The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

Author: Editor (page 2 of 3)

Post-Truth and Liberal Education

David W. Livingstone, Ph.D.

The following remarks were presented at Vancouver Island University during the “Teaching in the Post-Truth Era” panel on April 12, 2017. I would like to thank the organizers, Dr. Melissa Stephens and Dr. Sonnet L’Abbé, for inviting me to join this interesting and timely panel. These thoughts about liberal education are my own and are not intended to represent the views of VIU or the Liberal Studies Department. Some parts of this essay were presented at the BCPSA annual meeting in 2010, and a longer version of this paper is scheduled to be published on in fall 2017.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee

When one looks at the history of higher education in Canada and the United States it is striking to note that at one time just about every university regarded liberal education as central to its purpose. Moreover, that purpose was connected to, though not entirely limited to, citizenship broadly conceived. At the time of Canada’s founding in 1866, one of the architects of our Constitution, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, argued before a Montreal audience that education is “an essential condition of our political independence.” His understanding of education, the kind of education required for Canadian national identity, came from the “classical sources.”

With some notable exceptions, most of our contemporary publicly-funded universities have drifted from these original goals which have been eclipsed by either vocational training or narrow specialization and research. And in some departments, the notion that a university education ought to be guided by the pursuit of truth is even put into question. I would argue that unless this original purpose is recovered by our institutions of higher education, our society and the individuals who make it up will be culturally, politically, and spiritually malnourished, citizenship will be compromised, and debate about difficult issues will continue to become intellectually thinner and simultaneously shriller.

Liberal education traces its roots back to the ancient Greeks, and to Plato in particular. In the Middle Ages it came to mean an education in the trivium and the quadrivium, together comprising the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic; geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.[1] Liberal education includes aspects of subjects now found separated into the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. It is an education that methodically and systematically addresses the question of the meaning of life and does so through critical reflection on great works from a variety of “disciplines”: philosophy, politics, science, art, religion. While interdisciplinary, it is an education that nonetheless has a specific, identifiable content. At the “core of liberal education was the duty of the teacher to impart and cultivate those talents and excellences which would prepare a student to bear the obligations of citizenship and to begin the exploration of the intellectual and spiritual life.”[2] While it is possible to obtain a decent liberal education in Canada apart from so-called, “great-books” programs, nevertheless the “multiversity” and its cafeteria-style programming is now the norm, and this represents a shift from higher education a century ago. Liberal education is now but one option available to students. In most Canadian universities the student is left to decide the content of their education, choosing from a bewildering array of courses, some serious and some less so. They must gravely and prudently choose their courses in the absence of the very education intended to cultivate their prudence and gravitas. It’s as if we expect them to know the purpose of higher education before they have any experience of it. It’s no wonder they default to courses that at least (so they think) promise them a path to employment. And so across North America we have seen a decline in enrollments in the humanities and the liberal arts. But what do our students miss by making this choice? And how might our society and our political culture be affected over time by the absence of liberally educated citizenry?

In the early twentieth century, the American civil rights pioneer, W.E. B. Du Bois, was thinking about the purpose of higher education, and particularly what emancipated American slaves would need in terms of education if they were to take their place as free citizens of a democratic republic. He declared that they needed a college that could give them the best that liberal education had to offer. Now that their body was emancipated they would need to free their mind, and they could best do this through the study of the great authors of the past, including, he thought, Aurelius, Aristotle, and Shakespeare. Du Bois opposed Booker T. Washington’s idea that freed blacks needed vocational training first and foremost if they were to become independent. Surely in the final analysis some combination of these two perspectives is required, We shouldn’t downplay our students’ desire to find meaningful work when they graduate, yet university has always been about more than training for work, and it hasn’t always been about preparing activists to change society before they have even considered carefully the principles upon which that society that affords them the freedom to study is built. What Du Bois insists on is that true freedom requires a freedom of the mind from prevailing currents of thought and habits. In particular, Du Bois was concerned that the emancipated blacks in his day would be subsumed into a political economy that would give shape to their minds below the standard of what they should strive for.

W.E.B DuBois

“What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife for righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life? What if to the Mammonism of America be added the rising Mammonism of the re-born South, and the Mammonism of this South be reinforced by the budding Mammonism of its half- wakened black millions?”[3]

The ubiquitous concern for money and for utility in America—in any democratic society, really—may crowd out the higher, human concerns. Du Bois shares Aristotle’s view that citizens “must be able to do necessary and useful things, but still more they must be able to do the noble things. Accordingly, it is with these aims in view that they should be educated.”[4] Vocational training and liberal education are both needed, but of these two, liberal education is higher because it aims to illuminate the comprehensive goals and purposes of life to which the vocational tasks serve as means.

Remarkably, Du Bois does not regard the tradition of great texts as one of the causes of black oppression. Rather he regards these books as potential sources of human liberation. In fact, he argued that blacks in the United States would be denied genuine freedom—freedom of the mind—if they were denied access to these avenues of human liberation. For Du Bois, these texts do not enforce distinctions of race or color; there greatness lies in the fact that they transcend these contingent aspects of the human person.

W.E.B. Du Bois

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”[5]

Du Bois concludes that “the true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”[6] Du Bois’ “true college” is jeopardized when it directs itself primarily by standards of utility and so-called relevance. His view of the capacity of liberal education to emancipate the individual is based on the unspoken premise that the truth is what unites us across color lines, and across other features of human personality that make each of us unique. It is not for the purpose of erasing those interesting differences that we ought to pursue this common goal, but simply to set what makes us different within a larger frame of shared, human aspiration and higher fulfillment.

Reflecting on the place of wisdom-seeking in contemporary education Sean Steel, writes that “education, contrary to what is most often said today among reformers, cannot properly by ‘student-,’ ‘child-,’ or ‘learner-centered”; it must be truth-centered. Consequently, its center must lie somewhere between the teacher and the learner….There can be no genuine dialogue between teacher and student where the center is not somewhere between the discussants—if truth rather than either of the participants is not the central concern of both parties.”[7] Yet this notion, that the truth sits between teacher and learner and unites them in a shared activity benefiting both, has been under attack within the academy for a long time. We certainly have to wonder if this attack on the truth in our institutions of higher learning is at least partly responsible for generating the post-truth era we find ourselves in today.

Richard Rorty

One might say the attack on truth began with the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who writes: “It is nothing more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than appearance. That claim is even the most poorly demonstrated assumption there is in the world. People should at least concede this much: there would be no life at all if not on the basis of appearances and assessments from perspectives.”[8] This Nietzschean perspective is adopted and developed by the influential 20th and 21st Century pragmatist, Richard Rorty. There is nothing that we can know that exists by nature, and indeed nothing has an independent “essence.” Where the classical thinkers may have looked to nature, especially human nature, to learn about our ends and purposes, contemporary “philosophers” teach us instead that this was a fool’s errand based on dogmatic metaphysical assumptions, metaphysics being the search for those unchanging principles of the universe that undergird and hence explain changing realm we inhabit. So Rorty concludes that we should stop being metaphysicians and become “ironists.” The ironist, he explains, “is a nominalist and a historicist. She thinks nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence. So she thinks that the occurrence of a term like ‘just’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ in the final vocabulary of the day is no reason to think that Socratic inquiry into the essence of justice or science or rationality will take one much beyond the language games of one’s own time.”[9] But if there are no natures, then human beings do not have a nature either. This “insight” leads to the conclusion that we must construct meaning in our lives rather than discover it.

According to Rorty, “slogans” like “natural human rights,” concepts that the Canadian founders thought existed and ought to be secured through Constitutional structures, turn out to be nothing more than “handy bits of rhetoric.” They refer to nothing real, nothing in nature. The risk of adopting Rorty’s viewpoint is that it removes the shared goal of pursuing the truth that Du Bois and others believed was the path to true liberation for all human beings. Instead, if we go down the path offered by Rorty and others, we close ourselves off to one another. Our young people, educated to believe that behind so-called truth there lies only masked power can too easily conclude that amassing and wielding power to advance their interests is what matters most. Justice then appears to them to be nothing more than “the advantage of the stronger.” And ultimately we are more apt to become impressed by our differences rather than by what unite us.

So let me conclude by referring to the person I started with, D’Arcy McGee. For though he suffered various forms of bigotry and experienced violent faction, and, sadly, though he was killed by an assassin’s bullet, he expressed high hopes for Canada and its political institutions, provided we citizens focus on what matters. “The object of all intellectual pursuits, worthy of the name,” he said to his Montréal audience, “is the attainment of Truth.” It is the “sacred Temple to be built, or re-built,” and “the Ithaca of every Ulysses really wise.” McGee intended to give future generations of Canadians who were fortunate enough to live under the Constitution he helped craft some sage advice, if only we will recall it and try to live by it:

Thomas D’Arcy McGee

“Regarding the New Dominion as an incipient new nation, it seems to me that our mental self-reliance is an essential condition of our political independence; I do not mean a state of mind puffed up on small things; an exaggerated opinion of ourselves and a barbarian depreciation of foreigners; a controversial state of mind; or a merely imitative apish civilization. I mean a mental condition, thoughtful and true; national in its preferences, but catholic in its sympathies; gravitating inward, not outward; ready to learn from every other people on one sole condition, that the lesson when learned has been worth acquiring. In short, I would desire to see, Gentlemen, our new national character distinguished by a manly modesty as much as by mental independence; by the conscientious exercise of the critical faculties, as well as by the zeal of the inquirer.”[10]


[1] For similar definitions see Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale: Tale University Press, 2009); Peter Emberley, Waller Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); Richard Myers, Colin O’Connell, Patrick Malcolmson, Value Relativism and Liberal Education: A Guide to Today’s B.A. (University Press of America, 1996). For a brief look at liberal arts curricula in early Canada, see See R.A. Falconer, “The Tradition of Liberal Education in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 8, 2, 1927; In the U.S. context, consider Anthony T. Kronman, Educations’ End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), chp 2-3.

[2] Peter Emberley and Waller Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 3

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1908; New York: Bantam Classic text reprinted from the 1953 Blue Heron edition), 57. Prepared for the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center,,%20, accessed April, 2017.

[4] Aristotle, Politics, VII, 1333a3l-b4 (emphasis added).

[5] Du Bois, 76.

[6] Du Bois, 58

[7] Sean Steel, The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education: Historical Sources and Contemplative Practices (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 136

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil , Aphorism 34

[9] Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 74-75

[10] McGee, “Mental Outfit of the New Dominion” The Journal for Education of Upper Canada, Vol XX, no.11, 1866, 177.

“An Appeal to Moderate Patriotism”

By Braedan Zimmer

Patriotism is often associated with an unconditional love and support of one’s country, even at the expense of all other countries. A patriot in this form (an extreme patriot) can be dangerous and radical, at times using violence for the betterment of their country without exhausting all other means of achieving their aims; extreme patriotism is often decidedly detrimental to society. That being said, a different form of patriotism stands to be encouraged. Stephen Nathanson explores a form of patriotism called “moderate patriotism.” The moderate patriot, as he describes, has a loyalty and special affection for his country, but operates within the limits of morality. This means that if the moderate patriot’s country is undertaking immoral actions, the moderate patriot will not support his country. Moderate patriots are equally as partial to their country as extreme patriots, with all the same love for it. The moderate patriot, however, holds his country morally accountable, which in turn leads him less frequently to war when other means of peacemaking are attainable.

Extreme patriotism is an exclusive preference for one’s country that is subversive to morality, while moderate patriotism allows one to deeply love and prefer one’s own country while respecting moral obligations to humanity as a whole. Leo Tolstoy describes extreme patriotism as “the exclusive desire for the well-being of one’s own people” (Nathanson 536). Because the extreme patriot will not be opposed to the hostile treatment of other countries, when his country stands to benefit in some way, he is morally inferior to the moderate patriot. In contrast, moderate patriots do not turn a blind eye on morality while pursuing good for their country. In accordance with moderate patriotism, Zdenko Kodelja quotes Nathanson in saying that “the Golden Rule…does not say ‘do unto your fellow countrymen as you would have them do unto you’. It says ‘do unto others’, and the lack of a qualifying term shows that all others are meant” (537).

