Frederick Douglass—or, Society as a Means of Individuality

By Meryl Simon

From a presentation in an Aesthetic Realism class of Eli Siegel’s Definition of Society

“Society is selves seen as together, or one.”

“Society has in it selves or ‘I’s’ aware of other selves as ‘I’s.’ The question about society is whether the existence of other ‘I’s’ and their apprehension by a single ‘I’ makes for the growth the ‘I’ apprehending the other. If such existence and such apprehension are good for the individual ‘I,’ then society is a means of individualism.”

— from the Definition of Society,  Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World by Eli Siegel

One of the things that is so surprising about this definition and comment is that it is so much about individual people, since society is mostly thought of as consisting of other people en masse, not as individuals.

The key words we will be looking at tonight are apprehension and growth. We’ve learned there are two means of growing—one true, and one false. One can grow through learning, apprehending other things and people truly and so adding to ourselves by respecting things. The other kind of seeming growth, which is false, is based on contempt, which Mr. Siegel has defined as “the disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

The knowledge of contempt and respect as Aesthetic Realism explains them is essential for society—made up of millions of individual “I’s.” This knowledge will have society become what it should be—useful to all and to the individual at once.

In his essay “Individuality As Possibility,” Mr. Siegel states:

You like the world when the tendency is to grow through it….When you’re excited by something, when you are moved by something you think you have grown. You are more.

Frederick Douglass

Courageous writers—such as Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Harriet Beecher Stowe—looked at life around them, wanted to apprehend it, see meaning in it, and then give form to it. An example we will use tonight comes from the writing of an important American, Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), who wrote with passion and purpose about slavery, including in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself.

Frederick Douglass recalls his experience on an auction block when he was 12 years old:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and all were subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder.

Douglass has us feel the existence of every living being on an auction block: we feel both his searing criticism and his sense of what justice would mean.

Frederick Douglass is an “I” apprehending the existence of other “I’s.” Do we feel that he describes a horrendous event in such a way that it did make for growth in him? Through his writings and speeches he encouraged Americans to be more aware not only of African Americans as “I’s” but also of slaveholders as “I’s” being brutalized by the power they wielded. We feel this apprehension made him more of an individual.

The feeling that other people should exist only for our benefit, that they should be apprehended or understood only as much as will make us comfortable—is contempt. It limits our apprehension of what individuals both separately and together can really accomplish. It made for slavery and makes for racism and inefficiency and injustice in economics.

Frederick Douglass came to realize this somewhat when he escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Judging from what he had experienced on the plantation, he couldn’t imagine how a society could get work done or even flourish without slavery. Douglass wrote:

I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries of life were enjoyed at the North, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the South. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that Northern people owned no slaves….And upon coming to the North, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of Southern slaveholders.

He described the difference he saw on his arrival in New Bedford, when he visited the wharves:

I saw many ships of the latest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses… stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this almost everybody seemed to be at work….I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly.

Nathan & Polly Johnson House in New Bedford, MA

Later on Douglass would see more clearly the problems in the North. But he wrote about former slaves in New Bedford,“A great many…like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men.” He noted that his friend, Nathan Johnson, 

lived in a neater house, dined at a better table, took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious and political character of the nation, than nine-tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot County, Maryland. Yet, Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson.

There were many people, including some abolitionists, who couldn’t believe that Douglass could have been an ex-slave and write the way he did. A Southern slaveholding defender, A.C.C. Thompson, who had known Douglass as a slave, called him “an unlearned and rather ordinary negro.” Douglass wrote:

The slave that had bowed his head when last seen by Thompson on a dirt road in Maryland was then in the hands of a Negro-breaker, who had worked him so hard, beaten him so often, fed him so little, and had so broken his spirit that he could not have written his Narrative…. If anyone had told me, seven years ago, I should ever be able to write such a [book], I should have doubted as strongly as [Thompson] now [does].

Aesthetic Realism, for the first time in history, makes it possible, as conscious education, for every person to see that “the existence of other ‘I’s’ can and will “make for the growth of the ‘I’ apprehending the others.” This is the honest, kind basis for society to flourish!

In keeping with the life of Frederick Douglass, and many others who have fought and are fighting now for society to be as good as it can be, we conclude with sentences from Eli Siegel’s great essay, “The Equality of Man”:

“Mind needs nourishment, care and training….And the fact is plain enough that millions and millions of people…have not got this mind’s nourishment, care and training. Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs, was all that they could do….Men have not had an equal chance to be as actively powerful as they might be. And if they had been given an equal chance to use all the powers they had at birth, they would be equal.” —from The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, 1922-23

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