The Liberal Arts Philosophy of Frederick Douglass


I presented this talk in PowerPoint format at St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Sanborn, NY in the Spring of 2017. This is a localized application of the classic liberal arts pedagogy which I set forth in a previous post, The Role of Literature within the Liberal Arts Philosophy. I have admired Frederick Douglass since I first encountered his writings as an undergraduate student, specifically in My Bondage and My Freedom, the second of his three autobiographies. This talk, however, focuses on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the first of the biographies published in 1845. In today’s culture, where the modern university is struggling financially and ideologically to find its place in the world, taking a moment to understand how education requires both proper motivation and suitable conception to be valuable, I think pausing to reflect over the impact education had upon Douglass’s life has value for all of us. Douglass was not educated within the institutions of the Liberal Arts curriculum, and yet he develops, through the occasions of grace which he seized upon with impressive energy, effort, and conviction, a philosophy of the liberal arts which would have earned the admiration of any classic liberal arts pedagogue.

A good liberal arts perspective recognizes the importance of defining terms before using them in conversation, because basic vocabulary is what we build our thoughts upon, and our thoughts shape our lives. So we must begin with philosophy – which in Greek means “the Love of Wisdom.”


Of course, this presents us with other difficulties – what do we mean by Love, and what by Wisdom? As we shall see, although Douglass had many critical things to say of those Christians in America which did nothing to oppose slavery (or, shamefully, even supported it), at the root of Douglass’s philosophy was the essence of the Christian understanding of Love: that it is the primary mode of being by which we ought to engage both God and man. The two halves of the Great Commandment from Christ sets out a framework that applies to every aspect of human endeavor, which would include education. To learn math well, for example, does not just require a rational effort: you must engage the challenges of math with all you’ve got, especially if you’re terrible at it like I happen to be. Then you must be able to find local application for that math – to simply know it is not enough.

This is where neighborliness comes into play – Is your checkbook balanced, and do you help your friend who needs a financial hand? The theory and practice of any subject in education must be brought together if they are to be wise, or else they can become mindlessly “useful” (which might leave aside the question of whether it is good) or pointlessly intelligent (the vice of sloth about which academics must always be careful). It is Love, the desire for wisdom, the universal truth applied and directed to the concrete particular (the individual submitting to God and loving his neighbor), which converts such knowledge into wisdom. And it is the lifelong pursuit of this conversion of subject matter into a better life which makes one a philosopher. We see Frederick awakening to the duties of loving his neighbor in the following, horrific experience which imprinted itself upon him as a child:


Douglass’s fear is an intertwined terror that this could happen to him too, as well as the overwhelming feeling of helplessness in the face of such monstrous abuse. Seeing such abuse might well render one monstrous – after all, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Yet there is a choice involved: do you become like the violence around you, or do you choose to rise above it precisely because you saw first-hand how horrible it was? Although Douglass does later learn to wield the strength of his arm, it is in defense rather than in vicious offense. But what awoke in him at that moment was a recognition that something was terribly wrong with the world in which he lived, and he developed a thirst to transcend it. The inarticulate cries of the abused female slave were juxtaposed with Douglass’s own acute perception of the knowledge he lacked which white children his age had and took for granted.


Frederick’s experience of a deeper, spiritual reality within his private meditations opened him to the world of ethos – the inborn predisposition to rhetoric that comes with being a person, an undeveloped yet intuitive attachment to a truth within his mind, heart, and soul that could not be quenched even with all the adversity to which he was subjected. Powerful as this insight was, however, he knew it was an inkling and knew he needed to find a way to develop this deep conviction from an intuition to articulated truth which shaped and sustained his identity, and could be shared with others. For this, he needed the arts which refine and develop the natural gifts of human beings – the arts.


Arts relate to particular subject matters, but also show how those subject matters integrate into other subjects, as well as how they weigh upon real life. Access to these arts was something Douglass realized demarcated a profound difference between him and his fellow slaves, and between those who had liberty.


It is an unfortunate and heartbreaking truth that even in its conception, education was crafted by men who often held slaves or even argued for its existence. Yet it is sometimes to the credit of people that often they are not entirely consistent in their beliefs – ordinarily inconsistency would be considered an intellectual vice, but the slaveholder who espoused education had in his grasp the very lens by which he might see his own folly. Since ancient times, it was believed that the effect of learning was to free the soul, to make it less dependent upon the chains of Fate, the fickleness of social descriptions and capriciousness of unjust abuses of authority. Just as slavery was antithetical to the institution of the Constitution’s philosophy even though, for a time, it was permitted under the Constitution, in the same way there is a deep and unsustainable tension between the belief in the edifying power of education upon the human soul and the belief that humans can be treated as property. This was Frederick’s fundamental realization.

[It must be realized here that “liberal” ought to be rigorously separated in this context from politically liberal, because I believe that the liberal arts philosophy is one that ought to form a common ground between all members of a Democratic Republic, rather than one political party. The politicization of the University, a process which has been under way for sometime, has exacerbated negative feelings between political Liberals and Conservatives, undermining in my view the power education has to create productive dialogue between people with different political temperaments and beliefs. This is, to my mind, a very sad state of affairs.]


