My desk has long been groaning under piles of Columbus books, many more than can be dealt with here. One refrain in them is also a lament. William and Carla Phillips, in The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, after studying 250 United States history textbooks, argue that “the United States seems to have lost, rather than gained, knowledge of Columbus since 1892.” Jeffrey Burton Russell says, in Inventing the Flat Earth, that people cling to myths about Columbus rather than face “the conceptual shock of realizing that our closest held convictions are precarious.” David Henige says that some are unwilling to question the prefabricated hero because “a serene but unexamined belief in the actuality of the recorded past is necessary to an acceptable present.” There is a positive need not to know about Columbus—including a need not to know how little there is to know.

On this latter point, David Henige’s In Search of Columbus is a virtuoso performance, showing how hard if not impossible it is to extract the original of Columbus’s log from the later paraphrase, with partial transcriptions, made by Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas was using a lost (and therefore unassessable) copy made from Columbus’s original; he began working on it about forty years after Columbus wrote the log; he never finished the book for print (it was found, in a private library, 224 years after his death). His extracts may have been made for use in the History of the Indies which he worked on for over three decades. The many later additions, corrections, and deletions in the text seem to reflect use of that sort, as las Casas found new material or changed his mind about what he had copied or how he had paraphrased it; he apparently drew on other sources to “correct” Columbus; and his own preoccupations (especially with the mistreatment of Americans) affected what he chose to transcribe, or the way he paraphrased the four fifths of the log not offered as transcription. Henige says it is a misnomer to call the resulting work Columbus’s diary or log or record book. It is a work of las Casas, called by its author The Book of the First Navigation, not the Diaries or Log, as some “translations” put it. Trying to find the original text of Columbus in the work of las Casas can be as hard, at times, as reconstructing the historical Jesus from a single copy of a single gospel.

That comparison is not amiss if we remember that such exiguous materials have been used, in the past, as if Columbus “was raised in Nazareth rather than Genoa” (as Henige puts it). When Columbus claimed to see a light before his crewman spotted land on the first voyage, this was made a mystical revelation of “the new world.” More recently, las Casas has been read with fundamentalist literal-mindedness to make particular points—by Samuel Eliot Morison, for instance, to establish Columbus’s navigating skills, or by Robert Fuson to establish the site of Columbus’s original landfall. The very title of Fuson’s 1987 book, The Log of Christopher Columbus, begs several questions, and Henige destroys any claim it could make for scholarship.1

Now the critics of Columbus are using the record in a fundamentalist way to attack him. The spotting of the light before landfall is made a proof of his greed and arrogance (it deprived the crewman of his reward). But Henige shows that multiple problems in the las Casas account make such an interpretation no more certain than the favorable ones were. (This is a place where las Casas paraphrases, and he tells the story out of its chronological order.) Some critics of Columbus, like Kirkpatrick Sale, make the slipperiness of the evidence reflect something devious in the man—surely he had something to hide.2 This Genoese who never seems to use Italian was evasive about his background. But the comparative lack of information about Columbus—about his appearance, his family, his early days—is more a function of social structure than of personal character. Status and birth were the things celebrated even in this time of Renaissance “individualism.” The lowborn had nothing to commemorate.

In an age when one candidate for pope was rejected because he was “born of humble parents,” and when a powerful Borgia pope, Alexander VI, could not marry his son, César, into Neapolitan royalty because of his illegitimacy (though the Pope had rigged a claim that César was born in wedlock of another father), the odd thing would have been for anyone of low social standing to blazon his background or personality.

Take the case of that very César, usually called Cesare Borgia now, though his contemporaries knew him as Valentino. Famous as he has become because of Machiavelli’s symbolic use of him, he is as elusive as Columbus. With him, too, there is no surviving portrait, little self-revelation, contradictory reports by contemporaries (Machiavelli himself gives three different versions of the man), and reburials of his body that make his end as cloaked in mystery as his beginning. He was accused of being a secret Jew—a charge as common, then, as touchings with “the tarbrush” in the American Old South. César has his own “black legend,” made of materials much like those used to condemn Columbus—he was a ruthless conqueror, avid for titles, fame, money, and a realm of his own.


