20 November, 2008

Blog personality?

Hahaha... so now personality tests have made it into the blogosphere, eh? You know those ridiculous but quite amusing tests you have to take, for example, before being assigned a roommate? Well here's a one for my blog. Apparently they've designed an application to explore the site and analyze things like type of vocabulary, length of sentences, and to some degree, subject matter (kind of an expanded version of what those reading-level analyses on Microsoft Word do). It really is quite amusing.

The analysis indicates that the author of http://sesquipadalianmusings.blogspot.com is of the type:

INTP - The Thinkers
The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

The person in the picture looks just a tad schizophrenic. There's no way anyone has that many things going on in their head at once and stays sane.

Try it yourself if you've got a blog. It will make you chuckle... and everyone else is doing it (most novel reason in the world, eh?). http://www.typealyzer.com/

18 November, 2008

Slavery's Destruction of the Family

This small paper begins to get at some of what I was talking about previously, though it's not in any sense complete. I'm only focusing on the family here, and even my treatment of that is quite restricted due to length limits. It's a good pre-exercise for the real thing, though. The prompt here was "What role does the cabin play as the dominent image in Stowe's argument against slavery?"

Given the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic protest against slavery, it is not surprising that Uncle Tom's cabin plays an important symbolic role in her argument. This cabin, as the center of Uncle Tom's family life, represents the most sacred and fundamental unit of human society. However, in a slave-owning society, both Uncle Tom and his home are no more than pieces of property, vulnerable at any moment to separation. According to Stowe, the social and moral ills of slavery are rooted in the destruction of the family, in robbing human beings of the capacity to create a safe and secure home.

Physically present for only a few brief pages towards the beginning of the book, the cabin nevertheless acts as the dominant image of slavery's catastrophic effect on family life, particularly in its later conspicuous absence. First presented as a neat, welcoming sanctuary of family life, with its "neat garden patch" and good food, the position of this "snug territory" is nonetheless insecure (Stowe, 32). Its status as center of life for the small community of relations and friends on the estate is legally subordinate to that of the master's "close adjoining" house (Stowe, 32). The preceding scenes in which the master and trader plan to sell Tom, the spiritual and familial head of this small community, make the reader aware that the most attentive efforts of a slave to create a happy, peaceful household are in vain if the master finds it convenient to break up this state by selling a member of the family. Tom is sold, removed from his home and family in order to satisfy the debts of a relatively decent master. He has no right to defend his home; no liberty to fight for himself and the welfare of those he loves. Not only is his lifestyle insecure, but he has no freedom to secure it.

The motif of the breaking up of familial relationships continues from the time Tom is sold to the end of the narrative. George and Eliza Harris' desperate bid to preserve their family in a free land, Topsy's lack of a good and loving upbringing, and Cassy's bitterness at having been robbed of her daughter and of the chance of a stable family demonstrate how this legal and societal lack of respect for the home of a slave plagues those who live in such a society. Thus, even in the best of circumstances where a kind master and mistress allow the foundation of such a community among the slaves, the home cannot truly flourish. The system of slavery destroys the essential characteristic of security in family life by viewing people as property, liable to be sold to satisfy a good master's debts or a bad master's whims. As another decent slave owner, Augustine St. Clare puts it, the heart of the evil of slavery does not lie in its "abuses": "the thing itself is the essence of all abuse" (Stowe, 262).

During Tom's absence, his cabin is "shut up" (Stowe, 301). He is robbed of it and it is robbed of him. Not until the very end is this break in some sense healed. George Shelby—himself a former honorary member of Uncle Tom's family, though the master's son—frees the slaves and removes this insecurity from them "in case of [his] getting in debt or dying" (Stowe, 509). The cruel fate of Uncle Tom had caused Shelby to resolve "that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation" (Stowe, 509). His final exhortaion to his former servants serves as an exhortation to Stowe's readers as well. "Think of your freedom," he says, "every time you see Uncle Tom's cabin"; this simple house will be a reminder of the evils of slavery that tear apart the family and uproot a loving household (Stowe, 509).

