Sepúlveda, Juan Ginés de
Though mainly known today for his polemical writings against Bartolomé de las Casas in defense of the Spanish conquest of America and for his views on natural slavery, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was one of the most distinguished representatives of sixteenth-century Spanish humanism, ranking alongside Juan Luis Vives and Antonio Agustín. Not only did he write a vast quantity of works on history, law, politics, and chronology; he also produced important Latin translations of Aristotle and Aristotle’s third-century AD Greek commentator, Alexander of Aphrodisias. As a translator of, and commentator on, both philosophers, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda is a notable example of the intellectual richness and depth of Renaissance Aristotelianism. Although a student of the scholastic Pietro Pomponazzi, Sepúlveda learned to be sensitive to the humanistic concern for Aristotle promoted by Alberto Pio and put into practice by many scholars in this period. Unlike his teacher, Sepúlveda had an excellent command of Greek and was well acquainted with the techniques of the humanists. In his role as a commentator on, and translator of, Greek philosophical writings, we see exemplified many of the key features which characterized fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Aristotelianism at its best.
KeywordsSpanish Translator Latin Translation Greek Text Charles Versus Latin Version
Born in southern Spain, Sepúlveda studied Greek and philosophy at the University of Alcalá. Inaugurated in 1498 by Cardinal Archbishop Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, the University of Alcalá applied the program of humanism to its curriculum and to the study of Scripture, even if conservative positions within it ultimately prevailed. As early as 1508, Jiménez himself initiated a great project of biblical scholarship which resulted in the printing between 1514 and 1517 (even though they were not actually published until 1522) of the six volumes of the renowned Complutensian Polyglot Bible (thus called from Complutum, the Latin name of Alcalá de Henares). The foundation of the University had, moreover, its roots in Jiménez’s desire for religious reform. The institution became a center for ecclesiastical education, and among its professors and students were the first enthusiastic supporters of Erasmus in Spain.
Having received his first orders in 1515, Sepúlveda was recommended by Cisneros for the Spanish College of Bologna, where he studied under the Pietro Pomponazzi until he received his doctorate in 1523. It was at Bologna that Sepúlveda met Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, who encouraged him to begin translating Aristotle’s Meteorology, Parva Naturalia, De generatione et corruptione, and the Pseudo-Aristotelian De mundo, a task which he continued afterwards when he joined the papal curia. At Rome, Sepúlveda enjoyed a prominent role within the papal entourage at the time. As an example, in 1524 – also upon Clement VII’s advice – Erasmus wrote his De libero arbitrio diatribae sive collatio, an answer to the arguments which had been put forward by Luther in his Assertio omnium articulorum per Bullam Leonis X novissimam damnatorum of 1520. Luther’s own reply came very soon and, a year later, he published the De servo arbitrio, a treatise in which the German theologian dismantled Erasmus’s points. Sepúlveda joined the dispute in 1526 with his own De fato et libero arbitrio contra Lutherum, in which he drew on Alexander of Aphrodisias’s arguments on the matter. Acting once again in response to the suggestion of Clement VII, Sepúlveda decided to translate another text by Alexander of Aphrodisias, in this case his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which was published in 1527.
While in Bologna, Sepúlveda also enjoyed the company of his patron Alberto Pio de Carpi. In the following years, Sepúlveda assisted Alberto Pio in the composition of successive attacks on Erasmus, which culminated in his own Antapologia pro Alberto Pio of 1532. Despite Erasmus’ shrill diatribe against Alberto Pio, Sepúlveda was advised by Pope Clement VII to keep his Antapologia within conciliatory terms. Alarmed by the progress of Lutheranism and aware of the pernicious effects which Machiavelli’s thought could have on Christianity, the papal curia was reluctant to open a third front of hostilities and imposed restraint on Erasmus’ Catholic critics. Although Sepúlveda’s attacks on Erasmus’ ideas fully came to the fore during his time in Italy, his attitude encapsulates the complex and at times contradictory nature of Antierasmianism in Spain. As with other Spanish critics of Erasmus, Sepúlveda was forced to tread a careful path between his orthodox views, his close ties with prominent members of the imperial court (a center of Erasmianism until the early thirties), and the demands imposed on him by the ecclesiastical authorities. Sepúlveda’s frontal opposition to Erasmus (whose scholarship, however, the Spaniard held in high esteem) is all the more paradoxical given his training at the University of Alcalá.