Those of low or questionable birth had to push hard at their few ways up into the world of Renaissance publicity—to a point where one’s portrait was painted and one’s family celebrated; where patronage of the Church ensured memorial chapels, or patronage of humanists led to celebratory poems and book dedications. This was the age of Castiglione, who reduced the courtier’s gifts to a science. Columbus was a courtier before he became a conqueror, as César was a clergyman before he became a condottiere. Felipe Fernández-Armesto studies Columbus’s courtier skills in his chapter subtitled “The Quest for Patronage,” and concludes that the myth of an amorous tie between Columbus and Isabella was fashioned by people who do not understand the courtly language Columbus used to and of his Queen—the same kind of language publicly addressed to Queen Elizabeth in England by dozens of poets.

Those who treat Columbus apart from his time have marveled at the nerve, arrogance, and greed that made him set such a high price on his services—a created title, a portion of the spoils, an estate in perpetuity for his heirs. Yet that is precisely the way people without status of their own bargained their way by contract into a world of solider patents. War, exploration, or finance—or all three—were the services one could offer for such high stakes. The terms Columbus extracted from his monarchs resemble the condotta (terms of service or “conduct”) wrested from cities by the mercenary soldiers who were called, after these contracts, condottieri. César set out to make himself Duke of Romagna much as Columbus would be Admiral of the Ocean Sea. We are used to thinking of Spanish conquistadores as the New World’s condottieri. We do not often enough rank their sea-borne brothers with those upwardly mobile mercenaries; but the discovery-minded King John II of Portugal had to recruit his explorers with ever higher portions of the booty they turned up. Queen Elizabeth would have a similar experience with her mercenary sea captains. John Hawkins was performing for his monarch the same kind of service the English condottiere John Hawkwood had provided his patrons in Italy during the fourteenth century.

These climbing entrepreneurs of glory tried to “marry up” and provide for their heirs—Columbus did not jeopardize his illegitimate son’s future by wedding the boy’s mother. He was hoping to marry well after he established all his claims. Many condottieri spent their last years quibbling with their employers over payment for their services. Others, of course, ended up in the lavish chapels they had provided for themselves.

Benefactions to the church were bids toward proving that newcomers were as solid members of society as the royalty or landed nobles. This should be kept in mind when we consider Columbus’s ambition to finance a new crusade with gold from his expeditions. There is no doubt that Columbus was sincerely religious; but when we read his Book of the Prophecies, in a new translation by the late August Kling, it is easy to make of him a mystic in some private sense, rather than a man who was responding to forces manifest in comparable acts of conquering piety.

It should be evident, by now, that what little we can know of Columbus will come not only from the slender body of writings by and about him in the Renaissance, but from a study of his whole social background. Some have treated the approach to “the world of Columbus” rather than “Columbus the man” as a capitulation to multicultural or anti-elitist pressures of the moment. On the contrary, putting Columbus back in his full historical context is a scholarly labor too long delayed.

One of the quickest ways to get a sense of the Europe Columbus inhabited is to read the brilliant set of essays edited by Eugenio Garin in Renaissance Characters. The singling out of particular types—cardinals, courtiers, condottieri, etc.—may suggest a reversion to Burkhardt’s celebration of Renaissance individualism; but in each essay we find a recognition of continuing social restraints on even the most enterprising types of the period. Renaissance artists, for instance, were still at the service of church and nobles; still subject to guild discipline; still working on contract, with clauses for nonpayment and other penalties. Michelangelo was released from his guild by the Pope—an act that was startling because so unusual. It did not hurt that Michelangelo, like Leonardo, was one of the few “artisans” (as they were called at the time) who came from a respectable family (though Leonardo was illegitimate). Absent that patent, even they could not have given some patrons such highhanded treatment. As Paul Barolsky argues, Vasari’s history of Renaissance “design” is animated by an urge to create new social standing for the artists. Like the condottieri and the explorers, they wanted up into the world of cardinals and courts they embellished. They, too, sought religious certification, not only through their guilds, but by public claims of piety. Even that famous rake Benvenuto Cellini had a prison vision far more startling than Columbus’s shipboard vision on his last voyage. God sent divine consolation to both men, and Columbus’s sanity or veracity has been questioned on this basis. But Cellini was not only comforted and inspired—he was given a halo that clung to him ever after. Like the good technician he was, he noted the relative visibility of this emanation in different atmospheres.3


