its Catholic evangelical message by sword even more efficiently. The Catholic Church sanctioned these territories with the papal bulls given in 1493, setting the groundwork for the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza. Called the Bulls of Donation, it granted overseas territories to the Catholic Spanish monarchs and Portugal. The major area of contention was Latin America, but is also involved a few islands in Asia among other regions. This holy sanctioning of land fundamentally usurped the power away from the Native Americans and granted the Spanish Crown the divine right to rule. Likewise, this was evoked many times over in conquest. Aside from the Requerimiento, which was read after a region was conquered, the Spanish Crown also instated the Spanish Requirement of 1519. This solidified Catholic rule in the colonies. It decreed that the Spanish Empire was divinely decreed to take the land of the New World. It also explicitly granted Spain the privilege of exploiting, subjugating, and enslaving the native inhabitants when they saw fit. The conquistadors that invaded, then, evoked this and believed those who resisted occupation also resisted God’s plan. Thereby, from then on, the colonial mission was fully set in motion – it had a monetary incentive, since territorial expansion provided bullion for the coffers of those in power, and it provided an ideological justification through God’s will.

II. The Catholic Theological Debate Over Colonialism 

The Spanish Empire was unique in that it had a strict religious undertone. Other empires, such as the British and French, lacked such a prophetic message and were not as fervent in their religiosity to new-found lands. The difference was that the religious and governmental spheres of Spanish societies overlapped. This was especially evident in the Spanish Crown’s insistence in spreading Catholicism by lawful decree. The law of Burgos was passed in late December of 1512 and it was the first set of laws to govern the behavior of Spaniards living in the Americas in their treatment of indigenous peoples. It forbade them from being “mistreated” and facilitated converting them to Catholicism.  However, it was largely ineffective in preventing the former. The system of ecomienda was too ingrained in the colonial economic system to be ruined by Spanish decree. This was tried to be corrected again in 1542 by King Charles V, but it was again largely ignored in the largest colonial regions. The native peoples of the Americas were then left with mistreatment and forced Catholic conversations, the decrees doing little to better their condition beside force more religion upon them.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of  universal conception of rights.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

In theological circles, the question of forced conversation and treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas was one of much debate. Although the political sphere justified its colonization of peoples through a religious lens, the Catholic consensus on the matter within the upper echelons of its administration were split. This disagreement on the treatment of Native Americans would eventually reach its culmination in the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio of the Spanish city of Valladolid. The two debaters were the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas, defending their right for equality, and Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that their enslavement was justified by divine law. Casas was one of the first individuals to criticize Spanish colonization and argued that the Native Americans were capable of reason and could be brought to Christianity without coercion. And, according to natural law, they were to be treated just as the Europeans were. Sepúlveda, on the contrary, argued from a strangely secular position. Arguing from an archaic Aristotelian point, he stated that indigenous peoples have a predisposition for slavery since they fall into the definition of “barbarian.” Hence, they were to be considered “natural slaves.” He went on to outline four mine reasons for the enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. Firstly, their condition in nature was one that was akin to slavery and demanded a Spanish master. Secondly, it prevented the indigenous peoples from engaging in obscene acts such as cannibalism and sexual perversion. Thirdly, it prevented chaos amongst them and stopped them from engaging in forms of offensive sacrifice. And finally, slavery was the most effective way of teaching them of European Catholic culture. Casas, furious, responded that there is an international duty to protect innocence from being treated unjustly. Remarkably, this was one of the first public callings for universal human rights. The debate ended with both sides polarized and there was no clear “winner” of the Valladolid debate. However, Casas’s arguments had an effect on policy to some degree. The ecomienda labor system was marginally weakened and the New Laws of 1542 were passed, however this did little to better the condition of the Native Americans. All in all, neither side came out truly victorious – to Cases’s dismay, Spanish colonialism and expansion continued and Sepúlveda, who wanted to strengthen the ecomienda system, failed to tangibly do so.


Papal bulls served as the moral justification for colonization since the Spanish Empire had little in the law books over the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples.

