History in the “Confessions” of St. Augustine

St. Augustine in his study.

St. Augustine in his study. Source: Wikipedia

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book about the early life and conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous Christian scholars of antiquity. The book starts off with a description of childhood, then moves on to describe Augustine’s quest for knowledge both among the Manichees and through study of the traditional liberal arts, including oratory and rhetorical skills. An intensely personal account by design, Augustine reveals his internal struggle as he reminisces about the loss of his childhood friend, whose name he does not reveal, as well as his struggles with sexuality and his doubts about the nature of God. Essentially, the book is meant to show Augustine’s path from a confused childhood to a position of solid conviction in the Catholic faith, but Confessions can also be used as a source of historical information. This essay will examine the first seven chapters of Confessions to discover what it implies about the late 4th and early 5th century Roman society that shaped Augustine’s life.

One of the more interesting things that can be discerned from the book is the potential for mobility available in Roman society, both in terms of physical and social movement. Of course, Augustine’s case is not indicative of the norm, but he was able to advance from being the son of a modest family in Tagaste (in modern day Algeria) to being a well-respected and socially connected professor of rhetoric in Milan, before his conversion, which is related in chapters outside the scope of this essay. Augustine’s reasons for leaving his home village were originally related to study opportunities and a need to leave a place that reminded him strongly of the death of a childhood friend. His ability to travel within the empire for education purposes is interesting because it implies that there was a system in place that allowed for the boarding and education of students during his time. His ability to rise through the ranks of society based on his intellectual abilities shows that class distinctions were not set in stone and he specifically mentions that many Roman offices were available to anyone with the right amount of money. In a modern context, this has a negative connotation, and perhaps it did in Augustine’s time as well, because in his writing he felt the need to explain that as a system it allowed the state access to needed revenues and acted as a pathway to success for those born to lower classes.

In his writing, Augustine mentioned that not all families were willing to support their children’s education outside of their local towns, even when they were better-off economically than Augustine’s own family. Augustine did not go into detail about this point, but it leaves the reader wondering what motivations a family might have for not wanting to promote the education of their children at all costs, as Augustine’s did, when it might lead the family to greater success. If the story about Alypius and the responsibility of a “house” for a crime is any indication, the Roman family unit probably shared equally in success as well as culpability for crimes and failures.[1] Was it a cultural expectation that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents, leading to a lackadaisical attitude towards aggressive social advancement, or was the lack of interest in education outside of Tagaste something specific to that locality?

Much of Augustine’s writing in Confessions deals with education, because he wrote about both his time as a pupil and as an educator. His writing makes it clear that corporal punishment was a well-used form of discipline that acted as a motivator for children to pay attention to their studies. The fact that Augustine and, presumably, other children endured caning as a punishment and prayed for respite instead of abandoning school indicates that there was some measure of compulsion in attendance, either from families or from the state. Also, unless the phrase was added by the translator, the inclusion of the “three Rs” as a figure of speech (reading, writing, and arithmetic) shows that areas of study for primary school students in the late 4th century were fairly consistent with modern education standards.[2] His later education reveals a break with modern ideals about the purpose of studying the liberal arts, however. According to Augustine, forming logical arguments that revealed the truth about a matter were of secondary importance to style and delivery. Eloquence and the ability to convey a sense of conviction were more important than being able to logically argue a truth.

Similarly related to education, student culture in Roman society is revealed through Augustine’s writings. Bullying was alive and well in the 4th century. Schoolyard gangs even had nicknames, like “The Wreckers”, who would find “shy and unknown freshmen… to persecute…by mockery…to feed their own malevolent amusement.”[3] Augustine dealt with this group as a student by staying on friendly terms with them, but refused to participate in their mockery and acts of vandalism. Augustine wrote that in Carthage, students would burst into a classroom and purposely disrupt it with “mad behavior.”[4] Later, as an adult, Augustine complained of a practice common among Roman students, who would sit with a teacher for a number of classes and then transfer en masse to another instructor to avoid making payment.[5]

Augustine’s writing reveals quite a bit about religion during the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Roman Empire, most obviously because the book is about his journey to conversion to Catholocism, but the first seven chapters of the book also discuss the Manichees and give an example of religious syncretism among professed Catholics. Augustine wrote that he spent nine years as a follower of the Manichee religion and through his writings, we can see that it was institutionally similar to the Catholic Church, including having Bishops, but professed very different concepts of God. The instance of religious syncretism that Augustine took time to mention was his mother’s practice of tomb veneration through the offering of plates of fruit and the ritual sipping of wine at the burial sites of Catholic martyrs. Augustine mentioned that his mother was not alone during these ceremonies, so the practice must have been widespread. I also make this conjecture based on the fact that in later centuries, and continuing up to the present, Islamic scholars in the Middle East have been condeming the same practice among Muslims regarding veneration of the tombs of saints, martyrs and especially Sufi pirs.