Pope Clement’s death in 1534 was the main reason for Sepúlveda’s return to Spain, which occurred two years later. Sepúlveda’s appointment as official historian to the Emperor in 1536 and his selection as one of the tutors to the future Philip II six years later were an incentive to prepare his translation of and commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, which was completed in 1548. Sepúlveda’s finest contribution to Greek scholarship, his annotated translation of the Politics was reprinted in 1601 and 1775, the latter coinciding with a movement at the end of the eighteenth century to reprint many Renaissance translations of classical philosophers and scientific writers.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Proof of Sepúlveda’s reputation as a translator can however be traced back to his lifetime and can be found first and foremost in the various reprints of his Latin versions. Except for his rendering of the Politics, the whole corpus of Sepúlveda’s translations was reprinted in Paris in 1532. A reprint of the De generatione et corruptione was further issued in Germany in 1537, and as many as five editions of Sepúlveda’s version of Alexander of Aphrodisias’s commentary came off European presses between 1527 and 1561. Further evidence of the centrality of Sepúlveda’s philological activity within sixteenth-century interest in Aristotle is given by his contribution to establishing the original texts of Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias. Until 1847, when the Greek text was first published, Sepúlveda’s version of Alexander of Aphrodisias provided philosophers with a reliable Latin text of an important ancient commentary on one of Aristotle’s most studied treatises. For its part, Sepúlveda’s translation of the Politics, in conjunction with his annotations, became a useful tool for establishing the text of a handful of passages in Aristotle’s work.
As with many sixteenth-century volumes, Sepúlveda’s translations are often accompanied with dedicatory letters. Many humanists viewed such dedicatory epistles as opportunities for career building. They were used by these writers as vehicles for self-promotion, as a means of gaining financial rewards, and to advance their own humanist cause. Examination of this material (as well as other “paratexts” such as prefaces, liminary verse, colophons, and so forth) is crucial if we are to understand fully the way authors, publishers, patrons, editors, and translators prepared a given text for its readership. Sepúlveda is no exception in this respect and his dedicatory letters help us to follow his movements in Italy and Spain in the 1520s, 1530s, and 1540s. The texts map Sepúlveda’s life from his early years at Bologna in the company of Alberto Pio of Carpi and of Giulio de’ Medici, to whom he dedicated, respectively, his translations of De incessu animalium and the Parva Naturalia, through his move to Rome in 1523, when he dedicated his version of De generatione et corruptione to Pope Adrian VI and his translation of De mundo to Ercole Gonzaga. The letters also bear witness to Sepúlveda’s connection with the intellectual forces of Papal Rome throughout the 1520s and his links with the Spanish political establishment in the early 1530s. Whereas the dedicatory letter to Pope Clement VII prefacing his translation of Alexander of Aphrodisias of 1527 shows Sepúlveda’s attempts at securing a prominent role within the Roman curia, his letter to Charles V accompanying the translation of the Meteorology in 1532 reflects his gradual approach to the Spanish party.
Sepúlveda’s dedicatory letters therefore seem to have served a very immediate purpose and reflect Sepúlveda’s efforts to gain patronage from key figures within papal Rome and Imperial Spain at a very precise time in his life. This is further reinforced by the inclusion, in Sepúlveda’s own edition of his correspondence published in Salamanca in 1557, of a handful of letters dating back to the mid-1530s in which Sepúlveda discussed his ongoing translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. Not completed until the mid-1550s, at a moment when Sepúlveda was collecting his own correspondence, this version was, however, never brought to the press despite Sepúlveda’s desperate attempts to obtain permission for its publication.
Sepúlveda’s choice of dedicatees for his translations doubtless owed to a conscious and careful exercise of self-advertisement. Throughout his life, Sepúlveda was no strange to promoting his translations even before they appeared. The publication in 1527 of his Latin translation of Alexander of Aphrodisias’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a good example of this. Aware of the expectations caused (as early as 1523) by the publication of this previously unknown work, in his dedicatory letter to Pope Clement VII, Sepúlveda is keen to highlight the importance of his scholarly enterprise. He is particularly concerned with showing the Herculean task he had to face when he undertook the translation of Alexander’s text. Lack of a Greek printed edition and the absence of any Latin version – Sepúlveda points out several times – made it necessary to establish the source text before any translation could be carried out. To prove the arduous nature of his task, Sepúlveda states that he took into account “quattuor antiquissima exemplaria,” full of corrupt passages. Another example of Sepúlveda’s self-advertisement tactics is the publication of the translation of and commentary on the Politics. Before the text was published in Paris in 1548, the Spanish translator had found an ingenious way to publicize his forthcoming version. In his dialogue Democrates secundus, sive de iustis causis belli apud Indios (The second Democrates, or on the just causes of the war against the Indians), written three years earlier, one of the characters quotes from Sepúlveda’s Latin version of the Politics, with only a few slight changes from the printed text. And soon after its publication, in a letter to his publisher dated August 1549, he boasted of the excellent reception given to his translation: “From my friends’ letters I learnt that my work has been received by scholars in France, Italy, Germany and Belgium with approval and, so they write, applause.” Despite these claims, Sepúlveda’s translation and commentary were not mentioned at all during his lifetime, and it was only after his death in 1573 that scholars started to point out the relevance and quality of his work.
