Jesuit Reflections on their Overseas Missions

From China to Paraguay

By Ana Carolina Hosne

Plan of the Reduction of San Juan Bautista, circa 1756. Collection of the National Library in Paris, Plans and Maps section. Image courtesy of Artur H.F. Barcelos.


When you think of Jesuits in their missions around the world, you—the casual reader—might not think of Plato or ancient Greek authors.  Yet two of these mission experiences—Paraguay and China—richly illustrate how the humanist tradition of the Renaissance with its emphasis on Greek and Latin classics influenced those faraway experiences through the lens of Plato's Republic. In particular, as John O’Malley has pointed out in The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1992), this emphasis adopted by the Society was a new kind and degree of engagement with culture beyond the traditionally clerical subjects of philosophy and theology, and much of what they taught only indirectly related to the Christian religion as such.  

Jesuit school education in its Ratio Studiorum, i.e. Plan of Studies, which reached its final form in 1599, included a systematic study of Greek authors such as Demosthenes, Homer and Socrates in its humanities and rhetoric courses. As the Society’s missions expanded on a global scale, these authors would serve as an inspiration for the Jesuits to appraise, describe and appreciate their own mission spaces. More specifically, I focus here on how Jesuits turned to Plato’s Republic as a reference against which to assess different aspects of their missions in China and Paraguay.

Let’s look first at Paraguay. In 1604, the General of the Society of Jesus, Claudio Acquaviva (1543-1615), established the Province of Paraquaria, naming Diego de Torres Bollo as its first provincial, and key promoter of the Guarani settlements known as reductions—reducciones—in the Paraguayan province that encompassed the present-day republics of Paraguay, Argentina, the south of Brazil and Chile (Chile did not become part of the province until 1625). From the beginning, missionary activity in Paraguay focused on the foundation of reductions, i.e. settlements in which the Guaranis were organized into communities and indoctrinated into Catholicism, as well as protected from Brazilian slave traders. The native peoples were “reduced” or congregated in these communities to lead a “civic and human life,” which meant leaving their isolated huts, distant from one another and scattered across the mountains and valleys. Reductions themselves were not new, since they had already been implemented in the Peru mission. But in Paraguay they acquired other characteristics, for instance, that of a mixed economy, combining common areas of land with private property and production. 

Inspired by the reductions, Jesuit José Manuel Peramás (1732-1793) wrote a work in Latin, De administratione guaranica comparate ad Rempublicam Platonis commentaries, in his treatise De vita et moribus tredecim virorum paraguaycorum, edited in Faenza in 1793, immediately after his death. In each chapter, Peramás’ essay, “The Republic of Plato and the Guarani,” draws an analogy between the organization of the Guarani reductions and Plato’s Republic. In his view, Plato’s utopia, embodied in the reductions, had become possible thanks to the wisdom of the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchy. 

Peramás draws attention to the combination of private plots and common areas of land in which every citizen worked for the community on certain days during the year.  This indeed reminds us of elements of the communal in the Republic dialogue, expressed in Socrates’ desire to achieve happiness for the whole city, and not just for a particular group. Peramás’s also shows how the polis, the city, and its urban organization are nothing but a physical realization of a “civil Christian society.” Music, dance and the arts, as well as “useful” arts such as carpentry, were essential for the instruction of citizens. As citizens, they could not be rulers of that civil Christian society. The number of magistrates among the Guaranis was that indicated by the Leyes de Indias. Since the Guaranis did not have terms to refer to these colonial posts, the Jesuits created translations in their language, Peramás explained in his essay.