This brief selection of information from the first seven chapters of Saint Augustine’s Confessions shows how historical information about an author’s society can be revealed by analyzing that author’s work, even when recording historical information is not the main purpose of the work. This essay examines the chapters on their own, but by comparing what Augustine wrote to other available information, one could further the process of reconstructing Roman society and elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Augustine’s life and conversion to Catholocism.



[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Ibid., 86.

 

References

Saint Augustine. 2009. Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics). Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

 

God and Isaiah 2: Historical Analysis

The following is a paper written for an undergraduate Jewish studies course titled, “The History of God,” which was intended to present God in a historical manner, using the Bible as the main source document and the Documentary Hypothesis as the main tool for interpreting its contents.  The paper addresses Isaiah 2:2-5 to 6:22.

The professor left the following comment on the paper:

You show there are real forces beneath this passage – that it’s helping hearers find a way out of their problems. Bravo… You see the fact that religion and doctrines address people where they hurt.

There were a few minor criticisms, but I’ve corrected the most glaring one before publishing it online.  Also, despite the criticisms, the professor felt the paper was, overall, on the mark and marked it with an A/A-.  I’m not sure about how he rates things.  He usually left two grades on papers like that.

The Prophet Isaiah

The Prophet Isaiah (Image from Wikipedia)

Isaiah 2:2-5 to 6:22 is a complex message that describes Judah and Jerusalem’s future according to Isaiah. It presents a utopian view that sits in stark contrast to Isaiah 1, where Jerusalem is compared to a booth in a cucumber field, surrounded and isolated, or as an unfaithful whore, found in the previous chapter.[1] It looks even more out of place compared to the contents of Isaiah 3, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. However, the message being delivered has a purpose and fits an established framework.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, Isaiah 1-39 was written by an individual referred to as Isaiah 1 in approximately 720 BCE. Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a second author, and 56-66 are attributed to a third author.[2] These authors all wrote at different times and wrote for different purposes. Isaiah 1’s purpose was to explain the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, to fit it into an established framework that the people would recognize and understand, and then to give hope to the southern kingdom of Judah, that they could be preserved if they mended their ways.

Isaiah 2:2-3 describes the existence of Jerusalem in the future, when it has become a cultural center. Verse 2 establishes that Jerusalem will exist in the latter days and that all nations will flow to it. This was probably a very important message for the people to hear and be reminded of after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. The defeat of Israel not only called into question their political independence but the religious foundations of their society as well. According to Nathan, three-hundred and thirty years before in approximately 1050 BCE, God had promised to maintain the political solvency of David’s kingdom forever, telling him (through Nathan), quite literally, “Your throne shall be established forever.”[3] So, when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom, Isaiah had to find a way to explain it, justify it, and then give hope that it did not mean the end of their way of life.

The only way to justify God’s apparent failure to uphold His end of the covenant was to say that He actually had not failed; the Israelites and Judeans failed God. Isaiah reasoned that God must have failed to protect the northern kingdom because the Israelites had turned their backs on God, or at the least, it was a plausible solution to the problem of explaining the breach of the covenant. He applies this logic by introducing a new concept, that sacrifice is not enough, and God never really wanted sacrifices in the first place. God tells the people He will not listen to them because their hands are full of blood. He tells them that instead of sacrificing, they should have been doing good, seeking justice, correcting oppression, upholding justice and pleading the widow’s cause.[4]

The point of this break with tradition is to shift people’s focus from the Temple rituals to practicing religion in their everyday lives. This idea is reinforced in Isaiah 2:3, where Isaiah prophecies that people will flock to Jerusalem in the future, not for its food or the climate, but for the law. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways…For out of Zion shall go the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”[5] This was not his attempt to stop the Temple rituals, but it was his way of laying the seeds of future faith, when the inevitable happened and the temple was destroyed.

Isaiah 2:4 further reinforces the Davidic Covenant and simultaneously acts to reassure the people that all will be well. It introduces the idea of God being bigger than just Jerusalem. He’s so big that He “judge[s] between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…”[6] This verse takes God out of the Temple. It separates Him from ritual and puts Him above the affairs of nations. It not only expands His powers, but it frees Him and his followers from religious destruction if the Temple is destroyed. The second half of Isaiah 2:4 describes people of the nations around Israel turning their weapons into agricultural instruments. They “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”[7] When confronted with the utter destruction of the northern kingdom, it must have been welcome news to hear that in the future, there would be no war, and, hence, no threat to Judah’s existence.

