Workshop on Happiness, Virtue, and the Meaning of Life at Stockholm University | May 5-6, 2017

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This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.

Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).

Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).

FREE ADMISSION „ Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).

For more information: www.philosophy.su.se/happiness-virtue-meaning-of-life

 

 

Download the poster: Workshop-Happiness-VIrtue-Meaning-Poster.pdf

Boethius on Happiness Part II: Happiness and Love

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Image found on the post Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from “the bower” blog.

Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.

I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?

I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.

Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.

Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.

Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.

Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.

Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.

 

Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

In Honor of International Day of Happiness: Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness. Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

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“Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius” – image courtesy Getty.edu

Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal.  How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune.  Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills.  This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control?  Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).

Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character.[1] But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied?  Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good?  Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?

Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else.  In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:

“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”[2]

The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.

The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.”  He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.”  Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:

Foolish the friends who called me happy then

For falling shows a man stood insecure.

While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him.  She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly.  She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress.  She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature.  This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.

Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient.  She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss.  Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness.  The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune.  Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate.  When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:

It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.  Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.[3]

Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures.  Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.

Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it.  Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed.  A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more.  Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue.  This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.

Tomorrow, Part II of Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness continues with “Happiness and Love.”

[1] For example, see Rosalind Hursthouse’s claim that virtue is a “safe bet.” On Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 185

[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals. Edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 8.

[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts.  London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 25


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Last Week in Virtue: Atheists, Good Pagans and the Scandal of Hypocrisy

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Pope Francis in his homily at the morning Mass at the Casa Santa Marta on February 23, 2017.

This post marks the first of a new occasional series, “Last Week in Virtue.”

“But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another; it is a double life, a double life. A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money…’ A double life. And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard – all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere – ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal. You destroy. You beat down. And this happens every day, it’s enough to see the news on TV, or to read the papers. In the papers there are so many scandals, and there is also the great publicity of the scandals. And with the scandals there is destruction.” –Pope Francis homily, February 23, 2017 (Link)

 

On February 23 Pope Francis gave a homily that received widespread media attention, not so much for its message—a fairly traditional one about the sin of hypocrisy—but because the media seized on the Pope’s assertion that even an atheist was better than an observant Catholic leading a “double,” or hypocritical, life. Daniel Burke’s headline, at CNN, promptly declared, “Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian.” Burke discussed the Pope’s idea of scandal, noting that scandal is a particularly sensitive word for the Catholic Church. But the headline to his article shows the Pope’s notion of scandal eclipsed here by what the news media saw as a shout out to virtuous atheists.

 

UPI concurred, “Pope: ‘Better to be an atheist’ than a Christian living a ‘double life.’”  The Huffington Post followed: “Pope Francis Slams Hypocrite Christians, Suggests Atheists Are Better.”

 

Even some Catholic publications found the atheism angle too tempting to resist: Crux, an online newsletter, trumpeted “Pope says better an atheist than a Catholic living a double life.”

 

In emphasizing the atheism story, the media in many ways replicated the very sense of scandal that the Pope decried in his homily, with headlines repeating over and over that the Pope would rather have a world full of good atheists than vicious Catholics. Looking closely at the Pope’s words shows that his concern in this case is as much on the shame of the public spectacle of Catholic hypocrisy as it is on celebrating virtuous nonbelievers: “How many times have we heard—all of us, around the neighborhood and elsewhere—‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’”

 

The news clearly liked the second part of his sentence better than the first part, but the emphasis in his speech is not on the virtue of atheism, but the terrible destructiveness of the scandal of hypocrisy, and how this kind of publicity, this kind of circulation of these images of Christians as vile hypocrites, destroys trust and faith. “You destroy. You beat down.”

 

We all know whenever one of these stories about Christian hypocrisy circulates, he says, that everybody looks at it and says, Better to be an atheist than one of “those” hypocritical Christians. We all understand, he is saying, that hypocrisy is a terrible sin, and we all would agree that an atheist without hypocrisy is better than a so-called believer who claims to believe in Christian charity while acting in a way that harms and exploits vulnerable people. The stress here is on the harm caused by the hypocrite, and on the news stories that emphasize that these kinds of so-called Christians—powerful Catholics who pretend to have generosity while actually treating others with great cruelty– are everywhere.

 

In one sense, then, the Pope wants to remind the hypocrite to return to a virtuous life by pointing out that their salvation is anything but assured. He wants to confront the sinner squarely with the sin—the fault of scandal lies with the hypocrite, not the news. He expands on the dishonesty of hypocrisy to show that it also includes the destructiveness of bad example and public scandal. At the same time, he uses the example of the atheist to remind listeners that good actions matter more than identity. A virtuous life might make a good person—even an earnest atheist—more fit for salvation than a person who goes to church regularly but steals wages from their employees.

 

Why is this notion of the virtuous atheist so attractive?

