The Motives of Exploration

Sailing - JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race - CowesThe Motives of Exploration

By Rev. R.J. Rushdoony

  America, from the moment it was discovered has had a history in terms of the faith of its discoverers. The evidence is increasingly mounting that long before Columbus, America was discovered over and over and over again. We know now that Leif Erickson and other Viking explorers came to the Americas. There were very definitely colonies of them in Greenland. We know that they went from Greenland to Canada and what is now New England. We know, also, that in the early days when some of the earliest Viking raids took place in the British Isles, some of the Irish left that area and settled in Iceland and Greenland to get away from the Vikings. And there are stories, we don’t know how true they are, but it is not unlikely that from there they explored North America.

earthA Harvard professor of some years ago, the father of Norbert Weiner, who has had a great deal to do with cybernetics, wrote a three volume study in which he demonstrated there were many Arabic words in Indian languages like Iroquois. So, he concluded, in the early centuries of the Christian era, Arab explorers, traders, almost certainly came westward and discovered America.

Then there are evidences that from the orient some explorers came to the west coast of North and South America. On top of that there is one scholar who has written a book that…in which he claims that in the days of Solomon the Phoenicians and Hebrews discovered Mexico and Peru and began to mine silver there.

Now, some of these we don’t know for sure whether they are true or not. In some cases there are evidences accumulating that some of these stories about early explorers are true. We’re not interested, to-day, in getting into that argument. There’s a great deal of evidence pro and con and various scholars say, “Anyone who believes that so-and-so discovered this country is believing legends.” And other scholars who say, “Look at all the evidence I have. You’re not looking at the facts if you deny it.”

My point is this: We do know, there is evidence that there were various discoveries. Which were actually real and which are half-legendary, we don’t know. But America was discovered over and over again by at least some of these men. That we do know.

Why was nothing done about it until Columbus?

You would think with these discoveries a great deal would have been made of this new continent. But nothing was done.

The reason was, of course, these earlier explorers saw no significance in the new found land. They were not interested in the development. If there was something they could take back home, well and good. But men must have a basic reason – a driving motive to take and utilize something like a new country. And the earlier explorers found it interesting.

We have some records of the Viking explorations. They found the new country very interesting, but they were basically raiders. They wanted to seize whatever wealth there was and to move on. But, suddenly, at the time of Columbus, the motives were there so that when Columbus came back and reported what he had found there was tremendous excitement.

Now, of course, before we analyze Columbus’ exploration, it is important to note that the idea that people then believed the earth was flat is nonsense. They did not. They knew it was round. The only concern was they did not know the exact size of it and they wondered about what was on the other side.

And their ideas were governed by various pagan myths. The very name for the people on the other side reflects some of the myths. The other side of the world was called “the Antipedes.” In other words, the “other side.” What were men like there? Was living any different? What was the effect?

So there was a great deal of concern and curiosity about what was on the other side of the world. And some of the ideas were fanciful, but they knew that there was something on the other side.
Now, the question was: Was it islands or was it continents?

We do know that there were maps existing. Maps of the ancient sea kings give us a list of some of the ancient maps that showed North and South America. But those maps had been pretty largely forgotten by Columbus’ time. So some of the things they knew had been forgotten.

Incidentally, one of the worst things that happened to learning was the invention of printing. When the first printing press was invented and new books were published, people began to despise the old handwritten books. And so they forgot a great deal because they weren’t interested in the old books. And so there was a great deal of ignorance simply because they despised that which was old. They became quite modern in their outlook. The book that was worth reading was a modern printed book. The invention of printing, therefore, was a setback for learning.

Now, one of the basic ideas that governed men at this time very powerfully came from ancient pagan antiquity. It was a humanistic doctrine that believed in the golden age and a golden realm somewhere.
Horace gives us a poem in which this faith is set forth. Now, the dates of Horace are somewhere in the first century BC, approximately 65 to 8 BC. Horace was one of the great Roman poets.

Then somewhere, midpoint in his life, around 35 BC Horace wrote a poem his Epode 16-E-P-O-D-E. And in Epode 16 he expressed the hope that he and others could find a refuge from the troubles around them. Rome was in the midst of civil war. There was a threat from foreign enemies. And it seemed as though everything worthwhile in their civilization was doomed.