Isaiah 2:5 is a call to action. It asks the house of Jacob to come and walk in the light of the Lord. The ensuing diatribe in 2:6-22 against the materialism and idolatry of the descendants of Jacob, presumably in the southern kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem, which have yet to be conquered, is probably intended to give the original recipients a road map for change that will allow them to avoid the same fate as their northern neighbors. Isaiah 2:6-22 basically tells them what they’re doing wrong, with 2:5 being the lead-in, warning them to steer clear of the following things that are against God’s will.

Isaiah 2:2-5 is a reminder to a people facing an imminent danger that threatens their way of life. It is a way out, a way to avoid the fate that befell the northern kingdom, and it is part of a message that explains why God did not uphold the covenant given to David, thereby saving the religion from destruction. By reaffirming the Davidic covenant and justifying the destruction of the northern kingdom, Isaiah reaffirms God’s dedication to David’s people and their well-being. Isaiah 2:2-5 is also an important turning point in the religion, bringing God out of the temple and into personal life.


[1] Isaiah 1:8 and 1:21. All references to Bible passages are from the English Standard Version.
[2] Arthur Patzia and Anthony Petrotta, Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies….
[3] 2 Samuel 7:16.
[4] Isaiah 1:11-17.
[5] Isaiah 2:3.
[6] Isaiah 2:4.
[7] Ibid.

Works Cited

Patzia, Arthur G. and Anthony J. Petrotta. Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies: Over 300 Terms Clearly & Concisely Defined. InterVarsity Press, 2002. Google eBook.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Amazon Digital Services: Crossway, 2011. Kindle eBook.

 

Analysis of the The Tower of Babel – Historical Perspective

The following is a paper I wrote for a Jewish Studies class I’m taking called “History of God.”  The point of the paper was to examine a set of verses from the Old Testament from a historical perspective, discussing what the verses reveal about the people it describes, or that wrote it.  This paper relies heavily on the Documentary Hypothesis theory and the concept of Spiral Dynamics as put forth by Ken Wilber.

For clarity, the paper was graded by George KC Forman and  received an A-, as well as some notations about grammar and style corrections (which haven’t been made here).  The professor’s notes on the last page are:

So close! Ask yourself, what was happening in J’s Day? What’s his point. Yes, free will. But to what end? Kingdom has arisen; we now have cities and power in Levant. So free will is in service of Solomon’s reign. How might story fit with that people’s needs and worries? Why free will? Why portray the many languages? I’d given this story answers the need for cooperation, under aegis and king. Unite, it says, to gain power, etc. But good work. Where is this doc. hypoth. book? Sounds great! A-

Essay:

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel, found in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, is fascinating and complicated and is open to many levels of interpretation, especially since it is a story that was probably not original when it was added to the Bible. What does it mean that the people were attempting to build a tower “that reaches into the sky”?[1] And what does God’s response indicate about the nature of the relationship between man and the divine? What can we learn about the needs and wants of that society by analyzing these verses?

The story of the division of human language isn’t unique to the Bible, but that in itself isn’t remarkable. Something as mystifying as why all men don’t speak the same language is a problem that people from various cultures would have tried to solve the best way they knew how: attributing it to an act of the divine, leaving modern readers with a variety of similar myths. Obvious parallels exist in the stories of the Enuma Elish, the building of Babylon’s ziggurat, and a Sumerian story that tells of a time when all people spoke the same language. The closest parallel is a Sumerian epic titled “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.”[2] It starts out describing a time when man had no rival and everyone spoke the same language, but:

Enki…the leader of the gods
Changed the speech in their mouths
Brought contention into it,
Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.[3]

Whether J came up with the story of the Tower of Babel or borrowed the tradition, its inclusion in the religious tradition of the Hebrews is still significant. It indicates clearly that people identified with the story and felt that it reflected their own relationship with God.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the stories of the Pentateuch were not written by one author, but rather four authors and then collated into a single work by a series of redactors. These sources are J (Jawhist/Yawhist; approx. 950 BCE), E (Elohist; approx. 850 BCE), D (Deutoronomist; approx. 600 BCE), P (Priestly source; approx. 500 BCE) and R (the Redactors / Editors). Developed by Biblical scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Documentary Hypothesis uses linguistic cues and source criticism to try to explain the apparent contradictions and repetitions in the Pentateuch. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is generally attributed to the Jawhist source, making it one of the earliest written stories of the Bible, despite its placement. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, J’s writing focuses on the interaction between God and man’s free will.[4]

