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Thanks to the efforts of the Latino/a Working Group at the Society of Christian Ethics, I had the benefit of listening to the reputed Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel earlier this month at the annual meeting. Unfortunately, I was not in good health to attend the panel response the following night so this very brief overview of his thesis will have to suffice. Dussel captivated his listeners with an impassioned and remarkably succint history of “modernity” from a Latin American perspective and did so under two hours. His great merit was that he not only gave a historical introduction, but followed it with a serious reflection on the philosophical method that guides his critical historical analysis. I begin with his historical introduction.

Rather than starting with the Reformation or the Enlightenment in western Europe as starting points to modernity (a limit of Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas), Dussel compels us to reconsider the standard narrative by thinking close to the equator and farther west–i.e., the New World encounter with Amerindian others. Rejecting the rosy picture of Spanish discovery and conquest beginning with Columbus (à la Main Building at UND), Dussel refers to the “ego clamo” of the first Dominicans as an alternative subject to the monological Cartesian cogito. From this subject-in-relation-to the oppressed Amerindians, he locates the birth of a “modern, critical” Christian ethics. The figure selected as the embodiment of “ego clamo” is Bartolomé de las Casas who underwent a radical conversion in 1514 away from benefiting from Amerindian exploitation to defending their rights by attempting to abolish the encomienda system (Dussel refers to this as an anti-liturgical project) that perpetuated it. 

Dussel’s historical narrative, which I have offered a simple overview of, has the breadth and scope of a brilliant thinker drawing from many sources. My concern, however, was with his bifurcation of Western thought into two opposed traditions that was articulated during his theoretical analysis: the Mosaic/Semitic and the Hellenistic. As I understood him, the thrust of his point was to contrast the concrete ethics of the Hebrew tradition to the speculative thought of the Greek philosophical tradition. The case in point where these two traditions diverge most clearly is on the question of works of mercy. The Jewish and Christian centrality afforded to the practice of giving without recompense even to the point of giving up one’s life to be in solidarity with the needy (hence, mercy is not to be confused with Aristotelian magnanimity), has nothing to do with the Hellenistic focus on promoting one’s own polis or commonwealth or a community of leisure over and above the needs of the oppressed.

My issue is not with Dussel’s instructive point here (also made by Alasdair MacIntyre’s consideration of Cicero’s moral and political thought in contrast to Augustine’s own thought in Whose Justice?, but for a very different purpose) about differences between Jewish-Christian versus pagan understandings of the moral life. Rather, it has to do with the supposed incommensurability between the Semitic (yes, he even includes Egypt here) and the Hellenistic categories. Aside from being overly static and monolithic in his account of these opposed categories, Dussel wants to apply them as normative categories into his reading of history in order to demarcate Eurocentric approaches to ethics from liberationist views of ethics. This is a limit that I recognized first hand when I told him about my dissertation project after his lecture.

One of the aims of my project is to address the scholastic and canonistic influences on Las Casas’s theological and legal thought in an effort to show the confluence of the biblical and so-called “Hellenistic” traditions (e.g. Aristotelian and Stoic) in his effort to defend the rights and dominium of Amerindians. When I mentioned this in so many words, Dussel raised red flags. It appears to me that he wants to read Las Casas strictly through the lens of what he defines as non-Eurocentrism, which means that the “scholastic” dimensions of Las Casas’ thought are viewed as being mere rhetorical devices. However, reading Las Casas’s description of human sacrifice in the Apología as a religious act not contrary to natural law in certain cases is anything but rhetorical. Especially when one considers how he thinks through this problem by applying Aquinas’ virtue of religion and Aristotle’s conception of practical reason to show its coherence. Only somewhat surprisingly,  Dussel made a point pithily to say that in the discourse ethics of Habermas (perhaps the ideal speech situation) there appears to be a deeper congruity with Las Casas’s project to convert solely by means of gentle persuasion. A congruence that would seem to imply an incongruence with his Salamancan counterparts. As intriguing as this might be, I don’t see how it is any less “Eurocentric” (or his appraisal of Levinas for that matter) when there are clear liberal values enshrined in their political and ethical thought. One could very well argue that Las Casas’ capacity to understand certain Amerindian practices more sympathetically than mere abomination was elicited by his commitment to preaching Gospel love conjoined with a sharpened scholastic perspective.

Dussel, I suppose, would profit by taking more seriously the decision of Las Casas to be Dominican and not something else following his 1514 conversion. It strikes me as more than mere coincidence that the Dominicans who first preached against the encomenderos in the New World happened to be from the convent of San Esteban in Salamanca. More than this, their religious formation was shaped within the same ethos of rigorous scholastic inquiry and austere spiritual discipline that produced the likes of Vitoria and Soto. That fact has been notably recognized by two remarkable theologians: Gustavo Gutiérrez, but especially, Ramón Hernández Martín. Needless to say, they both belong to the Order of Preachers.

