Another of the fruits of the Enlightenment was time travel, I guess

James Lindsay, embarrassingly regressive acolyte of the equally embarrassing Boghossian, decided to explain to the waiting hordes of alt-right dopes how the Spaniards conquered the Americas in the 16th century using the Liberalism and Science of the 18th century Enlightenment. They used the vast powers conferred upon them by Humean philosophy, apparently.

Gosh. I thought Spain used the advantages of gunpowder and horses to murder and enslave populations that were decimated by exotic diseases that Europeans had unthinkingly seeded on the continents, which in itself doesn’t sound like an exactly “enlightened” act. But hey, you know if a different set of Europeans two centuries later invented some useful rationalizations for racism and colonialism (along with some genuinely good principles), and that makes it all A-OK to ahistorical pseudoscholars almost three centuries after that, it must have been a good thing.

I am amused by the idea that fanatical religious conquistadors who thought the native peoples’ autonomy should be disrespected by swords and spears and muskets in their quest for gold and silver were liberals driven by more accurate information about the world. There’s a reason James Lindsay would never make it in academia. He’s even more grossly incompetent than the rest of us.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    Spain conquered much of the Americas because they had the power to do so because it understood certain sciences better than the Americans they destroyed.

    Soooo… by that rationale, for the peace and safety of humanity, it’s better for us to remain equally ignorant, because there is just NO way that a more scientifically advanced society won’t use their knowledge to plunder, murder and rape their less advanced neighbors.

    How… inspiring.

    I am amused by the idea that fanatical religious conquistadors who thought the native peoples’ autonomy should be disrespected by swords and spears and muskets in their quest for gold and silver were liberals driven by “more accurate information about the world”.

    Shhhh…. ixnay on the eligion-bashing-ray! We have opium to deal out the masses!

  2. stwriley says

    Someone needs to send this buffoon a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel, but I’m afraid it would be a waste of money. I doubt he could understand a proper historical argument if it bit him on his assumptions.

  3. specialffrog says

    Also wasn’t Columbus’s expedition partly based on an extremely inaccurate view of the size of the earth?

  4. consciousness razor says

    Well, there was time travel … eventually (not yet and already?) … but also the Spanish conquistador theory of disease. That did and will play a very critical role too. Of course, some anti-enlightenment types still cling to the germ theory of disease, but in the fullness of time, it will have become evident (and then not evident anymore, then evident again, etc.) that the time-traveling conquistadors and their ancient alien benefactors will become the ultimate cause (and obviously, ineluctably, etc., the effect).
    More wisdom droppings deposited by Lindsay on the twitters:

    My point seems to be strengthened by most of this stuff: liberalism is a necessary conflict resolution strategy and knowledge-production approach for technologically advanced societies, and we had to learn this along the way, apparently the (very) hard way.

    Yeah, it was hard alright. Conflict successfully resolved!
    But wait! Maybe liberalism is not a (or the) “knowledge-production approach”? You know … because that’s not what coherent people mean when they use these terms?

  5. microraptor says

    @specialffrog: Yes. He was expecting to hit India or China about the time he made it to the Caribbean.

  6. says

    I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, I knew disease was one of the things that helped in the colonization of the Americas, but…

    Europeans were successful colonizers because they were so disease-ridden.

    Enjoy that, white supremacists.

  7. consciousness razor says

    Sure, Columbus could’ve used Eratosthenes’ much more accurate estimate of Earth’s size, but he did it the (very) hard way, like a real manly man. Besides, Eratosthenes was a swarthy ancient person from Libya, so he couldn’t have used the liberal enlightenment approach necessary to produce such knowledge, now could he? Because it’s so damn necessary, it must be that in fact Eratosthenes did no such thing, so you and Lindsay and Columbus and the rest of us don’t need to know anything about any of that shit.

  8. bryanfeir says

    I think it was in Boorstin’s The Discoverers where I read that while Columbus used the smallest available estimate for the size of the Earth in order to sell the expedition, even he knew it was probably larger, and so when he used speed measurements of the ships to determine how far they had travelled, he deliberately lowballed the calculations to the crew so he wouldn’t have a riot on his hands when he reached the distance he had said and they hadn’t hit land yet. We know this because he recorded both his actual calculations and the different values he told the crew in his log.

    However, based on the best guess as to where he actually landed, Columbus himself consistently overestimated the distance travelled to such a degree that his deliberately low lies to the crew were actually more accurate than his own ‘correct’ numbers.

  9. Donnie says


    Someone needs to send this buffoon a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel, but I’m afraid it would be a waste of money

    I would recommend, “1492: The Year Our World Began” by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. This books shows exactly how the Spanish destroyed multiple civilizations (as well as the prehistory migration to South America). After the author covers the destruction of South American civilizations, he then proceeds to North America (specifically the now United States) and how Europeans destroyed the thriving indigenous populations.

    I really recommend this book for anyone willing to face “America” past genocide and destruction through Manifest Destiny.

  10. hemidactylus says

    Hmm, the Columbus thing was more contemporaneous with the Renaissance, or rebirth of Greek and Roman classicism. The Medici helped fund stuff in Florence and much thought was being rediscovered thanks to the evil Saracens. Lorenzo the self-aggrandizer did have a fondness for pagan art themes til a friar burned them all up and portended the Reformation conflict with corrupt papacy. Don’t ever piss off the Pope, specially one Machiavelli would use as a model.

    Geographic factors were fortuitous and facilitated the relatively more advanced state of affairs in Europe versus the Americas. Jared Diamond…yadda yadda.