Understanding how J writes can be helpful when examining the Tower of Babel story as presented in the Bible and for determining what it might mean about the people it describes. One interpretation is that it’s an origin story for the existence of different languages and cultures in the world. The beginning of the story says, “At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words.”[5] By the end of the story, God has confused their languages and caused them to be scattered all over the world. However, this story conflicts with an earlier account that says (emphasis added):

4The descendants of Javan were Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. 5Their descendants became the seafaring peoples that spread out to various lands, each identified by its own language, clan, and national identity.[6]

The earlier account already describes the creation of multiple languages and cultures, directly contradicting the later Tower of Babel account. Also, Genesis 11:1-2 implies that all of the people in the world traveled together in one group, which contradicts the earlier account of Cain and Abel. When Cain was banished, God put a mark on his head so no one else would kill him and he went to the land of Nod.[7] This implies that there were people in Nod already that Cain had to be fearful of and that people weren’t traveling together in one group.

This is where it helps to understand the Documentary Hypothesis, which explains that the account in Genesis 10 was added much later, by P (the Priestly source). However, it doesn’t explain the contradiction in the Cain and Abel story, which is also attributed to J.[8] Because the two stories by J are contradictory, the Tower of Babel story must have been included for a symbolic reason, rather than to record factual events in the sense that a history book records factual events. It wasn’t the content itself that was important. It was the message it carried. Approaching the Tower of Babel story from this perspective lends support to the idea that it was borrowed from another culture’s religious tradition. The tower mentioned in the story is probably borrowed from the ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in Babylon called Etemenanki. The plot of the story is probably borrowed from earlier stories, like the Sumerian epic mentioned earlier.[9] So, how can this story tell us anything about the Hebrews?

For the story to be included in the oral and later written tradition of the religion means that the people identified with it strongly. While it’s not possible to apply the details of the people in the story to the Hebrews exactly, it’s possible to analyze the text and draw conclusions about the relationship between man and God, as they saw it. Understanding that the story is symbolic and knowing that one of J’s common themes is the struggle between man’s free will and God, it’s also reasonable to believe that this story is about man’s exercise of free will and the limits of man’s authority over the world.

The Tower of Babel story is about power. Genesis 11:2 describes a tribal, migratory people passing through the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia and arriving at a place suitable for settling. Upon arriving, their first thought is to establish themselves in the region through a show of power. They decide to build up a city and a tower that will reach into the heavens. Because they are united, they are able to make quick progress in reaching their goal. However, God has another plan for mankind and takes an active role in the world to push man onto the path He’s chosen for them.

The dialogue attributed to God in Genesis 11:6 gives Him a very anthropomorphic, active and human personality. God appears to be either afraid of what man might accomplish or jealous that man is able to create something monumental, which is a type of action that should be reserved for Him. To stop man from completing the tower, and thereby demonstrating his power of the world, God goes down and “confuse[s] the people with different languages…[so] they won’t be able to understand each other.”[10] After their languages are confused, the people have no choice but to abandon the project. They migrate away from the Tower of Babel, probably sorted into language groups.

It is hard to look at this story and find a way to paint God in a positive light, other than to say that perhaps this was part of a larger design, such as ensuring the fulfillment of his earlier command to Adam and Eve to go forth and populate the Earth. Adam and Eve’s descendants could not accomplish that task if they all stayed in one city. However, I think the key phrase from this passage is in verse 6: “The people are united…. Nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” The author of the story perhaps believed that man could achieve anything he put his mind to through unity with his fellow men, with only an act of God being able to stop him. Communal action to support and increase the power of the group is a very tribal action. The inclusion of this story in the religious tradition of the Hebrews could have greatly reinforced the importance of group solidarity, as well as the concept of not transgressing what is sacred at the same time.

The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one version of a larger body of stories that attempt to explain or describe the division of the human race into language and culture groups. The story is not unique to Genesis, but the unique adaptation of the story helps to reveal how the ancient Hebrews may have thought of God, and what they thought of man in relation to that power. It is clear that when this story was introduced into the religious tradition, God was a much more active and anthropomorphic being than He is today. Most importantly, the story describes man’s potential in the world, his ability to do the unbelievable through group solidarity and effort. Where man’s power ends and God’s begins is a boundary that is constantly being redefined, even in the modern age over issues of cloning, for example, but it’s also an ancient argument that has been expressed in one of the earliest portions of the Bible and will continue to be expressed and redefined by generations to come.