The late André Chastel, who wrote the chapter in Garin’s book on artists, notes how masters of the larger workshops (botteghe) tried to imitate noble households by keeping musicians and jesters—something that lends support to Vasari’s tale that Leonardo made his Mona Lisa live up to her husband’s jocund name (Giocondo) by having his musical jesters play merry tunes and pranks (giuochi) to make her smile.4

Even in the chapter of Renaissance Characters devoted to merchants, we hear how this body, despised in ancient theory and medieval theology, bought status in its dealings with the Church—among other things, by heavy traffic in an “indulgence” system it helped systematize. As the chapter’s author, Alberto Tenenti, puts it: “What else, for example, was the promotion of belief in the expiation of faults in Purgatory if not a double-pronged economic speculation and a veritable business deal?” Tenenti notes the tremendous growth of insurance policies in this era—and some took out insurance on the afterlife. Hardheaded merchants were as anxious to be on the Church’s good side as was Columbus himself. The state money for Columbus’s first trip was taken from advances on indulgences.

Tenenti’s chapter should be read in conjunction with Jacques Attali’s 1492 and Fernand Braudel’s Out of Italy. Columbus’s avidity for gold has been treated as a private obsession, but Attali claims that all Europe was in need of gold to prevent trade “asphyxiation.” With land routes being choked off and sea transport of bulky items made difficult, Europe needed portable hard specie to deal in the easily moved spices of the East. The desire for gold, as well as for trade routes, had driven explorers farther and farther down the coast of Africa. When Spain brought back the gold from America, that item coursed rapidly through Europe—mainly through Italian networks of commerce, as Braudel emphasizes—as internal products were sold cheap to get gold for trade with the Orient. This is one possible explanation for the price depression Braudel notes in the midst of Renaissance lavishness.

Attali and Braudel are both “Eurocentric”—though Attali, especially, is critical of Europe, too. He notes, for instance, how Europe gathered energy for its amazing outward pounce in this era by denying its intellectual indebtedness to Palestine and Islam, trying to “purify” itself of alien influence—an effort that reached its fulfillment in the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Spain. Christians in other lands wrote that Columbus’s success was a reward to Spain’s “Catholic Majesties” for their extrusion of the infidels.


But we can no longer rest in a Eurocentric interpretation of Columbus. If it is necessary to put him back into his Renaissance setting in order to understand (if not condone) his ruthlessness, religiosity, and rapacity, we must also set him—as he could not do himself—in the “new world” he claimed to have found.

On the old TV show Candid Camera, people faced with unexpected things like talking utensils or walking trees often pretended the event had not occurred. It could not be fitted into their sense of reality, so a thick perceptual grid just refused to let the evidence through. That was Columbus’s reaction to the strange world he insisted on treating as the Indies, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He did not “discover” America, or even recognize it; he invented a nonexistent Orient and grew more stubborn in clinging to that fiction as time went on. The legacy of that imperviousness is the term “Indians,” which stuck after he gave it to the Americans.

Not only were the natives given the wrong title. Their own title was denied them while others usurped it. Theodore Roosevelt argued, in his ambitious four-volume history, The Winning of the West, that Europeans in America deserved the title “Americans” and the natives did not, because the Europeans’ racial energy made them take and improve the continent. In the same way, “discovery” was used of Columbus’s arrival because only one side of the transaction mattered. I am reminded of Garry Trudeau’s cartoon strip on “the secret bombing of Cambodia,” where a Cambodian says it was no secret to him. Some have been amused or annoyed by the energy with which “discovery” has been denied to Columbus’s voyages. But the language of finding or losing is ownership language—as in the “Who lost China?” debate, where people assumed that China was America’s to lose. The natives had no need to find America. They had never lost it—until aliens claimed to have found it.

