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The Spanish Empire and Globalization: The Case of Francisco de Vitoria


Max Kade Theatre
inside Armstrong Hall Room 300, 14 E. Cache La Poudre St.



Presented by Orlando Bentancor, Assistant Professor at Barnard College and specialist in Colonial Latin American Literature.


Francisco de Vitoria (1486-1546) was a Spanish theologian who engaged in the first systematic attempt to question and to justify the expansion of the European frontier and the subjection of the indigenous peoples of the New World to the Spanish rule. Vitoria’s arguments depended on Aquinas’ ontological framework composed of causal reasoning and a rational and natural order of things. Vitoria denied that the Pope possessed any right to confer jurisdiction over infidel kingdoms, or that the Catholic Kings could conquer them in order to avoid idolatry or crimes against natural right. As a matter of fact, Vitoria grounded the Spanish expansion in his claims that all nations had the natural right to communicate, to trade, and to preach the gospel, rights that could be defended using military force. Although military intervention could not be justified by appealing to presumed crimes against nature or the “servile” character of the “barbarians”, it could be used to back up commerce and evangelization.




Twentieth century political theorists such as Carl Schmitt emphasized the centrality of the colonization of the Americas and the works of Vitoria for the emergence of the difference between the Eurocentric modernity and Europe’s external frontier characterized as an “empty space”. According to Schmitt, such characterization of America was introjected into Europe as the foundation of the modern State. Despite acknowledging the centrality of the conquest and colonization of the Americas and the importance of Iberian imperial ideology for the emergence of global modernity, Schmitt insists in treating Vitoria as a “pre-modern” thinker who could not anticipate the properly modern and technical ideas of war between states, dismissing what he calls the “liberal” appropriations of Vitoria’s thought. In this paper I will provide close readings of Vitoria that will try to show how the emergence of the so called modern “laws of nations” was coeval with the technological, economic, and political conquest of the nature of the New World.




I argue Vitoria’s arguments provided an ideological and theoretical justification for practical issues such as the defense of circulation of commodities and the use of indigenous labor force for extracting precious metals. I conclude that Vitoria’s philosophical framework made possible the deployment of a principle of capitalist and missionary universality that was marked by the centrality of an authority legitimated on the basis of universal (non-territorial) principles that consisted in commanding and subordinating a network of plural political and economic realities.

Reception will follow in Armstrong Hall 319

  • Open to Public: No
  • Admission Fee: Free
  • Sponsored By: The Spanish Department and the Dean's Office Venture Grants
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