Over 500 Years After Columbus: Reflections on Civilization, Culture, and Consciousness
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
As school children for many generations knew and memorized, “In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two, Columbus sailed the oceans blue….” Yet, was this the full story? Hardly! It served to promote a particular view of events and circumstances that reinforced many of our cultural beliefs and traditions for many years.
Only in the last fifty years or so, dating to coincide with the awareness and ethical implications of the postwar realities of dictators, genocides, and the lust for conquest, have we begun to place western Colonial exploration into a different, much less flattering perspective!
Maybe the whole historical and culturally imposing process of what has been called (euphemistically?) Western Civilization when placed under a broader, more discerning examination, harshly reveals a far less glamorous, far less generous view. (Gandhi was once asked: “What do you think of Western Civilization? He thought for a moment and then said: “It would be a good idea!)
Now this change of perspective is one that stands at odds or in opposition to my “personal” and ethnic experience of Columbus day: as a North American of Italian descent, October 12th was MY St. Patrick’s Day- a time to celebrate my ethnic
Columbus, after all, was one of the Italian heroes in history, and we acknowledged it by wearing Italian flag colors or wearing burgundy red in his honor. There would be special Catholic church services, dances, and of course lots of wine and FOOD! As you know, various groups such as the Knights of Columbus were founded on such ethnic pride… So you see, looking at Columbus, at least early in my life, was an affirmation that soured over time and with mature insights… It represented for me a long, hard step into political religious, and economic objectivity- maybe even more because most Americans who look at it superficially as just another day off from work!
What do we know and what can we learn from Columbus today? Is the “truth” about him anymore or less than a metaphor for all the efforts of human conquest called the advance of civilization?
Lets begin by a brief appraisal of what we know about this momentous event in Western history.
Depending on your political, ethnic, racial and religious views, you can come to completely different assessments and emphasis concerning Columbus and the importance or the extended value and meaning of his journey to the New World.
For instance, on the positive side, you can list that he was the first Southern European to colonize what was called The New World. He brought back evidence that the world was indeed rounder or at least larger than anyone had previous taught or even remotely anticipated.
He informed the Spanish monarchs that in this “New World” there were untold riches and that in this new uncharted land those riches widely ranged from pepper to gold, from corn, tomatoes and potatoes, to lumber, gemstones, new medicines, and could be justified as a new opportunity to spread the faith of Catholic Christianity and claim those lands for Spain!
On the negative, and admittedly more cynical side, we are given the picture of a near-do well explorer who thought that he knew where he was going, and almost did not find any land at all! (Please no jokes about men and their not wanting to stop for directions!)
That he was someone who succeed only after persistently appealing to the greed and pride of a thoroughly corrupt and prejudiced queen and her lackey husband, and winning that vain appeal, he was given three meager ships that were to be filled with gold and riches on his return… If he returned… .
We are informed by the ship’s log records that Columbus nearly missed out on a full mutiny that would have returned the ships empty to Spain, or sunk them somewhere in the Atlantic!
On his ship’s tenuous arrival, he then arrogantly claims all the land he finds for Spain and the Roman Catholic Church! After loading up all the gold, silver, and spices he could, he then forcibly held some of the natives aboard ship so they had to return as captive slaves.
Not to be miserly, the Spanish or the European crew did give the Native Americans presents of their own…. They gave the Indians many new things, along with a forced religion and a new system of slavery… They gave them small pox tuberculosis, and syphilis!
These are some of the reasons is why the coming of Columbus is treated as a great tragedy and a day of mourning by many Native Americans.
Now I am sure that we can begin quite a debate over the pros and cons of Columbus… from the positive contributions of the European culture such as horses, honey bees, rice and wheat, and from the Native Americans to the Europeans, they gave them an effective model for a cooperative community that could work; that peanuts taste good, and chocolate is delicious…
Negatively, we can state that Europeans forced cultural change and adoption of alien mores and values. And as a subtle long range deadly revenge, the Native Americans introduced Europeans to tobacco! (similar to my conclusions concerning the value of Indian Casino Gaming in AZ)
But I feel that it is necessary to look at the larger perspective of how explorers such as Columbus teach us about basic precepts in the creation of world culture and consciousness. Only recently have we began to amend our textbooks and provide our students with a more balanced and objective appraisal of history’s event. This attempt, as I see it, is an attempt to place reason over the emotions of pride, and to reinforce that admission that history is rarely black or white, and that the saga of humankind always includes many shades of gray. (Texas edits; Confederate edits)
I will readily admit that I can have my problems with too much “political correctness” in our media and society today, particularly when it comes to telling our cultural stories. Over all, I find modern attempts at objectivity and balance to be constructive, positive, and that it represents a healthy departure from the historical, more harmful, jingoistic, and excessively patriotic elements that many of us grew up believing as being patently true.
(Q: Who won all those TV Westerns? A: White Men!)
Unfortunately, with the new rewritten examinations of historical figures like Columbus, there comes torrid exposes’ of everyone, including our national Founding Fathers, our former military and political heroes, any imperfect person whose ideals lead them to public service. These leaders now have been harshly seen to have “clay feet” AND those judgments are with today’s eyes and knowledge of self and psyche so they have been taken out of context of their times, and can be socially and historically demoted- made to appear to be unworthy of serious regard, study, and yes, our admiration! (Jefferson!)
And as a consequence, many of these heroes of yesteryear have undeservedly lost our respect and loyalty, especially when we want to hold them up as shining examples of the “American character”, and had been held up as moral, and ethical models for our youth and new citizens who wish to know what it means to be “an American!”