 

The virtuous atheist here seems a lot like the old trope of the virtuous pagan, whose fate preoccupied medieval scholars concerned with the salvation of those outside the Church, especially the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers they admired. Traditionally virtuous pagans fell roughly into two categories: those who had been offered Christian salvation and turned it down, and those who never had the opportunity to convert because of factors like chronology or geography. [1] To medieval scholars, it seemed patently unfair that the eminent philosophers, poets, and Old Testament scholars and patriarchs they studied should be automatically damned. They dreamed up various solutions, such as Christ descending to hell to baptize good people who had somehow ended up there, Limbos that resembled Paradise where good pagans might be housed until the Last Judgment, and the idea, championed by Thomas Aquinas and others, that following a virtuous life might lead a good person—even an atheist—to faith and salvation.

 

It may be that some journalists mistakenly believed that the Pope was acknowledging that a good life and afterlife could be had completely and forever outside the Church, which he wasn’t. The virtuous pagan doesn’t get to remain outside the Church forever, but at some point is expected to be led by virtue to Catholic conversion. This belief was seen last week in Vatican news sources that stressed this aspect of the Pope’s homily, such as Vatican Radio’s “Pope: Don’t put off conversion, give up a double life.”

 

However, it is not a stretch to say the Pope remains more concerned with doing good in the world than he is with the particulars of Church affiliation. According to Catholic Online, Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

 

In this diverse and secular age, there is something particularly appealing about the idea that it is the virtuous life that matters most, that it reveals its own truth regardless of religious faith. The Pope’s example of the virtuous atheist as better than the sinful Catholic appealed to the media last week because it emphasized that cultivating virtue is more important than membership, association, or influence. Not all of us can be powerful, rich, or politically well-connected, but each of us can try to be good. The stamp of religious membership might indicate that a good person stands before you, but it also might be true that the person who sets themselves up as a Christian paragon is a liar. By suggesting that virtuous action matters more than religious affiliation, wealth, or political power, the Pope appealed to a public weary of moral posturing and hungry for more discussion of how we all might cultivate genuine character, real compassion, and true moral direction by striving to be good in the world.

 

[1] Cindy L. Vitto, The Virtuous Pagan In Middle English Literature, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 79, No. 5 (1989), pp. 1-100; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1006545

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

[CFA] Virtue, Skill and Practical Reason

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University of Cape Town. Photo from  http://studiesabroad.com/programs/country/south_africa/city/cape_town/viewUniversity.

We’re happy to post this call for abstracts from one of our Summer Session 2016 participants, philosopher Tom Angier.

Virtue, Skill and Practical Reason

 

Keynote Speakers:

Prof. Julia Annas (University of Arizona)

Prof. Michael Thompson (University of Pittsburgh)

Prof. Rachel Barney (University of Toronto)

 

Aristotle drew an analogy between the acquisition of virtue and the acquisition of various skills such as archery and playing the lute. Since that time there has been substantial debate on how seriously one should take that analogy. In Intelligent Virtue (2011) Julia Annas has made a powerful case for taking that analogy very seriously, whereas others are more cautious.

 

This conference aims to bring together philosophers working in the virtue tradition, in particular those working in ancient and moral philosophy, to discuss the complex relationships between skill and virtue. There appears to be a consensus that the acquisition of virtue is part of the broader acquisition of practical reasonableness, but there the consensus ends.

 

High quality abstracts are invited in any area of virtue theory, including but not limited to virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. Papers can have a historical focus, or they can be organised thematically. Papers from a non-Western perspective are welcome.

 

The conference will be held from Friday 25th to Sunday 27th August 2017 at the spectacular University of Cape Town, and there will be ample opportunities for sight-seeing.

 

Invited speakers

 

Profs Sergio Tenenbaum and James Allen (University of Toronto), Sarah Stroud (University of McGill), John Hacker-Wright (University of Guelph).

 

Submissions

Please email an abstract of between 300 and 500 words, to virtueandskill@gmail.com by Friday 31st March 2017.

Additional information

You will have 30/40 minutes for the paper presentation followed by a 30/20 minutes discussion. We regret we cannot cover expenses for accepted speakers. We are planning a published volume containing selected papers from the conference.

Organisers

 

Dr Tom Angier (University of Cape Town) and Dr Richard Hamilton (University of Notre Dame, Australia).

For further information, please contact: virtueandskill@gmail.com

 

 

 

On the Eve of a New Administration: Frederick Douglass on Civic Virtue in Turbulent Times

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Frederick Douglass. Image from VermontHumanities.org.

 

Frederick Douglass is alive.

 

At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The Atlantic, Feb 1 2017.

 

Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.

 

April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.

 

The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”

 

For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”

 

He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”

 

Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”

 

Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”

 

Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”

 

“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”

 

Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”

 

Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.

 

Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. The Civil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.

 

Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”

 

Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”

 

For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.