Exterminate all the Idols

The Fall of the Hermetic Idols
I’ve been reading a lot of different things lately, and not everything will find its way into this blog. But I definitely need to write about my experiences with a somewhat older book by two French scholars that I bought second-hand and devoured from cover to cover: Carmen Bernand’s & Serge Gruzinski’s De l’idolâtrie: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Of idolatry: An Archeology of the Humanities, 1988). I have long been puzzled by the fact that whereas one can easily fill a library with academic books about “magic”, there are so few systematic studies of “paganism” as a category in the study of religion and even less that focus on what was traditionally seen as the core practice of pagan religion – “idolatry”. The rare exceptions to this rule, such as Moshe Halbertal’s & Avishai Margalit’s Idolatry (1992), focus mostly upon Judaism. One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.
And yet, that significance is enormous. If Jan Assmann is right, as I think he is, then monotheism defines its very identity not so much by its focus on One God (after all, it shares the focus on one deity with many “pagan” religions, and normative Christianity believes in a triune deity, not to mention angelic hierarchies and so on) but by its radical and uncompromising rejection of pagan “idolatry” – the worship of gods incarnated in images or statues – as the unforgivable sin par excellence. The history of how idolatry has been discursively constructed as monotheism’s “other” in the history of the three “religions of the book”, and the real-life effects of that discourse, should be a major concern for scholars. Anybody who finds such a statement too radical will perhaps change his mind after reading Bernand’s & Gruzinski’s study of the 16th-century colonialization of Mexico and Peru.
Garcilaso de la Vega
One learns from these authors that the Spanish conquerors used the “paganism” of late antiquity as their model for understanding the beliefs and practices they encountered in the New World. The cults of the Indians represented a phenomenon that seemed universal to them, since it appeared to exist in the Americas just as it had existed in the Roman Empire: that of a “natural religion” born from an inborn human desire for knowing and worshiping God (homo religiosus), but deprived of divine Revelation and hence an easy prey for infiltration by the devil and his legions of demons, who are always busy trying to convince human beings to worship them in lieu of the true God. The central reference for Bernand & Gruzinski is Bartolomé de Las CasasApologética Historia sumaria (1550), but they discuss a range of other major authors as well. I was particularly fascinated by the cases of Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), nicknamed “the Inca”, whose perspective on the Amerindian religions (in his Comentarios reales, 1609) appears to have been strongly influenced by the Renaissance Platonic Orientalist tradition of prisca theologia in the wake of Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo; and by that of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1568/1580-1648), who seems to have taken a somewhat similar perspective, describing the philosopher, poet and ruler Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472) as “a sage even wiser than the divine Plato, and who alone managed to raise himself up to the knowledge of a single ‘creator of visible and invisible things’” (p. 136).
If I understand Bernand & Gruzinski correctly (I’m not always sure, for unfortunately their writing is sometimes less than clear), the relevance of the “ancient wisdom discourse” of the Renaissance – a major fascination of mine: see Esotericism and the Academy ch. 1 – reaches even much farther than European culture alone. The early modern European discourse about “paganism” seems extremely relevant for understanding the attempts by intellectuals to justify the brutal realities of colonialist expansion; and moreover, it is crucial for understanding the emergence, in early modern culture, of “religion” as a general and universal concept born from the encounter and hence the comparison between Christian and “native” cultures.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry
Chapter 6 of De l’idolâtrie is titled “Extirpations” and discusses the systematic campaign of exterminating pagan idolatry in the New World. It starts with a reference to Peter Paul Rubens’ “Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry”, which once again shows that Europeans were incapable of thinking about Amerindian “idolatry” otherwise than through the prism of Hellenistic paganism. It is impossible to discuss the shocking effects of the conquests – by 1625, only 5% of the indigenous Mexican population had survived! (pp. 146-147) –  separately from the conquerors’ ideological conviction that idolatry in all its forms had to be destroyed by any means necessary, together with anyone suspected or potentially capable of practicing it. In the canon De Haereticis of the 3rd Mexican Council (1585), indigenous idolatry was discussed as equivalent with “apostasy” and “heresy” (p. 156): not as a rival form of religion, therefore, but as an intentional rejection of Christian truth. 
The penalty was death.
Sven Lindqvist
In parallel with De l’idolâtrie, I was reading Sven Lindqvist’s brilliant travelogue “‘Exterminate All the Brutes’”, an impressive attempt at understanding the origins and foundations of that famous sentence from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lindqvist does not discuss idolatry, but he reveals in chilling detail how the doctrine that “primitive peoples” and their cultures must be exterminated was a necessary and integral part of the “progress of civilization” as understood by mainstream 19th-century popular and intellectual European culture. If anyone might think that “necessary and integral” is a bit of an exaggeration here, Lindqvist’s analysis may come as a shocking revelation. I will give just two examples, although Lindqvist gives many more, showing that such statements were not the exception but the rule. Herbert Spencer claimed that “imperialism ha[d] served civilization by clearing the inferior races off the earth” (Lindqvist, 162): “the forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incidental suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way ... Be he human or be he brute – the hindrance must be got rid of” (Social Statistics (1850). Eduard von Hartmann’s formulations were even more brutal: “As little as a favor is done the dog whose tail is to be cut off, when one cuts it off gradually inch by inch, so little is their humanity in artificially prolonging the death struggles of savages who are on the verge of extinction. ... The true philantropist, if he has comprehended the natural law of anthropological evolution, cannot avoid desiring an acceleration of the last convulsion, and labor for that end” (Philosophy of the Unconscious, vol. II, 12). These theoretical convictions were taken quite literally by the conquerors who took it upon themselves to advance the noble cause of civilization by “exterminating the brutes” – with such thoroughness and cruelty that one cannot but assent to Lindquist’s controversial comparisons with the horrors of the Nazi genocide. We all know about the Holocaust, as we should. But how many of us are familiar with (to give one more example, not covered by Lindqvist) what happened during the “rubber boom” of the decades before and after 1900, when the Amazon Putumayo region was transformed into a “death space” (as formulated by Michael Taussig in his Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man) of random torture and murder where the lives of “Indian savages” were worth less than nothing?
Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897)
De l’idolâtrie ends with a demonstration of how the religious campaign against idolatry was taken up and continued by the Enlightenment (rather similar to my argument in ch. 2 of Esotericism and the Academy), and one might say that Lindquist traces the same story of “extirpation” or “extermination” forward through the history of colonialism and far into the 20th century. Extirpation of idolatry in the name of Christianity, and extermination of savages in the name of progress and civilization: isn’t it obvious that the two are intimately related both conceptually and historically, as the former created the essential ideological foundations on which the latter could build its deadly mission of civilizing the globe? If there is just a grain of truth to this comparison, then isn’t it time for scholars to start taking a serious look - and I mean a very serious one - at the history of the Western campaign to “exterminate all the idols?