Tragically, by unmercifully debunking our historical ancestors, we are given very few examples of heroism and nobility in our culture. What has filled that ethical vacuum has now become the lowest common denominator of Media driven heroism which we call “living the good life” that is, having money and fame- and so the modern heroes become rock stars, movie icons, sports figures, in short, “sex and success” objects!
(LCD: Culture can be defined as the lowest common denominator of interpersonal ethics and condoned social interactions that everyone is willing to support, condone, or willing to allow)
There is an vital and important point in assessing history and the change of civilizations, and it is this: Not all change is progress, nor does all progress creates meaningful change; It does not necessarily follow that because things change, it is necessarily better, higher, more refined or more evolved.
Progress as we most commonly define and understand it, is almost always a result of a change in technology, not an advancement in ethics and values, conscience and compassion.
After all, the stock market and stock holders are loathe to consider the ethical implications of capitalism or what the long range effects of various manufactured products are on the national health, our culture, and the environment!
Historically, we get the idealistic notion of humane and ethical progress from St. Augustine (De Civitatem) who linked the changes in civilization to the growth of the kingdom of God or good in the world. We also derive some of this materialistic idealism from the Yankee Calvinist Protestant notion that wealth and success meant that you were among the elect, the saved, favored people on earth! (Calvinism: Supporters of Donald Trump???)
From the Age of Enlightenment on, we rational human beings have taken this notion of progress as an unqualified good and we have made it into a cultural dogma…. As an urgent and insistent belief or a nouvomania- that anything new is better for us…
History or his story is simply the selected and favorable accumulation of those particular events and edited experiences that we as human beings decide to give importance. And as we all know, who has always written the history books?
The winners, of course!
Only recently have we begun to incorporate dissenting views into our perspective of history so that we could at least begin to present a balanced view. Previously, it was exclusively from the viewpoint of the victors, and the dominant class, color, and cultural priorities that were supported.
It almost as if public opinion has become a master puppeteer, and it pulls the strings of public opinion in a way that only reinforces the dominant feelings and values, and doesn’t let dissent or change assert itself, or threaten the status quo…
And each of us has to admit to some degree or another, that we allow these dominant opinions to sway our own conclusions, and then assign various levels of priority and meaning to what occurs to us and what events in our larger world seem to influence us the most.
For some people, history and culture directly shapes them… In a world of 24/7 news and information what happens in the world influences and concerns them in dramatic and permanent ways… (Media; Diana; JFK; 9/11; what others would you name?)
For others, they state almost defiantly that they make their own personal and family history, and that only those local events and regional experiences give their lives their greatest meaning… What the larger world offers or seems to be about is only of passing curiosity but hardly vital or contributory. I sense and conclude that the more objective and understandable position lies somewhere in-between these poles or dichotomies.
My personal understanding is that we unavoidably hold a shared responsibility, that each of us separately, and our families and social groups together, can act to shape or create history and that through our honest relationships, our appraisal of how we work, what we value, we can shape what is to be known as accepted or condoned history and then begin to determine the actions and consequences of the future by how we choose the culture we will live in and actively support.
This relationship, this unavoidable interdependence of the individual with their society is what creates history and culture.
The admission that history teaches us that humanity and nations can behave wisely- once they have exhausted all other ways, (Lawrence Durcell) need not be perpetuated in this next generation!
As the Unitarian mystic and man of letters. R.W. Emerson advises, the only history that personally counts or as he emphatically put, that is worth a tinker’s dam, is the history we create today, together…
Lastly, As I look at it, history, civilization and consciousness are both ancient and timeless. They are, experienced as inconsistent teachers, whose lessons are still relevant and emerging each and every day. It is up to us to benefit from a fair and balanced knowledge of history, not just blindly rehearse its fallibility’s. In the ominous and insightful words of the philosopher George
Santayana, if we refuse to learn the lessons of history, we will be doomed to repeat them.
Another Perspective On Adventure and Conquest
Over the years, I have seriously questioned our desire to advocate or even idealize the quest for adventure or exploration. When opening myself to the spiritual life, I switched my focus to the inner journey and have begun to see, at least for me, that the greatest adventures are not to be found outside of ourselves, not in climbing mountains, crossing jungles, racing cars, or sailing yachts- not even in landing on the Moon or Mars. … Instead, our greatest adventures are to be found in exploring inner space…
As for conquest, there is no greater conquest than understanding of oneself. Two of many teachings I refer to are these:
The first is this, that “Love’s divine adventure is to be All in All.” Miscellany Mary Baker Eddy
And the second comes from the first essential writings of the Buddha, The Dharmapada, which states, “Greater than the person who conquers ten thousand men, is the person who can conquer him or herself.”
These wisdom teachings stand in sharp contrast with our Media driven glorification of high tech warriors, machismo figures, and governmental policies where the talk is tough and the actions often vicious or violent.
These words of reflection and insight also definitively stand against our national mythology of having a “manifest destiny” which is a disguised arrogance of power that has been used against every race or color, and used in every century since this New World of ours has been discovered.
“Loving is the hardest task and the greatest adventure anyone of us has to face; it is the goal which all other tasks and goals are but preparation.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
To understand and to love oneself, and unselfishly love anyone else requires our deepest, longest lasting, toughest, and most demanding efforts. The adventure, the risk and the reward is to see, and affirm what we, as individuals, families, what we as humankind, need most to learn, explore and then practice.
It is the conquest of the subjective human ego, and it is the ultimate adventure of being openhearted, sincere, courageous, vulnerable, compassionate, empathetic, honest and free…
So Be It!