Language can itself be an imperial tool. Naming is a way of appropriating, as we see in the many old comparisons of Columbus naming “new” islands to Adam naming the beasts in Eden. This is a truth that informs the recent explosion of books dealing with Prospero’s use of language in Shakespeare’s “colonial” drama, The Tempest. Some people think it is mere squeamishness to avoid the word “discover.” On the contrary, the main indication of a lingering squeamishness is reluctance to use the obvious term, “conquest.” (In the nineteenth century, there was no shying from Conquest in the titles of W.H. Prescott’s volumes on Mexico and Peru.)

Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote one of the seminal essays on The Tempest, deals with exploration literature in his new book, Marvelous Possessions. He argues that “wonder” is a two-edged emotion—prompting curiosity about the new, or making one recoil from the abnormal (the monstrum). He quotes a fine passage from Saint Albert the Great about the “heart-stopping” wonder at a natural anomaly (prodigium), which leads to a suspension of the desire for knowledge (suspensio desiderii ad cognoscendam causam). The passage concludes:

Now the man who is puzzled and wonders apparently does not know. Hence wonder is the movement of the man who does not know on his way to finding out.5

Albert is echoing a famous passage in Saint Augustine:

The desire present in all seeking goes out beyond the seeker and is suspended (pendit), somehow, unable to rest in a goal until what was sought is found, and embraced by the seeker. This desire—this seeking—does not seem to be love, for love is of a known thing, and this is an effort toward knowing.6

The suspension of wonder can become a paralysis—Albert calls it nerve-racking (an agonia) and heart-contracting (systole cordis).

Greenblatt’s is a useful way to look at reactions to the unknown in the age of exploration. The “heart-stopping” response to the unknown would become terribly literal in the conquerors’ heartless treatment of Americans. Columbus could not make that leap outside himself toward the unknown that Albert and Augustine describe. He grabbed, desperately, at fugitive things that could plug the gaps in his theory and save his preconceptions.

It is absurd for people to remain pent up inside the prison of Columbus’s heart-stopping wonder. We can see some of what he was blind to. Yet some think that a refusal to accept his terms is a “pandering” to politically correct attitudes about the original Americans. They fear that any motion toward “multiculturalism” leads to an inevitable cultural relativism, to what Jeane Kirkpatrick calls “moral equivalence.” This either-or approach serves to make the only alternative to moral relativism a determined enclosure within Columbus’s own moment.

Others answer that it is liberating to see the world as it was spread out before and beyond Columbus’s view in 1492—a position made vivid in the stunning National Gallery show in Washington DC, running until January 12, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Here we can see the artifacts of those first Americans Columbus encountered, the Tainos, see the exquisitely beaded belts worn by people who were just “naked” to Columbus. A wood figure shows a rain god whose countenance has been hollowed out by rivulets of his tears. This is Boinayel, whose face suggests that rain is tortured out of nature. It is certainly better at expressing cosmic anguish than Bramante’s weeping philosopher in this show (on the detached fresco, Democritus and Heraclitus). The Taino figure also has the accidental symbolism of sending its grief to us, over the years, from a doomed culture.

As men of the enlightenment could see nothing but savagery in Gothic architecture, there was a time when people could see nothing but “primitivism” in art from the Americas—or even from the Orient. We are now, perhaps, broad-minded to a fault. But what treasures open to the mind when we see in the Circa 1492 exhibition the eloquent telegraphy of Shen Zhou’s Chinese ink-and-paper lobster and crab—as closely observed and vibrant as, in its own medium, is Leonardo’s live ermine in the arms of Cecilia Gallerani, brought here from Cracow for the show.7 In fact, the most sophisticated imperial culture of the Americas had artifacts of a mind-numbing complexity. The intricate Calendar Stone in Mexico City—a lesser version of which is in the show—tells the whole past and future of the world in cryptic number-and-symbol combinations. The coming of an apocalyptic end is signaled—just as it is in Bosch’s Lisbon triptych of Saint Anthony, also on display in this exhibition. The eschatological texts in Columbus’s Book of the Prophecies—written around the time of his third voyage in 1500—were common currency of the mind; and the same cosmic problems were troubling the natives of the place he was invading.

