In what sense was Bartolomé de las Casas's freedom of understanding limited?

Bartolomé de las Casas's freedom of understanding was limited in the sense that in his day, slavery was viewed as a normal part of society and modern conceptions of the rights of individuals had not yet taken form.

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Las Casas’s freedom of understanding was limited by the realities of the time in which he lived. He could not yet fully comprehend that slavery was an abhorrent institution in and of itself (although, it should be said that Las Casas came closer than anyone of his day to criticizing...

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Las Casas’s freedom of understanding was limited by the realities of the time in which he lived. He could not yet fully comprehend that slavery was an abhorrent institution in and of itself (although, it should be said that Las Casas came closer than anyone of his day to criticizing slavery on moral and ethical grounds), but only through a narrow prism of thought that was conditioned by the assumptions of colonialism and Eurocentrism in which he was immersed.

We must here take "freedom of understanding" to mean the ability for an individual to make a sound judgment of an issue, free from any external prejudice or ignorance. No person is capable of perfect freedom of understanding, because no one individual ever has access to perfect knowledge or complete information of a given situation. Thus, we might ask ourselves, what kind of limitations would have prevented Bartolomé de Las Casas from forming a sound and perfectly rational judgement on the condition of the natives in the New World?

On the one hand, we must understand that Las Casas was first and foremost a Catholic theologian and that his loyalties lay with the Catholic Church and the Christian faith. In his famous denunciation of Spanish abuses against the New World inhabitants by the conquistadors, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Las Casas predicated his critique on the native peoples’ potential to become pious Christian subjects. In fact, his greatest defense of their dignity was in his argument that each indigenous person possessed a soul and that it was the responsibility of the Spanish Crown to convert as many potentially faithful Christian subjects as possible.

The modern-day citizen may look at this rationale as somewhat jaded and self-serving, arguing that slavery is inherently abominable both because of its immorality and because each individual has certain inalienable rights to his person that no state should be permitted to violate. But the theories of human rights and the individual as a corporate entity did not fully evolve until the American and French Revolutions. Thus, Las Casas did not inhabit a world that took the freedom of the individual very seriously, as these ideas did not even really exist in a full-fledged form during his lifetime. This would have been one aspect that limited his freedom of understanding.

Additionally, Las Casas lived in a world in which slavery was the norm. Although there were some early treatises that called for complete emancipation of the enslaved African and New World inhabitants, the vast majority of great thinkers in the mid-sixteenth century took slavery to be an integral, unassuming part of the order of the world. This was clearly evident in Las Casas’s own thinking, as he famously suggested that New World slave labor be supplanted with slaves imported from Africa. Las Casas’s rationale here was that the African climate made African slaves hardier and more resilient to disease and that they would therefore be a suitable replacement for Indian workers.

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