[1] Genesis 11:4.
[2] Jim Rovira, “Babel in Biblia.”
[3] Ibid.
[4] William Lyons, “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students,” p. 134.
[5] Genesis 11:1.
[6] Ibid., 10:4-5.
[7] Ibid., 4:14-16
[8] Timothy R. Carmody, Reading the Bible, p. 40.
[9] Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).”
[10] Genesis 11:7.

Works Cited

Carmody, Timothy R. Reading the Bible: A Study Guide. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2004. Web.
Lendering, Jona. “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).” n.d. Livius: Articles on Ancient History. Web. 09 March 2012.
life Application Study Bible: Personal Size Edition. 2nd. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2004. Print.
Lyons, William L. “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students.” Roncace, Mark and Patrick Gray. Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005. 133-134. Web.
Rovira, Jim. “Babel in Biblia: The Tower in Ancient Literature.” July 1998. Babel. Web. 09 March 2012. .

Colbert’s 1664 Memorandum on Trade: Analysis

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

In 1664, Jean-Baptiste Colbert sent a letter to the King of France, Louis XIV, to appeal for economic reforms that would bring greater prosperity to the French people. This letter, now known as “Memorandum on Trade, 1664,” reveals the depths of the problems France faced, and Colbert’s desperation to find solutions. While writing his letter, Colbert understood that economic issues were not something the king would likely be interested in. Instead of simply listing France’s deficiencies, he presented his arguments in a way that made the economic problems of France a personal reflection of King Louis XIV’s ability to rule.

Colbert opened his letter by writing that solving the country’s economic problems would not provide the king with any immediate benefit. In fact, solving the economic problems would come at a cost. Colbert writes that reforms would require: “Your Majesty’s sacrifice of two things so dear and important to kings-one, the time that [Your Majesty] could use for his amusements or other pleasanter matters, the other, his revenue….”[1] Colbert appears to believe that the king would have little interest in receiving his message or parting with his usual revenue, so the challenge he faces is in getting and then keeping the king’s attention, as well as persuading him to act on the economic reforms he proposes. To do this, Colbert writes, “Your Majesty will find it disagreeable to hear [trade] discussed often.” This implies that the king will continue to be reminded of the economic problems, if not by Colbert then from others, and that the issues must be addressed, rather than ignored.

The previous two quotes raise the question of what Colbert thought about nobles in general. He seems to imply that all nobles want to do is have fun and make money, which is supported by the tone of the letter and the constant emotional appeals to keep the king’s attention. This could be construed as an insult to the king’s ability or intelligence, but Colbert either felt secure enough in his position or secure enough in his belief that the king would not catch the implications that he left the phrases in his letter. It is also possible that Colbert’s statements are simply an accurate reflection of society at the time and the king’s focus on leisure and the acquisition of wealth were seen as legitimate pastimes. That would better explain how Colbert was able to get away with what today might be considered insulting. It would also explain why Colbert had to make an effort to appeal to the king’s emotions, rather than to his intellect through factual reports.

King Louis XIV

King Louis XIV

After getting the king’s attention, Colbert had to find a way to maintain his interest and make the king care about the problems enough to inconvenience himself, especially since the reforms would cause him to lose revenue in the short term. Colbert’s first tactic was to make the king feel personally responsible for the economic hardships the people were facing. He writes, “…it will be well to examine in detail the condition to which trade was reduced when His Majesty took the government into his own hands.” He also writes that the manufacture of many different types of items and textiles in France “are almost entirely ruined.” At this point, Colbert first mentions the Dutch and Dutch dominance of maritime shipping. This serves a double purpose. First, it mitigates Colbert’s accusations of the king’s fiscal incompetence: the Dutch are to blame for the crisis, not the king. Secondly, it further stirs up the king’s emotions by detailing how another nation has achieved dominance over France. This is an appeal to the king’s nationalistic pride, and pride in his own sovereignty. Colbert may also have written it in the hopes that it would engage the king’s competitive spirit and give him a reason to support his economic reforms. If the king were less interested in modern day ideas of governmental responsibility, and more interested in personal accomplishment, turning the issue into a personal competition with the Dutch would be an effective way of gaining the king’s support in making economic reforms.

Colbert made sure to include the potential rewards for economic success in his letter. That reward is money, which according to Colbert’s earlier statement, is one of the two most important things to kings. This tells the king that, though he will have to make a short-term sacrifice, he can expect greater long-term gains. Colbert did not directly state that the king would personally receive large sums of money from the nation’s economic success. Colbert instead writes of the “greatness and power of the State,” which at the time was also a reflection of the greatness and power of the monarch. He first writes, “returns in money… is the only aim of trade and the sole means of increasing the greatness and power of this State.” Later in his letter he writes that only “the abundance of money in a State makes the difference in its greatness and power.” Finally, he writes that any increase in the number of French ships will proportionally increase the “greatness and power of the State,” which means the money generated by trade through shipping will greatly benefit the French state.

