Part 6 of 9
Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson
Many other examples from history may be given, but all dim before the most thorough transformation of the planetary outlook and its consequences in all the known history of the world. It took place in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the age of the discovery of the Americas and of the first voyage around the world in a sailing ship. It was then that a new world was born, in the most challenging sense of those words. The global consciousness of Western and Central Europeans, and ultimately of all mankind, was overhauled from top to bottom. It was the first complete spatial revolution on a planetary scale, in the true meaning of those words.
A revolution unlike any other, it was not merely a quantitative enlargement of the geographical horizon, the result of the discovery of new continents and new oceans alone. That revolution had far greater repercussions. It would wipe out the traditional conceptions, ancient and medieval, and alter man’s overall awareness, his very image of the planet as well as the astronomical representation of the universe. For the first time in history, man was holding the terrestrial globe in his hand, the real one, as if it were a ball. A medieval mind, and even Martin Luther, had found ridiculous the idea that Earth was a sphere; it had been a fantasy, not to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, the spherical shape of our planet was becoming tangible reality, unswerving experience, undeniable scientific truth. From then on, Earth, once an allegedly fixed star, began revolving round the Sun. Still, that was not the most radical transformation. The truly decisive factor was the appearance of the cosmic dimension and of the concept of the infinite void.
Copernicus was the first to demonstrate scientifically that Earth orbits around the Sun. His work on the revolutions of the celestial bodies, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, dates from 1543. Although he transformed our solar system, he stuck to the idea that space, the cosmos, was a limiting field. In this way, the world, in the cosmic sense, and with it the notion of space, remained unaltered. Several decades later, the boundaries vanished. In Giordano Bruno’s philosophical scheme, the solar system, in which Earth revolves round the Sun, is but one of the many solar systems in an infinite firmament. Galileo’s scientific experiments turned those philosophical speculations into mathematically demonstrable truth. Kepler calculated the ellipses of the planets but shuddered before the infinity of those spaces where the galaxies evolve free of conceivable boundaries and centers. With Newton’s theories, the new concept of space became part and parcel of the whole, enlightened Europe. The stars, masses of matter, move while the forces of attraction and repulsion balance each other in an infinite void, in virtue of the laws of gravitation.
From then on, man could fashion an idea of the void, which he could not do earlier, despite the fact that certain philosophers had already broached the subject. Formerly, man had feared the void: he used to have a horror vacui. Then, lo and behold, he began to forget his fears and adjust to the idea that he and his world were in the void. In the eighteenth century, the writers of the Enlightenment, with Voltaire at their head, were taking pride in the very idea, scientifically demonstrable, of a world placed inside an infinite void. Try to imagine a truly empty space, a space that is not only an air vacuum but also free of the minutest and subtlest matter. Go on and try to distinguish between matter and space within your picture, separate one from the other, and think of one without the other. You may just as well think of absolute nothingness. Nonetheless, the thinkers of the Enlightenment mocked this horror vacui. Or perhaps it was only the quite understandable shudder before nothingness, the emptiness of death, before the nihilistic image and nihilism on the whole.
Such change, implicit in the notion of the infinite void, cannot be explained merely as a result of a purely geographical expansion of the known world. It is so essential and revolutionary that one may as well affirm the contrary, namely that the discovery of new continents and the voyage round the world were only the result and the manifestation of much deeper mutations. Only in that way could the landing on an unknown island inaugurate a whole era of discoveries. People coming from the West and from the East had landed in America before. It is known that about the year 1000, the Vikings had discovered North America on their way from Greenland, and that the Indians whom Christopher Columbus met also must have arrived from somewhere. Still, it has to be acknowledged that it was in 1492, and not before, that America was “discovered” by Columbus. The “pre-Colombian” discoveries had not brought about a planetary spatial revolution, nor were they the sequel of such a revolution. Otherwise, the Aztecs would not have remained in Mexico, nor the Incas in Peru. One fair day, they would have paid us a visit in Europe, world map in hand. It would have been they who discovered us, and not the other way around! A spatial revolution presupposes more than just setting foot on previously unknown land. It assumes the transformation of the notion of space at all levels and in all the aspects of human existence. The formidable about-face in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries shows us all what that means.
In those centuries of change, Europeans simultaneously imprinted a new idea of space on all the aspects of their creative spirit. Renaissance painting forsook the space of medieval Gothic art. From then on, the painters would place their human models and material objects in a space, which through perspective, attained a hollow depth. People and objects were now sitting and moving in space. It is in fact a different world, when compared to the space of a Gothic painting. The simple fact that the painters began to see differently, that the way they looked at things changed, is full of significance for us. Great painters are not only those who place something beautiful before our eyes. Art too is a historical step in the evolution of spatial awareness. Real artists are those who see people and things better and more accurately than the rest, more accurately in regard to the historical reality of their era. Nevertheless, the new space made itself manifest in other fields, too. Renaissance architecture erected buildings of a classical and geometrical conception, a world apart from the Gothic space. The statues of people in the Renaissance were free-standing, whereas in the Middle Ages they had been “hooked” to pillars and to walls. On the other hand, Baroque architecture surged into a dynamic movement, and for that reason, it resembled Gothic art in more than one respect. Nevertheless, it remained tributary to the new modern space, born of a spatial revolution to which it had brought its own contribution. Music broke free from the constraints of the ancient tonalities and placed its tunes and harmonies inside the acoustical splice of our so-called tonal system. On stage and at the opera, the characters would move in the empty depth of the stage space, separated from the audience by a curtain. All the spiritual trends of those two centuries—Renaissance, Humanism, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Baroque—have each in their ways contributed to the spatial revolution as a whole.
