The Classical Mind Newsletter for December 9, 2022
On the Canonical Status of Frederick Douglass, Clint Smith on Germany and Aristotle, "Newport Rocks," Being Critical, AI's Impact on Academic Writing, "The Pillow," and Eliot's Apocalyptic Prophecy
The next book we will be discussing on the podcast is On the Consolation of Philosophy.
Check out Jared’s newest video about how reading philosophy saved him from burnout:
If you haven’t listened/watched, you can watch the discussion with Dr. Anika Prather on Frederick Douglass here.
On the Canonical Status of Frederick Douglass
To lead off today’s newsletter, I [Wesley] am switching it up a little by writing some reflections. Recently, we received the following comment—which I have edited for clarity and specificity—on our episode with Dr. Prather about Frederick Douglass:
I think [this episode] lacks universality and importance. Yes, the US history of slavery is huge, but nothing when you compare it to some philosophical questions like ‘to learn how to die’, ‘how to live a good life', or ‘the scientific revolution’, which would apply to every human being. Also, the slavery of black people in the US is just one of the latest cases of slavery (as terrible as all cases are); Greeks slaves other Greeks for centuries, Black people from certain countries in Africa enslaved other black people, etc, so why choose this particular book? Especially considering there will only be 10 books a year (the other 2 I seem to remember will be proposed by other people rather than the authors of the podcast). Is this truly a canon book that has fundamentally shaped the Western world's thinking? Why not choose the Bible itself, or part of it, or St Augustine's Confessions, or Aquinas' works? If both Jared and Wesley weren't from the US, would have they chosen this book?
First, I want to say that I always appreciate feedback. Having a community where we can ask hard questions and engage in in-depth discussions is a good thing! Nothing I’m saying in this post should be read as defensive or angry. I think the commenter raises some interesting points about the nature of the canon, the relationship between the particular and the universal, and Frederick Douglass himself.
From the beginning, Jared and I have articulated a vision of the Western Canon that tries to be concrete, inclusive, and conversational. By concrete, I mean that we both affirm that there is a Western Canon that contains certain works. An inclusive canon is one that is humanistic, generous, and expansive. The goal of the canon is to guide and contribute to an unfolding conversation about the human experience. The books we pick for the podcast represent a wide range of experiences from various eras. Douglass represents a more modern entry in the canon but it is hard to imagine we are neglecting the older works. In fact, the opposite is true; The Consolation of Philosophy, Beowulf, and Macbeth are the next three works we will be delving into on the show. Personally, I like the approach of selecting an eclectic set of works from across the canon rather than working our way chronologically or thematically through it because it allows us to sample a larger swath of works and see them in conversation with each other.
On that note, it is important to recognize that all of us enter into this larger conversation from particular social contexts. For example, Plato and Aristotle, while certainly advocates of Truth, entered into that through their sociocultural milieu. The examples and figures they point to, the vocabulary they use, and the development of their ideas place them in a context. While our particularity can create certain deficiencies by limiting our imagination and experiences, it is also necessary to be able to access that which is transcendent. Frederick Douglass speaks to the historically particular situation of American slavery; however, his context is what enables him to speak to universal human experiences. Further, the enduring relevance of Douglass can be ascertained from the commenter’s point that American slavery is an instance of a larger pattern of domination and exploitation deeply ingrained in human history. In picking a book like Douglass, enmeshed in a historical context as it is, we are able to access the questions our friend wants us to be asking. How do we learn how to die? How do we live a good life? Both of these questions are deeply connected to Douglass’ autobiography.
So why Douglass? First, Douglass’ autobiography is a classic. This is true because his work has stood the test of time. This durability is due to his testimony to the human spirit in the face of suffering. Second, Douglass’ approach to his situation was rooted in the classical tradition and represents an extension of it. He carries those conversations that people have been having for thousands of years into a more modern moment. This can be seen in many ways, but I think one clear example is in his appeal to American ideals of freedom and Christian ideals of dignity to make his case. Much like Socrates prophetically addressed his status quo from within, Douglass’ critique highlights the hypocrisy of American slavery by appealing to the lofty ideals embedded in Western civilization. The third and final reason why Douglass fits with our agenda at The Classical Mind is that he demonstrates why education in the classics matters. Here is a man who taught himself to read and harness the power of rhetoric to instill positive virtues, feats he accomplished no doubt in part due to his natural aptitude, but also because he was intentional to develop those intellectual and moral virtues we have talked about before.
It is right and good to explore the contours of the canon. Each entry we explore on this podcast will be rooted in space, time, and social contexts. We do not find these limitations to restrict our access to the universal, but actively contribute to the unfolding of the conversation. I am so thankful for Dr. Prather’s willingness to come on the show and speak about Frederick Douglass. She has two books that say more than this post ever could: Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experience of African-American Students Reading Great Books Literature and The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature.
“Monuments to the Unthinkable” by Clint Smith
This Clint Smith article from The Atlantic pairs well with our most recent podcast episode about Frederick Douglass with Dr. Anika Prather.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Classical Mind to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.