While the adherence of moderate patriotism to morality separates it from the dangerously preferential tendencies of extreme patriotism, Alsadair MacIntyre criticizes moderate patriots for not being genuinely patriotic (Nathanson 540). He questions the conviction with which they support their country when situations cause patriotic actions to conflict with morality. One example MacIntyre offers is a country’s conception of the “good life.” MacIntyre contends that moderate patriotism cannot be reconciled with a moral standpoint (Nathanson 543). He uses the example of the Iroquois Indians, explaining that the raids on their traditional enemies are an important part of their “good life” (Nathanson 543). Nathanson sums up MacIntyre’s argument: “moderate patriotism is empty, since it requires sacrificing one’s own community’s way of life if objective moral assessment shows it to be wrong” (543). He disagrees with MacIntyre, though, maintaining that moderate patriots can recognize the need to change certain aspects of their culture, but it does not mean they do not understand what is being lost, or that they will not work to try and find other ways to express the aspects of culture that need expressing (544). Nathanson contends that if, to the Iroquois, raids are an opportunity to prove the high achievements of valour and martial skill, then the moderate patriots who worked to stop the raids may also search for a different outlet to display the virtues of their culture (544). He continues that if actions of a certain country were exempt from moral criticism because they are essential for the good life, then “we would be unable to condemn slavery because the niceties of the plantation life required it” (544). These arguments suggest that moderate patriots do genuinely prefer and love their country, but they maintain that even their own country’s actions aren’t immune to moral scrutiny.

Tolstoy in 1897

In terms of the effects of morality on a country’s affairs, moderate patriotism is preferable to extreme patriotism in that it is much less conducive to war. Nathanson quotes Tolstoy in saying that “the root of war is the exclusive desire for the well-being of one’s own people: it is patriotism” (536). While Nathanson admits that Tolstoy is guilty of overstating when he says that war is the unequivocal product of patriotism, he maintains that the extreme patriot’s exclusive desire for the good of their own country can easily lead to war if it stands at odds with the good of other countries. Sigal Beth-Porath makes the observation that, with the encouragement of extreme patriotism, war can turn “the citizen” into “the solider” (317). Nathanson entertains the logical procession that if one cares only about one’s own country, and one’s country could benefit from possessing things that another country currently possesses, then what would stop one’s country from going to war to obtain those possessions in the name of the country’s good (541)? Moderate patriotism is not guilty of the same dangerous preferential tendencies as extreme patriotism. A moderate patriot, as Nathanson describes, can “sense that patriotism can be carried too far and that moral constraints do apply to actions taken on behalf of one’s country” (541). Here he posits that a moderate patriot can understand when their country’s actions can’t be morally justified, and will no longer support his country when that time comes. In this way, moderate patriotism works against some of the brutal wars fought for immoral reasons, wars that may have been started by an extreme patriotic mentality.

In relation to war, MacIntyre again criticizes moderate patriotism, using resource conflict as his example. He describes a situation in which two countries are both in need of a certain resource to survive, but there is only enough for one country. He predicts that, in this situation, moderate patriots would be unable to justify taking the resource because it isn’t morally right, while extreme patriots would be willing to go to war to secure the resource for their country (Nathanson 541). The inability to do whatever is necessary to preserve the well-being of their country leads MacIntyre to believe that moderate patriots would be unable to defend their country. Nathanson only partly agrees with MacIntyre’s appraisal of the situation. He points out that, in this situation, extreme patriots would not count the lives of the other country’s people as significant losses if they are able to secure the resource (Nathanson 541). They would unhesitatingly pursue the resource by any means necessary, including the possibility of war. In contrast to MacIntyre’s arguments, though, Nathanson does not feel that moderate patriots are necessarily useless defenders of their nation. Logically, the moderate patriot would first examine the claims to the resource made by both countries. If the opposing country’s claim is greater, offers Nathanson, then the moderate patriot might urge their community to make a sacrifice (542). If the moral strength of each country’s claim to the resource is the same, however, and only one country can survive, the moderate patriot would not logically be indifferent to which country dies; he would defend his country. The same principle is observable with a father and his child. If there are many seats on a carnival ride, a father is not going to fight another father to ensure that his child gets on first. Contrarily, if it is the last carnival ride of the day, and there is only one open seat, the father is not going to offer it to the other child; he is going to do what he can to make sure his child gets to enjoy the ride. We see in these examples that extreme patriotism can cause people to move too quickly to war; however, when defence of a country is needed in extreme situations, moderate patriots would be as effective as extreme patriots.

As clearly demonstrated, the moderate patriot’s capacity to love their country is much the same as a patriot of the extreme nature. The moderate patriot’s commitment to not only their country, but to moral justice leads them to take more care in conflict, and go to a greater length to avoid war with other countries than extreme patriots. The fact that moderate patriots do not follow their country blindly, but let their actions be guided by morality allows them to be greater stewards of their country as well as superior global citizens. Patriotism in its extreme form is dangerous and breeds violence, but in its moderate form, it is a welcomed virtue that allows people to feel deeply connected with their country without forgetting their ultimate and necessary connection to humanity as a whole.

Works Cited
Ben-Porath, Sigal. “Wartime Citizenship: An Argument for Shared Fate.” Ethnicities 11.3
(2011): 313-25. SAGE. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
Kodelja, Zdenko. “Is Education for Patriotism Morally Required, Permitted or
Unacceptable?” Studies in Philosophy and Education 30.2 (2011): 127-40.
SpringerLink. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
Nathanson, Stephen. “In Defense of ‘Moderate Patriotism’” Ethics 33.9 (1989): 535-52.
JSTOR. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

“Filippo Brunelleschi and the Spirit of Classicism”

Brunelleschi ~ Presumed depiction in “Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus,” Masaccio. Uploaded by Aislesalvotimeingh Created: June 24, 2015

By Jill Foster

With the rise of the Renaissance came the renewal of values with fresh inspiration sought for in classical antiquity, and the architecture of this time was no exception to this trend. By digging into the characteristics of classicism and its role in the Renaissance, this paper will argue that Filippo Brunelleschi’s architecture most clearly captures the Renaissance spirit of classicism through his marriage between ancient influenced proportions and 15th century Florentine values while using classical characteristics to create new spaces.

Before expanding on the ways that Brunelleschi best illustrates classicism, we must first outline the meaning of the term. According to William Fleming, classicism should be understood not only as the revival of antiquity but also as “a search for past examples to justify new practices” (211). For Fleming, it is not so much about reviving ancient ways as it is about surpassing them. By this definition classicism can be understood as drawing influence from ancient architecture, literature, and art and applying these elements to modern practices and values. This both redefines them and creates a new, and superior culture. That being said, in order to demonstrate how Brunelleschi best illustrates these features, there must first be an analysis of his revival of ancient architectural elements followed by how he repurposes and surpasses their features to marry antiquity with pre-existing values through innovation.

The Pantheon, Rome

In regards to classicism as the revival of antiquity, Brunelleschi had direct access to ancient buildings, having fled to Rome after losing the Baptistery door competition in 1402 (Turner 41). He diligently studied the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (Fleming 212), and once he returned to Florence he then used his knowledge of the Pantheon, the Parthenon, and other ancient monuments to work on projects such as the dome of the Duomo, the Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, all the while creating structures that had never been seen before (Fleming 192). The Roman Pantheon consists of a large dome, a porch, Corinthian grey granite columns with white marble capitals, a square patterned floor and a rotunda which has the exact same diameter as the height of its dome—it is believed to be the first building in which the interior was made to outshine the exterior (Cartwright “Pantheon”). The Greek Parthenon was created using a 4:9 ratio in which everything from the diameter of the columns in relation to the space between columns, the height of the building in relation to its width and the width of the inner cella in relation to its length are all consistent with this ratio—outlining a focus on perfectly straight symmetrical harmony (Cartwright “Parthenon”).

Parthenon, Athens (image by Steve Swayne)

It is fitting that Spiro Kostof categorizes classical ancient architecture quite simply as an initial measurement which is then used to determine all other proportions of the building (381) (a technique which from here on out will be referred to as rational proportions), and it is clear that Brunelleschi adopted these techniques in his buildings.

Brunelleschi’s churches, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, like the Parthenon, were built on this ancient technique of rational proportions in which the square formed beneath his domes in the intersection of the centre naves and transepts were repeatedly used throughout the spaces to determine the proportions of the buildings. This initial unit of measurement is repeated and can be clearly seen on the floors of the churches as he outlined each measurement with grey stone, whether for full units in the center nave or half units in the side aisles similar to the flooring seen in the Pantheon. Aside from rational proportions, Brunelleschi breaks away from the previous chaos and embellishment of the gothic style and revives the clarity and coherence of the ancient characteristics previously described.

San Lorenzo, Nave (showing proportional design)

These direct revivals of classical elements have been demonstrated in the Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito through the use of smooth, clean lines, perfectly symmetrical and parallel arches, evenly and consistently spaced columns, classical entablatures, Corinthian capitals and a peaceful two-toned colour pallet, in which grey represents the structural elements and white the non-structural features. In addition to what can be seen, while it was never actualized, Brunelleschi’s initial plan for Santo Spirito was to have each side chapel be seen from the outside in semicircles around the entire building as this was reminiscent of the ancient Roman temples Minerva Medica and San Vitale (Kostof 383). However, they were plastered over after Brunelleschi’s death, perhaps for differing too much from the other buildings already present in Florence. The exterior of both Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo being unfinished and plain is also reminiscent of the Pantheon’s focus on the perfection and rationality of its interior. Through these classical characteristics Brunelleschi replaced the mystery and ornamentation of the gothic style with direct reference to ancient simplicity, rationality and cohesion.

Santo Spirito, interior.

In addition to the blatant revival of antiquity and influence of classical styles, Brunelleschi also creates a marriage with the deeply embedded Christian values existing in Florence at this time; achieving Fleming’s definition of using past examples to justify new practices thus surpassing what came previously. Brunelleschi’s rational proportions pay honour to a rational God by illustrating perhaps the kind of perfect and simple spaces the divine ruler Himself would create. The ceilings also show this marriage through the Roman styled square tiling and Christian rosette imagery as seen in San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito. While the gothic style has also been viewed as marrying Christian themes with architecture, there is something altogether separate achieved by Brunelleschi’s classical approach through use of lavish and luxurious materials and highly ornamented detailing. The gothic style encourages the impression that by understanding beauty at its most extreme and expensive, one may perhaps better understand the perfect spiritual beauty and splendor of the divine realm. Though the structure is abstract and arbitrary, fitting whatever one can into a single space, this can be understood as architecture creating an emotional response to Christianity and paying honour to the regal king that is the Lord. Brunelleschi on the other hand, through his classical inspiration, plays with the intellectual experience of spirituality by having the perfectly executed rationality and simplicity of his building’s structure invoke an inherent feeling of calmness and cohesion that puts the mind at ease to better accommodate worship with this new understanding of a rational and intelligent God. While San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito also have additions of lavish gothic altarpieces, highly ornamented chapels, and 17th century paintings, these elements were not in Brunelleschi’s original plan and distract from the simplicity originally intended to showcase the precision and unity of classicism.

Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence)

Brunelleschi’s innovation did not end at the experience of rational Christianity through architecture. He also used classical influence to create something never seen or achieved before: the dome of the Duomo. While the dome illustrates and fits in best with the category of gothic architecture, it would not have been completed without Brunelleschi’s new found knowledge of ancient architecture and inspiration of the Pantheon’s dome. Fleming suggests that while the dome may be gothic in style it is Brunelleschi’s innovation of hiding the functional elements and his creation of a smooth silhouette that characterizes the new Renaissance style (192). The dome surpassed anything that had come before it, becoming iconic and essential to Florence’s civic identification. Brunelleschi, thus, with his classical influence established a symbol for a new Florence that valued innovation through rebirth.

