Friday, October 1, 2021

The Renaissance and the Birth of Western Imperialism

We are told that the Renaissance led to the recovery of art, philosophy, and literature of antiquity (Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome). What we are not told is that the Renaissance also led to the recovery of antiquity’s merciless methods: slavery, plunder, and carnage. The painters and writers of the Renaissance glorified the gladiator spectacles in which the slaves were butchered. They glorified the massacre of the barbarians by the Greeks and the Romans. They depicted slavery as a normal part of ancient life. 

Between the sixth and fourteenth centuries AD, slavery in Europe was in decline. Slavery could have disappeared if a new kind of thinking had not taken hold of Europe during the Renaissance. In the thirteenth century, the crusades in the Levant had ended in a disastrous failure. The realization dawned on Europe’s political and religious establishments that the crusaders were beaten by the Islamic forces because the Europeans had forgotten the ancient methods of carnage and enslavement. They started examining the texts from antiquity to recover the techniques of their warlike ancestors.

During the Renaissance, the ideas from antiquity were used to make a philosophical case for conquering, plundering, and enslaving. The Europeans became acquainted with philosophical arguments for slavery and conquests. The imperialist mindset was gradually developed in Europe. The Renaissance can be seen as the precursor to the Age of Imperialism.

Aristotle was the favorite philosopher of the imperialists. His writing on slavery was extensively used to defend the institution of slavery. The ideas of Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and other philosophers were also deployed. The imperialist strategy of vilifying people in conquered territories by labeling them as savages, killers, and cannibals was an integral part of the recovery of ideas of antiquity. The ancients first denigrated the people that they aimed to conquer and enslave.

For instance, in Politics, Aristotle says that human beings are of two types: slaves and non-slaves. What he is essentially saying is that the Greeks are the masters and the non-Greeks are the barbarians, who can be plundered, enslaved, and killed. “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

Aristotle accepted the institution of slavery. “A slave is property with a soul.” He saw no difference between dogs, cattle, and slaves. “And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.” He believed that the slave existed to serve his master. “The slave is a part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame.”

Like Aristotle, Plato has made a case for slavery. In his dialogue, Gorgias, he wrote: “..nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.” The Roman philosophers Cicero and Seneca found slavery and massacres acceptable. There is no record of any Roman philosopher opposing the gladiator games.

A civilization that thrives by conquests is itself one day conquered—this is the rule of history. Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were eventually conquered by the people that they regarded as barbarians. Similar fate could befall the imperialist powers. They could be colonized by the nations which they had once colonized. When the tide of history turns, nothing is impossible.

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