16 November, 2008

Jolly exciting, all this!

Going back to what I was saying last night:

Essentially, Stowe's argument is that slavery dehumanizes people by treating them like "isolated selves", as though they were individual pawns to be separated from ties of family and friends at the whim of their masters. There is no recognition in law of their personal identity in terms of their family or larger community. You see this in her constant centering of the plot around various types of homes: we start in the "ideal" slave-owning household where the slaves are treated with incredible kindness by their owners. The lack of respect in law for their community however results in Uncle Tom and Eliza (for her son's sake) being torn from this community in order to satisfy his master's debts. The first dozen chapters end with Eliza arriving safely at the idyllic Quaker home in the north. The second dozen follow Uncle Tom south to where we find Eva, a sort of symbol of purity in the midst of the deep south, saddened by the sin of her own home and longing for an eternal one. Finally we have the tragic scene where Uncle Tom is killed yet dies a freer man than any of his murderers because he has held on to the one community - the Christian (real Christian) community that no earthly law can rob him of.

This is all pretty evident from even the most brief summary. The real controversy remains whether this is at all what Douglass and Jacobs are trying to say. (Fortunately we only have to deal in detail with Douglass for the paper - if we had to treat Jacobs too, this really could get to dissertation length.) Just as with Stowe's book, Douglass's argument becomes much more apparent if you start by looking at it from a more architectonic standpoint. Chapter 1 opens with Douglass' regrets that he knows neither his birthday nor his father nor his mother. Chapter 2 centers around his lack of a home and on the slaves' innate attraction to the idea of the "Great House Farm" which will be not just their master's but theirs as well. In chapter 3 we get an account of his inability to live the way he wishes to - not just of his lack of independence to do whatever he feels like, but of his freedom to live well: he speaks of how slavery creates a disjunct between the "thoughts of the heart" and one's moral obligations, and what the slaves must in fact say and do. They are forced to lie, to ignore familial bonds, to keep their own self-interest at the forefront of their minds if they are to survive at all. The introduction of the overseer in the fourth chapter and accounts of killings perpetrated by him and his ilk for which the slaves have no hope of legal redress emphasize the lack of protection in law for their community. (Isn't this cool stuff?) Finally, in chapter five and following, Douglass learns to read. This reintroduces him to a community, gives him a notion of it that in turn gives him the courage to claim his freedom. Once able to read he has "reached the period in [his] life when [he] can give dates"; he receives a new set of "fathers" in the figures of the Founding Fathers and others whose writings educate him in a sense of his humanity; in the language of scripture, he receives a new mother tongue. When he finally has this new sense of community (sense of time, forebears, church), of where he belongs as an individual in relation to other people, he fights to preserve it.

So that's the idea, more or less, from an architectonic point of view. Seven pages will leave plenty of room for explicit quotations and so forth, which will be fun.

Another seven page paper!

Well, I've got another 7-page paper assigned in American Civ. The prompt is even more exciting than the last one. Seriously, you could write a dissertation on the thing. The actual prompt is only a sentence long: "Does Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin betray or convey the slaves' own argument against slavery." Ok. Maybe on first reading it doesn't sound all that enthralling (or maybe it does). But if you've been doing the reading, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, if you know even a bit about the virulent controversy revolving around the question of the proper way to interpret the slave's demand for freedom and the black Americans' demand for civil rights (Martin Luther King vs Malcom X, anyone?), and if you've just been bowled over by the realization that Uncle Tom's Cabin isn't just a silly, sentimental novel but has a valid and well-structured argument at its base, you probably will reconsider.

Add to that the fact that Dr. Hanssen handed out several very cool readings - one from Cicero (De Officiis) on how we can understand man's natural rights in terms of his moral obligations, one from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, an excerpt from John Paul II's "Veritatis Splendor" which discusses intrinsically evil acts, part of an address from Pope Benedict, and a very interesting chapter from a book about women's experiences in slavery by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese - and you can see how this paper has the potential to be very fun indeed. I'm going to argue that Uncle Tom's Cabin, contrary to the ideas of more recent literary criticism ("more recent" being the '60s), does in fact convey the Douglass' and Jacob's main argument against slavery. How does it do that? Well, that's where everything should get so interesting, of course.