And it is not my intention, when translating others’ work or explaining Aristotle, to be more Ciceronian than Aristotelian. Indeed there is a big difference between translating into Latin the Greek rhetoricians or historians and the philosophers, particularly Aristotle, who, despite standing out in elegance and correctness, when dealing with obscure and unknown topics, is compelled to use either new words or words never heard by the people and never used by learned men. These problems make it very difficult for the translator to be Aristotelian and Ciceronian at the same time, although it seems to me that I am Ciceronian enough if I have achieved what I attempted, that is to use a plain and clear speech as much as the contents of the source text allow me.
It is therefore not surprising that the preface to his translation of the Politics is used by Sepúlveda to prove his credentials as translator. Eager to beat competition from other translators, Sepúlveda regrets that he has taken up such a task without any appropriate help, due to the unreliable translations at his disposal. Glossing over the fact that Leonardo Bruni’s elegant translation of the text had been available since 1438, Sepúlveda dismisses the work of previous Latin translators of the Politics: “I cannot give the name of translators to those who, with excessive fidelity, have rendered this text word for word.” Without naming names, Sepúlveda seems to be referring to William of Moerbeke’s version, which is further criticized in a gloss to his translation (“…quem secutus vetus interpres, qui suo instituto Aristotelem ad verbum convertit”).
Sepúlveda’s decision to dedicate his translation of the De incessu animalium to Alberto Pio should also be regarded as an attempt to defend his own version against extant translations of the text (most notably that of François Vatable published in 1518). In order to lend prestige to his work – in his dedicatory epistle to Alberto Pio, a champion of Aristotelian studies in his own right, as described by Charles Schmitt – Sepúlveda craftily drops the names of two scholars who have helped him with his translation of Aristotle. He refers to Niccolò Leonico Tomeo (himself engaged in a version of the text at that time) and Pietro Pomponazzi (Sepúlveda’s own teacher). He mentions giving his version to these two famous north Italian philosophers in order to solicit their corrections and suggestions. Moreover, as with the preface to his translation of the Politics, Sepúlveda employs the prologue to the De incessu animalium as an opportunity to attack rival translators of the Aristotelian corpus. In his dedicatory letter, Sepúlveda strongly condemns the method of the Hellenist and Ciceronian Latinist Petrus Alcyonius (1487–1527?), whose translations of Aristotle were published in Venice in 1521. He recalls how he first heard of Alcyonius when he was about to complete his own translation of the Parva Naturalia. Advised by Alberto Pio, after reading Alcyonius’s version, Sepúlveda decided to write a pamphlet setting out the numerous mistakes he had found in the text of his rival. Alcyonius is not, however, the only target of Sepúlveda’s criticism throughout his prefaces. He often censures the carelessness and lack of accuracy shown by previous translators, a factor which – he claims – drove him to attempt new translations of certain Aristotelian texts. As he states in the dedicatory letter to his version of the Meteorology, the main reason for producing another translation of the text was “the negligence of those who had translated this work before me.” In Sepúlveda’s eyes, the act of translation goes, however, beyond the merely linguistic plane. Hence, his scorn – in his preface to the De incessu animalium – of those translators who, neglecting the study of philosophy as a necessary preliminary to producing a Latin version of Aristotle’s writings, were confident simply in their knowledge of both Latin and Greek. It was precisely his superior knowledge of Aristotelian natural philosophy that, Sepúlveda claims, led him to undertake a revision of his first translation of the Parva Naturalia only ten years after it had appeared in 1522. Central to Sepúlveda’s attacks on his rivals and to his self-portrait as a solitary scholar battling against difficulties of all kind is therefore the establishment of his stature as a skilful translator.
