Friday, July 7, 2017

The gods of Secularism When Tested So Often Have Feet Of Clay

This year in my part of New England has been allergy hell, I've been continually ill since things started blooming, maybe even after things started melting and though by now the pollen situation has settled down, not this year.   So I didn't get to pointing out yesterday that RMJ has a fuller treatment with a slightly different angle on that passage from Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin editing Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence posted by the estimable NTodd.

RMJ's point about why Jefferson got it right and Franklin wrong is very good:

Well, no; "Franklin's edit turned it instead into an assertion of [insularity]."  The "we" who hold these truths to be "self-evident" are set apart from the "they" who don't.  Strictly speaking it's exclusionary.  It may be an exclusion you think is sound and defensible because it is presumptively rational, but rational is not a one-size fits all model that places the subject so declared beyond purview.  It simply says "we" all agree on this and if you don't, you are NOK.  And so perhaps, as played out in the history of the country begun with those words, these truths don't apply to you.

Jefferson had it right the first time.  I wouldn't have said so if I didn't know the story of this edit, but Jefferson was right, and the elder man Franklin was wrong.

He goes on to point out the problems of both but he notes that even today, or at least in our generation, people still interpreted "unalienable" truths to mean more of what Jefferson meant than what Franklin did.  Or at least the Jefferson of 1776, the Jefferson of two decades later had pretty much dropped any opposition to slavery as he increased his organization of the people he kept in slavery to increase their productivity FOR HIM.

In Isaacson's paragraph that started this off, he attributed the difference between Jefferson and Franklin to the influence of two of the leading lights of 18th century enlightenment philosophy, for Franklin, David Hume, for Jefferson, John Locke.

It reminded me of two papers I read at about the same time dealing with the philosopher who Isaacson attributed Franklin's more "enlightened" edit to,  David Hume and his blatant racism in several of his writings and whether or not he actually was due the credit his fans and those of the enlightenment as a thing claim for him along with others.

One one hand, there is Hume and Prejudice by Robert Palter, as it is published by the Hume Society it isn't surprising that it is a defense of Hume against the charge of racism and defending his right to be considered an abolitionist, on the other there is Making excuses for Hume: slavery, racism and a reassessment of David Hume’s thoughts on personal liberty, by Glen Doris, making what I consider the more persuasive argument that Hume was an obvious racist and that any opposition to slavery he expressed made a distinction between the relatively rare domestic slavery in Europe, which he abhorred, and the far more common and pressing slavery in the European colonies which didn't seem to bother him nearly that much.   Glen Doris noted that there were, in fact, enlightenment philosophers, especially John Millar and Adam Smith whose detailed opposition to slavery qualified them as authentic abolitionists far more than Hume.

I think what is at work in the inflation of virtue for someone like Hume by their intellectual partisans is similar to the deification of the Founders or any person who is held up as a hero - virtues they have little claim to must be claimed on their behalf.   I've run into that a lot here where people such as Darwin, Voltaire and other "enlightenment" figures have been elevated far past what their own written record supports.  The modern, academic, scientific, materialist, atheist milieu in which so many of the alleged leftists and not an inconsiderable number of conservatives think and write is as dependent on fudging and fables spun in the secondary and tertiary literature as any considered to be more intellectually debased.  Only when your pretense is academic excellence, violating the need to take the primary records most seriously should carry extra penalties in repute.  But that's seldom the case because dealing with the primary record often maintained in an academic library has been so difficult, up till now.   As I've noted many times, for many of those deified figures, that's over because much of if not virtually their complete writings are available for free online.

It is certainly necessary to note that Isaacson credited John Locke as being Jefferson's favorite philosopher and the inspiration of his phrasing "Sacred and undeniable" as opposed to Franklin's "self-evident" supported slavery (as well as feudal domination by an aristocracy) in his Fundamental Constitution of Carolina. In the sections of his Constitution on religious liberty Locke rather bizarrely granted slaves the right to choose their religious denomination but they weren't free to choose anything else for themselves.

One hundred and seven. Since charity obliges us to wish well to the souls of all men, and religion ought to alter nothing in any man's civil estate or right, it shall be lawful for slaves, as well as others, to enter themselves, and be of what church or profession any of them shall think best, and, therefore, be as fully members as any freeman. But yet no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him, but be in all things in the same state and condition he was In before.

One hundred and ten. Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.

Considering his obvious low opinion of Black people's intellectual abilities - or how could he justify their enslavement - it is strange that he would entrust those peoples' judgement with the welfare of their souls he claims to "wish well" even as he obviously distrusted it in deciding where to live, who to marry, what work they would do and, most of all, with their right to the product of their own labor. I would think that even someone who has some tendency to abhor slavery - even as they practice it, themselves - would find more of an exemption for it in Locke than a condemnation strong enough to make you give up and oppose the institution of slavery at your own cost.  Jefferson, from what can be seen of his personal record, wasn't that big on letting principle cost him anything, nevermind morality.

