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The Metaphysics of Handiwork or How Aristotle Conquered America

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

The debate between Juan Gines de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas held in Valladolid, Spain in 1550 was the culmination of some forty years of agonizing policy discussions over the rights of Spain to the New World. The encounter at Valladolid has produced numerous influential critical interpretations in the centuries since. Lewis Hanke, for example, reads it as a prolonged discussion over “justice” pitting Aristotelians against each other. Anthony Pagden cast the debate as one aimed at either justifying or undermining dominium via evolutionary and comparative ethnographies. Rolena Adorno, more recently, argued that it was a polemics not over how to identify the “truth,” but over persuasion. Every party involved in the debate sought to move powerful patrons to change policy, engendering different literary genres in order to push their agendas. [1]

In The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru (Pittsburgh, 2017), Orlando Bentacor approaches this debate differently. Bentacor frames Iberian Neo-Scholasticism as a “metaphysics of handiwork” and invites the reader to see Aristotle not only as an interpreter of “barbarians” but also of matter itself. Aristotle’s notions of causation and change are strange: an artisanal nature handcrafts each individual object with specialized tools and blueprints. Nature uses tools (efficient cause) to give form (formal cause) to shapeless matter (material cause), always with a purpose in mind (final cause). 

Nature behaves like an artisan. Diego Saavedra Fajardo-Idea Principis Christiano-Politici (Brussels,1649)

Bentacor complicates the picture by highlighting that Nature was seen not as a lone artisan but as a guild. Nature was organized along a hierarchical scale of artisanal skills in a world in which not all trades were equal. A navigator who used portolans and cross-staffs to sail a ship was above the shipbuilder who used saws and hammers to build it. The ship-builder, in turn, was above the woodcutter who used axes to fell trees. Aristotle’s Nature was a complex, hierarchical community of materials, blueprints, tools, and guilds.

This thoroughly anthropomorphic Aristotelian model of causation, in turn, not only interpreted nature but sociology and political philosophy as well.  Humans were artisans who created polities in the same way that nature transformed objects. To explain the workings of societies, scholars set out to find material, formal, efficient and final causes.  Laws were the “form” that shaped the “matter” that were communities. Rulers were the “efficient” cause; the common good was the “final” cause. Princes were craft makers of commonwealths.

The Prince as artisan-weaver. Juan Solórzano Pereira- Emblemata regis politica in centuriam (Madrid, 1653)

Bentacor shows that Neo-Scholastics deployed this metaphysics of handiwork to justify conquest and colonization. The Matter of Empire begins with Francisco de Vitoria, the famous Dominican professor at the University of Salamanca whose ideas about the Spanish rights to conquest allegedly shaped modern international law. The Aristotelian that he was, Vitoria understood America as an artisanal workshop. Vitoria saw the differences between Europeans and Indians as those between “form” and “matter.” The natives were the clay upon which the artisanal Europeans would sculpt new men. Vitoria posited that polities could not only be an “efficient cause” for the commonwealth but also a "material cause" upon which outsiders could impose blueprints.

Bentacor analyses how Vitoria understood the autonomous polity through the prism of the four Aristotelian causes. Laws were the “form” that shaped the “matter” that were communities. Princes were craft makers of commonwealths. They were also artisans of war. According to Bentacor, Vitoria did not justify mindless dispossession and slavery in the Americas. He did, however, justify the natural rights of Europeans to travel, trade, and evangelize in lands over which Europeans had no sovereignty. Indigenous resistance to these alleged European rights justified just war, and, thus, slavery and dispossession. Bentancor sees Vitoria caught in a contradiction of his own making: the sovereign was summoned to declare war to maintain trade and commerce (and mining). Trade and commerce, in turn, was necessary to maintain the sovereign. Vitoria posited an endlessly mutually-reinforcing cycle of colonial expansion and violence all in the name of peace.

Bentacor seizes on Vitoria’s aporia to explore Juan Gines de Sepúlveda’s solution to the problem of justifying colonialism through reason. Sepúlveda, he argues, simply understood the Indian to be the matter-clay over which the law-reason of Spanish “form” should act. The Spanish commonwealth was to be the artisan who would stamp form-law onto the pliable matter that was Indian polities. Natural slavery was justified through the metaphysics of handiwork. This was a position that would be refuted by Sepúlveda’s opponent at the Valladolid debate, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas.

Juan Gines de Sepulveda. Opera, cum edita, tum inedita, 4 v. (Madrid, 1780)

Las Casas understood indigenous communities as perfect, autonomous communities with formal, material, efficient, and final causes of their own. Indians were full artisans of their commonwealths. To postulate otherwise was heretical since it implied that God had created an entire continent of incomplete humans. To be a human was to be an autonomous creator of communities. According to Las Casas, the perfection of nature ruled out the very category of the incomplete barbarian or natural slave whose teleological purpose (final cause) could only be realized through the exertion of outside force. The natives were the efficient cause of perfect polities, not the material cause upon which others could impose blueprints. 