I shall post about it tomorrow.

02 November, 2008

A Practical Religion

“I fancy,” Benjamin Franklin muses in discussing his famous decision to run away from his apprenticeship, “[my brother's] harsh and tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means of impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro' my whole Life” (Franklin, 69). This is only a side comment – no more than a note to the main text, in fact – yet it succinctly summarizes the spirit of Franklin's legendary bid for independence. Preceding this symbolic break with the convention of apprenticeship, he had already broken with his family's conventional Puritan religion in favor of a temperate liberal deism, but it was not until several years later that he codified his personal beliefs. The thirteen precepts he outlines focus entirely on moral issues and he refuses to favor any specific doctrinal teachings. Franklin's approach underscores his independence and practicality in all spheres of life. He “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral Perfection” in a spirit of self-sufficient practicality which led him to renounce the authority of church dogma in favor of the natural virtues which could be ecumenically agreed upon and which a man of any religion could follow to become a model of “Probity and Integrity” (Franklin, 148, 158).

His moral code is marked above all by an ethic of tolerance which stems in part from a laudable desire to respect individual freedom, but also from a distorted definition of humility. In his list of virtues, humility stands at the end as a sort of addendum expressing his overarching concept of religious tolerance. “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” he instructs himself (Franklin, 150). The dichotomy in this instruction, obvious to anyone who understands Jesus as the Answer which Socrates stubbornly denies knowing, seems unapparent to Franklin. He strove for the classic Socratic modesty of “knowing that he knows nothing” and gains “at least the Appearance” of such humility, but it is not the humility of a Christian which arises from actual though unmerited knowledge of the Truth (Franklin, 157). Franklin's definition may indeed suffice for most practical purposes, and his primary concern was “the Utility and Excellency of [his] Method” (157). Through it he hoped to encourage human virtues among all sects. Reserving declarations of knowledge would promote respect for individual freedom with regard to beliefs about God and the nature of life, and adoption of a non-doctrinal code of virtue would, he believed, be in “every one's Interest... who wished to be happy even in this world” (Franklin, 158).

In evaluating the benefits of Franklin's purely moral religion, one must distinguish between its application in the sphere of government versus its application in the individual. Reducing religion to moral precepts discoverable by reason may be justified in the public sphere. Indeed, in a world where the religious turmoil of the 1500s and 1600s still reverberated throughout the West, removing governmental attachment to any “particular Sect” would be wise (Franklin, 157). However, within a church or an individual soul such tolerance becomes no more than false humility. Assuming that churches typically claim to be qualified to lead their members to the truth of Christ (or whatever else they hold to be ultimate truth), they must have certain convictions in context of which other beliefs are considered wrong. The human person, moreover, created for the truth as he is, will (like Franklin) be incapable of attaining true victory over pride, that “one of our natural Passions [most] hard to subdue,” if he does not recognize that there is a truth much deeper than the moral rules man can discover through unaided reason (Franklin, 160). Franklin's ethic of tolerance, then, is a useful guide for the government's approach to religious matters, but it cannot on its own produce the breed of upright citizens he hoped for (Franklin, 162).

Franklin was not alone in his distrust of arbitrary religious authority, this spirit having been predominant to some extent among the early colonists who had been driven from England by the new monolithic state religion. Principles of religious liberty as outlined in the First Article of the Bill of Rights underscore our Republican government's historic attachment to Franklin's Socratic humility with respect to religion. As long as churches have flourished within the consequent atmosphere of tolerance the tendency of this spirit to undermine individual citizens' prerogative to devote themselves to the Truth has been held in check. Today, however, as tolerance becomes more and more an autonomous religion in America and across the world, the Socratic mindset threatens to overwhelm Christian certainty of Truth. Franklin's style of tolerance is now many people's sole “religion” and the morality Franklin so valued, robbed of any firm foundational doctrine, is weakened to the point of collapse.