It is no exaggeration to affirm that all walks of life and forms of existence, all the manifestations of man’s creative genius, the arts, science, and technology, had their share in the new idea of space. As a matter of fact, the great changes in the geographic image of our planet are but a superficial aspect of the deep-going mutation, as suggested by the phrase “spatial revolution,” so rich in consequences. What by turn has been called the rational superiority of the Europeans, the European spirit, and “Western rationalism” has had an irresistible impact ever since. It extended to the nations of Western and Central Europe, destroyed the medieval forms of human community, set up new states, fleets, and armies, invented new machines, and subjected the non-European peoples to its will. To the latter it gave the choice of adopting European civilization or being reduced to mere colonies of the former.
Every basic order is a spatial order. To talk of the constitution of a country or a continent is to talk of its fundamental order, of its nomos. The true, the authentic, rests essentially upon distinct spatial delimitations. It presupposes clear dimensions, a precise division of the planet. The beginning of every great era coincides with an extensive territorial appropriation. Every important change in the image of Earth is inseparable from a political transformation, and so, from a new repartition of the planet, a new territorial appropriation.
A spatial revolution as singular as that of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries had ineluctably to lead to an astounding and unprecedented territorial appropriation. New spaces were opened that seemed endless to the Europeans who swarmed out to those distant expanses and treated the non-European and non-Christian peoples and countries which they discovered as abandoned property, devolving to the first occupier arriving from Europe. All the conquerors, whether Catholic or Protestant, invoked their mission of disseminating the Christian faith among the non-Christians. They could have done that without conquest and plunder. It was, however, the only motive and justification they would give. There were certain monks, such as the Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria, who in his lecture on the Indians (De Indis, 1532) proclaimed that the right of peoples to their land was independent of their religious faith and with an astonishing broad-mindedness defended the rights of the Indians. That, however, did not change in the least the global historical reality of the territorial appropriation by Europeans. Later on, during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the mandate of the Christian mission expanded into a mandate to disseminate European civilization among the uncivilized peoples. It was out of such justifications that a Christian European civil law came to be born, the law of the Christian commonwealth of Europe, distinct from the rest of the world. The Christian peoples would build up a “family of nations,” an inter-state order. Its civil law would be based on the distinction between Christian and non-Christian, or a century later, between civilized (in the Christian European sense) and uncivilized peoples. A nation that was not civilized in that sense of the word could not become a member of that community of states. It would be regarded not as a subject but as an object of that community’s civil law. In other words, it was part of the possessions of one or another of the civilized nations, as a colony or a colonial protectorate.
Nevertheless, you must not think of that commonwealth of Christian-European nations as a flock of peaceful lambs. They waged bloody wars among themselves. Still, that does not change the historical reality of a kinship and a commonwealth of Christian-European civilization. World history is a history of territorial conquests. The conquerors did not, however, support each other at all times. Quite often they opposed each other and as often in bloody fratricidal wars. Notwithstanding, unlike indigenous peoples and the alien third parties, there was one thing that they shared.
Intestine struggles, fratricidal clashes, and civil wars are, as everybody knows, the most gruesome of all wars. The more so in the case of land seized in common. The conflict is more intense, the higher the stakes. In this case, it was a matter of seizing a new world. In the sixteenth century, Frenchmen and Spaniards massacred each other for years in a most atrocious manner, particularly in Florida, where they spared neither women nor children. Spaniards and Englishmen confronted each other in a century-long, bitter war in which the most brutal hostility man is capable of seems to have reached the limit. Neither had too many scruples when it came to filling their combat ranks, openly or surreptitiously, with non-Europeans, Muslims or Indians, as auxilliaries or even as allies. The outbreaks of hostility were frightful: each side abused the other, calling it in turn such names as assassins, thieves, rapists, and pirates. One kind of abuse was missing though, the one which they would hurl at the Indians. Among themselves the Christian Europeans did not accuse each other of cannibalism. Otherwise, nothing was missing from their repertory of abuses and deadly hostility. Yet all that fades before the dominant fact: the collective conquest of the New World by Europeans. The meaning and the core of the Christian-European civil law, its fundamental order, was the partition of the newly discovered Earth. Among themselves, and without much planned deliberation, the Europeans were unanimous in regarding the non-European territory of the planet as colonial territory, in other words, as an object of conquest and exploitation. This aspect of the historical evolution is so important that one might as well, and more correctly, define the age of discoveries as the era of territorial conquests by Europeans. Heraclitus had already said it: war brings people together, while law divides them.
1. The Greek noun nomos derives from the verb nemein, and like the latter, has three meanings. Firstly, nemein is the equivalent of the Geman nehmen, to take. Nence nomos means seizure. As the Greek legein-logos corresponds the German spechen-Sprache, so too, the German nehmen-Nahme corresponds to the Greek nemein-nomos. At first, it meant the seizure of land, and later it also meant the appropriation of the sea, much of which is part of our historical review here. In the industrial sector, one speaks of the appropriation of the means of production. The second meaning is the division and distribution of what was seized. Hence also the second sense of nomos, the basic division and repartition of the soil and the resulting ownership order. The third meaning is to tend, that is, to use, exploit, and turn to good account the partitioned land, to produce and to consume. Seizing-dividing-tending in that sequence are the three fundamental notions of every concrete order. More about the meaning of nomos can be found in my book The Nomos of the Earth (1950).