Bentacor’s interpretation of another colonial theorist, José de Acosta, is just as intriguing. He argues that Acosta shifted constantly between soft Lascasian and harsh Sepulvedan justifications of colonialism. The novelty, however, is that Acosta incorporated the peculiar nature of New World metals into his political analysis. Acosta found America full of metals waiting to realize their teleological purpose (final cause), namely, their transformation into currency. Acosta found in the continent the providential reason (final cause) for its own colonization. The precious metals of America were the material foundation (matter) upon which the efficient cause that that was the Monarquía de España could be built. Bentacor highlights the aporia haunting Acosta’s understanding of colonialism: labor in the mines meant certain death and, yet, was necessary for the global monarchy to exist.

For Spain to rule the world, Providence and the Sun have produced veins of gold within mountains. Diego Saavedra Fajardo-Idea Principis Christiano-Politici (Brussels,1649)

Bentacor then offers a fascinating study of the Toledan reforms in Peru in the 1570s, which included the introduction of the mita in the mines of Potosí (silver) and Huancavelica (mercury), the resettlement of entire indigenous communities, and the destruction of the neo-Inca state of Vilcabamba. Bentacor offers a persuasive interpretation of a critical juncture in the history of the Iberian Empire. He sheds light on how Spain shifted the justification of empire away from the transcendental (saving the soul of the natives) towards the instrumental. At this turning point, the goal of empire was no longer to convert and save souls but to keep silver flowing to save the imperial whole from its numerous enemies, Protestant and Ottoman.

The Toledan reforms had two central goals. One the one hand, the demotion of the Inca as the natural lords of Peru into newly arrived tyrants. On the other, the shift from silver obtained through smelting and furnaces to silver obtained through amalgamation in patios. The shift from furnaces to amalgamation signified a shift into economies of scale in silver production. It also brought about the introduction of a discourse of alchemy and the self-generation of metals in veins of the earth.

Indigenous furnaces. Antonio Barba, Arte de los Metales (Madrid, 1645)

Images of the patio amalgamation system. In Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí. (1705-1736). Archivo y Biblioteca Nacionales de Bolivia

But amalgamation could only work through the forced mobilization of indigenous communities into the man-eating silver and mercury mines of Potosí and Huancavelica. For this to happen, the Lascasian Peruvian project of devolving power to the Inca elites had to be crushed. Juan de Matienzo, Pedro Gamboa de Sarmiento, and other intellectuals surrounding the Viceroy Toledo created new, powerful historical accounts that sought to delegitimize the Inca as natural lords while at the same time legitimating age-old Andean systems of labor mobilization. The consequence of all these changes, Bentacor argues, was the justifying of the scale of suffering in the mines as the unintended yet necessary consequence of maintaining the empire. Instrumental reason thus became Machiavellian reason-of-state.

Juan Solórzano Pereira. Disputationem de Indiarum Iure (Madrid 1629)

In the final chapter, Bentacor turns to Juan de Solórzano Pereira as an early seventeenth-century figure who did away with Vitoria’s reason and natural law as justification for possession. Solórzano saw history and time as sufficient foundation, even for empires that could have originated though illegal and tyrannical means.

Like Acosta, Solórzano found the mita system to be aberrant and possibly illegal. Yet, in the midst of a general decline and malaise that enveloped Spain, Solórzano found it to be, well, unavoidable. In fact, Bentacor argues that Solórzano found the solution to the exploitation of the mita in the opening of even more mines. The crisis of Potosi, produced by both the exhaustion of veins and indigenous demographic collapse, could only be resolved by the opening of new mines and by the alchemical re-production of the mineral veins within the earth. Sepúlveda’s vision was one of an endless recreation of labor exploitation and ecological exhaustion. Bentacor closes this fascinating book by observing that Andean vitalism that sees minerals as self-generating cannot naively be read as “decolonial” answers to Spanish colonialism. They were just part of the unraveling system of contradictory discourses.


Bentacor succeeds in bringing together Heidegger and Marx’s apparently antithetical understandings of the crisis of modernity, either as “enframing” (the reduction of the toolmaker into a tool) or as “deterritorialization” (a self-perpetuating loop of capital accumulation for accumulation’s sake that destroys institutions and communities). His prose is abstruse and demands from readers a full understanding of Aristotelian theories of causation. Yet underneath his dense yet unrelentingly rigorous analysis lies a powerfully gripping new interpretation of colonial imperial discourses.

Review of Orlando Bentacor’s The Matter of Empire: Metaphysics and Mining in Colonial Peru (Pittsburgh, 2017). 

[1] Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Southern Methodist University Press, 1949); Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Rolena Adorno, Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative (Yale University Press, 2007)


Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra is the Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at the University of Texas Austin. His books include How to Write the History of the New World (2001), Puritan Conquistadors (2006), and Nature, Empire, and Nation (2007)