The Ivory Tower and the Sword

Francisco Vitoria Confronts the Emperor

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Santiago Piñón Jr.
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , July
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Ivory Tower and the Sword, Santiago Piñón Jr. recounts the efforts of the sixteenth century Dominican, Francisco Vitoria, to use his position as the Chair of Theology at the University of Salamanca to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples in the Americas from the cruelties of the Spanish empire. While the book’s promotional description states that it spun out of questions concerning how academics can use their positions to promote social justice without going to marches or protests, this book “first and foremost” attempts to make known a theologian with important insights into the relationship between theology and politics, whose work and methodology may inspire contemporary theologians (xiii).

Chapters 1 and 2 address the importance of the rule of law in Vitoria’s defense of the inhabitants of the New World. He shows that Spain, far from justifying its presence in the Americas through force alone—contrary to the so-called "Black Legend"—was concerned about the legal legitimacy of both its presence and its conquest. This focus on legal legitimacy allowed Vitoria to appeal to “the law of nations” to critique the actions of the Empire against the native peoples. While allowing for Spain’s presence in the New World, implicit in Vitoria’s critique and appeal to this higher law is that such a presence is only permissible as long as the Spanish respect and treat their indigenous neighbors well.

Chapter 3 examines various thinkers from the “just war” tradition and how they influenced Vitoria while also noting his own innovations to the theory—most importantly, that it is possible that a war can be just on both sides—so one should “reconsider the reasons for going to war” (150). Chapter 4 addresses criticisms aimed at Vitoria that suggest he does not actually address the cruel treatment of the natives in the New World, in contrast to the more outspoken Bartolomé de las Casas, the “protector of the Indians” appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to look after the interests of the native peoples. Piñón points out, however, that unlike Las Casas, Vitoria did not have an official appointment from the emperor to protect him from the repercussions of his critique. Therefore, Vitoria adopted a more indirect approach, a form of rhetoric that Piñón calls “safe criticism,” in his panning of the emperor. Finally, chapter 5 discusses “the humanistic-scholastic debate of the sixteenth century” and Vitoria’s appropriation of certain humanist moral concerns into his own scholastic method in his critiques of the Spanish treatment of the native peoples (150).

 Piñón offers a strong defense of Vitoria against scholars like Robert Williams Jr., Luis Rivera-Pagán, and the late Tzvetan Todorov, who assert that Vitoria’s appeal to the law of nations was done to defend the Spanish conquest of the New World, not to defend the indigenous peoples. Piñón’s close examination of the history and politics of the day presents a far more nuanced picture. One of the more interesting insights that Piñón presents is his assertion that Vitoria’s critique of the emperor is obscured by the his rhetorical method of “safe criticism.” The use of an indirect method to critique the powerful certainly had precedent in Vitoria’s day, having been used by Vitoria’s contemporary Thomas More in his Utopia (1516). This is one of the many insights that Piñón’s detailed examinations of the writings of Vitoria bring to light concerning the charges made against him by scholars like Rivera-Pagán.

The flaw of the book can be found in its self-description as a tool to demonstrate how one can participate in social justice causes from an academic position. Certainly, Piñón’s comments about the need for theologians to be multi-disciplinary in their pursuit of social justice as well as the need to be conscious of the political power dynamics in a culture are helpful. Regarding this second point, it is worth mentioning that Piñón is one of the professors placed on the self-appointed “Professor Watchlist.” The possibility of such censure can make any professor in a world of shrinking funding for higher education nervous about his or her job security. In this light, perhaps using an indirect rhetorical method is increasingly relevant to the task of pursuing social justice from the ivory tower; however, I am not sure that this insight alone constitutes a helpful answer to the question, “What can I do to pursue justice from the ivory tower if I do not want to go to protests?” While Piñón’s book is a decent apologetic for Vitoria as a defender of native peoples in the New World, it falls short as a helpful guide for being an academic activist from the ivory tower.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Brake is a graduate student at George Mason University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Santiago Piñón Jr. is Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Texas Christian University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.