Christopher Columbus and the US Constitution
While it is officially celebrated in the US on the second Monday of October, Columbus first made landfall in the Americas, in what is now the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492. And though he did in some respects stumble upon a new world, what is more important for the present inquiry is the fact that Columbus immediately imposed the order of the old world upon the one he found. The law of force, articulated most clearly in the doctrine of conquest, which legally sanctions what justice should condemn, was subsequently imposed throughout the Americas and beyond. Though this doctrine was formally abolished by the UN in 1974, the right of conquest in many respects continues to determine the course of our lives, and the distribution of the planet’s resources. However crucial it is to remember the atrocities that Columbus and his successors committed throughout the world, it is equally important to recognize that, though its forms may have changed, the underlying dynamic of what Columbus initiated continues to operate in politics, economics, and law throughout the world today.
It is said that events occur in groups of three. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider that Christopher Columbus was born in the year 1451 – in the year of the death of the Ottoman sultan, Murad II, and the subsequent ascension of the sultan’s son and heir, Mehmed II. In the following year, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued his notorious Dum Diversas, the papal decree declaring war against all of the world’s non-Christians. Thirdly, one year later, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, delivering the terminal blow to the 1500-year-old Eastern Roman Empire.
Among the other results of their military triumph in Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks made significant geopolitical inroads into Christian Europe. Importantly, this included wresting control of the invaluable overland trade routes to India, China, and the other lands to the east, from the Europeans. Another consequence of this upheaval was the influx of Byzantine refugees into Italy. With their classical texts in tow, this contributed to the flourishing of learning and secularism that marked the Italian Renaissance. And it is likely that this proliferation of classic Greek and Roman texts, many of which treated the sphericity of the world as an ancient and uncontentious theory, contributed to Columbus’ later adoption of this topographical notion.
Significantly, the Turk’s capture of Constantinople also led the banking centers of Europe to shift away from their proximity to the markets of the eastern Mediterranean and to the ports of the west, whose sea-routes allowed traders easier access to the Indies. Several decades later, it was from just such a port along the Spanish coast that the Christian from the Italian city of Genoa was to embark in search of a western sea-route to Asia, spreading – whether willfully or not is unimportant for the present discussion – Christian and Roman political, economic and theological institutions (the old world) to the Americas.
While they were to some degree mediated by Christian influences, Roman forms of power and institutions of governance were to take firm root in the so-called new world. As the historian Gordon S. Wood informs us, the founders of the United States themselves consciously modeled not only their political, but also their social projects on Classical Roman forms. Few places evidence this more visibly than in what would become the most politically powerful city in the Americas – a city that, not coincidentally, couples the name of George Washington, that admirer of Roman thought and virtue, with Columbus’. Beyond the classical appearances of these buildings and monuments, however, the political institutions they house are also heavily indebted to Roman forms. To cite probably the most obvious example, the main legislative body of the US, the senate – Latin for council of elders, and etymologically related, incidentally, to the word ‘senile’ – is derived from the Roman institution of the same name.
Regarding this continuity in governmental, administrative, and economic forms of power persisting from Rome to the present, the Italian scholar Giorgio Agamben observes in his treatise on political power, The Kingdom and the Glory, that the constitutional separation of powers schema of the US constitution, among others modeled on Montesquieu’s tripartite division, can be traced directly to the Christian Trinity. To be sure, it is not difficult to see the father – god, the creator – as an analogue of the legislative branch. Moreover, the son, Jesus, often referred to as the one who judges, may be seen to correspond to the institution of the judiciary. Lastly, the Holy Spirit – defined by the Fourth Lateral Council of 1215 as that “who proceeds” – corresponds to the executive branch. Insofar as the transitive verb ‘to execute’ means to carry out fully, the executive branch of government conforms to this notion of one “who proceeds” quite closely.
However, while this correspondence between the separation of powers and the Trinity is very close, and with all due respect to the rigorous work of Professor Agamben, the source of today’s constitutional schema and the theological and ideological justifications of power that accompany it can be traced back significantly beyond the Trinity. For there is a Hellenic progenitor to the Trinity – itself an echo of paleolithic religious structures – that predates the Trinity by many centuries. In addition to predating the Trinity, the structure of the Greek Moirai, or Fates, matches that of the US Constitution’s separation of power schema even more closely.
