Columbus And “The Right Of Conquest”
Groups of Three: Jesus Christ, Columbus, and the US Constitution & How It Effects Us Today
Officially celebrated in the US on the second Monday of October, Columbus first made landfall in the Americas, in what is now the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492. And though, in his eyes, he did stumble onto the shores of a new world, what is more important for the present inquiry is the fact that Columbus immediately imposed the Order of the old world upon the one he invaded. The law of force (articulated in the European legal tradition’s Doctrine of Conquest, which grants invaders legal title to the lands they conquer) was subsequently imposed throughout the Americas and beyond. Though this doctrine was formally abolished by the UN in 1974, insofar as it continues to determine the distribution of the planet’s resources, the right of conquest in many respects continues to determine the course of our lives. And while it is crucial to remember the atrocities that Columbus and his successors committed throughout the world during the so-called Age of Discovery, it is equally important to recognize the fact that, though its forms may have changed, the underlying Order that Columbus initiated (with all of its violent implications) continues to operate in politics, economics, and law – that is, systemically – throughout the world today.
It is said that events occur in groups of three. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the fact that Christopher Columbus was born in the year 1451 – in the year of the death of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, and the ascension of the sultan’s son and heir, Mehmed II. In the following year, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued his notorious Dum Diversas, the papal decree declaring war against all of the world’s non-Christians. Thirdly, one year later, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, delivering the terminal blow to the 1500-year-old Eastern Roman Empire.
Among the results of their military triumph in Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks made significant geopolitical inroads into Christian Europe. Importantly, this included wresting control of the invaluable overland trade routes to India, China, and the other lands to the east from the Europeans. The subsequent influx of Byzantine refugees into Christian Italy, with their classical texts in tow, contributed to the flourishing of learning and secularism that marked the Italian Renaissance. And it is likely that this proliferation of classic Greek and Roman texts, many of which treated the sphericity of the world as an ancient and uncontentious theory, contributed to Columbus’ adoption of this topographical notion. Among its other consequences, the Turk’s capture of Constantinople led the banking centers of Europe to shift from the markets of the eastern Mediterranean to the ports of the west, whose sea-routes now allowed traders easier access to the Indies. And it was from just such a port along the Spanish coast that the Christian from the Italian city of Genoa would embark in search of a western sea-route to Asia, spreading – whether willfully or not is unimportant – Christian and Roman political, economic, and theological institutions (the old world) to the Americas.
While they were to some degree mediated by Christian influences, Roman forms of power and institutions of governance were to take firm root in the so-called new world. As the historian Gordon S. Wood informs us, the founders of the United States themselves consciously modeled not only their political, but also their social projects on Classical Roman forms. Today, few places evince this more strikingly than what is arguably the most politically powerful city in the Americas – a city that, not coincidentally, couples the name of George Washington, that admirer of Roman thought and virtue, with Columbus’. Beyond the classical appearance of Washington, D.C.’s buildings and monuments, the political institutions they house are also heavily indebted to Roman models. To cite probably the most obvious example, the main legislative body of the US, the senate – Latin for council of elders (and etymologically related, incidentally, to the word ‘senile’) – is derived from the Roman institution of the same name.
Regarding governmental, administrative, and economic forms of power persisting from Rome to the present, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observes in his treatise on political power, The Kingdom and the Glory, that the constitutional separation of powers schema of the US Constitution, among others modeled on Montesquieu’s tripartite division, can be traced directly to the Christian Trinity and the administrative apparatus of the Church. To be sure, it is not difficult to see the father – god, the creator of law – as an analogue of the legislative branch. Moreover, the son, Jesus, often referred to as the one who judges, may be seen to correspond to the institution of the judiciary. Lastly, the Holy Spirit – defined by the Fourth Lateral Council of 1215 as that “who proceeds” – corresponds to the executive branch. Insofar as the transitive verb ‘to execute’ means to carry out fully, the executive branch of government conforms to this notion of one “who proceeds” quite closely.
Yet while the correspondence between the separation of powers and the Trinity is very close, today’s constitutional schema and the theological and ideological justifications that accompany it can be traced to structures of power that significantly predate the Trinity. Beyond the mixed constitution Aristotle described in his Politics, there is a Hellenic progenitor to the Trinity – itself an echo of paleolithic religious structures – that predates the Trinity by many centuries. And not only does the structure of the Greek Moirai, or Fates, predate the Trinity, it also matches the US Constitution’s separation of power schema with uncanny preciseness.
Like the Trinity and the three branches of government, the Fates (the three daughters of Necessity) are one power that has three distinct aspects. Corresponding to the legislature, Clotho, the spinner, spins the thread of life. Corresponding to the judiciary, Lachesis, the measurer, measures this thread. And Atropos, the cutter, cuts the thread of life. Curiously, in describing his job as “the decider” – which literally means ‘to cut’ – George W. Bush confirms this correspondence between the executive and Atropos.