In Sepúlveda’s dedicatory letters, praise of his own exegetical activity goes hand in hand with grateful tributes to the intellectual milieu within which his work was produced. Alberto Pio’s contribution to the recovery, dissemination, and editing of the Hellenistic commentators of Aristotle is commended by Sepúlveda, who, through his close association with the Prince of Carpi, was able to use this mass of newly available texts for his own translations. In the preface to his version of the Meteorology, he informs us that, during the process of translation, he has consulted the commentaries on the text of Alexander of Aphrodisias and Olympiodorus. Significantly, the manuscript containing Alexander’s commentary was borrowed from the Vatican Library sometime in 1518 by Alberto Pio, who kept it until 1524. It is reasonable to assume that, because of the close relation between Sepúlveda and the Prince of Carpi, the former had frequent access to the text of Alexander in Albert Pio’s hands.
Sepúlveda is also careful to present his Spanish and Italian patrons’ commitment to scholarship as part of a long-standing tradition of patronage dating back to antiquity, which the Spanish translator is eager to partake. By hailing his dedicatee Charles V as a new Alexander, the Great Sepúlveda implicitly compares himself to Aristotle, who, as recalled by Sepúlveda in his letter to the Emperor, had dedicated his De mundo to Alexander (except, of course, that it was not Aristotle). The parallels drawn by Sepúlveda in his prefaces between his patrons and prominent benefactors from the early years of Humanism also reinforce this idea of continuity. In the dedicatory letter to Adrian VI prefacing his version of the De generatione et interitu, Sepúlveda links Adrian’s intellectual patronage to the active role, played by Nicholas V in the first half of the fifteenth century, in promoting Latin translations of Greek philosophical texts. Likewise, the Roman curia under Giulio de’ Medici (Clement VII) is compared to the courts of his predecessors Lorenzo and Pietro at Florence.
Underlying his eulogy of the Medici and of the scholarly initiatives of Pope Adrian are Sepúlveda’s subtle efforts to model himself upon the illustrious translators patronized by the Medici family and the Roman Pontiffs in the preceding century. Of all those, the Spanish translator regards himself as a close follower of the Byzantine scholar Johannes Argyropoulos, a key figure within the history of philosophical translations and whose versions of Aristotle had been commissioned by Lorenzo and Pietro de’ Medici. Walking in the footsteps of Argyropoulos, Sepúlveda prides himself on participating in a new style of translation which – since the early years of the former century – had been replacing the rough versions of the Middle Ages and renewing the criteria used until then. Alongside Argyropoulos, he mentions the name of another Byzantine emigré, who dedicated his translations to Pope Nicholas V, Theodorus Gaza, the only one, according to Sepúlveda, who bears comparison with Argyropoulos. Sepúlveda’s review of the best fifteenth-century philosophical translators is, however, not restricted to Latin Aristotelian ones. Well acquainted with other philosophical traditions and aware of the availability of translations of and commentaries on a wide variety of Greek texts, he praises Marsilio Ficino, another protégée of the Medici, comparing his activity as a translator of Plato with that of Argyropoulos in the Aristotelian tradition.
At the desire of your ancestors Johannes Argyropoulos translated rather fitly and elegantly the great part of Aristotle. For his part, Theodorus Gaza successfully and brilliantly rendered for Nicholas V both the De natura et generatione animalium and the Problems. Although we would not dare be compared to these men, according to the smallness of our mind, we have pursued their remains since we wish to be grateful to you.
Sepúlveda’s versions of Greek philosophy included annotations. Appended only to his translations of the Parva Naturalia and the Politics, Sepúlveda’s notes vary in length. Whereas in the case of the Parva Naturalia short annotations appear in the margins of the printed text, the much longer glosses to the books of the Politics are placed at the end of each chapter. Numbering a total of seven hundred, of which less than fifty belong to the translation of the Parva Naturalia, the annotations, according to Sepúlveda, are to analyze a selection of chosen passages. Some of the glosses to the Parva Naturalia deal with matters of textual criticism and other notes to the text are merely explanations of Greek words or expressions and their nearest Latin equivalent. Sepúlveda’s annotations to Aristotle’s books on natural philosophy therefore constitute an excellent source which allows us to gain a deeper knowledge of his critical and exegetical methods.
Nevertheless, the most interesting annotations, which I would briefly like to discuss in the final part of my entry, are those belonging to the Politics. Arguably, their importance lies in the fact that they seem to assist Sepúlveda in making his own reputation as a prominent scholar in the Spanish court. Published in 1548, the version of the Politics must be seen as concomitant of Sepúlveda’s role as one of the tutors to the future Philip II, a position the Spanish translator had coveted since the early 1530s. His eventual appointment in 1542 seems to be the reason behind his decision to dedicate his translation to the Spanish Prince six years later and to prescribe the text for his education. The contents of the Politics – and particularly of those books in which Aristotle reviews the different political regimes – enable Sepúlveda to make a favorable comparison in his annotations between antiquity and his own times, as well as to praise the immediate ancestors of his young dedicatee.
