Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Tratado sobre las justas causas de la guerra contra los indios

Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1572) was a Spanish humanist philosopher that opposed Bartólome de las Casas in the Valladolid debate of 1550 on the issue of the ethics of Spanish colonization of the Indians and the Indies.  Even though Sepúlveda never visited the New World, he used the Bible and the writings of Aristotle to argue that the superiority of Spanish civilization and Catholicism justified the conquest of the Indians.

Sepulveda’s Democrates Alter takes the shape of a letter to the Marquis that considers the right to wage war.  The letter stages a Socratic type conversation between Leopold and Democrates in which Leopold poses questions to Democrates on the ethics of the Spanish having made war on the Indians in the Americas.  Democrates responds that the Spanish have and should continue to carry out a “just war” in the Indies. 

Sepúlveda’s argument:
  • Among the “just causes” of war are: a) repelling force with force when there are no other options, b) recovering stolen things, and c) punishing evildoers.
  • Only a “legitimate” authority can initiate a “just war”.
  • A “just war” must adhere to “proper conduct”.
  • It is “just” to make war on inferior people or “natural slaves” that resist “just” rule by “legitimate authorities”.
  • Sovereignty should be in the hands of the most prudent even if their rule is inconvenient to others who are bad and corrupt.
  • It is okay to go to war with “natural slaves” who are “barbaric” and worship idols, do not believe in private property, do not make commerce, accept monarchy by heredity, and make human sacrifices.
  • Indians must be conquered in order to evangelize them.  There is no other way to force conversion to Christianity.  The “barbarians” must be conquered so that evangelization will be effective.