Filippo Brunelleschi, cutaway of the Dome of Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore)

Following this trend of innovation and surpassing the old, not only did Brunelleschi’s work inspire the use of carefully pre-determined architectural plans and a break from viewing an architect as a craftsman rather than an artist, but he also deliberately used his ancient styled proportions and symmetry to invent a new type of one-point perspective in a three dimensional space (Kostof 405). Kostof, referring to Brunelleschi, states that “he wanted his buildings experienced as if they were projected on a perspective grid, as if the user were walking into a painted picture” (382). It was this innovation, according to Kostof, that set Brunelleschi’s work apart from classical architecture, which never had this concept of fixed perspectives in mind (382). Additionally, according to Alberti, when an architect understands linear perspective and mathematics and has knowledge of ancient sources he becomes the master of universal law and comes closer to the divine (Kostof 408). It becomes clear that Alberti himself believed Brunelleschi was such an architect because his dedication to him in On Painting suggests that the innovation of ancient times will not be lost when men such as Brunelleschi continue to reignite the spirit of classicism (35). While many classical spaces were inspired by Brunelleschi, such as Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library and Medici Sacristy, and while these are innovative, these spaces add to what Brunelleschi had already accomplished in his new Renaissance style, which paved the way for new innovations sparked by his resurgence of classicism.

Furthermore, Brunelleschi’s architecture best exhibits the spirit of classicism through not only his direct reference and use of classical techniques such as Corinthian capitals, ancient entablatures, two-toned colour pallet and rational proportions but also his breakthrough to meld the old with the new through innovation. Brunelleschi’s use of ancient architecture to create a new meaning of a rational and intelligent God, his creation of the dome and his invention of one-point perspective in three dimensional spaces are just a few ways that Brunelleschi not only revived the classical elements of the past but also surpassed already present works. In this way he helped pioneer the new Renaissance style and a new identity for Florence.


Work Cited

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. Trans. Cecil Grayson. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Cartwright, Mark. “Pantheon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 12 Jun. 2013. Web. 01 July 2016. <>.

Cartwright, Mark. “Parthenon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 28 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 July 2016. <>.

Fleming, William. “The Florentine Renaissance Style.” Arts and Ideas: 6th Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 191-215. Print.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Turner, A. Richard. Renaissance Florence: The Invention of New Art. London: Lawrence King Publishing Limited, 1997. Print.

“Closed on Account of Transformation: Two-Faced Humanity in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros”


  By Zoe McKenna

Satire as a genre is born from general dissatisfaction and disillusionment with humanity as a whole. It is a critique of society, often in such a way as to make humans and their actions laughable or absurd. The public reaction to satire led to the formation of the Theatre of the Absurd, which portrayed satirists’ worldviews in such a way as to be in contrast with the realistic plays of the time (Esslin 293). Ionesco was an iconic satirist in his lifetime and wrote several absurdist plays, one of which is called Rhinoceros.

Rhinoceros is set in a small French town, which inexplicably becomes overrun with rhinoceroses. The main character, Berenger, is a drunkard, who is unhappy in life, and so alcohol is his solace. He is close friends with a man named Jean, who is a self-proclaimed man of culture. The play opens with the two men having a heated discussion over Berenger’s poor attitude and lack of will-power, and it is in this part of the play that the first rhinoceros is seen. Soon after, another rhinoceros is seen, and debate begins between the two men and other witnesses as to whether this rhinoceros is the same as the first, or a different one entirely. They do not reach a conclusion. One rhinoceros leads to another, and it is revealed that townspeople are transforming into the animals. At first, everybody is appalled by this. However, one by one, each succumb to the appeal of joining the ever-increasing herd of rhinoceroses in the town, until only Berenger remains human. Berenger is terrified of transforming into a rhinoceros, and stands strong in his individuality until the end of the play.

As with much of the absurdist theatre, the commentary that Ionesco makes on society is hidden underneath layers of bizarre stereotypes and numerous unanswered questions. At closer inspection, however, the object of Ionesco’s satire is quite directly embodied by one of the characters within the play. Botard, Berenger’s callous left-wing coworker, says to his boss, Mr Papillon, “[T]he fact that I despise religion, doesn’t mean I don’t esteem it highly” (Ionesco 51). He says this to appease his employer, after disrespecting religion only moments earlier. In this respect, Botard is being very ingratiating, or in other words, two-faced. It is this quality of being two-faced that motivates the play. Ionesco is commenting on the human ability to be insincere, and to go back on one’s word. All the characters, except Berenger, exhibit this quality, and they all eventually transform into a rhinoceros, at which point they have literally become two-faced.

The arrival of the rhinoceroses came as an understandable shock to the townspeople. In Act One, when the rhinoceroses were first seen, Berenger tried to logically explain their presence in the town. “Perhaps the rhinoceros escaped from the zoo,” he said (Ionesco 20), but Jean reminds him that they have had no zoos since the “the plague … ages ago” (20). Berenger then offers the explanation that the rhinoceros had escaped from a travelling circus, or had been hiding in the surrounding swamps (20-21). Jean contradicts him on both these points, as travelling circuses had been banned in their town, and they are situated in a very arid area of France, and so there were no swamps for the rhinoceros to hide in (20-21).  Jean declares that “It [the rhinoceros] shouldn’t be allowed!” (19).

In the first scene of Act Two, the debate and condemnation surrounding the rhinoceroses continues. Botard is indignant that the rhinoceros do not exist at all, and claims that they are a myth (Ionesco 54).  In an effort to describe the rhinoceros to Botard, Daisy, the typist and Berenger’s love interest, refers to them as “a very big ugly animal” (51). When it is revealed that their coworker, Mr Boeuf, has turned into a rhinoceros, the comments do not get any kinder. Dudard comments that “it’s probably not tame” (60), and Mr Papillion very swiftly fires Mr Boeuf.  They speak of Mrs Boeuf being able to divorce her husband, and claim to be the injured party, and they look to try and replace Mr Boeuf’s role in the office, as he is “no use to [them] anymore” (63).

Until this point, anti-rhinoceros opinions were made perfectly clear. It is in the second scene of Act Two that attitudes begin to shift. In this scene, Berenger visits Jean, to make amends for the fight they had the previous day, and to check up on him, as he is unwell. Jean has a headache, a fever, and a small bump on his forehead. The day before, Jean had been adamant about his dislike for the rhinoceroses, however during Berenger’s visit it is revealed that this is no longer true. After Berenger informs Jean that their co-worker has turned into a rhinoceros, Jean says that “he’s probably all the better for it” (Ionesco 78). This is very disconcerting to Berenger. Jean goes on to say how he thinks that humanity’s morals are flawed beyond repair, and perhaps they should be more like the rhinoceroses, and follow the laws of nature, instead (79). Jean finally declares that “humanism is all washed up!” (80), and very shortly afterwards transforms into a rhinoceros. In the span of one day, Jean had transitioned from an outspoken opponent of the rhinoceroses, into a willing beast himself.

The drastic switch in view continues and develops in the final act of the play. At this point, Berenger has secluded himself to his home, as the herd of rhinoceroses outside continues to grow. He is paranoid that his headache, caused by drink and stress, is the beginnings of his own transformation into a rhinoceros, something he fears greatly. He is visited by his co-worker, Dudard, and they discuss the events. Berenger refers to the transformations as a “nervous disease” (89). Dudard comments that “certain illnesses are good for you” (89). Dudard later reveals that Mr Papillon has transitioned into rhinoceroses. This shocks Berenger, as he viewed Mr Papillon as a man of good standing, who was above the nonsensical goings-on. Dudard asks Berenger to try and be more light-hearted about the situation. Berenger says that Dudard will be “siding with the rhinoceroses before long”, to which Dudard  replies, “[n]o, no, not at all” (97). However, shortly afterwards, Daisy arrives to visit Berenger, which makes Dudard unhappy. He leaves quite quickly, and then transforms into a rhinoceros.

When Daisy arrives, she brings news that Botard has also become a rhinoceros. Berenger finds this difficult to believe, as Botard has been so avidly against the entire concept. Daisy says that Botard claimed to be “mov[ing] with the times” (Ionesco 103). The scene progresses with Daisy and Berenger confessing their love for one another, and deciding to come together as a united front of humanity in a world consumed by animals. Unfortunately, this is short lived. Daisy is soon no longer concerned with the dust and noise that the rhinoceroses make, and is more fixated on “adapt[ing] [. . .] and get[ting] on with them” (118).  She grows more and more unhappy with Berenger’s harsh views of the herd, and says to him, “[t]hose are real people. They look happy. They’re content to be what they are. They don’t look insane. They look very natural. They were right to do what they did” (119).  She even goes as far as to say later that the rhinoceroses are “like gods” (121). It is not very long before the couple completely fall apart over their different opinions, and Daisy leaves to become a rhinoceros.

Jean, Botard, and Mr Papillon changed their minds on the matter of rhinoceroses within the span of a day. They acted against the opinions they had previously held, making hippocrates of them all. Even more extreme, Dudard and Daisy changed their minds within the span of a few moments, making them perhaps the most fickle characters of all.

Rhinoceros is a play of extremes. All the characters have a strong, vocalized opinions on the rhinoceros at all times. This makes it quite clear how drastically attitudes changed over the course of three acts, moving from avid opposition, to support and inclusion. The townspeople decided to overlook the absurdity of the rhinoceroses being in the town and the damage that they had caused. It could be said this was the entirety of Ionesco’s objective in writing this play, as such an open critique of the human capacity to be so mercurial and insincere is not an insignificant comment to make. However, taking into account the time period in which this play was written, it is near impossible to ignore where Ionesco’s disbelief in humanity was sparked, and the additional layer of criticism to this satire.

The play was originally published in 1959, but Ionesco had been living in France since 1938 and was present for the German occupation of France from 1940-1944. During this period of time, he saw many French people adapt to the occupation in ways he did not agree with. At first, they rejected the German regimes as barbaric and overbearing, but over time they became normalized and accepted. Many French people joined the French Communist Party and showed support for Nazism. This was also a time of considerable racial tension in France, which was another contributing factor to aspects of this play. All these ideas were portrayed metaphorically throughout Rhinoceros.

The reaction to the rhinoceros was much like that to the German occupation in 1940. The French people were overcome by “outrage” (Quinney 46), as the idea that the German forces could overpower them and their country was as absurd to them as the presence of the rhinoceroses were to the people in the play. During the occupation, the French people were surprised to not be immediately “shot down in the streets” (Quinney 47). Similarly, the townspeople in Rhinoceros were scared and appalled at the presence of the rhinoceroses, in Act One, as discussed above. The intrusion of the rhinoceroses was representative of the intrusion of the German forces.

Then, there was the aspect of the increasing number of rhinoceroses, which was indicative of this increasing number of German supporters within France. At the beginning of the play, the rhinoceroses had no support. There was, however, a large element of conformity, and to an extent mob-mentality, among the townspeople. There is extreme pressure on Berenger to conform, and in two ways. The first, is to become a cultured man, like Jean, The second, is to participate in the hysteria surrounding the first appearances of the rhinoceroses. All the characters, except for Berenger, speak in cliches through the first act, with exclamations such as,“Well, of all things!” which is frequently repeated. This is exhibitive of a lack of individual thought from the majority of the townspeople, who would rather rely on overused turns of phrase which they know to be acceptable opinions to voice rather than speak openly in opposition and run the risk of being berated, as Berenger had been. This play shows “both comically, and nightmarishly, the phenomenon of ideological contagion, and the surrender of human individuality and intelligence to herd-like conformity” (Calinescu 395), regardless of whether the widely-held opinions are aligned with the individual’s ideas, or not.

The same motion towards a homogenized mindset was seen during the Occupation. The French people worked towards collaboration with the German forces, and this particular collaboration was not forced upon the people, but was in many ways a conscious choice to adhere to a new way of life (Lemmes 158). This aspect of choice is important to note, as it differentiates between succumbing to the stronghold of an occupying force, and deciding that the occupying force offers something enticing, or more preferable, than what already stands, even if that offer directly opposes a current way of life.