Now compare these qualities of wisdom, inventiveness, magnanimity, temperance, humanity and religion [of the Spaniards] with those little men in whom one can scarcely find the remains of humanity, who not only lack culture, but who do not even use or know of the written word, lack written law, have barbaric institutions and customs, and do not preserve monuments of their history, but only a certain obscure and vague memory of some facts recorded in certain paintings. As for their virtues, if you want to know of their temperance and meekness, what can one expect of men given over to all manner of passions and loathsome ficklety and prone to feeding on human flesh? Do not believe that before the arrival of the Spaniards they used to live in the Saturnian peace sung by the poets; on the contrary, they used to wage war against each other continuously with such a fury that they considered the victory null if they did not satisfy their phenomenal hunger with the flesh of their enemies – an atrocity that is so much more magnificent let alone far removed from the invincible ferocity of the Scythians, who also fed on human bodies, since the former are so cowardly and timid that they can scarcely resist the hostile presence of our men, and often thousands and thousands of them have fled like women on being defeated by a small group of Spaniards whose numbers barely made up one hundred.
Given its inflammatory tone and the arguments it employed, the Democrates secundus was denied the royal license without which no book could legally be printed in Spain. Convinced that Bartolomé de las Casas – who in 1542 had written a fiercest critique of Spanish colonialism in the New World, published ten years later – was ultimately responsible for that decision, Sepúlveda pressed his case with the Council of Indies, which in August 1550 organized a debate between the two men. Sepúlveda’s position was supported by the colonists and landowners who benefited from the encomienda system. In the encomienda, the Spanish Crown granted a person a specified number of natives for whom they were to take responsibility. In theory, the receiver of the grant was to protect the natives from warring tribes and to instruct them in the Spanish language and in the Catholic faith: in return they could extract tribute from the natives in the form of labor, gold, or other products. In practice, the difference between encomienda and slavery could be minimal. Many natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. For his part, Las Casas represented one side of the debate. His position found some support from the monarchy, which wanted to control the power of the encomenderos, and within the Catholic Church. Although there was no formal outcome to the affair, the theologians refused to change their minds about the subversive nature of Sepúlveda’s text.
Sepúlveda must have, therefore, regarded his dedicatory epistle to the future king prefacing his translation of Aristotle’s Politics as a good opportunity to rebuild his reputation. The annotations appended to his version could be used by Sepúlveda in order to seek royal endorsement for his views on natural slavery. A gloss to a passage in the first book of the Politics in which Aristotle discusses the concept of natural slavery allows Sepúlveda to expound his ideas on the subject before the future King, in theory the first reader of Sepúlveda’s translation as it was Philip to whom the text was dedicated and to whom some of the annotations are directly addressed. Significantly, the annotation to Politics 1255 a 32–35 follows very closely the argumentation developed by Sepúlveda in his Democrates secundus.
Sepúlveda’s dedicatory letters and annotations give us an insight into the ways in which not only he read Aristotle and the text of Aristotle but also he wished to be perceived and read by his prospective patrons and fellow translators. Fortunately, in the abovementioned 1537 reprint of Sepúlveda’s De generatione et interitu, we have a first-hand testimony of how Sepúlveda’s translation method was actually judged by his contemporaries. Published in Leipzig by Nicolaus Faber, this pocket-sized volume, of which only one copy is known to exist, includes a series of printed annotations in the margins of the text. Seemingly prepared by the printer, these annotations constitute a reflection on Sepúlveda’s exegetical criteria. Particularly interesting are a handful of notes where some of Sepúlveda’s solutions are negatively compared to the proposals offered by one of his rivals, the Frenchman François Vatable, whose translation of the text had been published in Paris in 1518. All in all, the commentator seems to prefer Vatable’s version to Sepúlveda’s translation, which is censured for its freedom and departure from the original Greek. Ironically, the most common feature of Sepúlveda’s style is his respect for the contents of the texts to be translated, the pursuit of accuracy, and clarity being a constant theme in his prefaces and dedicatory letters. Despite Sepúlveda’s conscious efforts to publicize his versions and translation method during his lifetime, the importance of his contribution to Aristotelian studies would only be fully appreciated in the centuries to come.
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