Why would the king care about the money being brought into the French economy? In describing the way in which the Dutch have dominated maritime trade, Colbert writes that the Dutch pay both import and export duties when bringing goods into their ports, so the implication is that maritime trade creates a new opportunity for taxation, which would satisfy the king’s desire for greater personal revenues. At the same time, Colbert writes that by improving the condition of the French economy, he will “increase the veneration and respect of his subjects and the admiration of foreigners.” In other words, the king can have his cake and eat it too: he will receive more taxes and be loved more. Colbert may have been hoping that the king would also be concerned about the character of the legacy he would leave behind in the national memory.

In his letter to King Louis XIV, Colbert walks a fine line between accusation and flattery. Colbert establishes the king’s responsibility for the economy and, through a series of emotional appeals, hopes to influence him into making positive reforms. The method Colbert uses to accomplish his task is unusual by today’s standards, but may be a reflection of the accepted reality of nobility during Colbert’s day. Appealing to a monarch in 1664 was an extremely complex process, without the protections of law or governmental regulation that is taken for granted today. It was not only necessary to state the facts, but to make personal appeals for the monarch to make the correct choice for his people, while simultaneously avoiding too heavy an implication of personal fault, since the final responsibility of all governmental decisions rested in the monarchy.


[1] This quote and following quotes are from the webpage, “Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683): Memorandum on Trade, 1664,” part of Fordham University’s Modern History Sourcebook.

Note: This was an essay written for a college English class.  It received an A for content and A for composition.


The text being analyzed:

Sire, it pleases Your Majesty to give some hours of his attention to the establishment, or rather the re-establishment of trade in his kingdom. This is a matter that purely concerns the welfare of his subjects but that cannot procure Your Majesty any advantage except for the future, after it has brought abundance and riches among his people. On the contrary, [the subject of trade] being unattractive in itself, Your Majesty will find it disagreeable to hear it discussed often, and, moreover, [efforts to re-establish) it will even lead to a decrease in current revenues. [For all these reasons] it is certain, Sire, that through Your Majesty’s sacrifice of two things so dear and important to kings-one, the time that [Your Majesty] could use for his amusements or other pleasanter matters, the other, his revenue-[Your Majesty] by these unexampled proofs of his love for his people will infinitely increase the veneration and respect of his subjects and the admiration of foreigners.

Having discussed the reasons for and against the King’s making efforts to reestablish trade, it will be well to examine in detail the condition to which trade was reduced when His Majesty took the government into his own hands [ 166 1 J.

As for internal trade and trade between [French] ports:

The manufacture of cloths and serges and other textiles of this kind, paper goods, ironware, silks, linens, soaps, and generally all other manufactures were and are almost entirely ruined.

The Dutch have inhibited them all and bring us these same manufactures, drawing from us in exchange the commodities they want for their own consumption and re-export. If these manufactures were well re-established, not only would we have enough for our own needs, so that the Dutch would have to pay us in cash for the commodities they desire, but we would even have enough to send abroad, which would also bring us returns in money-and that, in one word, is the only aim of trade and the sole means of increasing the greatness and power of this State.

As for trade by sea, whether among French ports or with foreign countries, it is certain that, even for the former, since in all French ports together only two hundred to three hundred ships belong to the subjects of the King, the Dutch draw from the kingdom every year, according to an exact accounting that has been made, four million UvresI for this carrying trade, which they take away in commodities. Since they absolutely need these commodities, they would be obliged to pay us this money in cash if we had enough ships for our own carrying trade.

***

As for foreign trade:

It is certain that except for a few ships from Marseilles that go to the Levant [the eastern Mediterranean], maritime trade in the kingdom does not exist, to the point that for the French West Indies one-hundred-fifty Dutch vessels take care of all the trade, carry there the foodstuffs that grow in Germany and the goods manufactured by themselves, and carry back sugar, tobacco, dyestuffs, which they [the Dutch] take home, where they pay customs duty on entry, have [the commodities] processed, pay export duties, and bring them back to us; and ‘the value of these goods amounts to two million Uvres every year, in return for which they take away what they need of our manufactures. Instead, if we ran our own West Indies trade, they would be obliged to bring us these two million in hard cash.

Having summarized the condition of domestic and foreign trade, it will perhaps not be inappropriate to say a few words about the advantages of trade.

