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Columbus Belongs Not Only to History

(Evan Frost / MPR News)

“And one example of this—among others—is how prominently he features in a particular tradition of philosophy: that of philosophical pessimism.”

On the evening of Tuesday, June 9th, a statue of the Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus was torn down from its pedestal in Richmond, Virginia’s Byrd Park by approximately 200 demonstrators. The statue was then draped in an American flag and set on fire. When the point had been proven with the burning, the statue was dragged to a nearby pond and thrown into the water, in a manner strikingly similar to how a statue of Edward Colston had been disposed of into Bristol Harbor two days prior. 

The following day, another statue depicting Columbus was toppled outside of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. After it violently struck the ground, breaking the pedestal, the mob gathered spit upon it. And it was much of the same for statues of Columbus across the country, from Boston to Houston to Wilmington, Delaware to Detroit. And, this past weekend, Columbus State, a community college in Ohio, announced its intention to re-examine its longstanding practice of honoring its namesake. These recent events appear to be the culmination of what has been a persistent push to discontinue honoring Columbus on the grounds that he represents colonialism, the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of the Americans, and, in the words of Camden, New Jersey mayor Frank Moran, is an “outdated symbo[l] of racial division and injustices.”

In defense of Columbus, various politicians, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have opposed removing statues of Columbus, arguing that the explorer has become a point of pride for Italian-Americans. This is similar to a point also voiced by Allison Schuster, who, writing at The Federalist, deplored the destruction of the Columbus statue in St. Paul by tracing its history as a symbol of Italian-American pride, as well as the life story of its sculptor Carlo Brioschi. (For Brioschi, in Schuster’s telling, the statue was representative of the acceptance of Italian-Americans in the Twin Cities region.) All the while, other critics of the removal of statues of Columbus have cited similar arguments to those against toppling any historical monument, suggesting that Columbus, like all of us, was a product of his time and, besides, tampering with history is a dangerous business anyways. 

And it is that Columbus, beyond the particulars of his biography—or the degree to which he paved the way for any harm to indigenous peoples—belongs not only to history, but also to philosophy and literature.

While these lines of arguments are both valid and persuasive, a very important additional point is worthy of consideration in the whether to honor Columbus debate. And it is that Columbus, beyond the particulars of his biography—or the degree to which he paved the way for any harm to indigenous peoples—belongs not only to history, but also to philosophy and literature. And one example of this—among others—is how prominently he features in a particular tradition of philosophy: that of philosophical pessimism. 

For the 19th century Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, whom Arthur Schopenhauer would cite as the thinker who perhaps best understood the human condition and whom Friedrich Nietzsche would hold up as one of the four greatest stylistic writers of the 19th century, the figure of Christopher Columbus was the embodiment of the highest degrees of human flourishing. In addition to Columbus’ obvious bravery, he also represented the potential for human beings to conquer a fundamental, day-to-day evil: boredom. For Leopardi (and for others sympathetic to his worldview), boredom was the tragic yet inevitable resting place from which human activity departed. Although Leopardi may have, at times, referred to boredom as being “sublime”—perhaps as one praises an indefatigable, worthy adversary—its role as the inevitable resting place for all of human activity makes it a very persistent problem. And since humans, unlike animals, were unique in their capacity to be susceptible to it, it would require a human endeavor to conquer it. And that is what Leopardi’s Columbus does. 

In Leopardi’s 1824 work “Dialogue between Christopher Columbus and Peter Gutierrez,” Columbus affirms the undertaking of his voyage: “If you, and I, and all of us were not now here in this ship, in the middle of this ocean, in this strange solitude, uncertain and hazardous though it be, what should we be doing? How should we be occupied?….More probably, in greater trouble and difficulty; or worse, in a state of ennui?” A fate even worse than a doomed voyage, a fear barely concealed by both Columbus and Gutierrez, is of a life left unused. Instead, Columbus opts for a life of vigorous exertion, even if it should lead him into danger. To this point, Columbus suggests that “It is ordinarily believed that sailors and soldiers, because incessantly in danger of their lives, value existence more lightly than other people. For the same reason, I come to a contrary conclusion, and imagine few persons hold life in such high estimation as soldiers and sailors.” Also, in embarking on this journey, as the philosopher Joshua Foa Dienstag notes, Columbus elects to leave behind the apparent comforts of the Old World, including rationality and some degree of certainty (ironically, perhaps a partial cause of his dreaded ennui) in favor of the unknown. And, in that sense, Columbus embodies a form of liberation. 