Perhaps, if Berenger’s French town had been overrun with butterflies, a much more amicable alternative to the beasts that they were faced with, he would have minded it considerably less when his friends and coworkers transformed into them. This was not the case, however, and his town was instead confronted with large, unruly creatures, who left a great deal of damage in their wake. This was true as well, to the German occupying forces. The Nazi regime was infamously unforgiving towards Jewish people, and also towards people of colour. This racist undertone was addressed quite deliberately in the first act of the play, as the term “Asiatic mongol” was used derogatorily towards Berenger (Ionesco 38). This was a thinly veiled nod at the Nazi propaganda that was circulated during the occupation, which portrayed the Jewish people as having horns (Quinney 45). Ionesco was quite deliberate in choosing an aggressive animal, as the group of people he wishes them to represent were extremely animalistic in their violence.

The political angle of the play speaks to how Ionesco found his own friends and colleagues equally as two-faced, and hypocritical when faced with the German forces in wartime France. He found their lack of willpower disheartening, enough so to make him question the capacity that humans had for individual thought altogether.

Berenger remains steadfast throughout Rhinoceros. He was an individual in Act One, and remained so through to the end of the play. It is quite clear in understanding the position Ionesco was in while writing this play, that he found a voice in Berenger, and that he considered himself the steadfast individual in his own situation. To Ionesco, Berenger was the superior party in the altercation. Berenger concluded the play with a passionate and empowering monologue on fighting for what one believes is right.

The question remains, however, if this kind of action is really superior at all. It is quite clear that Berenger has no true plans on how to proceed against the rhinoceroses, other than with a vague idea of violence. And in his solitude, there is no one to guide him. He is an untamed individual who has quite “blindly denounced collectivism” (Danner 213), and at what cost? If it is absurd to join the collective mind, how is it not also absurd to be relentlessly defiant?  Berenger began the play with a sort of unconcerned apathy towards the rhinoceroses, and yet ends the play in angry opposition to them. Does this not also make him a hypocrite? The rhinoceroses, in all their destructive ugliness, are content, where Berenger is not. Perhaps he would have been wiser to conform, in the hopes of finding happiness in companionship. Or perhaps he was right, and one can only find true satisfaction by maintaining their individual beliefs.  “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles /And by opposing end them” (Shakespeare 3.1.1751-1753)”, we do not know. Whether it is nobler to be blatantly animalistic, or gallantly human, we also do not know.

Works Cited

Calinescu, Matei. “Ionesco and Rhinoceros: Personal and Political Backgrounds.” East European Politics and Societies, vol. 9, no. 3, 1995, pp. 393-432.

Danner, G. Richard. “Bérenger’s Dubious Defense of Humanity in Rhinocéros.” The French Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 1979, pp. 207–214.

Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.”  The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 4, no. 4 May 1960, pp. 3-15

Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros. Translated by Derek Prouse. Penguin Books. 2000. Print.

Lemmes, Fabian. “Collaboration in Wartime France, 1940-1944.” European Review of History, vol. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp. 157-177.

Shakespeare, William, and Harold Jenkins. Hamlet. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.

Quinney, Anne. “Excess and Identity: The Franco-Romanian Ionesco Combats Rhinoceritis.” South Central Review, vol. 24, no. 3, Fall 2007, pp. 36-50.




“A Lonely Indian Boy”

“A Lonely Indian Boy”: Censorship and Isolation Surrounding Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

By Zoe McKenna

In a world full of people driven by social interaction, it is difficult to ignore how heavily one can be influenced by the media that surrounds them. This essay examines Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and its use in teaching—or rather the lack thereof, as this essay will address the occurrences of the book being banned in schools. The paper focuses on the banning of The Absolutely True Diary, the outcome for the audience, and how that could affect certain subgroups, including the children of alcoholics and Native American youth. It also notes the reactions to book banning, both from the youth audience and from Alexie himself. Examining these reactions can lead to the conclusion that the banning of literature to young audiences creates a disconnect between some youths and the people they see represented in the media they are permitted to consume. The allowed selection of reading leaves some young readers with no sense of identification with characters they are allowed to read, as the characters are only those that our culture deems to be fit for mass media. This concept is important as the lack of a sense of belonging has been linked by major sociological theorists, such as Émile Durkheim, to higher suicide rates. This essay suggests that by identifying ties between media, isolation, and suicide, our culture can cease to narrow that which our children are permitted to read and identify with, in the hopes of broadening their sense of belonging.

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The Absolutely True Diary has faced censorship in the school districts of several states, such as Missouri, Wyoming, Washington, and Idaho. The book was banned for its mention of mature thematic elements, such as masturbation, and its use of racist slurs and coarse language (Stillman, par. 4). These topics were deemed inappropriate for the youth audience to which the book was aimed. However, this concept of what it means to be “appropriate” is a subjective quality that is different to each culture, as well as to each individual.

The decision to censor a book is determined by teachers and parents, people who will be affected in minor ways or not at all by the book’s reading. The two parties who are directly tied to the book’s circulation, students and the author, are rarely, if at all, consulted on their views in the decision. When they are considered, however, they tend to disagree with the choice to ban the novel. In an interview held with six children, ages ranging from six to twelve, when asked their opinions towards book banning in general, it became clear that their ideas did not always reflect those of their parents or instructors. The study concluded that:

these children, unlike many adults, were not concerned about homosexuality, [and] sex, … in children’s books. They also showed sensitivity to the idea that the perception of inappropriate content is subjective, understanding that what one person finds controversial or offensive can be enjoyed by many others. (Isajlovic-Terry 41)

This, paired with several statements from the students that a banned book was more desirable (41), meant that a ban was almost counterproductive. The children “ultimately felt that they could decide for themselves and act to get those materials” (41), and that a banning could not stop them from exploring what it was that they wished to read.

An interview was also conducted with Sherman Alexie, investigating his reaction to the controversy his work seemed to spur. Alexie stated that, when writing, he “didn’t think about the reaction[s] people would have to it” (Fraser 60). The bans were not in any way positive to Alexie, as it limited the audience to which he could reach. Alexie said:

There is a whole other population out there I want to reach. And so for me, what kind of art can I create that gets to them? I don’t want to have an elitist career. I’ve won awards, I’ve gotten a lot of attention, I’ve been in The New Yorker, and I’m very happy with all of that. I’m very proud. But I would consider myself a failure if more people didn’t read me. I’d rather be accessible than win a MacArthur. (qtd. in Berglund xvi)

This demonstrated that to Alexie the ability to reach more of the population is the ultimate goal, something that is severely hindered when his work is banned from large groups of youth.

This idea of a narrowed audience leads into the problem of who makes up this refined audience. Alexie is very driven in his intent to reach audiences that include the stereotypes he fit into as a child: the child of an alcoholic, as well as a young Native American (Berglund). Alexie’s goal is to provide media to which these children can relate, written by someone who experienced the situations first hand and can both empathize with the reader as well as explain the world they are involved in. There must be these elements of relativity between the author and his readers, especially those who make up minority groups that do not generally feature in mass media. Alexie argues that “if Indian literature can’t be read by the average 12-year-old kid living on the reservation, what the hell good is it? You couldn’t take any of [Vizenor’s] books to the rez and teach them, without extreme protestation. What is an Indian kid going to do with the first paragraph of any of those books?” (Berglund xvi), explaining why Native youth were his target audience. Within this quote, one could extract Alexie’s underlying message of how youth that cannot find books that hold characters to which they can relate will feel the same form of isolation that he felt as a youth. The Absolutely True Diary provides a source of identity with characters by the two major subcultures that Alexie belonged to in his youth, a young Native American and a child of alcoholics.

The Absolutely True Diary tells the story of a young Native American boy named Junior  who struggles with his sense of self both as an individual and as a Native person. In an interview with Joshua B. Nelson, Alexie describes the situations of these Native American youth as “social pressures, the social rules inside the Indian world … [are] something that outsiders rarely understand” (42). This lack of worldly understanding can leave a young Native American teen to feel isolated in a world of whitewashed media. The Absolutely True Diary explicitly states moments in which Junior feels alone in his world, like a cultural phenomenon that does not fit completely into life on the rez or into life in the neighbouring town. This can be seen when Junior says “[he feels] like two different people inside of one body … like a magician slicing [him]self in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south” (Alexie).

There are times in The Absolutely True Diary when Junior is more than just emotionally alone; he is also physically an abnormality in the environment. An example of this is his arrival to Reardan school “whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making [him] the only other Indian in town” (56). However, as Junior grows and develops through the course of the book he finds that there are others around him with whom he can relate and bond. This leads later in the book to a realization, where Junior says that “I might be a lonely Indian boy. But I was not alone in my loneliness” (217). This sense of camaraderie with those around him gave Junior strength. Though Junior may just be a character, he is also a representative of very real children who may have no one to relate to and so feel lonely in the world. Through novels such as Alexie’s, these children may be able to find characters to identify with that also give them the same feeling of not being secluded.

Alexie has also stated that “as a child [he was] reared in the midst of alcoholism in the harsh economic realities of rural reservation life” (Berglund xi); so when Alexie is writing the novel that his twelve-year old self lacked, he is writing to children in this same situation. The novel itself provides several examples of alcoholism in a variety of its forms, which can be displayed in the comparison of two major alcoholic characters in the novel: Junior’s father, and Rowdy’s father. Junior’s father, while an alcoholic, is a good man who cares for and loves his family in the best ways he can, and Junior describes him as “an undependable drunk … He may not have loved me perfectly, but he loved me as well as he could” (189). This is a stark contrast to descriptions of Rowdy’s father, who is also an alcoholic but is an abusive drunk who beats his son and his wife, described as always “drinking hard and throwing hard punches” (16).

This inclusion of more than just the stereotyped abusive alcoholic gave rise to Alexie’s inclusion of the line, “[t]here are all kinds of addicts, I guess” (107). In the novel there are several situations that arise due to the effects of alcohol. Alexie is opening his audience up once again, so children who are living under the influence of alcoholism are not limited to the one stereotype to which they are expected to relate. Situations are as individual as the people who experience them, and Alexie is making efforts to ensure that the situations in his work allow for as many people as possible to find some sense of identification in the material that they read.

Through the examination of the subgroups addressed above, it can be noted that the overall result of a lack of representation in the media and a lack of characters or icons to relate to creates a sense of isolation in the young readers who cannot find themselves in the work they read. This sense of loneliness has been linked to suicide rates by historical sociological theorist, Émile Durkheim. Durkheim concludes that suicide could be linked to “the degree to which individuals [are] connected or committed to society,” and that “too weak a connection to society could produce suicide as well” (Steckley 14). As this essay has described, lack of representation in the media can leave youth who are not members of the dominant culture feeling isolated, without that “connection to society.” The theory that this isolation would result in high youth suicide within the Native American community is, sadly, supported with research. A 2012 study has shown that “the rate of suicide for American Indian and Alaska Natives is far higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States—70% higher than the rate for the general population of the United States” (Dorgan 213). In this case Durkheim’s theory is proven true; cultures who can find no sense of solidarity within the world tend to display greater risks of suicide. The censorship breeds loneliness, and this loneliness can have fatal consequences.

A sense of oneself and who we are in regards to the rest of the world is an integral part of youth development and growth. However, more and more in our culture superior parties such as parents and teachers step in to limit the tools that a child has to learn about the world, about who they are, and about who they are not. In cases such as those with Native American youth, where the isolation is already so intense that the suicide rates have skyrocketed to an unthinkable level, perhaps we must take note of how this sweeping eradication of minority cultures in the media is affecting the people who make up these cultures. Maybe through this connection we can begin to take steps away from book censorship. If a teen is to grow up with an awareness of the world and who they are capable of being, we as the generation in control of the material they have access to must do everything in our power to expand their access in order for them to be able to reach their wildest dreams.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2007. Print.

Berglund, Jeff. “Introduction.” Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays. Eds. Jeff Berglund and Jan Roush. Salt Lake City, UT, USA: University of Utah Press, 2010. xi-xxxix. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 2 December 2015.

Dorgan, Byron L. “The Tragedy of Native American Youth Suicide.” Psychological Services 7.3 (2010): 213-8. Web.

Fraser, Joelle. “An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Iowa Review (Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City) 30.3 (2000): 59. Web.

Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. Web.

Isajlovic-Terry, Natasha, and Lynne (E.F.) McKechnie. “An Exploratory Study Of Children’s Views Of Censorship.” Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children 10.1 (2012): 38-43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Nelson, Joshua B. “‘Humor Is My Green Card’: A Conversation With Sherman Alexie.” World Literature Today 84.4 (2010): 39-43. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Steckley, J., and G. Kirby Letts. (2013). Elements of Sociology. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.

