12 December, 2008

North vs. South

It's pretty natural, I suppose, being as I am at a college in an unambiguously southern state, that I should be exposed to some fairly strong opinions about the Civil War. Barely any of these, it needs hardly be said, are particularly complementary to the North. I was rather surprised coming down here, actually, to find opinions on the subject still so vehemently held... I mean, the war was nearly 150 years ago, and everyone in the South is now benefiting on equal terms with all the rest of us from the Union of the states. And you just need to look at the history of the 20th century to see how beneficial that union has ended up being to us and to the rest of the world (WWI, WWII, etc).

Be that as it may, my American History class has been quite wonderful in its approach to the era, treating the writings of the period to a rigorous interpretation in light of the country's inheritance from the Founding Fathers. My current understanding of Lincoln's writings leads me to refine my earlier ideas that it is possible to analyze the Civil War from two major perspectives: it was either a war about slavery or a war about states' rights. I do think each of these two aspects was decisive in raising the main issue at stake as an issue divisive enough to split the county, and in the minds of many involved, one or the other was the sole reason for which they were fighting. But there is a more fundamental issue at stake, I think, and it's one that is more intimately connected with the message of the Declaration than either of those two.

I believe that before it was a questions of states' rights explicitly, the dispute at the heart of the war was about how we are to understand rights at all. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that this issue is implied in the states' rights and slavery interpretations. The essential question at the heart of, for example, the Lincoln-Douglass debates, is whether it is accurate to conceive of "liberty" as the capacity to override existing statutory law (here, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850) just because a majority wishes to do so. Of course, if you're going to go by the principles laid out in the Federalist papers, to legislate purely according to the will of the majority as opposed to precedent and fundamental law "may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny" (Federalist 88).

This becomes a question of greater significance if the fundamental law on which the government is based purports to be a reflection (at least to some degree) of the absolute laws of justice, as we see in the claim of the Declaration to be based on the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" and that their rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are inalienable. Of course, if the government is such an organic institution, existing in principle from before their actual codification, as Lincoln suggests in his First Inaugural Address (paragraph 13), you really can't throw it off legally (i.e., Constitutionally for Lincoln) unless it itself breaches the fundamental law at its core. The fundamental law moreover is essentially the sum of absolute duties intrinsic to man in virtue of his personhood, not in virtue of majority rule in their favour, while the rights resulting from this fundamental law comprise the freedom to fulfill it. Thus if you reject the government that is trying to uphold the fundamental law, you're rejecting this conception of liberty for excellence in favour of a conception as liberty as the random will of a majority.

Of course, a question that comes up as to whether one could see the South in the Civil War as not intending to reject the fundamental law at the heart of the Constitution at all but to merely change the external form of government that protects it. However, slavery intrinsically violates fundamental law by denying certain people their absolute rights. Looking at the matter chronologically, it is fairly easy to trace the natural progression of thought that would come from support of such an institution. First you have a slave or two, you need to justify the fact that this manifestly contradicts the principles of the Declaration, you naturally enough begin to cry for "states' rights!" "our natural liberties to do what we want with our own property!". Thus you have the concept of states' rights deriving easily from the fact of slavery. Implied in this in the sense that it is necessary to make this view coherent is the redefinition of what it means for Americans to be self-governing.

The idea at the heart of Lincoln's battle for the Union, for the upholding of the American Constitution is that the liberty to which we have a Constitutional right is the freedom to do what is right, not to have equal freedom to do good or evil. If we deny the existence of moral absolutes, civil society disintegrates, Lincoln believes, and it is for this conviction that he came back to politics, debated Stephen Douglass, and finally became president.

11 December, 2008

The Education of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’ autobiography follows the development of his earnest conviction of his innate humanity and liberty. This realization has its roots in his early childhood when he entertained “a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold [him] within its foul embrace” (Douglass, 43). The rest of his years as a slave are a continual struggle to retain this inborn sense of humanity in the face of repeated attempts to reduce him to a state of bestial apathy towards his natural liberty. Preservation of his sense of inherent freedom and humanity requires that his embryonic understanding be nourished through education from some trustworthy source which supports, deepens, and sophisticates the vague comprehension with which he is born. This source he discovers by learning to read.

Experience is the first form of education Douglass receives. As a small child he witnesses much brutality in plantation life. Recounting his experience of seeing his aunt brutally beaten by his master, he observes that “it was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and participant” (Douglass, 21). He speaks of the songs and chants of his people, each of which is “a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains,” and traces his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” from his hearing of these songs (Douglass, 27, 28). Despite his horror at the injustices suffered by his people however, he does not “understand the deep meaning” of their sadness well enough to express it in concrete terms (Douglass, 27). He longs vaguely for freedom but has little comprehension of why the opposite is wrong and poor ability to phrase his intuition.

Moreover, though experience reveals to him the ugliness of the institution, in the long run it has the potential to deceive him. Natural sentiment, met with the sights the young Douglass witnesses, initially revolts. However, constant dehumanizing treatment can hardly fail to make some impression on most people, and the Narrative recounts the deadening effect slavery—both the experience of being enslaved and owning slaves—has upon the souls of men, black and white alike. The masters beastialize themselves by denying the humanity of other men, convincing themselves and others that these slaves are incapable of “virtuous freedom” (Douglass, 80). Slavery can prove as injurious” to such tyrants as it does to those from whom they have withheld freedom (Douglass, 49). The slaves in their turn, having no guide to reveal the path from servitude to freedom, begin to swallow the lie that they are not fit for the “privilege” of basic human liberty. Constant mistreatment and attempts to break their natural spirit can only reinforce such a misconception. Experience can degrade more than it enlightens, Douglass shows. Some further teacher is necessary to sustain the germ of liberty within the heart of a slave.