Among other things, it is important to point out that in Greek myth the Fates were more powerful than all of the gods – even Zeus, who alone was more powerful than all of the other gods combined, could do nothing but adhere to the dictates of the Fates. As such, it seems appropriate that Law should mirror their form. Yet the general rule of the Fates’ supremacy had one exception. Asklepios, the son of the god Apollo, and a powerful healer (who, in addition to other feats, could raise the dead), was through his healing power able to overrule the Fates’ Order – demonstrating that what appeared to be a necessary power was, in fact, not necessary at all. Threatened by his incursion into their monopoly over divine power, the Fates soon determined that Zeus would destroy Asklepios with a bolt of lightning. Shortly after his death, Asklepios was resurrected as a god and raised into the heavens. It does not take a terribly keen eye to see in this a likeness to another son of a god who raised the dead, healed the sick and the lame, was killed for threatening power, and was resurrected as a god himself. In fact, in many respects Asklepios is a prototype of Jesus of Nazareth – at least one aspect of Jesus. For while Jesus is represented as both a healer and a shepherd (the latter role, as Michel Foucault informs us in his elaboration of the notion of pastoral power, is a dominating, oppressive force), Asklepios is only a healer. And just as the healer Asklepios is able to overrule the Fates (as justice, or the spirit of the law, is said to prevail over its dead letter), Jesus (in his role as healer and champion of the poor and oppressed) stands opposed to not only his shepherdly role, but the pastoral, dominating power that manifests in the Trinity and the institution of the Church as well.
In light of the above it is revealing that, in his oft-quoted diary entry of 1498, Columbus wrote: “let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” That is, it is the pastoral power of the administrative body of the church – the power of law, of violence, sanctioned by the papal decrees of 1452 and 1493 – that Columbus is referring to and conspiring with, and decidedly not with the healer. Indeed, the enslavement, murder, and other atrocities committed by Columbus over the course of his conquest may be viewed as the very opposite of healing.
This tension between Jesus the healer and Jesus the shepherd/the Trinity (which matches the opposition between Asklepios and the Fates, and between the spirit and the letter of the law) makes another important appearance in the Americas. Three centuries after Columbus’ voyage this same dynamic appears in the US Constitution. As with the Fates, a dominating power is “separated” into three parts – into the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. And just as the Fates are not only opposed, but neutralized, by Asklepios, it is important to recognize that the Constitution’s Power is at once opposed and legitimated by a notion of justice that (in addition to the “general welfare” of the people) is intimately related to the concept of health. To be sure, it is no small coincidence that Asklepios’ daughter – the Greek goddess of healing – was known to the Romans as Salus; and Salus, the Roman goddess of health, in turn pops up in the ancient Roman legal maxim salus populi suprema lex esto. Translated as the health of the people is the supreme law, the maxim has been interpreted to hold that laws and practices that are hostile to the health of the people (however defined) are devoid of legitimacy altogether.
Absorbed into ancient Roman Law as a constitutional metanorm, the maxim spread throughout the legal systems of Europe, and across the globe. And though it has been subjected to diametrical interpretations (for health is often conflated with not only mere strength and power, but with an obsession with purity which leads to oppression and, ironically, dis-ease), and has bolstered the regimes of tyrants, it is vital to note that the maxim has been employed just as frequently in efforts to liberate people from the domination of tyrants. For instance, while common lands were being privatized in England during the enclosure period, the Levellers employed the maxim to justify their efforts to wrest land from dominating powers and distribute land in an egalitarian manner. Though authoritarian thinkers like Thomas Hobbes would use the maxim to justify absolutism and domination, it was the emancipatory, “Asklepian” interpretation of the maxim that would become most influential in the British colonies. It was just this interpretation that the North American colonists repeated in their efforts to legitimize their struggles for liberation from the British Crown. The health of the people is the supreme law, they argued; and because domination by the British Empire (not to mention any other form of domination) is hostile to people’s health, this rule lacks legitimacy and must be dissolved.
While the emancipatory spirit animating the employment of the maxim may have been frustrated by the re-emergence of dominating power (one that manifested in the US Constitution, with its enshrinement of slavery, among other economic institutions), just as the figure of Asklepios would counter the dominating power of the Fates, the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto would continue (in limited ways) to be employed to combat harms perpetrated against the health of the people – condemning noxious industrial enterprises, for example, and nullifying debts, among other things. Though shrouded in myth, this is not purely happenstance. An important equivalence exists between actual justice and actual health. In many respects the conditions necessary for health – the freedom from conditions of disease and domination, and the freedom to access all the resources health requires – are indistinct from the concrete conditions of justice. One may even argue that the maxim provides a basis for positive rights to housing, health care, and other elements of health. For if the health of the people is the supreme law, that which is hostile to the health of the people is against the law. As such, conditions that are hostile to health must be corrected – corrected by supplying those conditions necessary for the actual health and well being of the people of the world – such as housing, nutritious food, a healthy environment, etc. This ought to be the top social and economic priority of any society that claims to respect justice. And because we redirect our society to the extent that we reinterpret it, such a reinterpretation of the maxim – among other things – is crucial today.
In a world in which harms are systematically reproduced (from wars, global warming, and the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima, to the more mundane epidemics of poverty, occupational disease, and police brutality), and the political-economy of domination – of which Columbus was as much an effect as a cause – continues to plague the health of the people of the world, it is important to recognize that embedded within the power-structure that Columbus conveyed to the Americas is the germ of its destruction. Implicit in the dominating power of the Fates (law as mere Order) is the liberating power of Asklepios (law as Justice), and the potentially emancipatory constitutional metanorm that the actual health of the people should be the supreme law.