Stillman, Adam. “The Absolutely True Diary … Absolutely Banned.” September 15, 2010. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Ann Radcliffe’s Sublime and Eastern Modes of Transcendence

Ann Radcliffe’s Sublime: How Clarity-of-Mind Equates Eastern Modes of Transcendence in A Sicilian Romance

By Laura-Lee Bowers

Marguerite Agniel in a Buddha position, J. de Mirjian, c.1929

Ann Radcliffe was canonized at her passing in 1823. Her genius was recognized in her lifetime; she was made a legacy by her death. In Ann Radcliffe: Romanticism and the Gothic Townshend and Wright assert she was “one of the British nation’s most creative voices” (3). Her blend of Gothic and Romanticism made her the “originator of a literary school” that continues today (3). The unifying theme Radcliffe identified in Gothic and Romantic fiction is embedded in the sublime experience. Alison Milbank explains that argument continues about whether Radcliffe was simply skillfully employing the existing tropes of the sublime, or whether she was originating something with her use of it. The most original factor concerning the sublime experience in A Sicilian Romance is its developmental faculty; the most spiritually accomplished, angelic characters undergo extraordinarily high and prolonged degrees of sublimity. This portrays a subsequent addition to the existing tropes of the sublime. This effect can be explained by Eastern modes of transcendence—namely meditation—explaining how clarity of mind, or the effect of the sublime experience, promotes acuity and wellbeing through cognitive development.

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Milbank explains two contradictory interpretations of Radcliffe’s work: one understands her creations having “originating power” and maintains she is “as uncanny as her own literary productions”; the other understands Radcliffe as simply employing a list of tropes associated with existing theories of the sublime (ix). The first class describes her as nothing less than an “inspired prophetess” (ix). The second class, according to Milbank, would have to ignore Radcliffe’s “response to the nexus of ideas on psychology” to defend their position (x, my emphasis). The psychological response to the sublime will be the focus of this paper.

Robert Doran’s Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant sharply engages a comprehensive theoretical history of the sublime (2015). His work presents the concept of sublimity as “the most enduring and consequential aesthetics of modern thought” (27). He focuses on “defining a secular concept of transcendence” by turning to Longinus, Burke, Kant and others—exploring the development of theoretical sublimity (27). Doran likens Longinus’ “transcendence” to a “mystical religious experience” (41). Whereas Burke grounds his sublimity in human terror, Longinus affirms the sublime involves “being at once overwhelmed and elevated” (41). Burke agrees wholeheartedly that the effect overwhelms the mind. Being “overwhelmed” involves being “overpowered” by the source (OED). This is a key element to my argument. One facet which all the theories of sublimity agree upon is that sublime experience suspends mental faculties; one aspect where all meditation practices meet is the suspension of thought.

In Critique of Judgement Kant calls the sublime a negative experience, explaining that lack of experience is what makes the state freeing. This is a state of ultimate receptivity, explained in Eastern traditions, is being in touch with the infinite and eternal. Kant’s definition proposes that as long as reason is not satisfied, it is sublime. This is where the parallel to meditation is found. Meditation, throughout its many methods and uses, primarily transcends thought. Radcliffe herself discusses this state, and uses the word “confounding” to describe the sublime affective force “in which the mind can find nothing” (Supernatural 67). Kant explains, “the imagination” enjoying a sublime state “feels itself to be unbounded precisely because of [the] elimination of the limits of sensibility” as it perceives a “presentation of the infinite” which “expands the soul” (5:274). Expansion may suggest development, but no graduating effect is considered by Kant or the classic theorists.

The Marquis’ daughters are said to be “thus lovely and thus veiled in obscurity” at the onset of the narrative. They are “happy for they knew not enough of the world to seriously regret it.” Although the girls are naturally inclined towards good character, we are told that “an expansion of mind and refinement of thought” was required of them “which is the result of high cultivation” (7, my emphases). The young nobles have the very best education. What could Radcliffe want cultivated beyond this? The count Vereza, the veritable knight in shining armour, is more developed than Julia and her sister at the onset. He is described as “graceful yet manly,” and “his countenance” is said to “[express] a happy union of spirit, dignity, and benevolence” accountable to his possessing a “sublimity of thought” (11, my emphasis). He has a quality of sublimity, or clarity, of thought; a union of spirit, which is to say a free-flowing, intuitive, and open state.

All of the characters in A Sicilian Romance who endure the sublime and grow heightened from it share one common trait: they remain in control of themselves, receptive, whilst enduring. There is a complex irony at play within the response to the sublime. Although submission is required to attain the elevation of mind-spirit that the sublime offers, so is maintaining control. The sublime is differentiated from obscurity. Meditation is controlled improvement. This is the cultivation—the sublimity of mind, unity of spirit—which Radcliffe prescribes for her characters. Radcliffe’s sublime differs from that of the traditional theorists in that there is a permanence of virtues attained by embracing this state; it harkens to Eastern traditions. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, through the example of Zen Buddhism, explains Eastern transcendence as “a perfection of personhood” attained through transcending thought—methodically by meditation or a shocking, sublime, instant enlightenment (i).

Doran explains that when one is mentally overpowered one gains the sense of divinity, “ekstasis” (41). To the Dalai Lama, this state of divinity is “Buddah Nature,” (n.p.). The eventual outcome of the sublime experience to Longinus is “kairos” or the climactic moment of peak experience. Doran explicitly states that to interpret “kairos” as a kind of fulfillment, would clearly contradict “the momentary meaning of the word” (44). The difference between Longinus’ transcendence and the Eastern outlook is the possibility of cognitive evolution.

The Dalai Lama explains that “through practice, a human being” can perfect oneself through a “purification of one’s own mental state” (n.p.). Using meditation, “destructive things can be removed from the mind” and “the highest enlightened mental state” can be achieved (n.p., my emphasis). The effect of transcendence to Longinus is the corresponding state of “hypsos” it imparts. “Hypsos” is translated by Doran as metaphorically surpassing “one’s mental capacity or state of mind, going beyond normal human limits” to be closer to a “divine” state (39). He says that to Longinus “hypsos” and the Latin “sublime” “are virtually identical.” Both can be related figuratively to “an elevated thought or an elevated mind” (39). The act of experiencing the sublime is elevating—godly—by Doran’s explanation, and a source of divinity. Being in clarity is explained in the same terms by the Dalai Lama: “to elevate.” Both meditation and sublimity produce this heightened mental state. This state does not necessitate immediate fulfillment, yet we seek it out; Eastern philosophy would argue it is developmental.

Berkeley’s Professor of Buddhist Studies Robert Sharf describes the state of “samadhi” as the ultimate path in meditation, synonymous with equivalent end goals in other belief systems (935). Samadhi is “the highest state of meditation, in which the distinctions between subject and object disappear and unity with creation is attained” (OED). There are two major bodies of meditative exercise: one promotes total receptivity, a state of no-mind, and is observation without reflection; the other is total concentration disregarding distraction. Most practitioners use both, often together.

A mind full of activity is the opposite of clarity, and divided allegiances of spirit obfuscate unity. When the Duke and his men are seeking refuge in the woods they are described as “bewildered in the wilds,” and this is when they hear the bell of a monastery—a divine symbol of sanctity. They receive clarity in bewilderment. Coming out of receptivity and surmising the idea to discern, divide, and direct towards— “the way they judged led to the monastery” —they lose their way (Radcliffe 89, my emphases). Reason does not help—it hinders them. Divisions of mind and spirit undo characters in this novel. When the Duke is wounded “the effect of his wound [is] heightened by the agitation of his mind,” which proves a detriment to his health (95).

In the dungeon, Ferdinand “seem[s] to acquire the valour of despair,” loaning him a high virtue in a time of sublime submission (99). In the woods, Madame is “insensibly led on” through the sublime landscape which “elevated the mind of the beholder” (104, my emphasis). When she hears Julia, the sound “awaken[s] all her attention,” putting the sublime state to use, allowing her “captivated … heart” to be led towards that which called her like an “enchantment” (104-5, my emphasis). Madame Menon “seemed without interest and without motive for exertion” to find Julia (103, my emphasis).

Milbank claims these occurrences depict “weakness” being “transformed into power,” but the text explicitly demonstrates that it is more accurately receptivity and trust—intuition—which delivers Madame (xix). The Duke, with his firm, heady intentions, cannot find his way through the sublime landscape (93-94). Milbank explains that the “Duke’s refusal to accept a position of vulnerability makes him unable to benefit” (xviii). I would clarify this statement by pointing out that the vulnerability the Duke lacks is receptivity. As Radcliffe demonstrates, the causality of being receptive, if done properly—with agency— brings attainment.

Edmund Burke recognizes “certain powers and properties” of the sublime “that work a change in the mind” but he struggles to explain further (209, my emphasis). He explains how “pain and terror” that are not “carried to violence” or threaten “destruction” produce “emotions [which] clear the parts” and “are capable of producing delight … tinged with terror,” precisely because the mind enjoys being in clarity (217, my emphasis). The “highest degree” of sublimity is “astonishment” (217, Burke’s emphasis): “that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended,” a description identical to meditation (130). Burke’s definition requires a forced mental pause. Seated meditation, however, can engage a state of sublimity willfully (Sharf 935).

The astonishment Burke describes (where the mind is so entirely full of one object that it cannot comprehend another) is akin to a focus oriented meditation. Burke defines “greatness of dimension” or “vastness” as “a powerful cause of the sublime” (147). Sharf uses methods where concentration on the “four immeasurable states” obliterate the mind’s ability to perceive any measure and bewilder the practitioner into sublimity (941). “Another source of the sublime” to Burke “is infinity,” which can be mimicked by repetition: if “we repeat any idea frequently,” just as in a “succession of noises,” their echoes “beat” and “roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it,” robbing the mind of its faculties by filling it with something meaningless (148-9). This is identical to Sharf’s description of “recitation” practices where focus is given to repeating mantras over and over or “breathing” meditations where you watch the breath ad-infitum until there is no thought left.

Stephanie Lou, following a study of Richard Davidson, explains how “meditative practice can physically change brain functioning” in progressive ways (a). Davidson’s study focused on measuring gamma waves—the “most important electrical brain waves”—of practitioners (2). Conducted on Tibetan monks recommended by the Dalai Lama, the study was controlled by students without meditation experience: “The meditation novices showed only a slight increase in gamma wave activity while meditating, while some of the monks produced gamma wave activity more powerful and of higher amplitude than any previously reported in a healthy person in the neuroscience literature” (2, my emphasis). In the neuroscience paper “Buddha’s Brain,” Davidson admits that “over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains” (i). The progressive element in the novel is accurate according to neuroscience; Radcliffe is a prophet.

Julia arguably benefits most in the book. She is presented as someone who willfully indulges in the sublime experience. She seeks “solitude in the woods” when she is longing for Vereza (42). She takes her lute to her “favorite spot” to enter the focused meditation which playing music requires, a “favorite” spot implying she does so on a regular basis (42). Julia struggles, but inevitably follows her intuition—she challenges her father and her betrothed. The other women in the book all allow their agency to escape them at critical points. Julia is not only a victim to sublimity, but also has agency, and develops fully due to the active way she engages; she employs the paradoxical combination of receptivity and control that Eastern transcendence requires.

The developmental effects of exposure to sublimity, or clarity, continue to work regardless. When Hippolitus’ sister eventually perishes, after enduring what she calls an unusual amount of terror, Julia tells us that her “countenance seemed to characterize the beauty of an inspired saint” (123). When the Marchioness, after years of torture, thinks Julia and her mother would not escape the cell she, “with a placid resignation which seemed to exalt her above humanity,” prays (182, my emphasis). The response to the sublime is, as Milbank notes, the primary differentiating principle marking Radcliffe as a prophet. Everyone who endures sublimity is happy. However, Julia and Hippolitus—those shown to express the virtues attained by, and the willingness to focus and grow from, sublime clarity—are the only characters to earn a fairytale ending. Through embracing the ironic state of active receptivity, willing openness, focus on clarity, and practice—one may achieve what Radcliffe calls “moral retribution” where we are guaranteed “the surest claim to the protection of heaven,” on earth (199).


