Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”

Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself

by Frederick Douglass, edited by Benjamin Quarles

I know of no book, and no reading experience, like this one.  Years ago, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin of whose author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln said when he met her in the White House, “Is this the little lady who wrote a book and started a great war?”  More recently, I read Barracoon, the memoir of the last former American slave to remember Africa, as collected by the great Zora Neale Hurston.  And from time to time, fragmentary reports of lives in bondage must have come my way, from diaries or interviews with ex-slaves.

This book is in a class by itself.  Frederick Douglass was the man who understood, through a genius for moral understanding, what the slave system was all about: the coarsening of every instinct — for the true, the good and the beautiful. 

The True?  If any master got wind of a slave’s dissatisfaction, he would vent the cruelest rage on the reported dissenter.  So one learned to dissimulate.  And of course the cruelties themselves were an admission, by those who used them, that no one would keep herself or himself in the condition of property if he or she could escape it.

The Good?  Douglass is a young man in his twenties before he encounters a white woman who seems spontaneously kind-hearted.  He has not long been in her household before her new husband schools her in the brutal mores demanded by the slave regime.  In consequence, all the grace and tenderness leave her face, voice and conduct.  She loses her goodness.

The Beautiful?  Human beings are drawn by desire toward what is beautiful.  The normalization of rape (masters as unacknowledged fathers), the ripping apart of family ties (mothers sold away from their children) – these ubiquitous deformities profane the life of desire itself.

Meanwhile, how does Frederick Douglass do it?  How does he realize the full depth of what has been inflicted on him from infancy?  How does he teach himself (by subterfuge) to read?  How does he acquire the skills that will prepare him one day to live in freedom?  How does he finally escape?

He answers all these burning questions (save the last, so as not to implicate others) but leaves still burning — like a bonfire in the night — the one abiding question:

how does a human being come to know

that life at the human level

 requires freedom?


How the Scots Invented the Modern World:  The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It

by Arthur Herman

What (before I read this book) did I know about the Scots?  From the romance novels of my youth, I knew that the men usually showed up in kilts and fought for the Stuart king, Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose claim to the British throne ended in 1745 at the disastrous Battle of Culloden.  Indeed, Netflix’s time-travel series, “The Outlander,” follows this formula pretty much to the letter.

I also knew that my Uncle Oscar married a Scottish girl, Aunt Janet, who converted to Judaism.  Through this union, I have three first cousins, Douglas, Glenn and Bruce Rosenthal, whom I’ve not seen in years.   When I raised the question of their visiting Scotland, none of them showed interest.

At Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy, where I was a Research Affiliate, I learned that the Department had been given its character by a strong-willed Scotsman, John Anderson, who’d stamped the place with his idiosyncratic mix of philosophic assumptions and personal traits.

I never met a person of Scots descent who wanted to go home again.  Everyone to whom I suggested it shrugged as if the returning son or daughter would find nothing there to satisfy curiosity or sentiment.  Only misty hills and wild animals.

Well, space won’t permit me to give an adequate sense of what the Scots contributed to our world in the way of genuinely constructive attitudes, ideas and inventions.  How about a modernity founded not on skepticism but on a common sense trust in experience?  How about openness to scientific discoveries along with a generous acceptance of the religious aspects in a human life?  How about the view that liberty is essential to political life?  How about a strong devotion to education combined with the conviction of human equality?  How about a respect for intellect that does not let it outrank practical skill and inventiveness?  How about a list of distinguished thinkers (Thomas Reid, Adam Smith), inventors (Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell) and benefactors (Andrew Carnegie, Dr. David Livingstone) as long as your good right arm?

Do dip into this book.  You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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