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Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 19, Issue 10, 2009

Return of the Polish Brethren in the Perspective of a New Stage of Universalism

Aleksander Sitkowiecki
Pages 93-110

An Arian in the New World
The Brazil Journal of Christopher Arciszewski

Christopher Arciszewski (1592–1656), Arian mercenary and man of many facets, conducted a journal in which, it is suspected, he described military campaigns, the state of the colony and other interesting phenomena he was able to observe during his time of service in Brazil. In 1641, Gerard Vossius was completing his magnum opus De theologia. In Chapter 8 of the first volume, Vossius discusses the “cult of the demon” among various peoples. As an example the Netherlander erudite provides a colorful description of such a cult among the Brazilian Tapuya tribe. Since the author never traveled to Brazil, he makes use of the observations of Christopher Arciszewski. How does an Arian, brought up in an atmosphere of intense pluralism and far-reaching tolerance towards other belief systems (or at least imbued with a strong relativism), react when he encounters, first-hand, a culture utterly different, and completely alien to him? His presentation of a hierarchically constructed morality existent among various cannibalistic tribes is, in a sense, an intellectual breakthrough. Instead of treating the natives collectively as one homogenous culture, as simply “savages”, Arciszewski distinguishes between various cultural units, and treats them individually. The nobleman attempts to convey their own views of morality not on the basis of European ethical systems, but on the local ones in place. In his day, such ideas were nearly unthinkable for most educated Europeans. Cannibalism of any kind was perceived as godless behavior, a sort of devilry, which would eventually be abolished with coming of the “light of Christianity” to the New World and the inevitable Europeanization of the natives. The reader can marvel at the extent to which Arciszewski is willing go in his relativism, to the point of sympathizing with the Tapuya. He allows them to explain to the reader the functioning of their endo-cannibalistic culture. Arciszewski adds to the rationalization of cannibalism a detailed description of the death-rite among the Tapuya, presenting these ceremonial customs in accordance with their own beliefs, as something potentially interesting for humanistic intellectuals back in the Old World. Vossius’ book also discusses the question of the tribe’s spiritual beliefs: their conceptions of good and evil, deities, etc. The reader once again witnesses Arciszewski’s readiness to accept beliefs and deities completely unknown to European religion. The author does not prima facie discount the possibility that the “universal laws” operating in the Old World have no place in the Brazilian wilderness. His philosophical outlook, demonstrated by his rationalization of what had before been considered “magical” or “irrational”, is surely a foreshadowing of the rationalism of Enlightenment, whose modes of thinking constitute the core-foundation for all later philosophical and scientific inquiry. Arciszewski, as an Arian brother par excellence, essentially operated with such conceptual tools as relativism, toleration and universalism, and his intellectual arsenal did not altogether differ from our own. As such, Arciszewski, and Europeans like him, helped free the Western worldview of its mediaeval philosophically limited conceptions of the cosmos, and propelled it in new directions of inquiry. This led eventually to a decided shifting of the European worldview away from superstition towards reason: the most definitively crucial moment in European intellectual history.

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