Two of the most important Aztec artifacts in the show are its pre-Hispanic omen-books—forty-some pages of accordion-folded deerskin covered with labyrinthine signs. One, the Codex Fejéváry-Mayer from Liverpool, was used by a merchant for dealing in auspicious times and places and goods. The other, the Codex Cospi from Bologna, is a temple text—something like the combination of a cathedral’s liturgical calendar, missal, and summa theologiae. Only the priests could read the combination for liturgically correct times and kinds of services, prayer, and sacrifice.

It is worth noting that the most “advanced” society, the large bureaucratic Aztec empire, was the one that had human sacrifice at the center of its religion. Exquisitely ornamental sacrificial knives demonstrate, here, that there is nothing necessarily “primitive” about human sacrifice—something no student of twentieth-century Germany should be surprised to learn. The Aztec culture was also a slave culture—like those of classical antiquity.

The similarities between cultures, so obvious to us, did not escape the early invaders from Europe. In fact, Greenblatt invents a little psychodrama for Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés’s 1519 expedition. According to Greenblatt, Díaz had to repress the acknowledgment of resemblance between Aztec sacrifice and the Christian Mass, since “for a Spanish Catholic to recognize such a connection might have seemed to acknowledge the force of the heretical Protestant attack on the mass as cannibalism.” The proof that Díaz is practicing “blockage” is that some awareness of similarities between Christian and Aztec worship nonetheless slips through the Díaz account.

Greenblatt proposes a clever if chronologically improbable theory for matters more obviously explained.8 Spaniards would have expected a similarity between “pagan” rites and Christian ones, since the devil is the ape of God. The ferocity with which Christians burned the religious books and exorcized the temples, replacing them with cathedrals, came from the belief that all “infidel” rites were devil-worship, not only wrong but dangerous, since the devil gives intelligence to his devotees for the struggle against the gospel. Early students of Aztec culture could only prevent the further burning of native records (which were all religious) by convincing the conquerors that human sacrifice was not necessarily a form of devil worship—a heroic labor of explanation finally undertaken by las Casas.

Gratuitous mystification colors much of Greenblatt’s treatment of Columbus. Why, for instance, did Columbus take possession of what he found if he thought it was the Indies—and therefore, presumably, ruled by the Great Khan? Felipe Fernández-Armesto makes a good case that the Spanish monarch did not want any new island possessions (they had just finished the conquest of the Canaries, with little return for their effort). But Fernández-Armesto also shows that there was an omnidirectional push to reach new ports and establish jurisdiction there. The Spanish and Portuguese had squabbled over prior claims to African sites as well as the Canaries. Any claim that could be made should be made, just in case. Also, Columbus thought there were many islands to the east of Japan, of uncertain jurisdiction. What does Greenblatt expect, that Columbus would go by like a tourist making no claim on the places by which he reached the treasure he was after? If he meant to return, he had to have secured bases—not only against any indigenous claims, but against rival European explorers and merchants he expected to be competing with him as soon as word of his path to the East was released. (In fact, his claims were disputed by Portugal immediately upon his return; they had to be adjudicated by the Pope).

Greenblatt is amused by Columbus’s statement that he took possession of an island “with no opposition offered me”—as if the poor natives could contradict his language without understanding it. But the natives were not the only possible contenders. Columbus is using legal boilerplate—the parliamentary nemine contradicente—that says no other claim was known at the time he performed his witnessed act of possession. This is the kind of argument he took back to use against the Portuguese, though Greenblatt claims that it is only a silly formalism that makes him put his real meaning “the natives did not contradict me” in the form “I was not contradicted.” Columbus has enough to account for without loading him with superfluous idiocies. Greenblatt, in a book arguing for the understanding of foreign cultures, makes himself almost willfully blind to meanings within Columbus’s culture.