Like the Trinity and the three branches of government, the Fates (the three daughters of Necessity) are one power that has three distinct aspects. Clotho, the spinner, spins the thread of life. Lachesis, the measurer, measures this thread. And Atropos, the cutter, cuts the thread of life. The spinner (the spinner of laws) corresponds to the legislature. The measurer, who no doubt measures them according to some sort of rule, corresponds to the judiciary. Finally, the cutter, who cuts the thread of life, corresponds to the executive. Curiously, in describing his job as “the decider” – which literally means ‘to cut’ – George W. Bush confirms this correspondence between the executive and Atropos.
Among other things, it is important to point out that in Greek myth the Fates were more powerful than all of the gods – even Zeus, who alone was more powerful than all of the other gods combined, could do nothing but adhere to the dictates of the Fates. But this general rule has one exception. Asclepius, the son of the god Apollo, and a powerful healer who, in addition to other feats could raise the dead, was through his healing power able to interfere with the Fates’ designs, demonstrating that what may appear to be a necessary power may in fact not be necessary at all. Threatened by this incursion into their monopoly over divine power, the Fates soon determined that Zeus would destroy Asclepius with a bolt of lightning. Shortly after his death, however, Asclepius was resurrected as a god and raised into the heavens. It does not take a terribly keen eye to see in this a likeness to another son of a god who raised the dead, healed the sick and the lame, was killed for threatening power, and was resurrected as a god himself. In fact, in many respects Asclepius is a prototype of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, in the dynamic between Asclepius and the Fates we see a foreshadowing of the dynamic that would arise between Jesus (as grace, liberating power, or Divine Justice) and the Trinity (the church, dominating power, or earthly law).
In light of the above it is especially revealing that, in his oft-quoted diary entry of 1498, Columbus wrote: “let us in the name of the holy trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” That is, it is the power of the administrative body of the church – the power of law, of violence, sanctioned by the papal decrees of 1452 and 1493 – that Columbus is referring to and conspiring with, and decidedly not with the healer and provider for the poor. Indeed, the rape, enslavement, murder, and other atrocities committed by Columbus over the course of his conquest may be viewed as the very opposite of healing.
Beyond this dominating power that found expression in the Fates, and then manifested in the Trinity, this same dominating power appears three centuries after Columbus’ voyage in the US Constitution – “separated” into the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. However, just as the Fates are opposed by Asclepius, it is important to recognize that the Constitution’s Power is also opposed by a notion of justice that is intimately related to health – in addition to the “general welfare” of the people, upon which the legitimacy of the power of the law rests. To be sure, it seems to be less of a coincidence than a truth protruding from the sediment of time that Asclepius’ own daughter – Hygieia, the Greek goddess of healing – was known to the Romans as Salus. And Salus, the Roman goddess of health, in turn pops up in the ancient Roman statesman Cicero’s writings in the supra-legal maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto, the health of the people is the supreme law – the maxim holding that those things hostile to the health of the people are devoid of legitimacy. Absorbed into ancient Roman Law as a constitutional metanorm, the maxim would spread and exert its law-nullifying influence not only across Europe, but throughout the globe. And though it has been subjected to diametrical interpretations, and has bolstered the regimes of many tyrants, it is vital to note that the maxim has been employed just as frequently in efforts to liberate people from the domination of tyrants.
The North American colonists themselves repeatedly cited this maxim in their efforts to legitimize their struggles for liberation from the British Crown. And while its liberatory import may have been frustrated by the reemergence of the dominating power of the Fates – manifesting in the US Constitution, with its enshrinement of the institution of slavery, among other abominations – just as the figure of Asclepius would counter the dominating power of the Fates, the maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto would be used in the ensuing centuries to combat harms perpetrated against the health of the people by dominating forms of power. Though cloaked in myth, this is not purely happenstance. An important equivalence exists between justice and health. For in many respects the conditions necessary for health – the freedom from conditions of disease and domination, and the freedom to access those resources health requires – are indistinct from the concrete conditions of justice.
In a society whose political-economy systematically reproduces countless harms (from wars, ecological devastation, cancer, malnutrition, and poverty epidemics, to the more mundane epidemics of occupational disease, incarceration, and police brutality), this equivalence – and its converse, the equivalence between conditions of injustice and conditions of disease – is just as visible as ever.
And while wars of aggression and the politics of domination – of which Columbus was as much an effect as a cause – continue to plague the health of the people of the world, it is important to recognize that embedded within the power-structure that Columbus conveyed to the Americas is the germ of its destruction. For implicit in the dominating power of the Fates is the liberating power of Asclepius, and the messianic, law-nullifying maxim that the health of the people is the supreme law.
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