I believe everyone will easily agree to this principle, that only the abundance of money in a State makes the difference in its greatness and power.

***

Aside from the advantages that the entry of a greater quantity of cash into the kingdom will produce, it is certain that, thanks to the manufactures, a million people who now languish in idleness will be able to earn a living. An equally considerable number will earn their living by navigation and in the seaports.

The almost infinite increase in the number of [French] ships will multiply to the same degree the greatness and power of the State.

These, in my opinion, are the goals that should be the aim of the King’s efforts and of his goodness and love for his people.

The means proposed for reaching these goals are:

To make His Majesty’s resolution known to all by a decree of the Council ton Commerce] meeting in the presence of His Majesty, publicized by circular letters.

***

To revive all the regulations in the kingdom for the re-establishment of manufactures.

To examine all import and export duties, and exempt raw materials and [domestic] manufactures ….

Annually to spend a considerable sum for the re-establishment of manufactures and for the good of trade, according to resolutions that will be taken in Council.

Similarly for navigation, to pay rewards to all those persons who buy or build new ships or who undertake long-distance voyages.


Source:

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Lettres, Instructions et Memoires de Colbert, vol. 2, ed. P. Clement (Paris: Librairie Imperiale, 1863), pp. 263, 268-71. Translated by Ruth Kleinman in Core Four Sourcebook

Analysis: “The Discovery of Brazil,” by Pero Vas de Caminha

The following is an analysis of a letter written to the king of Portugal by Pero Vas de Caminha, relating the ‘discovery’ of Brazil.  The majority of the full text of the letter this is based on can be found here, though the book isn’t in the public domain, so two pages of it are missing from the Google Books preview.  Also, there is no preview in Google Books for “Portuguese Voyages: 1498-1663,” the source I used for the letter, so the link above goes to another book that also contains the document. In the book linked to above, the letter is the first chapter.  I mention this, because the page numbers in the text below won’t correspond to the page numbers in the linked book.

Scan of the letter Caminha sent to the king of
Portugal, Manuel I. Source: Wikipedia.

After spending some time in the newly discovered land of Brazil, which the Portuguese named the “Land of the True Cross,” a professional scribe named Pero Vas de Caminha submitted a letter to the king of Portugal, titled “The Discovery of Brazil.” The letter is dated 1 May, 1500, and presents itself as an informative piece meant solely to relate what Caminha saw to the king. In the introductory paragraph, Caminha humbly introduces himself and makes light of his ability to write. However, a footnote added when the letter was added to the anthology Portuguese Voyages: 1498-1663 (edited by Charles David Ley), lets the reader know that Caminha is a highly trained and professional scribe. So, it is therefore unlikely that he wrote without a purpose, simply repeating what he saw as he claims. After careful reading, the letter appears to be a finely crafted piece of persuasive writing that gives the king every reason he needs to order the colonization of the newly discovered area.

One of the greatest challenges of colonization is local resistance or outright war. Caminha knows this and continually reminds the king that the natives are not aggressive. He does this by slowly revealing over the course of his letter how easy it is to train the local population. His evidence is how quickly they teach the locals to lay down their bows and eventually leave them behind when the Portuguese come ashore to gather supplies, explore, or conduct religious services. The first time Caminha mentions this is when he says that a crewmember, Nicolau Coelho, went ashore and indicated that the natives should put down their bows, which they did (42). This is repeated during each encounter with the natives until they put down their bows before being asked to, “as we had taught them to do” (50). Later, the natives don’t bring bows at all, unless it’s for the purpose of trading them for European items. Caminha’s purpose here is to show that the natives are easily trainable and easily disarmed without the need for violence. Caminha also tells the king that he thinks it would be best to conciliate with and pacify the people rather than use force against them (49). This introduces the king to the idea that he could colonize the land without having to commit many men, making it a low cost venture.