The use of historical data outside their full historical context is a continuing temptation in Greenblatt’s method—as when he argued that Shakespeare absorbed a polemic against Jesuitical exorcisms into King Lear. Greenblatt ignores the several meanings of “exorcism” at the time, and entirely misses a polemic from the same years that did, explicitly, attack Jesuit exorcisms-by-relic—Thomas Dekker’s play The Whore of Babylon, in which priests are dispatched from Rome to England to undermine the regime with exorcisms. Greenblatt thought there should be an anti-exorcism play, given the salience of the issue; but he got the wrong one—like Columbus finding the Americas instead of the Indies, but continuing to treat them according to his preconceptions.9


If the critics of Columbus misrepresent his culture, that is understandable, given longer-term distortions by his celebrants. Though we hear that Columbus’s faults are now recognized, the hagiographical approach described by Henige is by no means dead. It has left its mark even on respectable new books. There have been two basic approaches to Columbus by his admirers—one stressing his modernity, the other his quixotism. The modernist school goes back to Washington Irving’s 1828 biography. Irving, who romanticized Spain in order to distance it in books like the Alhambra (1832), has Columbus, shake off this dreamy past, along with its theological mumbo-jumbo, and enter the modern world ahead of his contemporaries, guided by the beginnings of science, an empirical bent, and practical experience of the sea. Irving invented the “flat earth” myth that made Columbus fight an ecclesiastical cabal of flat-earthers. Columbus, in this account, is attacked with quotations from Saint Augustine—though Augustine had told the biblical fundamentalists of his time that there could be no literal first day of creation, since it is always night on one side of the globe when it is day on the other. If Saint Augustine, like his classical mentors, knew the earth was round, how could people of the Middle Ages have forgotten that truth? The answer is simple, says Jeffrey Burton Russell. They never did forget—and Russell has great fun with people like Daniel Boorstin, who continue to preach the myth of a flat-earth Middle Ages in his book The Discoverers (1983). The learned told themselves this myth to show how myth-bound were their unenlightened ancestors.

Samuel Eliot Morison, while giving up Irving’s more blatant fictions (like the story of the egg), agreed with his basic reading of Columbus, and said a number of admiring things about his most notable predecessor writing in English.10 Morison, too, thought Columbus was a modern man, relying on practical skills, not outmoded theories—a skipper any Yankee seafarer could understand. This tradition goes on in Paolo Emilio Taviani’s respected publications on Columbus. As the new English translation of his biography says of Columbus:

Psychologically he was a modern man. Concrete and pragmatic to the point of being overmeticulous, he elaborated his projects only after he had acquired direct experience, and from it sprang the conception for his grand design.

Taviani is a determined foe of the other, the quixotic, interpretation of Columbus. The most influential quixotist is Salvador de Madariaga, best known for his argument that Columbus was of Jewish descent.11 But his 1939 book makes the further point that Columbus was a kind of holy fool, like Don Quixote, with “wild” dreams that defied common sense—a view taken to its extreme by Simon Wiesenthal, who claimed that Columbus was wandering the world in quest of the lost tribes of Israel.12

This “quixotic” school is continued by Gianni Granzotto, who calls the history of Columbus “the quintessential fairy tale of the misunderstood, scorned genius who suddenly rises to glory on the wings of fate.”

Columbus and Don Quixote, each in his own way, extended these limits [of reality], expanded the minds of other men. They gave others a glimpse of new freedoms attainable only through a rejection of common sense…13

The last and best quixotist is Jacques Attali, who puts within his Braudelian economic analysis of 1492 a Columbus derived almost entirely from Madariaga, not only in his Jewishness and his spiritual wrestling with a villainous Hernando Talavera, but in the man’s following of an impossible dream:

Etrange tisserand-marin-cabaretier-cartographe autodidacte, parlant très mal le génois et le castillan, anonnant le latin, s’échinant à trouver dans les livres une route vers son rêve. 14

There are some soberer accounts of Columbus, avoiding myth and denigration—those, preeminently, by Fernández-Armesto and by the Phillipses. But these will seem dull to people who expect to know more things or better things about Columbus than the record will justify. Both these books, for instance, say the Americas would have been reached very rapidly even if Columbus had never made his trip. “The fifteenth century was the sea century,” according to Attali. It was pushing out in all directions, and very definitely into the Atlantic. Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries had been added to Europe’s domain. Northern voyages were beginning again. The Portuguese had already commissioned one expedition west.