    The Enlightenment came later than the Renaissance (thank you spell check) and along with the Scientific Revolution was more about extending knowledge than recycling the classical view via Scholasticism. What did Galen or Aristotle say about this or that? Let’s stick to the text and not the horse’s mouth. But alas the Enlightenment would not free us from the bigotry of Renaissance era Columbus and reconquest seasoned conquistadors who practiced on Moors and Jews at home first. Some Ladinos would find their own way across the ocean blue. It did help engender a more formal racism (Kant’s categorical thinking and Locke’s proclamation for the New World).

    And lest we think it brought untold freedom, it’s coming critical dialectic brought a realization of our new technological shackles (typed on an iphone).

    And liberalism? WTF is that? Something to do with post serfdom enclosure and forced migration from land to filthy cities perhaps? Invisible hands and ideological shifts to Calvinist meritocracies? Sounds ideal.

  11. KG says

    Two more relevant books: Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby, and Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power 1492-1763 by Henry Kamen. Crosby looks at how organisms imported from Europe – not just disease-causing organisms, but domestic and wild animals and plants – have transformed what he calls the “neo-Europes” – North America, southern South America, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand in ways that made the Great European Land Grab (my term, not his) possible. Kamen stresses the degree to which the Spanish Empire actually depended both on local allies (as Rob Grigjanis notes@6, but also Filippinos and Chinese), African slaves*, and non-Spanish Europeans and European resources. Columbus was Italian (specifically, Genoan, Genoa and Venice being the main seafaring states in Italy), Magellan was Portuguese, many other prominent “Conquistadors”, soldiers, mariners and perhaps most important, financiers, were Italian, Portuguese, Flemish (Kamen anachronistically calls them “Belgian”), Jewish, German, Irish… The technical expertise came largely from the same places, while Spain remained throughout relatively poor, and technically, scientifically and administratively backward relative to Italy, the Low Countries and Germany. The “Spanish Empire” was “Spanish” largely by dynastic chance. The Habsburg Emperor Charles V won what Colin McEvedy calls the “genealogical jackpot”, inheriting from his four grandparents the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, the Habsburg lands in Germany, Austria and Hungary, the Low Countries, much of Italy, and Castile’s possessions in the Americas, then when he abdicated, split his inheritance between his brother Ferdinand, who got the Imperial title and the German/Austrian/Hungarian bits, and his son Philip who got the rest – Philip II of Spain, as he’s generally known. But the Low Countries and Italian possessions were the rich and technologically advanced bits of his share. Somewhere else I’ve read that the Empire was only a going concern because of the Chinese Empire’s demand for silver – much of the silver mined in Mexico and Peru crossed the Pacific and was traded for Chinese manufactures (more advanced than anything available in Europe), and for gold, in Manila.

    *The way Kamen refers to slaves and the slave trade is disturbingly offhand.

  12. hemidactylus says

    I forgot to add the friendly debate between Matthew Arnold and Thomas Bulldog Huxley as a relevant contrast between Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking vis a vis the state of educational policy in jolly old England. Why the hell should anyone learn frickin dead languages? They’re dead Jim!

    One could easily substitute Wieseltier v Pinker (the reborn CP Snow beset by so many benighted Leavises chomping at this ankles).

  13. chrislawson says


    Or al-Biruni’s method which requires only an astrolabe and a mountain with a view of the ocean on the horizon. Al-Biruni himself used this method to calculate the Earth’s radius with <1% error back in the 11th century.

  14. kaleberg says

    There was one other factor. The Spanish were able to exploit local politics. The Aztecs had only recently conquered much of Mexico, so the Spanish had lots of allies among the conquered. It was similar with the Inca who had also only recently consolidated their empire when the Spanish arrived. The imperial Spanish, Aztec and Inca had a lot in common, so a new emperor was a new emperor, even a new emperor from across the Atlantic. It’s not like being shot by a musket is all that much worse than being impaled by a spear.

  15. chrislawson says

    As Rob G says, the main reason Cortez succeeded was because the Aztec empire was a parasitic expansionist colonial power itself, and when he arrived he found plenty of vassal states willing to help overthrow the Aztecs. If it had been his 500 men versus the might of the South American empires he wouldn’t have lasted a day.

    Also, it is well known that the conquistadors destroyed Tenoctitlan’s extraordinary hydroengineering — far more advanced than anything else in the world — because this allowed them to use cavalry on open land instead of having to fight on a floating city with lots of narrow rope bridges designed for human foot traffic. So in this regard, the Aztecs were far more “Enlightenment” than the conquistadors in the stupid ahistorical sense Lindsay uses.

    Finally, it makes no sense for a so-called “liberal” movement interested in “the truth” to destroy every damn Aztec book they could find. Of the hundreds of thousands of codices in Aztec libraries, only 2 pre-conquest codices remain today.

  16. Ishikiri says

    Calling the Spanish Empire “liberal” doesn’t seem to jibe with the historical consensus. It was in fact medievally hierarchical and rabidly mercantilistic. It could be argued that inheritance of British liberalism was a big reason why Canada and the USA came out more cohesive and successful than Latin American countries, and in the case of the USA, able to exploit Latin America so thoroughly.

  17. John Morales says

    Ishikiri, it was very Catholic. That was the ostensible excuse, anyway.
    Enslavement and perpetual servitude of pagans was a thing; and much profit ensued.

    (The extremity of their cruelties is available for anyone who cares to look it up)

    BTW, “conquistadors” is not the actual word; in Spanish, it’s ‘conquistadores’.