Book Review: The Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ed.)

Don’t be thrown off by the title. What is contained in this book is not merely four “slave narratives,” a phrase that implies the contents would only be of interest to those who want to learn more about African American history or literature. On the contrary, what is herein contained are four of the best pieces of literature in the English language that I have ever had the great privilege of reading. Each of them is an exhibition of excellent writing, skillful storytelling, and the resiliency of the human desires for respect and freedom. This is particularly true of the last two narratives in this collection, those of Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent.

Douglass’s narrative is the most well-known and widely read of slave narratives. In addition to being a masterpiece of American literature, it also contains a number of the most memorable and interesting stories of any of the slave narratives. Douglass’s insights and observations, in addition to his story, are brilliant and place Douglass among the greatest thinkers of the last several centuries.

Brent’s narrative has only been rediscovered as the excellent work it is in the last few decades and restored to its proper place as a masterwork of English literature. For her narrative, she recounts her story in the manner of a romance, which culminates not in a marriage, as most romances do, but rather in the moment at which her freedom and the freedom of her children is at least ascertained. Like Douglass, the depth of her insight into the mind of the slave and the depraved psychology of the slave owner are always fascinating and illuminating.

One one gains by reading these narratives is not merely historical knowledge about the institution of slavery nor is it merely background for the later, fuller blossoming of the African American literary tradition. It is, instead, an insider’s look at one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind and the effect it had on both sides, on slave and on slave owner as the former was treated as a beast and the latter behaved in a manner fit for one. To paraphrase one of Douglass’s many stirring sentences, you will see how a man becomes an animal and how an animal becomes a man.

What is a human being?

One of the most basic and important questions that must be answered by any philosophy is “what is a human being?” It is only once this question has been answered that one can proceed to venture answers to the other central questions of philosophy, such as what are the value and meaning of human life. One of the earliest attempts to offer a full answer to this question is found in the work of Aristotle, and the answer he gives is one that most moderns would find both shocking and distasteful.

According to Aristotle, the defining characteristic of a human being is his reasoning faculty. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “reason more than anything else is man” (Book X, Chapter 7). This assertion leads him to explicitly exclude slaves, women, children, and barbarians from fully humanity. In his Politics, Aristotle says that “the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature” (Book I, Chapter 13).

Throughout his writings, Aristotle enlarges upon the lack of humanity of those in each of these categories. On slaves, Aristotle alleges in his Politics that they along with “brute animals … have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice” (Book III, Chapter 9). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle comes close to a recognition of the humanity of the slave, but equivocates in the end. In Book VIII, Chapter 11 he says that it is possible for one to be friends with a slave “in so far as he is a man.” Later, in Book X, Chapter 6 of the same text, he says that “no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness — unless he assigns to him also a share in human life.” Aristotle’s ambiguity on the humanity of a slave, though, serves only to strengthen his more frequent assertion that full humanity requires freedom. On women, Aristotle is exceedingly clear; in his On the Generation of Animals, for example, he asserts that “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (Book II, Chapter 3). Similarly, Aristotle’s opinion on the humanity of barbarians is also clear; in his Politics Book I, Chapter 2 he identifies all non-Greeks as “a community of slaves” fit only to be ruled over by the Greeks.

Even the lower classes of Greek society are excluded by Aristotle from a full share in humanity. In his Politics Book VII, Chapter 9, Aristotle says that the “life of mechanics or tradesmen … is ignoble and inimical to virtue.” In his Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chapter 7, Aristotle identifies “human good” with the “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” If the mechanic and the tradesmen cannot attain virtue, they cannot attain to the full realization of their own humanity. Similarly, Aristotle excludes the poor from full humanity in his assertion later in the same book (Chapter 8) that “external goods” are necessary to the same fully human life.

The biblical tradition presents a starkly different description of the humanity of all of these various classes. The full humanity of women, for example, is clearly stated at the outset in the story of the creation of humankind; Genesis 5:1-2 (ESV) states that “when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” Slavery, in the biblical narrative, arises as an accident of history and as a result of human sinfulness. The humanity of the various ethnicities and of the poorest is never questioned, but instead assumed and celebrated.

It is, of course, this biblical understanding of man that has become the predominant understanding today, having overturned and replaced the Greco-Roman vision seen in the ideas of Aristotle. From such a perch, it is difficult to sympathize with the misogynistic and ethnocentric views of Aristotle which would exclude the greater portion of the human species from participation in full humanity. In spite of Aristotle’s bias for the status quo, however, a bias that is shared nearly universally by all but a small and great minority of remarkable thinkers, Aristotle’s efforts in setting out a definition of humanity are a worthy, even if tentative, first step in the direction that would finally culminate in a complete and universal vision of humanity. This vision is perhaps better expressed nowhere than in the founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, which states, in a manner borrowed from the Greek philosophy of which Aristotle is one of the most outstanding examples, that it is “self-evident, that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This is the vision of man, a synthesis of the Greco-Roman and the biblical, that has become the basic modern assumption about the definition of humanity in the modern day.