The old view was that Columbus did something almost superhuman, so he had to have superhuman qualities to explain this marvel. The real truth—and no wonder people have been avoiding it for so long—is that Columbus in himself is rather a bore. No genius, no villain, he was a better courtier than administrator, a better navigator than captain, a man whose recorded thought was neither deep nor original. Conceiving that expedition was not as mysterious or unusual as it has been made to seem. He was certainly persistent and stubborn in sticking to it—and some have tried to make him a giant at least in his “obsession,” for good or ill. But even that conclusion outruns the evidence. Herman Viola, a director at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, where the “Seeds of Change” exhibit on Spanish America after the conquest is being shown, told a reporter: “Columbus wasn’t the nicest guy personally. He couldn’t talk about anything except his plans.”15 But most of what we have from him are reports or petitions, or materials gathered for use in reports or petitions, to royal or other patrons. To talk of anything but his project would have been the obnoxious thing.

The voyage of Columbus was and is important. That he made it is of little importance. If not he, another. The real heroes of the Spanish conquest are the ones who broke out of Columbus’s preconceptions and began to see the different world he moved through. The notes to the Circa 1492 catalog remind us how much we owe to these, the real explorers—to Bernardino de Sahagún, called in the catalog “the world’s first field anthropologist,” whose work was suppressed by King Philip II because it threw doubt on preconceptions about the “aliens.” We would not have some of the works on display but for the labors of these men—mainly Dominicans and Franciscans trying to learn enough from the natives to convert them. But the teachers were converted, too. Las Casas even argued that human sacrifice need not always be diabolically inspired—he cited not only the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac under the Jewish dispensation but the completed sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30–40).16 I suppose that made las Casas the “moral equivalence” man of his day. Yet las Casas did not have to abandon his faith in order to understand another culture sufficiently from within to deny that it was diabolic.

Multiculturalism is not a deviation from the study of one’s own world but a precondition of it. Who knows only one thing knows not even that. A thing entirely isolated would be unknowable. There would be nothing to say of it, or any language for it. The reason for this has been obvious to people as different as Saint Thomas Aquinas and William James. Thomas said: “The soul is pleased by the comparison of one thing with another, since placing one thing in conjunction with another has an innate affinity with the way the mind acts.”17 And James said: “The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else.”18 Even our nineteenth-century popular histories reflected this truth. The great works of Parkman and Prescott gained by the fact that they were able to get part way outside both cultures they studied. As men of Protestant New England, they could be critical of French Jesuits and Spanish Friars as well as of the North and South Americans. (It is a national shame that Prescott’s works on the Aztec and Inca conquests are out of print this year.)

Greenblatt rightly traces the multicultural attitude back to Herodotus, who was able to take “barbarians” seriously. But the only major multiculturalist he considers in the Renaissance is Sir John Mandeville, whose work is largely fictitious. It is easy to be tolerant toward characters of one’s own invention. Mandeville is better studied in conjunction with Rabelais than with, say, Bartolomé de las Casas. We should have had a major biography of las Casas rather than the two-hundredth book on Columbus, who was not the equal of las Casas in learning, piety, intellectual adventurousness, or humanity. Las Casas and his kind—men like Diego Duran—did not let wonder stop their hearts forever. They moved on from a suspensio mentis to what Augustine, later in The Trinity, called a requies pedis ambulando:

What the will rests in can be called its goal, though it points on to a farther goal—as one foot rests when one walks, leaving prints another may trace as he follows. So the resting of the will in immediate pleasure is not the will’s ultimate goal—it is not a homeland for residing, but a resting place or inn through which one travels on.19

Now that’s exploring.

This Issue

November 21, 1991