Like Peramás in Paraguay, the Jesuits in China would also resort to Plato's Republic  to assess their mission in the Ming Empire. The China mission was established by two Italian Jesuits, Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), in the city of Zhaoqing, in Canton province, during the late Ming period. Ricci’s humanistic education at the Roman College provided him with useful tools to access the literati circles in China, which were to a great extent composed of scholar-officials, i.e. those who held posts in the Ming Empire (1368-1644). Their support, friendship and patronage were essential for the Jesuits to be allowed to stay on Chinese soil, in a mission in which they did not have a colonial power on their side. Over time, Ricci gained knowledge about the painstaking examination system to obtain these posts and become part of the imperial bureaucracy. Confucian learning was at the core of the training required for the candidates, who had to master the mandatory Four Books and the Chinese classics. This insight into the Chinese political system led Ricci to claim that China had accomplished what all the other nations could not; that is, the ideal of Plato’s Republic, embodied in the Confucian literati. He says:

[…] it raises admiration that these people who have never traded with Europe have achieved as much by themselves as we did in contact with the whole world; and I just want His Highness to assess this by evaluating their government, to which they put all their efforts and see in it so much light, leaving behind all the other nations; and if, to nature, God might want to add our divine holy Catholic faith, it seems that what Plato speculated on in his Republic, China put into practice.  (Pietro Tacchi Venturi SJ, Opere Storiche del P. Matteo Ricci S.I. Comitato per ler onoranze nazionali con prolegomena [Macerata: Giorgetti, 1911-1913], 2 vols; Letter to Giambattista Roman, Treasurer of the government in the Philippines, Zhaoqing, September 13, 1584, II, p. 45).

Moreover, it was the literati whose main concern was the good governance of the “Republic;” their main role as rulers made them completely different from those in other nations and, according to Ricci: 

… if we cannot say that in this kingdom the philosophers are Kings, at least we can certainly claim that Kings are governed by philosophers.” (Matteo Ricci, “Storia dell’Introduzione del Cristianesimo in Cina,” in Fonti Ricciane. Documento originali concernenti Matteo Ricci e la storia delle prime relazioni tra l’Europa e la Cina, 1579-1615, ed. Pasquale M. D’Elia [Roma: La Libreria dello Stato, 1942-1949], 3 vols.: I, p. 36 ).

In sum, Ricci’s observations echo Plato’s Republic and the reasons why philosophers, because of their natural abilities and virtues, were fit to rule the city (Plato, The Republic of Plato. Translated with notes and an interpretive essay by Allan Bloom [USA: Harper Collins, 1969], Book VI, especially 485a-b). 

Putting these two missions, China and Paraguay, in perspective as well as the different analogies with the Socratic Republic dialogue that both of them inspired, allows us to reflect on the roles assigned to the Chinese scholar officials on the one hand, and the Guaranis, the citizens of the reductions in Paraguay, on the other. Matteo Ricci in China assimilated the Chinese literati, his peer group, as those who resembled the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic. They were not only a part of the empire; they ruled it, while in turn consummating western speculation on the roles assigned to philosophers in the Socratic dialogue.

In Paraguay, the Indians had been made the inhabitants of a city, the cornerstone of a harmonious civilized Christian community. This city, as described by Peramás, reflects what Angel Rama so brilliantly described in La Ciudad Letrada (The Lettered City) (Montevideo: Arca, 1998) regarding the development of an urban culture in Latin America. Rama sees the city, the baroque city, as a material, visible and sensitive manifestation of the colonizing—and civilized—order in which community life developed. And that city was ruled by a more assertive one within it: the lettered city, in turn the shelter of power and the executive of its commands in Spanish America, composed of a distinguished group of religious men, administrators, educators and a whole body of professionals all closely related to that power. The lettered city was, in part, the result of the need for the Christianization of a vast indigenous population, which was to be incorporated into the realm of European values, even though these populations did not believe in or comprehend them. 

This huge task, which required the help of these men of letters, could only be carried out in urban settings, inhabited by “citizens,” both serving an imperial project and strengthening its ties with the Crown. Following Angel Rama, we may suppose that in colonial Latin America the Jesuits belonged to the “lettered city,” as opposed to the colonized society, which “did not have knowledge of letters,” as Peramás indicates in La República de Platón y los guaraníes). Unlike the Chinese literati—Ricci’s friends—the inhabitants of the reducciones were not part of the lettered city, a city—and Republic—the Jesuits in Paraguay had created for them to live in.

Ana Carolina Hosne is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Heidelberg, Cluster Asia Europe. She is the author of The Jesuit Missions to China and Peru, 1570-1610: Expectations and Appraisals of Expansionism (Oxon: Routledge, 2013).