  1. You certainly take up the hard issues. I have updated my World History knowledge with two Coursera classes this year, one from University of Virginia and the other from Princeton. I tried to understand the history of slavery and colonialization especially in both classes. I discovered many things I never learned when I was in school in the 1970s. First, the slave trade had been going on for centuries from China to Africa managed primarily by the Arabs and fed by African Chieftains who routinely enslaved people from other tribes they fought and conquered. So slavery was an old tradition in Africa promoted by Africans. However, once it began in the New World, it was immediately seen as "sinful" by some priests as early as 1510, just a few years after Columbus landed. Las Casas almost immediately regretted first suggesting importing Black Slaves from Africa because he wanted to protect the native Indian populations who were decimated mostly by disease and deadly working conditions. He succumbed to the "theory" that because these Black Slaves had been captured in "just wars" between tribes, that somehow enslaving these conquered Africans was more just than enslaving native Indians which they were supposed to convert to Christianity. Still there were some priests who refused to give slave traders communion in the Caribbean as early as 1510. Las Casas spent the rest of his life writing and arguing against ALL slavery.

    What made King Leopold's Belgium Congo so horrible in the 19th century was the European Conferences that were held as the exploitation of the Congo began. The members of the conferences which included Leopold, all signed agreements about humane treatment of natives and guidelines for "developing" the Congo. Conrad became an atheist after seeing the horrors in the Congo and in other ports around the world in his 20 years as a sailor. He simply had to renounce his Polish Catholicism after seeing the cruelty especially of the Europeans. In writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad exposed Leopold's lies and treachery to the world. The first concentration camps were in Africa when the Germans were fighting there. Later they created some in Czeckslovakia, I seem to remember, before WWII ever began. So it was already a working system in the German military before WWII. The camps were not invented by Hitler. Octavio Paz has an excellent study of Modern Dehumanization in his study of the Western history of Romantic Love, entitled The Double Flame. He argues that the growth of scientific materialism damaged our concept of individuality which led to the freedom of women and the development of Romantic Love in parallel with our notions of equality and Democracy. In WWII, however, we began to treat people as machines, without souls so our brutality was magnified instead of diminished by the industrial revolution and its expansion of industry and transportation and exploitation of resources. The economic exploitation of the colonies, allowed the British to become the industrial giant of the 19th century with much of Europe flourishing in its shadow economically. Abolitionists are quite active in both England and America--William Blake for instance--but William Wilburforce achieves the first law against slavery in the 1830s before the American Civil War. However, women struggle for almost another 100 years before they gain the vote and begin to have laws protecting them and their children against abuse and ensuring basic financial rights. Women in Texas could not borrow money without a man's signature until 1950.

  2. From the unpublished manuscript Tea, A History of Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, by Roy Moxham:

    "The East India Tea Company had been founded as a commercial enterprise in 1600 under a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth It was given a monopoly over all trade with the "indies" -- that portion of the globe which lay east of Africa and west of South America ..."
    Under Charles II :
    "It was given the right to send out its own ships of war, men and ammunition, and to authorize their commanders to 'continue or make peace or war with any Prince or People (that are not Christians) in any place of their trade, as shall be most for the advantage and benefit of the said Governor and Company: also to erect and garrison fortifications at any of their settlements."

    Good business, doing away with savages. As the elite enjoy their tea and prosperity, proudly mounting their family pew each Sunday.
    To this day, across the American south, Gone With The Wind sits next to the bible.
    I'm reading the headlines, thinking how little has changed, even as Illinois and Wisconsin propose deep cuts to Universities. What better way to keep the silence?

  3. Very interesting, thanks for the read!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts