Escolios: Folio 2, side 2, lines 40–41
This is a reference to a debate between Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P., and Doctor Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, held in 1550 at the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, Spain. The debate, now widely known as la Junta de Valladolid, discussed the treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The papal bull Sublimis Deus, propagated by Pope Paul III in 1537, had declared indigenous people to be rational human beings with souls like any other, and it forbid their enslavement on this basis. The purpose of the Valladolid debate was not to relitigate this now settled matter, but rather to sort out the theological and legal basis for how Spanish colonization and the evangelization of the Americas should proceed.
Sepúlveda essentially argued for the status quo, stating that the use of violence in the subjugation of indigenous peoples was legitimate according to Thomas Aquinas’s articulation of just war theory, as it was rehabilitated from early church fathers like St. Augustine of Hippo. According to Sepúlveda, the Spanish crown had both the necessary proper authority and a just end (the extirpation of idolatry and prevention of sin in the form of violent ritual practices) that Aquinas required to justify violence. In addition to his gloss of Catholic voices like Aquinas, Sepúlveda made great use of Aristotle's theory of natural slavery, or the idea that a person's capacity was signaled in his or her body. As The Philosopher wrote, the slave’s body was “strong enough to be used for essentials,” while the master's was “useless for that kind of work, but fit for the life of a citizen” (1254b27-30; 1255b10-13). By combining Aristotelian ideas of natural law and natural slavery with assessments of a person's capacity, sixteenth-century Spanish thinkers like Sepúlveda developed a discourse of "faculty psychology" to justify the enslavement of Amerindians (Pagden 1982).
Las Casas took no issue with Aquinas’s theory, but simply replied that his third condition—the prioritization of peace—was not met. For Las Casas, the advanced civilizations of indigenous peoples indicated their rationality, and therefore violence was not necessary to effect their evangelization. Moreover, the violent practices that Sepúlveda used to justify war on indigenous peoples were no worse than the violent practices in Spain’s own past: “Pero nosotros mismos, en nuestros antecesores, fuimos muy peores, así en la irracionalidad y confusa policía como en vicios y costumbres brutales por toda la redondez desta nuestra España.” These critiques echoed those of Francisco de Vitória and the School of Salamanca, which advocated for indigenous people’s right to life and liberty based on natural law.