Nietzsche, in turn, would draw from Leopardi in the final lines of his 1881 work The Dawn of Day: “Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach India—but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity?” (Leopardi had put it as “So my mind sinks in this immensity:/and foundering is sweet in such a sea,” in the final line of L’infinito, as translated by Jonathan Galassi.) And, throughout much of the rest of the early 1880’s, Nietzsche would make other frequent references to seafaring—and to the figure of Columbus explicitly. This coincided, of course, with Nietzsche’s decision to begin spending winters in Genoa, the birthplace of Columbus, and Nietzsche would later refer to Genoa as “his favorite city on earth.” While residing in Genoa, Nietzsche—in his letters—would also compare navigating his own health troubles to Columbus’ voyages at sea. Perhaps his most famous treatment of Columbus came, however, in his poem “To new seas.” Although the final version of the poem was published in 1887, there were several earlier, longer versions written in the early 1880’s. One iteration reads: “Friend!—spoke Columbus—keep/Trust in a Genoese no more!/He always stares into the blue deep/— Is lured out there too far.” In Nietzsche’s depiction of Columbus, there emerges the idea—like Leopardi’s—of a character who serves as an example to others of how best to embrace existence. In Nietzsche’s case, there is also the parallel between Columbus’ voyage into the horizon and how a New Man, absent God, might create meaning in such a vacuum. Similar to how Leopardi, who came to reject religion in early adulthood, sought to rebel against pervasive meaninglessness, Nietzsche’s Columbus, who lurks throughout many of his writings of the early 1880’s, “lure[s]” others to follow his lead into the horizon.(1)

So Columbus, as this brief foray into one portion of one strand of philosophy shows, has been enormously influential as either an explicit philosophical character—or as someone who provides a backdrop to one’s thinking, as he arguably did for Nietzsche. And just the same, one could explore how Columbus has been treated by a variety of other writers, whether it be Walt Whitman, Friedrich Hölderlin, or James Fenimore Cooper. And the same journey could be undertaken for a number of the other figures currently finding themselves in the crosshairs, having fallen out of favor with modern sensibilities. 

It is often said of an author that when his words are published, they become no longer his alone; and, in turn, they become also the domain of his interpreters and critics.

However, returning momentarily to pessimism and Columbus specifically, the worldview embraced by Leopardi and Nietzsche—and a worldview described by Dienstag as one “exemplified in questing figures like Columbus or Don Quixote”—is that it is a tradition arguably marked most by the importance it ascribes to the present. The heroes of this tradition, whether they be Columbus, Cervantes, or others, toil foremost in the present. In doing so, they keep at bay the human tendency to travel in one’s mind to the past and future, a chief culprit of restlessness. As such, in this framework, there seems to be something particularly ungraceful about applying the sentiments of this present to the present of a figure such as Columbus. (He, after all, abandoned the rationality and time-consciousness of the European continent in favor of the uncertainty and timelessness of the horizon, at least in this reading.) And to Leopardi’s point on ennui, as one watches the mobs topple the statues of Columbus, one cannot help but suspect that early summer languor—partnered with the pandemic’s wake—might have some bearing on the goings-on. 

So, this has all been to say that Christopher Columbus, the figure who has now become the object of so much scorn is not just a man, nor a likeness depicted in marble. He is not merely the sum of his accomplishments subtracted from his misdeeds, and he is not only representative of what his arrival to the Americas would later usher in. And this is because—as I mentioned—he belongs not only to history but also to centuries of philosophy and literature. It is often said of an author that when his words are published, they become no longer his alone; and, in turn, they become also the domain of his interpreters and critics. The same is true of one’s life. And the activists of today might, very well, seek to view him only though a single lens: of colonialism and race. However, others might just as rightfully view him through the lens of how he influenced the history of ideas. Yet, if one interpretation, that of the activists, seeks to translate their view into actions—and obscure him permanently from the consciousness of future generations—then that precludes all the other interpretations, such as the ones that Leopardi, Nietzsche, and countless other writers spent much of their lives toiling in. And that would be very unfortunate indeed.

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West.

Footnote

  1. See The Gay Science (1882): “Indeed, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’…feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea!’-”

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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