The "enlightenment" was a lot less enlightened and the scientific rationality of its bright lights is probably no less arbitrarily displayed than for the earlier intellectual traditions.  I noted that neither of the papers above mentioned that even as Hume and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were carrying on there were religious abolitionists who went a lot farther than they did, I've mentioned the great Quaker abolitionist John Woolman who was tireless in trying to convince his fellow Quakers to give up slavery and whose essays on the topic of slavery are way beyond the racism of Hume, of Voltaire, of any number of other heroes of the so-called Enlightenment.  It's too bad that Franklin - who certainly must have been quite familiar with Woolman - didn't take him more seriously.   Unlike Jefferson, who, as mentioned, increased his slavery and advocated it to his wealthy friends and their families, John Woolman, a far from rich man, spent his life on difficult, unpaid missionary trips to many of what he wouldn't live to see become states to gently agitate against slavery, succeeding in talking many of his fellow Quakers into giving it up.  He died on a missionary trip with the same purpose to England.  His journal and his several essays* are a continual insight into the moral evils he witnessed, confessing that by acting as a scribe, as a young man, he had sinned by participating in conveying ownership of slaves, his repentance in that was obviously important in his life-long abolition work.   There are others who can be mentioned, many of them former or escaped slaves, themselves, whose arguments, if they were based on the Declaration of Independence cite it and its author more out of ironic condemnation.  I've mentioned the little known David Walker already.

I think when you look at the full range of those who made abolition of slavery and going farther than that, asserting the equality of people the religious character of both efforts is noteworthy.  I think that helps identify the more reliable source of an articulation and, even more important, the dedication of lives to working and fighting for that equality as decidedly not being enlightenment rationalism but a close reading of the Hebrew scriptures and taking them seriously.  As I noted yesterday, even as Paul was giving that advice he has been understandably condemned for, slaves should obey their masters, he told the masters that they had an obligation to treat those the law considered slaves as they would like their own family members and themselves to be treated.   It is similar to another passage in which he assigns role to husbands and wives - keeping in mind that all of his epistles are trying to encourage a closer, the closest fidelity of lives lived in the world he and those he wrote to inhabited. He was only encouraging people he knew would be constantly influenced and pressured to live a pagan life in opposition to those teachings to follow them as closely as they could in reality.  He wasn't setting out commandments, that was for the likes of Jesus and Moses to do, he was encouraging a closer following of them.

If the Law that you should do to others what you would have them do unto you were followed, there would be no slavery, no racism, no treating the alien among us as unequal, of treating women differently than men were, of treating every other person the way you would like to be treated if you were in their position in life.  That requires an act of imagining yourself in the place of other people, people you might consider not as bright as you are, not as couth, not as accomplished.   That is not thinking which is scientific, not a rational consideration of gain for yourself.   It is an act of religious imagination more than it is anything else. It is the beginning of equality and democracy, it is also the end of it.  You get away from that, you've abandoned those.   I don't think you can successfully create or locate those in science.

*  Though a very good modern edition of the Journal  and his major essays edited by Phillips Moulton has been published, here is the link to an older edition of his journal and some of his other writings.   Here is one of his two major essays against slavery.  As I mentioned in a month long series of posts about the history of the abolition movement, John Woolman was one in a long line of religious abolitionists that started in the early centuries of Christianity.  I don't know that it can be used as a measure of how long it takes for something like that to take hold and have a general effect against such an entrenched, lucrative and financially advantageous thing for the rich and powerful but slavery, official and informal, legal and illegal, is hardly over now.   Especially when it is the world wide sex industry, some of the alleged liberals online sound a lot like those who weren't all that bothered by it in centuries long past.  When they can benefit from it, themselves, especially when a pittance is paid to the slaves, they can be quite OK with it.  Secularism contains nothing in it that would make any opposition to slavery or racism or anything else, a very strong force in determining someone's actions.

Update:  You might be interested in looking at the anti-slavery activity and writings of Benjamin Lay who was somewhat older than John Woolman.  Benjamin Franklin definitely knew about him because he published his tract, "All Slave-Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates..." in 1737.  Lay's persistence and flair for the dramatic led to the Philadelphia Meeting to disavow responsibility for him and to disown him.   Though it's impossible to know the relative influence in actually freeing people any of these early American abolitionists were, I suspect that Woolman's tactics were more successful though I wouldn't discount the importance of Lay's work.  It was certainly better than what David Hume was up to.

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