Works Cited

Alison, Archibald. Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste. Edinburgh: JJG and G Robinson, London, 1789. Print.

Burke, Edmund. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke Vol. I[-IV]. Boston: John West, 75, Cornhill, and O.C. Greenleaf, 3, Court Street. 1806-[1807]. Print.

Burwick, Frederick. “Ann Radcliffe, Prose.” The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature. Vol. A-G. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 1091-1098. Print.

Dalai Lama. “The Dalai Lama: ‘On Buddha Nature’” The Buddha. PBS, 9 Mar. 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.

Davidson, Richard, and Antoine Lutz. “Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation.” IEEE Signal Processing Magazine 25.1 (2008): 174-76. US National Library of Medicine. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Doran, Robert. Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant. Cambridge: University P, 2015. Print.

Kane, Sarah Kim. “The Sublime, the Beautiful and the Picturesque in the Works of Ann Radcliffe.” ProQuest Dissertation and Theses Global (1999). Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005. Print.

Lou, Stephanie. “Meditation and HD.” HOPES. Stanford University. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Lutz, A., L. L. Greischar, N. B. Rawlings, M. Ricard, and R. J. Davidson. “Long-term Meditators Self-Induce High-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101.46 (2004): 16369-6373. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Milbank, Alison. “Introduction.” A Sicilian Romance. Ann Radcliffe. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Nagatomo, Shigenori. “Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy.” Ed. Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015). Stanford University. Web. 7 Jan. 2015.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Ed. Alison Milbank. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Gothic Horror: A Guide for Students and Readers. Ed. Clive Bloom. 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 60-69. Print.

“Oxford English Dictionary.” Oxford University Press. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Sharf, Robert. “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan.” Philosophy East and West 64.4 (2014): 933-64. Print.

Townshend, Dale, and Angela Wright. “Cultural Contexts.” Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic. New York: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.

Construction of the Genevan “Woman”

The Construction of the Genevan “Woman” in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality

By Diana Pearson

Jean-Étienne Liotard, La Belle Chocolatière, c. 1743-44

1791, French feminist Olympe de Gouges critiqued patriarchy by writing Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. She was accused of treason and executed. This was not long after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in 1754, was awarded second place for his response to the Academy of Dijon essay question: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” His response, Discourse on Inequality, explains how men had progressed from a “natural state” into the artificial form of modern society within Rousseau’s time, which he claims is characterized by moral and political inequality. However, Rousseau does not address the gender inequality sanctioned through law at that period in history, which prohibited women from political, economic, and certain sexual rights. In Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau describes the role of Woman as central, due to reproduction, to the maintenance of Man. His text shows women’s responsibility to sex in two ways. Women are described by Rousseau as honourable when they have careful control over sex, embodied as “the chaste guardians of our [society’s] morals and all the gentle bonds of peace,” whereas they are viewed as destructive when “loose” (12). This essay explores how Rousseau’s construction of the Genevan Woman ensures inequality even as he claims to explain the foundations and state of inequality. I will explore this construction as a compound process: first, women are placed in an inferior position (without rights) by men. Second, Woman is constructed to embody particular (“feminine”) characteristics, such as gentleness and virtuousness, that serve to reproduce the very structures of inequality that hinder them. Finally, I explore the limited sexual power that women had in this era, specifically within the honourable confines of chaste servitude. In every instance, women are valued primarily in relation to men, for the well-being and maintenance of the state.

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Natural and Moral Inequality

Rousseau analyzes the state of inequality in modern society by reaching back historically to theorize man in his “state of nature.” This is less of an attempt to be strictly factual (24) and more so an ambitious attempt at explaining how the current society, in all its laws, morals, and institutions, may have come to be. Rousseau’s description of man in the state of nature is a conjectural attempt to answer the question by following “a few lines of … hypothetical and conditional reasoning” (15-24). He declares that he has “ventured a few guesses, less in the hope of answering the question than for the purpose of clarifying it and reducing it to its true proportions” (15).

Rousseau begins his story by explaining that for the human species there are two forms of inequality: natural (physical) and moral (or political) inequality (23). He describes natural inequality as “differences in age, health, physical strength, and traits of the mind and soul” (23). He claims that the “source of natural inequality . . . is expressed by the very definition of the word” (23) and that this natural inequality has been solidified by institutional inequality (52). He dwells on the emergence of moral inequality, which “depends on a sort of convention and is established, or at least sanctioned, by the consent of men” (23). For Rousseau, moral inequality involves possessing more or less wealth, honour, power, and potential for domination (23). This establishment of law by men highlights the progression of natural inequality into structural processes of moral inequality by Rousseau’s period in history. Women were not considered citizens (121) and were denied political rights to consent to or reject the law. While Rousseau doesn’t seem to explicitly promote women as inferior, he also does not challenge this notion and in fact refers to women later in the text as “the sex that ought to obey” (49). Once gender inequality has been established, what better way to maintain it than to prescribe for women responsibilities, expectations, and customs that will reproduce it?

Does Woman Make Man?

Rousseau then considers the role of Woman in Geneva. To him, Woman is the precious half of the population, an honourable one who “assures the happiness of the other and whose sweetness and goodness maintain its peace and good morals” (11). In addition, the “destiny of [women] will always be to govern our destiny” (11). Afforded with status and citizenship, men deny these rights and privileges to women. “Man” stands in for everyone when it is the interest of men, but Woman is created to explain why women do not get the same advantages as men. In this case, language is used to praise women’s servitude and at the same time to obscure the structural inequalities in place. Without political or economic rights, women were in a vulnerable position, and this particular construction of Woman is demonstrated by Rousseau’s text, a construction which has historically served to reproduce inequality from generation to generation.

Woman: Another Word for Unequal

Rousseau writes that the Genevan Woman must possess predefined qualities. The Genevan Woman is to be modest, graceful, amiable, virtuous, innocent, and subtle in her words and deeds (11-12). Rousseau states that these feminine characteristics maintain public well-being, specifically in that the “barbarous man” cannot resist the “voice of honour and reason in the mouth of a gentle wife” (11). Rousseau addresses women by demanding of them to “[a]lways remain as you are, the chaste guardians of our morals and the gentle bonds of peace” (12). Rousseau claims women are peacekeepers; however, this is an encouragement to continue to reproduce the moral structure of inequality that women are born into. The good Genevan Woman is instructed to promote concord between the citizens through marriage of families that are divided (12). In other words, women were to be traded as property to satisfy social debts and obligations, and Rousseau’s implication is that because this maintains peace it is virtuous and honourable. But this suggests that only through marriage may women maintain peace, and so their power as peacekeepers is only by servitude through marriage, once again in relation to men. Finally, women have the virtuous duty to discourage, through their sweet and modest nature, “the excesses that our young people pick up in other countries” (12). In other words, it is a woman’s job to socialize youth so as not to threaten the morals that have been established in modern Genevan society.

Sex Power

Let us look for instances in Rousseau’s work in which women do in fact have power. Once again, it is under strict guidelines, for their “chaste power, exercised only within the marriage bond, makes itself felt only for the glory of the state and the well-being of the public” (11). Women may use their power of sex and desire, strictly sanctioned by marriage, to honour the state and mediate morals, but once again only in relation to men. This becomes glaringly evident when Rousseau warns youth against acquiring “childish manners and ridiculous airs … from loose women” (12). In Rousseau’s time loose meant unfixed, free, unchaste, immoral (“Loose”). Thus even women’s sexual power is limited, and the paradox that women “deserve to be in command in Geneva” (11) can only refer to a chaste, virtuous, and limited form of power. The use of this sexual power might be considered political in its effects; but if so, it is indirect.

Rousseau theorizes a particular form of sexual desire that developed in modern society:

Among the passions stirring the human heart, there is one that is burning and impetuous, and makes one sex necessary for the other, a terrible passion that braves every danger, defies every obstacle, and in its fury seems destined to destroy the very human race it is designed to preserve. What will become of men, who are prey to unbridled and brutal rage, without shame, without modesty, without restraint, fighting every day over their loves at the cost of their lives? (48)

Rousseau believes that in the “natural state” of man, sexual desire was physical and served only to “unite the one sex with the other” (49). But he suggests that this desire was the result of combined ideas of merit and beauty which were fostered by imagination. Rousseau believes this desire is a corrupted, unnatural sentiment, which he calls the “moral side of love” (49). This moral love is possessive as it “shapes desire… [and] makes the desire for the chosen object more forceful” (49). In Rousseau’s narrative, it becomes the role of Woman to mediate this forceful sexual desire through her chaste power. This requires the strategic and careful denial of sex until the bonds of marriage, as this moral love is “honoured by women with much care and skill” (49). Rousseau considers this important because he sees sexual desire as a threat to the well-being of the public; without women’s careful control of their female sexual power, this desire evoked in men threatens to instigate “the vengeance of husbands” (50) and lead to duels, murders, and “even worse deeds” (51). And so, it is up to women to mediate this, “in order to establish their power over men and so make dominant the sex that ought to obey” (49). In Rousseau’s modern society, sex is evidently women’s most substantial form of power; however, since they were bound to a chaste moral code, they were only free to exercise their power in relation to men within the bonds of marriage. Thus, women were oppressed by not only denial of political and economic power at that historical period, but also constricted to a very limited and particular sexual power, as Rousseau suggests in his text.


Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that, “[i]f we examine some of the books on women, we see that one of the most frequently held points of view is that of public good or general interest: in reality, this is taken to mean the interest of society as each one wishes to maintain or establish it” (16). While Rousseau’s is not a book on women, specifically, I would argue that a piece written on inequality is not thoroughly critical without including an analysis of gender relations. Among the many ideas Rousseau explores in the Discourse on Inequality, it seems he has unfortunately disregarded this significant inequality. Perhaps he truly believed women to be naturally inferior. Maybe he was so corrupted by modern Genevan society that he failed to see a very substantial social inequality of that time. Rousseau’s possible lack of clarity is particularly fascinating, because he is known to have criticized other social theorists for being unable to see clearly what was “natural” and true. He does provide a fascinating exploration of many societal concepts: namely, the moral consequences that emerge from the invention of property (greed, envy, vanity misery, jealousy) (55), as well as the structural inequalities formed by the mutual enslavement of master and slave (78), which Rousseau sees as (in his time) “the ultimate degree of inequality to which all the other [inequalities] lead to until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether or bring it closer to legitimacy” (79). However, I do feel that Rousseau’s oversight of gender inequality somewhat undermines the thoughtfulness in these other explorations within his text. Overall, I find the construction of Woman laid out in Rousseau’s text to be strict and confined in a way that seems to both ensure women’s servitude and oppression, and also work to reproduce this inequality for future generations.


  1. I capitalize “Woman” in reference to the construction of women in this period, as opposed to “women” which refers to women of that time period in general.


Works Cited

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. NY: Random House, 2011. Print.

“Loose”. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2015. Web. 10 January 2016.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on Inequality. Trans. Franklin Philip. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Feminist Standpoint Epistemology and Objectivity

Feminist Standpoint Epistemology and Objectivity

By Andrew Freundlich

Can the feminist approach to epistemology only work in a relativistic framework that rejects the traditional concept of objectivity? Feminist standpoint epistemology seeks to create a stronger objectivity by rejecting the traditional concept of objectivity, yet not becoming a relativistic epistemology either. In her article Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity?”, Sandra Harding, a prominent advocate of feminist standpoint theory, addresses this topic explicitly and argues that the objective strength of standpoint theory is its belief that knowledge is socially situated. Harding, like most standpoint epistemologists, is making three central claims: 1) knowledge is socially situated 2) marginalized groups have an advantage in being able to spot biases that the dominant group cannot see, and 3) knowledge should be built upon the marginalized perspectives (Bowell para. 1). For the purposes of this paper we will look primarily at Sandra Harding’s response to the question of whether or not feminist standpoint theory can work within an objective framework rather than a relativistic one. Harding’s article deals with the relationship between standpoint theory and what can be called “traditional science”. We can define “traditional science” as science that focuses on the examination of the object of research solely. Standpoint theory, in contrast, insists on the examination of the researcher as well as examining the object of research. Before we can deal with the question of relativism and objectivity, let us take a look at Harding’s definition of standpoint epistemology.

