The Supreme Self-Confidence of the Conqueror

WILLIAM PFAFF

October 12, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--Today, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landfall in the Americas, the U.S. government begins an immense project of scanning the radio waves of the universe to discover if another world of intelligent beings exists out there.

Columbus was not looking for a new humanity or a new continent, but for a new trade route to India, and he found America only in the sense that Europeans generally were unaware of its existence. Having found this new world, the Spanish and Portuguese, and later the French and the English, explored and exploited it in the delight of new knowledge and the wish to enrich themselves, but they also colonized and evangelized its people in the belief that they were saving the LTC souls of individuals who would otherwise be lost to heavenly redemption.

In both respects they acted out of supreme confidence in themselves and in their beliefs and values. They debated whether they had found an innocent world, a new Eden, conceivably the original Eden, or one whose native people were their natural inferiors and therefore their legitimate slaves. But they had no doubt that what they found and what they did would fit into the moral cosmology of European Christian civilization.

The modern search of the cosmos for intelligent life invariably makes the opposite assumption. It is nearly always motivated by an assumption that extraterrestrial life will prove more ''advanced'' than earthly life, and may supply us with solutions to problems we are unable to solve ourselves (if it does not colonize and rule us -- which would be another kind of solution).

The secularized religious impulse in this is obvious. People unable or unwilling to believe in the traditional God of the Western monotheistic religions are ready to believe in scientific salvation, supplied from outer space by hyperintelligent extraterrestrials -- in other words, by angels wearing laboratory jackets.

One never hears a supporter of the search for extraterrestrial life justify its costs as affording us the opportunity to convey our knowledge and values to the intelligences occupying outer space. Thus are we radically different from the European civilization which discovered America. It had no doubts about its superiority to whatever it would encounter in alien worlds.

Our own doubt is equally evident in the revisionist judgments on Columbus that have soured the observance of this anniversary. He has, by many, been turned into a figure of aggression and genocide. The larger argument made is that the Western tradition itself is oppressive, and that Columbus, its agent, was a willing accomplice in a criminal affair.

It is possible to believe this only if one totally lacks historical imagination, or acquaintance with 15th-century European assumptions. It judges Columbus by an anachronistic 20th-century American political standard, itself narrower, and more naive, than the standards of Columbus' time. It commits the elementary error of deriving intentions from results, as if Columbus and his contemporaries were capable of imagining or intending the titanic consequences of their actions.

It ignores the ideas evoked in Spain and elsewhere in Europe -- and in Columbus' own mind -- by the discoveries made in America. In 1976, as part of the U.S. bicentennial observance, the Cleveland Museum and the National Gallery in Washington organized an exposition on European views of American discovery and development. The catalog observed that ''The terms used by Columbus to describe the islands he discovered recalled those used by the Latin poets'' to describe mythical islands ''where there was eternal springtime and men lived in a Golden Age. . . . His account thus associated two pre-existing ideas, those of the fabulous Orient and of an idealized Europe.''

A few years later Amerigo Vespucci wrote of the American ''Indians'' he encountered as ''naked, beautiful, elegant. . . . None possess property; everything is held in common. . . . They live 150 years. They have no government.'' Such descriptions seemed fulfillment of classical literature's descriptions of the Golden Age. The Indians carried back to Europe by Columbus and others were not taken as freaks for display but as exotic and even awesome examples of human possibility, intimations of the unknown.

The encounter would in any case have happened, with identical consequences for the Indian civilizations, had Columbus never existed. In the collision of civilizations, victory went to the one that was technologically and intellectually advanced, possessing total confidence in its beliefs and its destiny.

It was a confidence that Americans today lack. If it were not lacking there would be no controversy over the Columbus quincentennial. But perhaps there would also be no nationally funded $100 million effort to communicate with extraterrestrials, as if they could tell us what we need to know.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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