A major theme in the philosophical
tradition is the investigation into the workings of human nature. Some
hold, for instance, that human nature is basically selfish - we all ultimately
act to maximize our own gain. Others argue that cooperation is the central
human instinct, self-interest being a condition imposed by society. One
way of examining human nature is through the experiences of individuals
who have lived at the extremes of human interaction.
Frederick Douglass was born
into slavery in Maryland in about 1818. It is plain to all who read his
work that this is a man possessed of exceptional intelligence and perception.
Yet he was raised in a condition that denied any intelligence in him and
punished his attempts to explore it's potential.
Douglass wrote several autobiographical
works. In them we may find clues to the workings of the human character.
Especially since Douglas does far more than merely describe his experiences.
He comments on those experiences in ways that underscore the major ethical
and epistemological points that he is making. All along it is crucial
to remember that Douglass has a single overriding purpose in his work;
to expose the evils of slavery to the end of abolishing it.
In the passage excerpted below
from Chapter VI of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An
American Slave, two strong points emerge:
1) Douglass details a process
of change in the life and character of a woman, Mrs. Auld, the woman he
served as a house slave for. Initially Douglass describes her as a smart,
joyful, and kind person. Not long after becoming a slave-owner, however,
she transforms into a cruel and angry tyrant. Throughout his works, Douglass
observes other such transformations and explains the phenomenon as the
inevitable result of "irresponsible power." When a human being
holds power over another without any moral responsibility to that other,
the result is a degradation of the spirit, a loss of humanity. The same
effect can be found in the literature of the Nazi holocaust, where ordinary
people are transformed into extraordinary sadists when made to serve as
concentration camp guards. Some will say that this shift in character
is simply the negative side of human nature arising when given the opportunity.
Douglass provides the foundation of a different analysis: that human nature
strives towards equity and shared responsibility. When circumstances block
that direction, the human character becomes deformed and dangerous.
2) Throughout all of Douglass'
writing is the emphasis on language as a key to freedom. In one part the
Narrative he describes how he taught himself to read and write. That ability
enabled him to manipulate the documents needed for his escape. He got
his first clue about the power of language from Mrs. Auld, before her
transformation. Language is connected to human freedom because it is the
medium of social connection among individuals. When a person is denied
the expressions of language, such as reading and writing, they are cut
off from one other in significant ways. Douglass recognizes this isolation
as the basis of slavery. The slave owner, Thomas Auld, understood this
was well. He notes that if a slave were permitted to read, s/he will become
"unfit to be slave." Douglass describes how the idea of freedom
took root in his mind as a result of his striving for knowledge. This
presents a picture of the human character that is ever expandable through
gaining knowledge and sharing that knowledge with others. The lesson is
strong: even for those of us who read quite well, there are texts and
areas of knowledge that are difficult to grasp. A common reaction is to
turn away from a difficult text because it is not immediately accessible
(i.e. easy). If Douglass is correct, then the rejection of new learning
is the acceptance of a limit. Institutional slavery is no longer legal
in most of the world, but we humans face a more constant struggle - the
self-maintenance of our own bondage by an unwillingness to accept the
challenges of new knowledge. The alternative is to treat oneself as a
truly free and worthy being. Perhaps one of the gains that philosophy
has to offer is the surmounting of self-imposed boundaries.
Please read the following excerpt
from Douglass and consider reading more of this fine work (see the link
|"My new mistress proved to be all she appeared
when I first met her at the door,--a woman of the kindest heart and
finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously
to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her
own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant
application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved
from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly
astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards
her. She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen.
I could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white
ladies. My early instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility,
usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested
toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed
by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look
her in the face. The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence,
and none left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face
was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music."
"But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain
such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her
hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye,
under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that
voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid
discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon."
"Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she
very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned
this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four
letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what
was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further,
telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as
unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further,
he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.
A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he
is told to do. Learning would ~spoil~ the best nigger in the world.
Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of
myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever
unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and
of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good,
but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy."
These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within
that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train
of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark
and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had
struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been
to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power
to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized
it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery
to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when
I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of
losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable
instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my
master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a
teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever
cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with
which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences
of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply
sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance
that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which,
he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded,
that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That
which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me
a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he
so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire
me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read,
I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to
the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both....."
"....My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender- hearted
woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first
went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being
ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder,
she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation
of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being
was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious
to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm,
and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which
she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the
naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach.
Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly
qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and
the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.
The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct
me. She now commenced to practise her husband's precepts. She finally
became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself.
She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded;
she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more
angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that
here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made
all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that
fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little
experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education
and slavery were incompatible with each other."