15.08.68, Sarmiento, ed. and Spanish trans., Francisco de Vitoria, De actibus humanis / Sobre los actos humanos

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Miguel Gomez

The Medieval Review 15.08.68

Sarmiento, Augusto, ed. and Spanish trans. Francisco de Vitoria, De actibus humanis / Sobre los actos humanos. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog Verlag, 2015. pp. lix, 424. ISBN: 978-3-7728-2656-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Miguel Gomez
University of Dayton

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this excellent new edition of Francisco de Vitoria's De Actibus Humanis, translated into Spanish and edited by Augusto Sarmiento, is to place this well-known Renaissance scholar, the "father of modern international law," into his medieval intellectual context and scholastic roots. The author is very well known for his contributions to the sixteenth-century debates about the proper treatment of Native American populations conquered by the Spanish in the New World. Along with the more famous Bartolomé de Las Casas, Vitoria argued that the Indians were rational people with their own laws and states. However, rather than basing his arguments on Christian charity, and the need to convert the pagans of the New World, as Las Casas did, Vitoria used traditional just-war theory, as well as the moral precepts expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, arguing that the Spanish conquests were mostly illegitimate, and that war against the Americans could only be rightly conducted under very narrow sets of circumstances. He deployed these arguments against the defenders of the conquistadors who used Aristotelian categories to try to label the Americans as natural slaves. It is remarkable, of course, that Vitoria and Las Casas eventually got the better of the debate, relatively speaking, and that the Spanish monarchy enacted policies designed to integrate the native populations into their empire. Though this was certainly small comfort to the thousands who perished in the first several decades of the Spanish conquest, and the tens of millions who died from the introduction of European disease, this philosophical and academic debate did have consequences, as demonstrated by the large populations of Nahuatl, Mayan, and Quechua speakers that exist today.

But Vitoria was more than just a prescient theorist of international relations or moral critic of the Conquest. He was also a master of theology, trained in Paris in the early years of the sixteenth century, who returned to teach at the University of Salamanca from 1526 to 1546. There, according to Professor Sarmiento, he reinvigorated the teaching of theology by promoting the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas over more traditional scholastic texts, like the Sententiae of Peter Lombard. As part of this new theological education Vitoria lectured, on two occasions in 1533-34 and 1541-42, on Aquinas's work on volition and morality in human actions. The lectures, preserved in the careful notes of students who attended the series, form the basis for the current translation and edition. Sarmiento, building on the work of Vicente Beltrán de Heredia, carefully and convincingly selected the most important manuscripts (Codex Ottobonianus latinus 1000 for 1533-34 and P.III.28 of the Biblioteca El Escorial for 1541-42) on which to base his translation and edition.

The edition and translation of the text of De Actibus Humanis is very nicely executed. Vitoria covered questions 6-21 of the Prima secundae of the Summa Theologiae in the 1533-34 lectures, but only questions 13-16 during the later series in 1541-42, and so the earlier texts take up most of the book. Presented in facing Latin and Castilian, Vitoria's lectures are rendered clearly, and the bilingual presentation makes this complex text approachable. In Vitoria's style, we see the scholastic method at work in the hands of a master. In his earlier lectures, Vitoria carefully works through Aquinas's questions, citing a broad range of other authorities, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Augustine, to confirm, elucidate, and explain the dialectical method of the Summa. By 1541-42, Vitoria's style has matured considerably. His reliance on authorities from the past is greatly reduced in favor of real-world scenarios, and even a number of Castilian proverbs and witticisms inserted into the Latin text.

Throughout the edition, Sarmiento employs a clear and consistent critical apparatus to reflect the irregularities of his manuscripts. The edition would benefit from some explanatory footnotes that might identify what specifically Vitoria is citing when he invokes St. Augustine or Alfonso Fernández de Madrigal. But perhaps this was beyond the scope of what the editor and translator set out to do. And what he has done is considerable. Professor Sarmiento has produced the first edited edition of this important piece of Francisco de Vitoria's scholarship. De Actibus Humanis is a handsome, well-executed work, which should prove of great utility to students of medieval and early-modern scholasticism, philosophy, and intellectual history.

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