And so Horace said, “There is only one thing for us to do, to leave Rome. Let us get into ships and go to the western seas” in other words, across the Atlantic. “And let us look for those islands out there, those lands of which we know vaguely, the aisles of the blessed: paradise.”

Now, this is what Horace wrote in this Epode in part: “Scourges of civil dissention now lash us. The new generation and Rome, by her own strength, is falling, ruined, banned. Rome, her unnatural sons, blood tainted to ruin, are bringing wild beasts again, for lairs shall choose the soil of Rome. Aliens triumphant shall trample her ashes with hoof strokes ringing the horsemen of our foes shall spurn the ancient home. Let this be our counsel or counsels, as when after dread oath taken the people of Bochea left their ancient home, fled from their lands, from the hearts of their fathers, their temples, for Satan forbore to dwell therein for ravening wolves to roam. Let us go where fortune may guide, whither over the surges the finger of wild southwest our west wind may beckon us away. Thus are ye minded? Have any better to counsel? Why linger to haste aboard the ship in this the accepted day? Us, ocean awaiteth. The gurgler of earth. Let us seek on sailing the fields of paradise, the islands of the blessed, where yearly the soil without tillage bestoweth the harvest unfailing, where blossoms always the vine by pruners knife undressed. There to the pail, unbidden, the milk goat comes in the gloaming. For love the heifer comes full-uttered to the byer. They fear not even the growl of the bear round the sheepfold roaming nor earth with viper nests swells in hilick’s stire.”

Now, of course, the crisis passed and Horace and his friends did not leave Rome and sail across the Atlantic to find this marvelous land he was talking about. But the dream that Horace here set forth and which he held, survived.

Now, it was not new with Horace, although Horace gave it a very beautiful form in Latin so that it was memorized by men of culture and became a very familiar part of the humanistic dream. By the time of the Renaissance, which was well under way when Columbus sailed, this dream had become important to men.

Now, let’s analyze this dream. Remember, Horace says there’s a land out there somewhere, the isles of the blessed, a paradise on earth. It is a perfect land. Of that place there’s no need to work because the fields give a harvest whether you work or not. In fact, he said, “The milk goat comes to give milk with-out being called and the cow comes and just drops her milk into a bucket for you. The trees drop their fruit in your hand. The wild animals do not harm you. It is paradise. Let us find it.”

Now, consider the importance of this myth. It was believed from Horace’s day and earlier, right through Columbus’ day and to this present day-we shall deal with that later-by countless numbers of people who were humanist in their orientation. The essence of this faith, therefore, was that somewhere there is a perfect environment. Man’s salvation, therefore, is to find that perfect environment.

Now, do you begin to see the influence of this myth to this day? After all of the world was explored and there was no longer any place where man could find that perfect environment, that paradise on earth, then the idea developed: man’s salvation is to create the perfect environment and then all will be well.

In other words, man’s problem is not in man. It’s in his environment. If only we can create the right kind of environment, then we can have a perfect man. And Horace is saying, “Our problem is that this environment is hopelessly corrupted; not that I Horace am a sinner or that other Romans are sinners. If only we Romans can flee from this place, Rome, which has been corrupted, and go across the ocean to the isle of the blessed, a perfect environment, an earthly paradise.

There are problems with this appeal.

Now, here we have one of the basic motive forces in the discovery of America. It’s still a basic motive for us in the life of America. After all, isn’t this the idea behind our slum housing projects? “If only we give these people a new environment, all will be well. If only we take this delinquent and give him a good environment, all will be well.”

Now, this motive force, therefore, is very early present. If man can escape to a new world, to a new environment, man will find salvation. Salvation for Horace, thus, was not a regenerated man, but a perfect environment. And today this idea means salvation is a regenerated environment rather than a regenerated man. Salvation, thus, is escape from an evil environment to a good one.

