Coping in an Evil World--
Inquisitors and Conquistadors
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences,
University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Purpose: to examine the moral options available to people who
find themselves within a morally untenable "system."
Possible ways of coping with an immoral system
- Active endorsement (system may be seen as good by some).
- Accept evils as unavoidable price to obtain a good result.
- Reluctant or coerced cooperation.
- Active cooperation for personal gain.
- Keep low profile.
- Passive or non-violent resistance.
- Obstruction, sabotage, diversion.
- Overt acts of rebellion.
- Established ca. 1200.
- Concerned only with Christian heresy, not Jews, Moslems or non-Christians.
- Many heretics highly antisocial, would be treated harshly by
- Penalties included penance, imprisonment, confiscation; death
penalty administered by civil authorities.
- Cruel and unjust by modern standards but no more so than civil
courts of the time.
- Few legal safeguards for accused.
- Inquisition very unpopular, some officials assassinated.
- Strongest in Spain and Italy, weak in N. Europe.
- Declined in late Middle Ages.
- Established in late 1400's to foster religious and political
unity in Spain.
- Directed against Jews, Moslems, Protestants, later against native
American tribal religions after discovery of America.
- Directed against Catholic reformers and mystics: Ignatius Loyola
(founder of Jesuits), Teresa of Avila.
- Essentially a secret police arm of Spanish crown rather than Church.
- Bitterly hated. When Latin American nations gained independence
ca. 1820, mobs often attacked Inquisition offices.
- Abolished in Spain 1834.
- Established 1542 to combat Protestantism.
- Generally (with some exceptions) moderate.
- Still exists. Renamed Holy Office 1908, Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith 1965.
The two most famous cases of the Roman Inquisition
- Bruno was a mystic, not a scientist in any sense of the word.
- Used Copernican theory as metaphor for some of his mystical views.
- Bruno returned to Italy from then-Protestant N. Europe to convert
Pope to his views. Grasp of political realities left something to be
- Burned at stake, 1600.
Backdrop of the Galileo Affair
- Bruno affair cast pall of suspicion on Copernican theory.
- Counter-Reformation (including the founding of the Roman
Inquisition) had made Church highly sensitive to challenges to its authority.
Galileo's early career illustrious but inspired jealousy.
- Galileo made clerical enemies by gratuitous attacks on the
Jesuits, Scheiner (1613) and Grassi (1623). Both were competent astronomers, and, in fact, Copernicans.
- Galileo summoned to Rome and warned but not charged, 1615.
- Rumors of formal charges persisted.
- Galileo obtained letter from Cardinal Bellarmine stating that no
charges filed or sentence passed.
- It appears Galileo's enemies planted a contrary document in Vatican files. It surfaced later during his trial.
Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, 1632.
- Takes place in a garden over four days (common argumentative format of the time).
- Three characters:
- Salviati - staunch Copernican
- Sagredo - open-minded Renaissance man
- Simplicio - hidebound Aristotelean, incapable of original thought
Results of Book
- Immediate best-seller
- Infuriated Galileo's enemies
- Pope needed political support of Jesuits, yielded to pressure
- Pope eventually persuaded that Simplicio was a caricature of him.
- Inquisitor, Vincenzo Maculano, supported Galileo.
- Pressure from above made it impossible to prevent trial.
- Advised Galileo to plea-bargain.
- Maculano was able to blunt or turn aside deep probes into
- Conflict between Galileo's and Vatican documents of 1615.
- Galileo censured, sentenced to imprisonment.
- Three of the ten judges refused to sign the sentence.
Deflating some Galileo myths
- Galileo created most of his enemies by his own rash attacks.
- Galileo was treated quite leniently.
- Support from Inquisitor
- Imprisonment was a loose house arrest
- Lively Black Market in his books
- Allowed to keep a Papal pension
- Galileo corresponded freely
- He received visitors from Protestant N. Europe (Thomas Hobbes,
- Church took no action when a late book of Galileo was smuggled to
Holland and printed.
- Galileo could at any time have found sanctuary in Venice or a
Protestant country. Why did he not do so?
The Spanish Conquest of the Americas
Memoirs of some Spanish participants express genuine admiration
for Aztec civilization (e.g., Bernal Diaz).
Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590)
- Born 1499, became Franciscan, sailed to Mexico 1529.
- Found Aztec culture still well preserved despite conquest.
- Became fluent in Nahuatl (Aztec language), developed admiration
- Believed that effective conversion depended on thorough knowledge
of native culture.
- Began systematic scientific and ethnographic work ca. 1545.
- Used detailed questionnaires.
- Aztec eyewitness accounts of conquest.
- Written in Nahuatl (12 vol.)
- Work even today meets stringent ethnographic standards.
- Considered first modern ethnographic work.
- Aroused opposition and claims that he was sympathetic to
- Work confiscated by royal decree 1578. Sahagun, 80 years old,
lost results of 50 years of labor.
- Works re-discovered in 19th century, form principal source for
our knowledge of Aztec culture in 1500's.
- Classical Maya culture had declined centuries before Spanish
- Most destructive aspect of Spanish conquest was the near-total
destruction of Maya written records.
- Motivated primarily by desire to stamp out native religions.
- Destruction condemned by several Spanish writers.
- May have been possible for opponents of destruction to save more
documents since destruction took place over a long period, but
there was no concerted effort.
Diego de Landa
An illustration of how people in history can wear black hats and white hats at the same time
- De Landa was responsible for destruction of innumerable Maya books
- He criticized harsh colonial treatment of the Maya
- He was himself accused of cruelty toward the Maya; may have been trumped up to silence him.
- His writings are among the most complete sources of information on the Maya at the time of the Conquest, and provided clues that aided the eventual decipherment of Maya writing.
- Spanish conquest of capital (Cuzco) was a coup, but complete
conquest took some years.
- Many Spaniards expressed high regard for Inca culture (e.g.,
Garcilaso de la Vega).
- Some Spaniards expressed hope of preserving best aspects of Inca
- Overall impact was destructive
- Plunder of resources
- Destruction of centralized Inca State
It is possible to maintain integrity in the midst of repressive
institutions (Galileo, Maculano, Sahagun) but it involves risk.
Not for the faint of heart.
Moral issues seem much clearer in retrospect than they were at
- Church (whether Catholic or Protestant) got its authority from God. "Legitimate dissent" was a contradiction in terms.
- Suppression of belief viewed as a positive good by some, as
legitimate by almost every thinker.
- Conquest seen as regrettable but not intrinsically evil in itself
(at time of Spanish Conquest, Europe was fending off conquest by Turks).
- Undesirable effects may be unforeseen until too late. Few Spaniards must have had any idea they were destroying great civilizations.
- Some practices, like human sacrifice among the Maya and Aztecs, were abhorrent. Compare feminists' response to female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East today to get some idea of how people then responded to these customs.
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Created 20 May 1997, Last Update 4 June 1997
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