Douglass attains this further education through reading. Ironically enough, his master, Hugh Auld, is responsible for kindling Douglass' enthusiasm for this mode of education by remarking that to teach a slave his letters “would forever unfit him to be a slave” (Douglass, 45). Upon hearing this, Douglass realizes that “the white man's power to enslave the black man” is found in the former's ability to keep the latter illiterate. Books and education in language give “tongue to interesting thoughts of [Douglass'] soul, which had frequently flashed through [his] mind, and died away for lack of utterance (Douglass, 51). By preserving ideas in concrete words, a book helps to immortalize and clarify glimpses of the truth that appear in experience. In Douglass' soul, “freedom now appear[s] to disappear no more” (Douglass, 51).

The experience of slaves in the American South was of being perpetually ground deeper into a “beast-like stupor” that crippled the natural feeling of innate freedom. Insofar as his only education was experience, the indoctrination his brutal treatment imposed could “disgust the slave with freedom” by causing himself to believe himself unfit for it (Douglass, 81). Thus, the strength of the innate notion of human freedom is to some degree a matter of cultural inheritance, due to the influence of the education provided by one's culture. The result of Douglass' reading is that his education is not confined to the indoctrination pressed upon him by his cultural circumstances. His formation in knowledge and understanding “rekindles the few expiring embers of freedom,” and “revives in [him] the sense of [his] own manhood” (Douglass, 78).

10 December, 2008

Just a note

I'm doing some maintainance on this site just now, which includes deleting some of the links for the blogs I've linked to which seem to have become largely defunct since I posted them. I'm going to work on looking out for any others whose theme would blend well with that of this blog.

On a completely unrelated note, I just got back from the UD English Department Christmas party, and was quite impressed by the deliciousness of the food. Salmon with dill, spinach dip with flat bread, hummus, truffles, and quite a nice variety of desserts. Jolly good.

We also had a reading of an Anglo-Saxon hymn that was set up a dialogue between Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus. Joseph was criticizing Mary at first, thinking that she had been unfaithful to him, and Mary replies by defending herself through a sophisticated exposition of the Catholic doctrine of the Virgin birth. It was rather interesting, although I was rather disappointed at the portrayal of St. Joseph, who wouldn't have reacted so judgmentally, I think. It was fascinating to hear the ideas laid out in a language and format that was so reminiscent of Beowulf or some other poem from about that time period

05 December, 2008

Nietzsche vs Christianity

In one of our recent philosophy colloquiums, Fr. James Lehrberger presented a rather interesting discussion of the 19th century German philosopher, Nietzsche, and his critique of Christianity. I've heard plenty about the guy before, but not his specific argument against the faith.

Basically, Fr. Lehrberger allowed Christian doctrine to provide its own answer to Nietzsche's accusation that it is a religion fueled by an unconscious envy, hatred, and spirit of revenge. This answer is quite useful for what it attempts to disprove (namely that vengeance and hatred are at the heart of Christian doctrine). However, it does not attempt to address the fundamental discord between Nietzsche's philosophy and the tenets of Christianity, the fact that each simultaneously claims to be the only true path to human fulfillment. Nietzsche's assertion that Christianity consciously celebrates weakness and subservience and rejoices in the destruction of the strong was shown by Fr. Lehrberger's argument to be inaccurate: Christianity claims with every bit as much confidence as Nietzsche to the the route to a fuller and more glorious humanity. This nonetheless leaves us, however, with two radically opposed pictures of what it means to be human, each of which alleges that the other will in practice destroy everything dynamic and noble in a man.

For Nietzsche, the ultimate human good is the advantage of the individual. Christian emphasis on a person's duties towards others seems to him no more than an attempt of the weak to depict standards protecting their kind from robbery, murder, tyranny, or other "crimes" as based upon some objective moral standard. Only the weak and vulnerable benefit from commandments and laws forbidding violence or trickery, while those who are strong and intelligent enough to use such means for their gain are penalized. The greatest human good is realized in whatever person is most independent of such effeminate myths, most free to use his natural advantages to his own benefit, and most rich in those advantages which allow him to retain this independence unchallenged.

A very different conception of what it means to be human drives the message of Christianity. Man is not brought to perfection but in fact is dehumanized when he isolates himself from his fellow men and acts in a manner that puts him into constant competition with them. To be human is to be an intrinsically relational being. Whatever actions harm one's fellow men harm oneself as well, and true humanity therefore necessarily excludes whatever actions violate the standards of just interaction between human beings. Conversely, actions which benefit the weak benefit also the actor, as in strengthening one member of the Body of Christ, they bring a more perfect life to all.

Essentially the question that one who examines Nietzsche's critique carefully must ultimately face is whether his proposal or the Church's message promises true human fulfillment. An adequate answer would fill a book at least, but it is true that to some extent, the latter option makes more intuitive sense. As we live our lives, it's hard to make the case that we are most complete as lone individuals seem very convincing at all to ourselves. The principle of rationality really does appear in our daily lives as a concrete reality, and it is from this experiential base that we can be motivated to help defend the Christian view of man's meaning in life.