Now, this motive is still with us in another form. If you read very carefully some of the things that are said by men connected with NASA and some people who write about space exploration, you find that some of them actually talk about a new beginning for man on some new planet. So a very powerful motive force with us today, one which led to the explorations of America, is now leading to the exploration of space. “Let’s go somewhere where we can find a new uncontaminated world. And there we can have a paradise. The environment is the answer.”

Now, on the other hand, the biblical faith holds that man’s salvation is through God’s sovereign regenerating grace. The answer, therefore, is the creation of a new man through Jesus Christ. And then the establishment of God’s order in the world by means of God’s law; that regenerate men can create a new order: God’s order.

Thus, the two motive forces in 1492 were: first, salvation by a new environment and salvation by a new man. Both of these were very important in the discovery of America.

Now, the dream of a new environment also led to another very important myth: the myth of the noble savage. If you go to the early literature it really is surprising what you find. Because you find that over and over again these people are reporting on what they see among the Indians. They found cannibalism here, for example. Now, “cannibalism,” comes…the word comes from the Americas. It was originally carribalism–from the Caribbean, the Carib Indians. And little by little the “r” got changed to an “n.” But if you look it up in an unabridged dictionary you’ll find that the word “cannibal” comes from “Carib” and “carribal.”

They found cannibalism. And they found the most inhuman kinds of tortures among the Indians. They found numerous things that were really quite shocking to anyone who was ready to look at them realistically. And yet some of the people who saw these things still wrote about the noble, uncorrupted savage.

They were afraid that if the white man had too much contact with him he would corrupt them. The white man should–sit at their feet, as it were, and learn from the savages. And one of the most popular kinds of literature in Europe for a long time, almost to…well, to the present age–in fact it’s anthropologists who are writing these books–is about the pure, uncontaminated savage and how we, who are the civilized ones, who have been polluted by Christianity–and this is what they feel are corrupting these people. The world, as it is, without Christianity, is a perfect world. We mustn’t touch it or tamper with it.

Now, you know about the pipeline situation and other like things and how the ecology people are fighting to prevent it at every turn. They have requirements now that they’ve gotten into law that there can be no projects without an environmental testing to determine whether the environment will be destroyed as a result of whatever project is being put in.

Well, a newspaper in California told of one environmental project where the testing required soil samples to be taken before they can go ahead with whatever work they are going to do. Now, the ecology people, the eco-freaks, are in court fighting the soil sample idea because they say, “If you even dig to take some soil samples, you’re going to pollute that perfect environment.”

They actually killed, for example, a project out in the desert between California, Nevada and Arizona, out of Barstow, where one of the oil companies was going to put in a refinery—a $300 million project. They were not going to be near any city. They were going to go out into the desert so no one could complain about the smell of oil in the air for a mile or so around. And they still killed it because it was going to harm the ecology for the rattlesnakes out there.

In other words, don’t tamper with a perfect world. It’s modern, Christian man who is the polluter, you see…

But these people who believe in a perfect environment as man’s salvation say, “Don’t tamper with that environment.” And one scholar after another says that Christianity is the great polluter, the great tamperer, interested in changing everything.

This humanism, thus, was one basic motive force and the other was Christianity; changing the environment or finding the perfect environment or changing man.

Now, one of the things that characterized 15th century Christendom was that there was a great deal of dissatisfaction. It’s not an accident that the discovery of America and the protestant Reformation took place within a few years of each other. 1492, Columbus discovered America. About 20 years later Luther’s work took place. Those events are not unrelated. There was a tremendous Christian dissatisfaction with things the way they were behind both events.

Now, there is a great deal in Columbus in which we find a confusion of the humanistic and the Christian motives. There are points where he begins to share, to a degree, this humanistic interest. But in spite of that, there is a great deal in Columbus which was very, very definitely and clearly Christian.

For example, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella–and I quote, “I say that your highnesses must not allow any foreigners except Catholic Christians,” (there was only Catholicism then) “to trade here or set foot here, for the whole object of the enterprise was that it should be the increase and glory of the Christian religion and that no one should come to these parts who was not a good Christian.”

“Well,” some would say, “Columbus went west to find the Indies, which was an economic motive,” to find a short route to the Indies.

