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PREFACE TO THE MEDITATIONS [republished from 2010]


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The extended blog entries called “Med­i­ta­tions” have proven to be the most pop­u­lar items on this web­site. While some of these essays have some schol­arly trap­pings (cita­tions, etc.), they are pri­mar­ily per­sonal doc­u­ments, and thus may con­tain col­lo­quial prose, pro­fan­ity, or other non-academic elements.

Any­one is enti­tled to reprint these pieces, as long as they are not altered, and credit is given.

14-03-18 BLOG PREFACE TO THE MEDITATIONS (2010)[Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (1818–1895), born a slave in Mary­land, U.S.A., secretly taught him­self to read, and suc­cess­fully escaped slav­ery in 1838. His auto­bi­og­ra­phy cat­a­pulted him to promi­nence in the anti-slavery move­ment. Widely known as the “Sage of Ana­cos­tia”, Dou­glass was the most promi­nent and influ­en­tial African-American of his cen­tury, and one of the great­est philoso­phers of free­dom in human his­tory. In both word and deed, he strug­gled for the free­dom and equal­ity, not only of African-American males like him­self, but for women, native Amer­i­cans, immi­grants, and all other human beings. One of his favorite quo­ta­tions was: “I would unite with any­body to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”]

From A Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, an Amer­i­can Slave (1845):

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly com­menced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learn­ing to spell words of three or four let­ters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once for­bade Mrs. Auld to instruct me fur­ther, telling her, among other things, that it was unlaw­ful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, fur­ther, he said, “If you give a nig­ger an inch, he will take an ell. A nig­ger should know noth­ing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learn­ing would spoil the best nig­ger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nig­ger (speak­ing of myself) how to read, there would be no keep­ing him. It would for­ever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unman­age­able, and of no value to his mas­ter. As to him­self, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him dis­con­tented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sen­ti­ments within that lay slum­ber­ing, and called into exis­tence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and spe­cial rev­e­la­tion, explain­ing dark and mys­te­ri­ous things, with which my youth­ful under­stand­ing had strug­gled, but strug­gled in vain. I now under­stood what had been to me a most per­plex­ing difficulty–to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achieve­ment, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I under­stood the path­way from slav­ery to freedom.

else­where, Dou­glas said:

To make a con­tented slave it is nec­es­sary to make a thought­less one. It is nec­es­sary to darken the moral and men­tal vision and, as far as pos­si­ble, to anni­hi­late the power of reason.

From Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man:

Man has no prop­erty in Man.

These med­i­ta­tions are con­structed with a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline. Every effort will be made to ensure that their ter­mi­nol­ogy is con­sis­tent and mean­ing­ful. The reader will prob­a­bly notice the con­spic­u­ous absence of some terms that are else­where accepted. The terms “cap­i­tal­ism” and “social­ism”, for exam­ple, are not used any­where because I con­sider them to be buzz­words with­out iden­ti­fi­able mean­ing. The terms “left” and “right”, sup­pos­edly rep­re­sent­ing a “polit­i­cal spec­trum” of ideas and prac­tice, have never been used in my work. This clas­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal ideas is per­ni­cious non­sense, and its use reduces any polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion to inco­her­ent gib­ber­ish. Instead, I will rely on a ratio­nal clas­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal move­ments and ideas. The terms “West” and “West­ern”, along with their reveal­ingly ten­den­tious cor­re­late “Non-Western”, are also renounced. They are embar­rass­ing rem­nants of a narrow-minded past, still used with annoy­ing impre­ci­sion and capri­cious­ness. Worst of all, they came into use because of a pro­found mis­un­der­stand­ing of the world’s mosaic of soci­eties. My rea­sons for these judg­ments will be expounded in an appen­dix to the Meditations.

Apart from this dis­ci­pline, I’ll avoid cre­at­ing an idio­syn­cratic jar­gon of my own. I pre­fer plain lan­guage. When I use a word or a phrase in some way that dif­fers from gen­eral cus­tom, or the rea­son­able expec­ta­tions of read­ers, I will make every effort to make my mean­ing clear. How­ever, lan­guage being a slip­pery thing, I can expect to fail at this now and then.

Works of seri­ous thought are not writ­ten with­out an implied audi­ence. The writer can­not avoid hav­ing some men­tal image, how­ever vague, of who is likely to be read­ing their words. Often it can be eas­ily rec­og­nized, for exam­ple, that a given writer assumes that the reader resides in their own coun­try, or is of the same gen­der, or has a sim­i­lar social or edu­ca­tional back­ground. The more seri­ous the sub­ject mat­ter, the more nar­row this assumed audi­ence is likely to be. Occa­sion­ally, a “we” or an “us” will appear in a work that makes it plain that the author assumes that “we” or “us” excludes most of the human race. This is not one of those works. It’s intended for all human beings, every­where on the planet. If I had my druthers, I would pre­fer it to be simul­ta­ne­ously writ­ten in every lan­guage. Unfor­tu­nately, I can only write expres­sively and pre­cisely in one lan­guage, Eng­lish. For­tu­nately, that lan­guage is the world’s most widely dis­trib­uted, and a work writ­ten in Eng­lish can find it’s way into the hands of a diverse read­er­ship, scat­tered across the globe. I am more con­cerned that my ideas reach peo­ple in places like Papua New Guinea, Tran­syl­va­nia, Bourk­ina Fasso, or Burma than that I gain pop­u­lar­ity among my own com­pa­tri­ots. I have friends and acquain­tances in all these places, and the men­tal pic­ture of a reader that hov­ers in my mind, as I write, includes them. They have big­ger prob­lems to deal with than my own coun­try­men. The sub­jects I dis­cuss are more urgent for them. I live in the aston­ish­ingly lucky coun­try called Canada. Com­pared to most places in the world, it has no seri­ous polit­i­cal prob­lems to speak of. I will try not to for­get that, and I will try not to glibly dis­miss the expe­ri­ence of peo­ple for whom the def­i­n­i­tion and appli­ca­tion of democ­racy are life-and-death issues.

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