There is perhaps no more potent expression of the tense and complex relationship between the European colonial enterprise and the work of Christian missionaries than the life and writings of the Spanish Jesuit Jose de Acosta. By the time of his death in 1600 large portions of his work were known on four continents, and in at least eight languages. Famous for writing his era’s most influential treatise on the conversion of indigenous peoples of the Americas to Christianity, Acosta is also credited with forming the first of the ”reductions” that laid the basis for Jesuit missions in Paraguay, for writing the first indigenous-language Catholic catechism in the Andes, and for being a forceful critic of the violent Spanish conquests of Mexico, Peru, and the Philippine Islands.

Born in 1540 to a merchant family in the town of Medina del Campo in central Spain, Acosta left home at the age of twelve to join the newly formed Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were part of a new initiative for the revitalization of European religious life begun in Italy by the Basque Ignatius of Loyola. With fewer than fifty members in the first couple of years, the Jesuits numbered in the thousands by the end of the sixteenth century and were to be found on every continent save Antarctica. At the Jesuit schools Acosta studied Latin and Greek grammar and rhetoric, classical history, and geography—all of which would deeply inform his writings on the Indies—and at the universities of Alcaia and Salamanca, Acosta pursued studies in philosophy and theology. The Spanish universities of the time were hotbeds of controversy between humanists (advocates of classical learning) and scholastics (heirs of the medieval philosophical and theological schools)—a tension also reflected in Acosta’s work.

Through his studies, Acosta became enamored with the religious revitalization work of the Jesuits. He sought to apply his humanistic education to the challenge of converting to Christianity peoples with histories, customs, and languages entirely different than those of Europe. Eager for intellectual debate, Acosta originally requested to be sent to China—the land most enigmatic to Europeans, yet known for its highly developed civilization and its rich philosophical and religious traditions. Acosta wrote to his superiors that he would willingly go where needed, but preferred to go where the people ”were not too thick” and where his intellectual skills might be the most useful. Yet Acosta was not sent to mine the philosophical riches of China, but assigned to manage the troublesome Jesuit province of Peru—a Peru torn by controversies between religious and colonial administrators, and faced with the tense aftermath of the Spanish conquest led by Francisco Pizarro nearly a generation earlier.

Acosta arrived in Peru in 1569 amidst some anticipation: he was a highly respected orator and theologian, and it was also hoped that he would bring some clarity to the troubled world of newly colonized Peru. Acosta gained the first chair in theology at the new University of San Marcos in Lima, and in 1576 was elected Provincial of the Society of Jesus for the Province of Peru. He also acted as official theologian to the Third Council of Lima, which proposed reforms in religious practice and in colonial administration. As a result of these positions, he was able to travel widely throughout the Andean region and gain firsthand knowledge of the many difficulties faced by an indigenous population continually confronted with ambitious colonial administrators and often ignorant and unsympathetic priests and missionaries. Those experiences led Acosta to write what would become his three primary works: De natura novi orbis (on the geography of the New World and the customs and habits of its indigenous peoples), Deprocur-anda indorum salute (on the evangelization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas), and The Natural and Moral History of the Indies (an expanded Spanish edition of De natura novi orbis).

Acosta considered his works on natural and moral history to be a preface to the more theological work on the question of conversion and its historical, political, and social preconditions. Acosta wrote that his task was to combine his experience in Peru with a rigorous study of the Holy Scriptures and Fathers of the Church—a project he fulfills in part by taking to task the early Church Fathers for their errors in understanding the natural world and their too hasty rejection of Aristotle. And yet Acosta was no Aristotelian: the great philosopher also comes in for rebuke when Acosta finds that he too was mistaken in matters ranging from geography to human customs and habits to moral philosophy. Only firsthand experience of the New World, coupled with classical knowledge, could guide proper enquiry into its natural and human diversity, Acosta argued. Combining his anthropological and theological interests, Acosta also worked to apply the thought of the Church Fathers, especially Augustine and Chrystosom, to the religious world of the Andes. The range of erudition that Acosta exhibited in these works was enormous, and his writings are replete with arguments from and allusions to the works of the Greek philosophers, Greek and Latin historians and poets, the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church, and medieval historians, theologians, and jurists. Stylistically, his writing combined ”erudition” with ”eloquence” along models advanced by earlier European humanists.

In the heightened and conflicted colonial context in which he worked, Acosta’s attitudes toward indigenous religions in the Americas range from moments of subtle understanding to the harsh rejection of practices he thought—following the Church Fathers—to be demonically inspired. He thus found himself perpetually engaged in debates ranging from the meaning of human sacrifice in Mexico to how to extirpate idolatry in Peru. Yet his most evocative arguments were with his fellow Spaniards. Acosta spared few harsh words and argued that the Spanish conquests were not ”just wars,” and that the ”greatest sin” perpetuated in the Americas was the horrific violence of a conquest that enriched the Spaniards while robbing the indigenous peoples of their lives and liberty. He further argued that indigenous hostility to Christianity was not a result of their incapacity to understand it, but was a direct result of Spanish violence and the scandalous behavior of priests, missionaries, and colonial administrators who were supposed to be examples of the love of Christ.

In 1587 Acosta returned to Spain, and he published his primary works there in 1589. He continued to engage in controversies over the Spanish colonial project, and even worked to block a proposal for the conquest of China launched by Jesuits in the Philippines. For the remainder of his life he worked to train Jesuits to apply the lessons learned in the Americas to the ”other Indies” of Spain itself. He was even called to investigate how missionary methods derived from Peru might be applied to the formerly Muslim population of southern Spain, in order to stave off renewed pressure for their expulsion from an increasingly homogenous religious landscape. Hence Acosta ended his career continuing full circle the program of religious revitalization with which he began, only with the difficult experience of Peru and Mexico behind him. The argument made centuries later by post-colonial theorists that the colonial experience deeply shaped and transformed the colonizer as well as the colonized was certainly true for Jose de Acosta.

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