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freundlich fet

Frontispiece depicting Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle – a female scientist of the Early Modern era

Harding argues that knowledge is socially situated (353). In other words, who we are as knowers affects what we can know. Specifically, Harding uses the example of spontaneous feminist empiricists (354) to demonstrate the dependency of research results to the social situation of the researchers. Harding defines the original spontaneous feminist empiricism as the “‘spontaneous consciousness’ of feminist researchers in biology and social sciences who were trying to explain what was and wasn’t different about their research process in comparison with the standard procedures in their field” (354). Harding, while not ideologically aligned with the spontaneous feminist empiricist, notes that research done by spontaneous feminist empiricists was often able “to produce less partial and distorted results” (352) than research done by males. Harding therefore argues that the knowledge these feminist empiricists were able to produce was scientifically superior to that of their counterparts, precisely because of the feminist’s socially situated standpoint.  Hence the feminist endeavour of spotting androcentric assumptions in the production of knowledge is simply “good science” and can help “maximize objectivity” (356).

Objectivity, for Harding, seems to be more attainable if people are aware of their own social situation. Harding criticizes the concept of neutral objectivity. Harding refers to this concept as, in a phrased coined by Donna Haraway, the “God-trick” (360), which is when researchers attempt to observe the universe with a complete impartiality that is supposedly bias free – what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere” (Crumley 213). Harding admits that while traditional science is good at eliminating social values so that experiments can have the same results across cultures, she also claims that “the scientific method provides no rules …for even identifying… social concerns and interests that are shared by all (or virtually all) of the observers” (Harding 360). For standpoint epistemologists the scientific endeavour, as it is now, is flawed because it was created by people from particular social situation who had influence and power (355).

Harding argues that the system within which female empiricists are operating (traditional science) is one that lacks space and methods for researchers to reflect on their social situation, leaving them blind to their inherent biases. How then can people identify their own biases? Harding argues that marginalized groups have an advantage over others in spotting biases (357). The author likens standpoint epistemology in the production of knowledge to Marxism in politics with its production of goods by the marginalized workers. Harding argues that dominant groups are so engrossed in their dominance and power that they are blind to their own assumptions (357). For example, the Marxist worker would be acutely aware of the owner’s assumptions and biases. Similarly, according to Harding, feminist researchers would be similarly aware of biases in the scientific community since the scientific community has historically been dominated by men and androcentric assumptions (355). For Harding, having women in science is helpful as in the case of the spontaneous feminist empiricists, but ultimately not enough: for feminist standpoint epistemologists the system needs to be changed to incorporate marginalized groups.

Harding, in keeping with the view of standpoint epistemology, argues that the starting place for producing knowledge should come from the standpoint of marginalized groups. Harding contrasts spontaneous feminist empiricism to standpoint theory, and writes:

[s]tandpoint theorists think that this is only part of the problem. They point out that retroactively, and with the help of the insights of the women’s movement, one can see these sexist or androcentric practices in the disciplines. However, the methods and norms in the disciplines are too weak to permit researchers systematically to identify and eliminate from the results of research those social values, interests, and agendas that are shared by the entire scientific community or virtually all of it. (355)

For the standpoint theorists the prevailing knowledge production community is “too weak” to systematically uncover and eliminate all of its “social values, interests, and agendas” (355). Thus to “maximize objectivity” in research (356), the scientific community needs to incorporate the standpoint of marginalized groups such as feminists. Having people from various backgrounds participating in the knowledge production community might be beneficial for the scientific method, providing the inclusion of various perspectives. Presumably Harding would be open to drawing from a variety of groups to meet the goal of what she calls “good science”— science that is less distorted and partial.

Although Harding is critiquing dominant knowledge production communities, she does not reject the importance of science in her standpoint theory. Her critique of “bad science” shows us that she is not rejecting science itself. To have “bad science” Harding must have a notion of what “good science” is. In other words, “good science” must have normative standards with which to critique “bad science.” For Harding “bad science” is the more distorted and partial scientific research that resulted from androcentric assumption (355).  Harding seems to be using science to help elucidate how social situations within the scientific community affect scientific assumptions, practices, and outcomes. Harding is accepting at least some notion of objectivity, although she also seems to reject our ability to be bias free.

Harding is not an absolutist about knowledge: rather, her approach differs from a traditional approach to epistemology and thinkers like Descartes who looked solely at the objects of inquiry rather than there own social situation. For Harding, both the researcher and the research subject should be critically examined, because for her a purely objective analysis of the universe by an impartial thinker is a myth. Descartes on the other hand, retreated into his mind in the belief that he could see the world objectively. Descartes attempted to use a priori reasoning to discover universal principles that were, for him, unrelated to any social situation or even the physical world. For Harding we are intimately connected to our social situation and the physical world and cannot separate ourselves from them.

Harding’s theorising, while outside the approach to philosophy of thinkers like Descartes, does not fall into the category of relativistic epistemology. Harding is not a postmodern feminist since she argues for a starting point (standpoint) for knowledge, whereas some postmodern feminists might be against the notion of a standpoint. Standpoint theory’s starting point for knowledge production requires that the knowledge producer reflects on the relationships between sex and class, for example, and specifically draws on marginalized groups. Harding argues for objectivity, but she thinks we have too many biases to see reality as it really is. For Harding, standpoint theory can minimize our biases, though not eliminate them completely; the theorist is aware that her standpoint theory is a work in progress that “will be replaced by more useful epistemologies in the future – the fate of all human products” (364). Harding is not an absolutist, or relativistic: neither is she strictly a skeptic.

Feminist standpoint epistemology uses a multitude of perspectives to gain a foundation for knowledge and so avoids becoming skepticism. Feminist standpoint epistemologists believe that there are cognitive gaps between “evidence and theory” (Crumley 215). Harding, like other feminists, thinks that gaps between evidence and theory are filled with our own social values, agendas, and politics (Harding 360). This way of thinking is very much like the skepticism of David Hume, who thought inductive reasoning was produced by gaps in our cognition filled with nothing more than our own past experiences and subjective projections (Crumley 47). If standpoint epistemologists argue, like Hume, that there are gaps in our cognition which are filled with social values and imagination, then what prevents standpoint epistemologists from being skeptics and therefore making anti-knowledge claims? Insofar as it moves us closer to truth, filling the cognitive gaps with the social values of one marginalized group would be no better than filling it with the social values of another. Yet, perhaps unlike strict skeptics, Harding argues that we can move closer to maximizing objectivity (361). For example, she thinks that the sciences can reveal truths about the world, e.g. her notion of “good science.” For Harding, in the absence of having an objective view (God’s eye view) of the universe, what is necessary to produce knowledge is the inclusion of as many perspectives as possible when creating knowledge; this variety of perspectives might then be molded into our knowledge communities. Prioritizing a multitude of perspectives discourages the dominant socially situated perspectives that, without the multitude, otherwise gain too much authority in the production of knowledge which ultimately produces “bad science.” Being aware of social biases will help one find security in one’s knowledge-producing pursuits, and, as previously stated, minimize one’s biases while producing more objective knowledge.

Feminist standpoint epistemology holds that knowledge is socially situated and argues that marginalized groups have an advantage in spotting unexamined assumptions and biases in the knowledge production community. Thus for standpoint epistemologists traditionally dominant knowledge communities  (i.e. scientific communities) need to be adapted to include otherwise marginalized perspectives. The incorporation of marginalized perspectives will lead to greater and more accurate objectivity. Feminist standpoint epistemology diverges from the epistemology of detached absolutism and skepticism, while not being a relativistic epistemology either. Ultimately standpoint theory augments inquiry by broadening its scope and by adding a level of self-reflection and interrogation to any knowledge producing community.

Works Cited

Crumley II, Jack S. An Introduction to Epistemology. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.

Bowell, T. “Feminist Standpoint Theory.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. Web. April 16 2016.

Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” Knowledge and Inquiry: Readings in Epistemology. Ed. K. Brad Wray. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007. 352-384. Print.

How History is Presented in Sebald’s Austerlitz

An Analysis of How History is Presented in W.G. Sebald’s Novel Austerlitz

By Tyeson Davies Barton

sebald-austerlitz-us2When one says that something is a historical event, one is saying that it is important and therefore worthy to be included in history. But what happens to all of the events that are deemed unworthy of such consideration? Do they lie outside history? Or is it our conception of history that is to blame? Author W.G. Sebald deeply considers these questions in his tragic novel Austerlitz. Throughout the novel, it is reiterated by different characters that humanity’s conventional conception of history – that it is a linear progression of events that can be objectively known – is incorrect, and that history is rather an accumulation of interpretations and subjective experiences. By means of a stylistic choice, Sebald himself also demonstrates how unreliable our conception of history can be by regularly projecting the false history of his characters onto the photographs of real people, muddling the line between fiction and historical fact. Furthermore, while characters in the novel believe that they can obtain the knowledge of what happened to them and their relatives in the past, the circumstances that they are left with at the end of the novel say otherwise. In Austerlitz, Sebald shows how the truths regarding the past often remain beyond our grasp.

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Austerlitz focuses on the history of its main character, Jacques Austerlitz, as told by him and as passed on through the perspective of an unnamed and seemingly translucent narrator. During one of his many self-reflective conversations with the novel’s narrator, Austerlitz recalls the influence that a teacher had on him in his youth. The teacher had explained to Austerlitz the likely origin of his name during a history lesson about the Battle of Austerlitz. In that lesson, the teacher delves into the question of whether or not there is accuracy in our conception of history. Regarding the Battle of Austerlitz, the teacher states that “it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly” and that “[a]ll of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us” (71). Essentially, the teacher argues that our conception of what occurred in the past is heavily guided by the popular interpretations of the present, and that these popular interpretations are not entirely accurate. Their lack of accuracy is due to the fact that they could not possibly translate all of the subjective experiences of what it felt like to exist in that moment; because of this, we can only ever have a dim, altered sense of what took place in the past, instead of a realistic one. The narrator also addresses this notion that subjective experiences live frail and often short lives: “How little we can hold in the mind,” he thinks to himself, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on” (24). The narrator thus states that some histories that people create with “places and objects” will perish along with the people who held them. In other words, there is an inevitable loss of subjective experiences, and these lost experiences are chunks of our history. This belief that we have a skewed sense of our past, one which can never be rectified, is echoed by Sebald’s use of photographs in the novel.

In the modern era, perhaps the most popular way to make an experience tangible and thereby more enduring is to take a photograph of it. However, photographs, like memories and history in general, are vulnerable to misinterpretation. Sebald acknowledges and emphasizes this vulnerability throughout his novel by taking actual photographs of people from the past and weaving them into the fictional past of his novel. One such photograph is of a young Austerlitz with his rugger team. Austerlitz describes the photograph while talking to the narrator about a good friend that he had made during his time spent at private school. “From the first day,” Austerlitz says, “when he asked me for one of the new photographs of the rugger team where I featured to the extreme right of the front row, I realized that Gerald felt as isolated as I did” (74-75). Sebald takes this photograph, which out of its original context would otherwise appear to be simply a group of young, mostly happy rugger players, and heavily colors it with meaning, altering the reader’s interpretation of it. The reader is forced to interpret it as a snapshot of a very lonely period in the life of the man whom the reader believes to be Austerlitz. However, this interpretation is very likely to be far from the reality this photograph is capturing. By constantly forcing his reader to form an insufficient perspective on photographs of the past, Sebald shows how easy it is to lose the reality of what took place in the past. While we may attempt to save the truths of our past through photographs or other means, Sebald expresses how this attempt will ultimately be futile through his main character Austerlitz.