True, but behind that economic desire was a Christian motive. At that time to reach the Indies you had the long land route through central…through the Middle East or the newly discovered route around Africa, which made anything coming from the Indies–the spices and other things, silk–very expensive.

“But,” Columbus thought, “A short route would be from Spain right across the ocean.” He didn’t know that the new continent was in the way. He thought there would be a number of islands, great islands, but he didn’t expect a new continent.

So he wanted the short route because he thought it would be very profitable. But why did he want that profit? What was the motive behind it?

Now, if you want to get rich it’s rare, unless that, you’re a miser and not all together there in the upper story, for you to want to accumulate money just for the sake of money. If you want money, you want it for a reason. Maybe it’s a new house or a new dress or a trip to Europe. You want money for a purpose. And what was Columbus’ stated purpose over and over again? To have money for a crusade to recapture the Christian parts of the Middle East, North Africa and central Europe that had been lost to the Turks; to have money to begin to evangelize those areas and other areas in the Far East and Africa. His motives, thus, were intensely Christian.

He wanted money for missionary purposes. And he thought, “Here is the way to it.”

Now, Isabella was the one of the two who was most interested. And Isabella was the one who had a like faith with Columbus, very, very intensely concerned that there be a revival of Christianity.

Now, we wouldn’t agree entirely with their theology, but we must recognize that there was a genuine faith there and a very, very strong desire to see the conversion of the ungodly. Over and over again Columbus, as he wrote, stressed this motive, the Christian motive. And it’s because historians have not been Christians they’ve bypassed this.

Moreover, Columbus over and over again wrote of himself as one who was called of God to open up the world for the gospel. And he wrote, among other things–I quote, “of the New Heaven and the New Earth which the Lord made and of which Saint John writes in the apocalypse, as the Lord told of it through the mouth of Isaiah: He made me the messenger and He showed me the way.”

Now, Columbus very definitely felt that he was called to open up the whole world to the gospel through his work and that others were to follow him, that he was going to explore the world, raise the money through the trade with the Indies and open up the whole world for evangelization so that the whole world could be converted to the gospel and the millennium be ushered in. This was very strong in Columbus.

Moreover, this faith was very strong in virtually all the explorers. Today it is called postmillennialism. But this aspect was very powerful in one explorer after another. For example, Cortez’ address to Montezuma was such a thoroughly Christian appeal that one historian today who was not a Christian said, “It would have done credit to Cortez’ chaplains.”

Incidentally, the idea that Cortez was a brutal conqueror of Mexico is nonsense. He had only a handful of men. How did he succeed against Montezuma? Montezuma had a tremendous army. For this reason: Montezuma and his men were savagely exploiting and oppressing all the other peoples of Mexico. They practiced human sacrifice as a part of their religion. There are actual eyewitness accounts of some of the earliest explorers and missionaries who accompanied Cortez that human meat was sold in the markets of the Aztecs. When Cortez thus appeared on the scene all these oppressed people rallied around him and they saw him not an oppressor, but as a deliverer. And many of them saw him as a deliverer not only from Montezuma, but from their religions. And there were a great many conversions.

Now, this is an aspect you don’t read about in the textbooks. But it was important to Cortez. It was the reason why he succeeded.

As a matter of fact, Cortez pleaded with Montezuma because he said their paganism was leading them to Hell and he pleaded that they–and I am quoting, “no longer adore those idols or sacrifice Indian men and women to them for they were all brethren, nor should they commit sodomy or theft.”

Now, we cannot say that all the explorers had such Christian motives. There is one very signal exception, Pizarro in Peru. But very clearly the Christian motive was very, very strong in many of them just as in some of the others the humanistic motive was exceedingly strong.

And, we would have to say that it is impossible to understand early American history, the explorers, and all of American history to the present, apart from these two motives: the Christian and the humanistic. As a matter of fact, there is a story–one or two historians now are beginning to doubt it; why I don’t know–but which is very revealing of the pagan or humanistic motive.


 Taken from the transcribed lecture “Motives of Discovery and Exploration I,” by R. J. Rushdoony in American History to 1865.

 Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001) was the founder of Chalcedon and a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical Law to society.

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