Overall, I was not entirely sure what Dussel was meaning when he took Las Casas to be “modern” during his lecture. Critical voices are present in every society. Surely, my ignorance is indicative of my absence at the response. His important essay, “Alterity and Modernity,” gets closer to an answer when he refers to Las Casas as a critic of “modernity” who challenged it as a world juridical system (Vitoria is the bad guy here) from the outside or the perspective of the Amerindian, which meant challenging his own Christian community as idolaters. I think this hints at what is positively “modern” in Las Casas. But there is a risk here of romanticizing the “other” as Tzvetan Todorov’s reading of Las Casas clearly illustrates. In Todorov’s effort to suspect all things hegemonic, the critical distance of foreign cultures can be lost, and relativism embraced. This loses sight of the historical reality that both Incan and Aztec civilizations were also conquerors themselves. I thank Gustavo Gutiérrez for this point. Dussel, to his credit, does not want to go that postmodern route but speaks instead of the “reason of the other” as a basis for a trans-modern ethics cognizant of the sacrificial myths of European modernity in the business of exporting “higher” cultures.

If there is a take-away point from Las Casas consistent with Dussel’s narrative, it would be in identifying that distinct aspect of his doctrine in comparison to early modern and modern European imperialist doctrines: the political autonomy and property rights he grants non-Christian societies. His unwavering defense of the rationality of infidels demonstrates a radical break with the missionary warfare legimated by medieval Christian political doctrine, the conquest over barbarians in Hellenistic (i.e.,  Alexander the Great) and Roman imperial doctrine, and later western European expansionist programs. In other words, the claim that political subjugation by the “higher” civilization is a prerequisite for a just society is rejected outright. That is because it is a thoroughly un-Christian claim. Of course, this insight was not restricted to Las Casas but one indebted to and shared with the School of Salamanca (esp. Cano and Soto), even Vitoria to a certain extent. Josef Cardinal Höffner made this point in an excellent work earlier last century.

Is Dussel willing to concede this much? In my opinion, the gain would be worthwhile in the following sense: by turning to the the School of Salamanca as a necessary counterpart to the thinking of Las Casas, a more thorough account of humanitarian intervention out of justice and charity toward one’s global neighbor in those extreme cases requiring force could be defended. Necessarily so, and as the Salamancans recognized, this doctrine would always be constrained by whether or not it became a source of scandal to the faith in the eyes of the other.

2 Responses to “The beginning of “modern” Christian ethics: a response to Enrique Dussel”

  1. Andrew says:


    This post is really interesting. I recently attended a lecture by Dussel, and I posted my analysis of it here, in case you’re interested:


    I’m wondering, do you know of a place where Dussel has talked about the “ego clamo” in print? I ask this for selfish reasons, related to my dissertation!

    Second, I very much liked your suggestion that not only Las Casas, but also Dussel himself, may avoid Eurocentrism only while, at the same time, relying in certain significant respects on European intellectual sources, whether they be scholastic (Las Casas) or modern (Dussel). What keeps them from falling into a Eurocentric paradigm is not the wholesale rejection of Western thought but rather the willingness to test it, and perhaps revise or critique it, in light of the realities of the world outside of Europe. If this is right, and I think it is, then we should not be afraid to take seriously the great intellectual achievements of the Western tradition, provided that we remain mindful of their limitations and open to insights or intuitions coming from elsewhere. What do you think?

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comments, Andrew. After reading them, I checked Dussel’s website @ http://www.enriquedussel.org/, and found his paper entitled “Anti-Cartesian Meditations.” In this essay, he refers to the “ego clamo” of the first Dominicans and Las Casas in the Caribbean that he considers the original and only lasting critique of Modernity.

      I think your second point is a very useful way for thinking about an ideology of Eurocentrism, or any ideology for that matter, as a resistance to revising one’s own political and ethical commitments in light of historical realities and experiences. But, of course, as theologians, we should be very careful to apply this to anyone without first convicting ourselves. In my opinion, that was the rich reflexive awareness that Las Casas and his Dominican brothers back in Salamanca shared. Las Casas’ own idolatry was the beginning to his persistent critique of the idolatry among his flock as bishop. The charge of Eurocentrism against a single sophisticated thinker or entire tradition of thought in all its complexity is likely to alienate rather than convict one’s listeners and I fear that Dussel was being too dismissive through his use of his theoretic categories of Semitic and Hellenistic during the lecture.

      One final rejoinder, more anecdotal than anything, was that I walked away from Dussel’s lecture with more answers than questions. This bothered me. When reading Domingo de Soto’s releccion De dominio (1535), I am struck by his suggestion that he has no answer to the justification for Spanish conquest in the New World. He asks: “By what right do we retain the Empire abroad?” His answer remains an open one: “Ego nescio.” Although Soto examined the Amerindian problem and defended them from the “perspective of power,” as Gutiérrez notes, could it really have been otherwise? Perhaps “ego nescio” is a necessary counterpart that chastens the “ego clamo” within a modern, fallen context in which “we” are all still and always have been guilty of forgetting the poor and crucifying Christ.