Mrs. Auld was not an abolitionist – it was her husband who owned him as a slave, after all. But her belief in slavery was at natural, and unrecognized, odds with her identity as a teacher – without any subversive intent, she simply began teaching him how to read. Mr. Auld, however, was aware of the implications (and so more wicked in his actions) when he put a stop to the lessons. Frederick realizes that it is the withholding of knowledge that was a major supporting structure in the power which slaveholders held over their slaves, and so his longing for knowledge went from a spark to a flame. He would stop children in the street and challenge them to reading contests in order to extract their schoolroom knowledge from them, a brilliant sleight of hand. What Douglass realized, as perhaps the children did not but as Mr. Auld did, was that becoming knowledgeable is an inherent value, and as it instructs the individual into greater refinement of identity, being subject to lower order desires for good things on the behalf of others becomes, in proportion, less tolerable.


When someone asks you, “Why do you want to be healthy?”, the right reaction is to give them a puzzled look. It is not for anything which we desire health, not initially anyway. It is simply something we desire, and other actions we take (exercise and dieting for example) are explained by the desire to be healthy, not the other way around. So it is with cultivating wisdom through the absorption of knowledge. The soul wants it, more than anything useful or pleasant, and just needs the right motivation to realize it. In the case of Douglass, the manner in which slavery caused a conflict between higher and lower order goods was what caught his attention and motivated him to begin to educate himself.


To destroy a family for profit, as had happened to Frederick in his inability to know his mother (and indeed to be separated from his father, who was probably his first slaveholder), was a destructive subordination of a higher order good to a lower order one. We do, even in less dramatic circumstances, sometimes get confused about which goods to privilege in life, which is why, in the liberal arts philosophy, it is necessary to cultivate the virtues, which are those inborn capacities that can be developed and refined through the arts.


A life is not complete if it has not to some degree cultivated both the life of the mind and the life of action, as well as the sub-virtues associated with each. We are all, of course, going to be better at certain virtues and be disposed, for a variety of reasons, to different uses of them, but some manifestation of reason, imagination, and sensory sophistication integrated with discipleship to that which we deem worthy of development, practicing leadership when we have absorbed an appropriate amount of discipleship in the particular arenas in which we participate, caring for our bodies and pursuing a meaningful career of some kind, is necessary regardless of profession. But slavery is deleterious to every dimension of self-development, as we can see in Douglass’s account:


Slaves betray their reason by being forced to lie, have their imaginations hounded by the fears involved in seeking liberty, and have their senses deprived of essential experiences of physical development (seeing mother’s face). They were cut off from the life of action by being refused discipleship, punished for exercising leadership when they had obtained appropriate skills for doing so, prevented from caring from their bodies, and being arbitrarily and maliciously prevented from productive labor since it would loosen the bindings of servitude. It’s worth considering that if this is the external condition under which slavery occurs, then when we assault or neglect these virtues in ourselves, we create a sort of internal slavery. A slaveholder, Boethius would say, would himself be a slave to the irrational, unimaginative, and insensible desires that make him even want to hold such power over others. Douglass says as much in many places. And it is in language where the tools for combating slavery can be found, as well as the perversion of those tools in which the promotion of slavery was made possible.


Our human capacities cannot but manifest themselves, and as George MacDonald says of the imagination, if we do not develop them to the good or repress them entirely, it is only a matter of time before our inherent qualities manifest themselves in negative ways. Thus one may use language to harm, but the art of language, to truly be a philosophically liberal use of that art, must promote the good for individuals with authentic and careful wisdom.


The law is in a sense the grammar of society, and defining individuals in such a way as to ensure that sexual abuse and slavery will not only come into conflict but will actually help to propagate each other is one of the most evil strokes of diabolical genius in American history. This is definition externally and illberally imposed by capricious society, and we can see a philosophical, artful realization of grammar when Douglass, by contrast, apprehends the powerful grammatical reality of his own identity as an abolitionist. Definition here is no mere textbook set of words, but the creation of unity between Douglass’s universal convictions and his practical goals in life.


The logical fallacy used by Mr. Gore, a type of slippery slope, is rooted in the psychology of projection – he assumes that black people would act as white people actually were. It is literally a pathological argument: he uses fear to abrogate the duties of reason. In the second case we see the proper use of logic – to order our perceptions to a better conception of human nature.


Rhetoric is the master discipline of the trivium because it takes the meaning of grammar and the truth of logic and uses it to evoke in the will an appropriate response – to properly feel as one ought to feel about a true and meaningful idea, and to act in accordance with that meaningful experience of truth. Mr. Covey’s words could certainly produce effects in the will, but he did it in a literally Satanic manner, for he militated against the truths of the mind, body, and soul. Meanwhile, in the midst of the enforced and lived lie which constituted the American institution of slavery, the strain of enslaved voices who could envision their freedom properly excites the passions to sympathy for the human condition of these people.


Douglass’s autobiographies, which I strongly recommend reading in their entirety, share this basic message: authentic education frees us from the maliciousness and capriciousness of unjust society, and incorporates us into an edifying world of scintillating ideas and purposeful actions. The effort to nourish our virtues through the study and practice of the arts is nothing less than the endeavor to become ourselves, and if we each sought truth with love with our whole power, and lived lives more responsibly with duty towards our neighbors, we would become philosophers such that we never ask, “What should I do today?”, but rather, “What can I be today?” We can let the uplifting and glorious light of truth into our souls and begin the self-fashioning work to which it calls all of us.

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