III. The Ultimate Victor 

Despite the winner the argument being ambiguous, Sepúlveda argument for “natural slavery” is one that was prevalent in Christian circles. It originates from Aristotle, that certain individuals have a predisposition for slavery and subservience. The ideologically basis for it is inherently racist, Euro-centric, and was used to justify enslavement of the Native Americans by political, military, and Church leaders. However, it would be unfair to argue that the entire Church condoned the actions of the Spanish empire. Bartolomé de las Casas was only one of many that opposed such mistreatment on the basis of natural rights. Much of the opposition grew out of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was interpreted as a rebuttal to the enslavement of Native Americans. This would eventually form a new school of ecclesiastical thought, from the turn of the 16th century, which aimed to reconcile the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas with the new emerging political order. It was titled the School of Salamanca. They tackled the topics of the Spanish empire and its treatment of peoples, the Reformation, and the rise of humanism. The school represented the eventual end of medieval thinking and the focus on individual liberty in ethics. Natural rights were elaborated upon and were argued to have been given to all humans, including Native Americans. This was contrary to the dominant opinion in Europe at the time, which was that indigenous peoples lacked such rights and were made for subservient positions. Moreover, this was one of the first times in history when a group of intellectuals questions the basis of imperial conquest rather than merely justifying it. One of the leaders of this group was Francisco de Vitoria, who was also the founder of the School of Salamanca. He argued that the claims to land by the Spanish Crown were largely illegitimate and that the peoples of Latin America also possessed property rights. From this, he outlined a rough conception of international law, which was the first of its kind, and his Just War theory. Thereby, he concluded as did others in the intellectual movement, that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was unjust on the basis that it was provoked and it usurped them of their natural right to free will. Contrary to mainstream thought, Vitoria made the bold claim that wars for glory or forced conversion against “heretics” or “infidels” were inherently unjust since they were inherently aggressive rather than defensive.

The history of Spanish plunder in their occupied territories is one of complete destruction – not just in Latin American, but elsewhere also. Generally speaking, the purpose of colonization was to expropriate mineral-rich reserves from the colonies while maintaining it benevolent in the eyes of Catholic dogma. Largely efficient for Spaniards in power, some questioned it and such criticisms lead to the establishment of natural rights in intellectual circles. International justice came from ills of Spanish colonization, from within the Catholic establishment, and a set a precedent for future human rights movements. Thinkers along the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria argued against the subjugation of indigenous peoples from a principled position of ethics. Rejecting the Aristotelian argument of “natural slavery,” their writing focused on the soul of each man as being equal. This consequently broke the chains of medieval thinking, but it would take a long while until such criticisms reached the mainstream. Despite the dissenters, Spanish colonization was based largely on Catholic evangelism. Catholicism was the underpinning of all of Spain’s imperial conquests, one of the only empires to exclusively do so, and it provided a rationalization for the torture and violence that they would inflict on the native peoples. The synthesis of the Church, with the Pope’s involvement, and the political system of Spain created a deadly dualism that would eventually lead to one of the greatest tragedies in human history –involving the complete destruction of certain cultures and peoples just for the sake blood profiteering. With the Catholic justification as the mainstream ideology supporting colonization, its critics scrambled to stop the bloodshed. Eventually, their voices would be heard, but only after millions have been victimized by the brutal labor system imposed by the Spanish Crown. And this plunder would roll the clock back on the Latin American experience, and other colonies, hundreds of years. It is a tragic setback that is still felt today, in culture and in economy, and a wound that will perhaps never be fully healed.

aristotAristotle’s Categories is an ontological piece attempting to differentiate between states of being. It is a short piece, broken up into fifteen chapters. The most basic component is the distinction between the subject and the predicate. The former is what the statement is about; the latter is what is describes.

In chapter two, Aristotle gives a two-type difference between the natures of the subject in a statement of truth. Firstly, there is a statement that which is said of the subject. This type of ontological deduction is that which is essential to the subject. It is arranged in universal hierarchies. One example would be “the saxophone is (said of) an instrument” where the “saxophone” is the more specific type than the lesser universal distinction of “instrument.” This statement of truth is essential to the subject. However, both “instrument” and “saxophone” are two distinct parts and can exist independently in different statements of truth.

The second differentiation deals with what is present in the subject. This signifies dependence, since it can not exist without the subject. Thus, it is description which is non-essential to that subject. Such an example would be “Aristotle was wise” where wisdom is used as a description of the subject. In this case, the description of “wise” cannot exist in the same context without its subject. Therefore, it is not a part all of itself; it is merely present in the subject.

This distinction forms the basis of Aristotle’s ontology since it differentiates between two states of being. That which is said of the subject are parts which are essential to the subject, but are not dependent on each other in statements of truth. And that which is present in the subject is a description of it which cannot exist without the subject.


- Aristotle’s Categories


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