After demonstrating that the natives are not violent, Caminha demonstrates how likely they are to assimilate into Portuguese culture and society as a subject population. He tackles this in a number of different ways. He plays on the king’s desire to convert people to Christianity by emphasizing how easy it would be to bring the natives into the Christian fold. After watching the natives participate in a Mass, he writes to the king, “My opinion and every one’s opinion is that these people lack nothing to become completely Christian except understanding us, for they accepted as we do all they saw us do… they would all be persuaded and converted as Your Majesty desires” (58). He excuses their differences, such as nakedness and body paint, as innocence and incomprehension of European modesty and emphasizes that they could easily accept European values of morality, if given the chance. Caminha made sure to note that many natives attended the mass, even without being able to understand the language, and that afterwards, one man seemed to be trying to explain to others what was going on (57). He must have felt this demonstrated a readiness on the part of the natives to believe in Christianity, which would facilitate integration into a Portuguese empire. The added incentive in this situation is that in addition to aiding assimilation, the conversion of a whole population to Christianity would bring great prestige to Portugal in the eyes of its European neighbors. Caminha goes on by telling the king that the natives have a poor diet of mostly roots and seeds, but took quite readily to European foods, “especially cold boiled ham and rice” (53, 55). He goes on to say that he believes they would come to enjoy wine as well (55). The last bit of evidence he offers for the possibility of easy assimilation is the fact that the natives already live a semi-sedentary life, as evidenced by the “hamlet of nine or ten houses” (53). A sedentary population is more easily managed and tracked than a nomadic one, and a sedentary lifestyle lends itself to agriculture, the possibility of which Caminha also hints at.

Caminha repetitively describes the land as being rich in resources and specifically mentions that it would be good for agriculture. He tells the king, “The country is so well-favoured that if it were rightly cultivated it would yield everything, because of its waters” (59). Immediately after this, he tells the king that he should think first and foremost about ensuring the salvation of the people, but his intent is probably to leave the king with the idea that Portugal’s economy could benefit greatly from introducing agriculture to the natives. Caminha has already told the king there are no native crops to speak of, so he presents an opportunity for immediate returns by stating twice that the land is already rich in dates which he describes as both good and fine (51, 56). He also indicates that the land could be a great source of timber. He says, “The number, size, and thickness of these trees and the variety of their foliage beggars calculation” (56). Timber was an important resource to secure for the building of ships and permanent settlements.

Caminha also spends quite a bit of time in his letter detailing the amount of trade between the Portuguese and the natives. He focuses mostly on the trade of bows and arrows and exotic birds, though he does mention beads as well. It seems as though he’s trying to convince the king that even if the land isn’t cultivated, a lucrative trade can be established with the natives for bows, arrows, birds, and possibly the timber mentioned before. He tells the king that the natives trade their bows and arrows for “hats and linen caps and whatever else we could give them” (50). He also says, “our men exchanged some varvels and other small things of little value… for some very large and beautiful red parrots and two small green ones, some caps of green feathers, and a cloth of many colours, also of feathers, a rather beautiful kind of material…” From these quotes, Caminha apparently places greater value on the items being received by the sailors than what they’re giving up in trade. When mentioned in a letter to the king of Portugal, it hints at the possibility of establishing a trade network that is not only lucrative, but almost exploitative, since the natives did not possess the same standard of value as the Europeans. Caminha probably believed that as long as both parties were satisfied, there was no harm in it, and it could greatly benefit Portugal. One thing that Caminha seemed especially interested in was the potential presence of silver and gold in the discovered land. Unfortunately, he was never able to determine if any existed, but perhaps to add to the king’s interest, he related a story in which the natives seemed to indicate that gold and silver could be found there (44-45).

Caminha gives a good deal of attention to describing how physically fit the natives are. He says that they are “healthy and vigorous” and compares them to wildlife, which gives the impression of a strong and robust people (52 – 55). He tells the king that they enjoy engaging in physical activities, like dancing, and demonstrated an interest in acrobatics (51). To demonstrate how hard-working the natives are, Caminha relates a story about them helping the Portuguese load logs onto a ship. The natives turned the work into a sport and enjoyed themselves, vying with the Portuguese to see who could load the most wood (54). This matters because a population that is healthy and hard-working is productive and adds another reason for the king of Portugal to colonize the land.

The intention of this letter seems less likely to be about informing the king of what Caminha saw in the discovered land and more about presenting the king with options. Caminha gives the king a description of the type of people living in the land and gives a description of positive attributes that would make them good citizens, or at the least good workers. Caminha then tells the king what the land is worth, listing off timber, potential cultivation, a potential for precious metals, and exotic animals. He seems more inclined to utilizing the land for cultivation with the natives as a local work force, given their physical attributes. He probably reasons that if the locals are introduced to agriculture and a monetary system, they could become a large taxable population for the small country of Portugal. However, if the king doesn’t feel like making that sort of investment in time and manpower, he assures the king of the value of the land either through trade or as a temperate, friendly way station for travelers. The amount of timber he describes could easily be used to build and establish a trading outpost. Either way, Caminha seems to be very sure that Brazil is worth colonizing, and that his information is valuable, given his personal request to the king at the end of his letter, lending weight to the idea that his letter is more than just a daily journal.

Note: This essay was graded with an A for content and an A for composition.