The main focus of the novel is Austerlitz’s  self-imposed quest to unearth truths regarding his parents and experiences he had in the past. During moments throughout the novel it seems as though he will succeed; however, at the end of the novel, Austerlitz is left empty-handed and still searching. Some of Austerlitz’s last words to the narrator are hopeful, but they seem to predict the outcome of his search. “I am going to continue looking for my father,” Austerlitz says, “and for Marie de Verneuil as well” (292). Since Austerlitz’s story ends with him continuing on with his search, it suggests that any effort to obtain the truths of the past will, in the end, remain unsatisfied. Austerlitz’s failure to discover the truth about what happened to his parents is echoed during the last moments that the reader has with the narrator, in which the narrator starts reading a book that was given to him by Austerlitz the day they met. The book is a personal account written by Dan Jacobson who, like Austerlitz, is searching for a distant relative but who, also like Austerlitz, does not succeed. “[I]t was truly terrifying,” the man in the book writes regarding his failed search, “to realize that there was no transition, only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other. The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate,” the narrator reflects, “was Jacobson’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people” (297). As the narrator acknowledges, Jacobson thus states that if there is no transition between life and death but only a dividing line, then there is no real bridge between what was and what is. The uncanny resemblance between Austerlitz’s failed search and the failed search of this book’s author supports the idea that what has passed away can never be fully resurrected by the people who exist in the present. Furthermore, the last encounter between the narrator and Austerlitz curiously takes place in a graveyard, as if hinting at the inevitable loss that we all must experience while alive, and how we are all destined to become a part of humanity’s lost history.

Sebald struggles to answer the following questions: can the moments of the past truly be preserved by the people in the present? And if not, what happens to those moments? Is something still a part of history if it is not remembered? How should we define history? The novel refutes the idea that history is a chain of events, and asserts that instead history is a collection of subjective experiences, and that not all of these experiences will be remembered correctly, if at all. As the photographs in the novel demonstrate, due to our lack of knowledge regarding the subjective experiences felt in the past, we will inevitably try to imbue the past with our own false meaning. Our inability to hold onto all of the subjective experiences of the past is emphasized by the failed attempts of Austerlitz and Jacobson to rekindle parts of their past.  Austerlitz illustrates how some experiences will drift forever into the past, forever unknown by anyone in the present or future, and that these experiences, whether we’re conscious of them or not, will remain a part of our history.

Works Cited

Sebald, Winfried Georg. Austerlitz. New York: Modern Library, 2011. Print.

Redeemed Through Disobedience

Redeemed Through Disobedience

By Brandon Kornelson

Mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr following his 1963 arrest in Birmingham

While in Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), a powerful letter that responded to some harsh criticism from the local white community who were upset with the “problems” that King seemed to be stirring up. King emphasizes that the “problems” he was stirring up were direct results of the injustice that was being perpetrated against the black community, thus leaving the community no choice but to take action in order to achieve redemption. King’s tactic of nonviolent resistance, which stemmed in part from his roots in his Christian faith,1 played an important role in achieving social justice during the Civil Rights Movement. King understood that the possibility of redemption after years of social injustice was only possible through direct nonviolent action.

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In Christian belief, redemption is most often understood as the process of an individual or a group who receives compensation for, or achieves salvation from, “evil” or “sin.” For example, Christ sacrificed himself to redeem humanity from their sinful nature. In this metaphoric example, the only thing that could provide legitimate redemption for humanity’s condition was suffering and sacrifice. King’s ideas of redemption for the black community represent some striking similarities to the story of Christ. King understood redemption as something that could be achieved through sacrificial nonviolent resistance and the suffering that came with it. In King’s eyes, nonviolent resistance is a tactic designed to seek friendship from his enemies, rather than to defeat or humiliate them (Hunt 245). In King’s words, “[i]t is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons who are the perpetrators of evil” (qtd. in Hunt 245). Further, “[t]he nonviolent resister… realizes that [his/her nonviolent protests] are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation” (245). However, King also understood that in the struggle against evil, suffering accompanies the process of redemption. King understood that to achieve redemption he had to accept violence from his enemies without retaliating. “‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain freedom, but it must be our blood,’” King claims, quoting Mohandas Gandhi (246). In addition, King also understood the absolute necessity of both nonviolence and suffering to achieve redemption: “My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. … Recognizing the necessity of suffering, I have tried to make of it a virtue. … I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive” (247). Therefore, King’s ideas of redemption required the black community to carry a heavy burden of suffering and sacrifice, much like the story of Christ.

King had a deep conviction in the inherent equality of all of humanity, a conviction that was influenced by his Christian faith (Hunt 242). His philosophy of nonviolence has its deep roots in the triad of theology, fellowship, and faith (227). Through these conceptions, King developed a “‘serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate evil’” (qtd in Hunt 227) which led him to his aspiration of the ultimate form of redemption, which was to be achieved by establishing what he calls the “Beloved Community” (227). King’s vision of the Beloved Community has its roots in his deep faith and theological convictions of Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God. When the US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on the transportation systems after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, King stated that a main end goal of the Civil Rights Movement was “the creation of the Beloved Community” (Inwood 493). For King, the Beloved Community was something that could only be achieved through nonviolence; he did not see nonviolence as an end, but rather as a means to appropriate the Beloved Community (Hunt 243). In addition, King was influenced by philosopher Friedrich Hegel who suggested that conflict is necessary for social change to occur; and “that conflict, [if] properly managed, can ground faith and hope for the future” (244). However, it is clear that King emphasized the necessity of nonviolence as being the only means to grasp the end goal of redemption and the Beloved Community.

At the beginning of King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail (1963), King sheds light onto an alternative perspective for his criticizers to see. He agrees with his criticizers that it is unfortunate that nonviolent demonstrations are occurring and disrupting the peace in Birmingham; however, he then continues to outline the sociological realities of the white supremacist power structures that gave birth to the demonstrations in the first place. King claims that these racist structures of power gave the black community no choice but to take action. King states: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… [which can] no longer be ignored” (para. 9). That the white community had been frustrated with King demonstrates that King’s tactic was successful. However, legalized racial segregation in America had created a tense social and political atmosphere; the experiences of injustice within this tense context fostered bitterness and hatred amongst members of the black community. King understood that when minority groups are ostracized, marginalized, and oppressed, social environments are created that become ripe for the harvest of radical violent ideological movements. Although King acknowledges that “violence has a certain cleansing effect” (qtd. in Inwood 504), he believed that violence perpetuates fear and vengeful punishment, which is counterproductive and creates the same conditions that the black community has endured, only for others (Inwood 504). “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness,” King claims (qtd. in Hunt 245). In other words, King knew that violence would destroy exactly what it was meant to achieve. However, with the oppressed black community, King also fully understands that “[if their] repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence” (para. 24).  Thus, while understanding that violence was inevitable if oppression was not challenged, King sought to “transform the suffering [of the black community] into a creative force” of nonviolence (qtd. in Hunt 247).

King claims in his letter that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (para. 11). In other words, power does not dismantle itself; on the contrary, it does everything it can to preserve itself. Therefore, it was up to the black community (the oppressed) to demand equality and liberation from their oppressors. Redemption from structures of power that are responsible for injustice is not possible unless the structures of power are directly confronted, challenged, and either dismantled or reformed from exterior forces. In addition, King explains that it is our “responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” as he reminds the reader that laws are not inherently based on justice, giving the example of the horrific legalized policies of Nazi Germany (para. 18). In explaining this, King contrasts the view that laws are always based on justice, and he demonstrates that it is morally justified to challenge and break unjust laws; if these unjust laws are not broken, injustice and oppression will continue, inevitably manifesting into more tension and conflict.

King’s letter addresses his profound disappointment with what he calls the “white moderate,” a term he uses to refer to the person who does – and prefers to do – nothing, and who is committed to “order” rather than justice, because, in King’s mind, redemption is only possible through direct action. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King claims (para. 21). Towards the end of his letter, King outlines this point further in a core statement that illustrates the message that redemption must be achieved through action: “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends” (para. 35). What King is describing in this quote is that failure to take action against injustice is itself injustice; neutrality is an illusion during times of injustice, and remaining silent in the face of “evil” makes you complicit with acts of injustice. Indeed, for King, the oppressed can only be redeemed when the oppression is directly confronted.

Contrary to common belief, it is worth noting that what ought to be emphasized when we discuss, write about, and remember the Civil Rights Movement, is that King’s nonviolent strategy was mainly a tactic. King and many other nonviolent activists did not embrace a 100% nonviolent lifestyle. On the contrary, they owned weapons, and they guarded their communities as preparation for violent resistance if they were attacked. For example, when journalist William Worthy had visited King’s home, he went to sit down on an armchair, and almost sat on two pistols. “Bill, wait, wait! Couple of guns on that chair!” yelled Bayard Rustin, a nonviolent activist (Cobb 7). Rustin questioned King about the guns, and King responded that they were “[j]ust for self-defense” (7). Indeed, it was no secret that many civil rights activists, such as King, were well armed in order to protect themselves and their families: local law enforcement and the federal government refused to provide adequate protection for them (Cobb 7-8). Glenn Smiley, a man who gave advice to King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had claimed that King’s home was “an arsenal” (Cobb 7-8). These anecdotes outline one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that is often overlooked: the campaign of nonviolence was integrated and supported by a campaign of armed defense. Indeed, as civil rights scholar and author Charles Cobb demonstrates in his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, violence played an essential role in the Civil Rights Movement and the redemption of the black community (187). For example, Cobb writes of a heavily armed resistance group called “Deacons for Defense and Justice” who were committed to protecting the nonviolent movement (192-193). Further, another example that demonstrates this collaboration of the nonviolence movement with armed resistance is that although black activists from the group CORE – Congress of Racial Equality – were committed to nonviolent principles, they also received protection from armed defenders (196-197). In other words, violent and nonviolent groups, who were dedicated to the same goals of redemption, corresponded with one another to create a successful alliance and strategy for social change. The nonviolent campaigners needed the armed defenders to protect their movements, and the violent campaigners needed the nonviolent resisters to lead the path to redemption, as true redemption could only be achieved through nonviolence. Nonviolent activist Fred Brooks highlights this alliance by stating that “[a]ny time we were having a demonstration [armed defenders] would be standing there on both sides of the street. Wherever we went it was like a caravan; these guys in their pickup trucks with… rifles up in the back” (196-197). Charlie Fenton, a dedicated nonviolent white activist with CORE, was confronted with this merge of armed and nonviolent resisters when he arrived at the Jonesboro Freedom House. The house had become an armed camp. Although this disappointed Fenton greatly, he quickly realized the necessity of the arms; without the armed men in Jonesboro the nonviolent movement would have been violently destroyed by white supremacists (200-201). Some nonviolent activists questioned the compatibility of having armed defenders involved in the nonviolent movement; however, as racist violence began to surge, so did the agreement on the necessity of armed defense as being crucial to the movement (Cobb 197-198). In Cobb’s words, “nonviolence and armed resistance are part of the same cloth; both are thoroughly woven into the fabric of black life and struggle” (240). The armed defense component of the movement managed to create spaces of relative sovereignty, which ultimately allowed the nonviolent component to succeed in its mission of redemption.

Martin Luther King’s method of nonviolent resistance was a thoughtfully constructed strategy to achieve redemption. The objective for King was never to harm, destroy, defeat, or humiliate his enemies; rather, his objective was to embrace his enemies with love in an attempt to persuade them to change their position on the unjust status quo that was represented within the socio-political system (Hunt 245). For King, the achievement of redemption was only possible through direct nonviolent confrontation with legalized injustice through a process of consciously disobeying, undermining, and rebelling against unjust laws. As history has shown, King’s strategy was successful in changing the legalized racism in the US. However, the legacy of racism continues to systemically haunt US political structures.


  1. While King’s tactic of nonviolent resistance draws in part from his roots in the Christian faith, he was also heavily influenced by the philosophies of Thoreau, Hegel, Rauschenbusch, Gandhi, and his family (Hunt 243-244).


Works Cited

Cobb Jr., Charles E. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books. 2014. EPUB file. 11 April 2016.

Hunt, C. Anthony. “Martin Luther King: Resistance, Nonviolence and Community.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 7.4 (2004): 227-251. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Inwood, Joshua F. “Searching for the Promised Land: Examining Dr Martin Luther King’s Concept of the Beloved Community.” Antipode 41.3 (2009): 487-508. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

King, Martin L. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” African Studies Center.  16 Apr. 1963. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <>.

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