Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Uncle Tom Problem

Does Thomas Aquinas have a solution for the problem of the Christian Uncle Tom?  (This is a good question to raise on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack.)

One of the common complaints about the political effects of Christianity is that it promotes an attitude of humble submission to authority, even when that authority is tyrannical. Christians are taught to love their enemies and to resist not evil rather than to avenge the evils inflicted on them. As a consequence, Machiavelli complained in the Discourses on Livy (II.2), Christianity makes the world weak. In their concern for supernatural redemption in the next life, Christians have no concern for resisting tyrants in this life, which provides the conditions for tyranny to prevail without resistance from those they exploit.

This problem is dramatized in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and in the debate provoked by her novel. I have been thinking about this as I have been reading chapters of a dissertation by Chris Thuot on Stowe's political thought. Just last night, some of us--faculty and students--were discussing this at the "Second Saturday Club," a group that meets at my house once a month during the school year.

First published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold millions of copies in the United States, Great Britain, and around the world. It was commonly regarded as a powerful statement of abolitionist rhetoric. Emma Darwin recommended it to her relatives and friends. So she and Charles must have discussed it as contributing to the campaign against slavery that they supported. Proslavery leaders in the American South denounced the novel as false in presenting slavery as far more brutal than it truly was.

And yet even some of the abolitionist leaders--such as black abolitionist William Nell--criticized Stowe's depiction of Uncle Tom as humbly submitting to the tyranny of his enslavement. The novel indicates that Uncle Tom's "getting religion" made him a submissive slave (6). He tells Aunt Chloe to pray for the slaveholders. Although he knows that this is against "natur"--against the natural inclination feel anger towards exploitation--he teaches that to be a good Christian slave, one must allow the "grace" of Christian redemption to conquer one's "natur" (62). It is said that Tom has "a natural genius for religion" (195), which is expressed in his teaching his fellow slaves to passively endure their slavery and obediently serve their masters, with the promise that they will be rewarded by God in the afterlife. The prospect of heavenly reward will compensate them for their earthly suffering.

In the 1950s, the black novelist and essayist James Baldwin famously attacked Stowe's novel for what he regarded as a racist portrayal of black passivity.

This is why the term "Uncle Tom" has become a term of scorn for those who submit to their own exploitation.

But there is an alternative hero in Stowe's novel--George Harris--who is not a good Christian, because he wonders whether there is a God that would allow the slaves to suffer so, and he expresses human "natur" in using violence to resist his slave masters and escape to freedom in Canada, and eventually in going to Liberia. George Harris does not ask for eternal life, but only for earthly liberty, and he willing to die rather than live as a slave. George invokes the Declaration of Independence in his manly assertion of a spirited resistance to oppression (207). This spirited resistance to exploitation shows how "the man could not become a thing" (17-18), which was the position taken by black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.

Unlike Uncle Tom, George Harris rejects Christianity. He tells his wife: "I an't a Christian like you, Eliza; my heart's full of bitterness; I can't trust in God. Why does he let things be so?" (23). Speaking to a white man who respects him, George observes: "I've seen things all my life that have made me feel that there can't be a God. You Christians don't know how these things look to us. There's a God for you, but is there any for us?" (124).

Stowe shows some ambivalence as to whether Christianity is defensible in its stance on slavery. She recognizes that the proslavery leaders could easily quote the Bible as supporting slavery. And yet she also believed that the general teaching of the Gospel had to deny the justice of slavery, and she hoped that the Christian teaching of humility and love manifested in Uncle Tom's martyrdom could move the hearts of white people to support the abolition of slavery. Still, she suggests that the violent revolutionary resistance to evil manifest in George Harris might be the only way to abolish slavery.

Under the influence of Alexander Kinmont's Twelve Lectures on the Natural History of Man (1839), Stowe believed that there were natural differences between the races that made blacks more naturally passive, obedient, and less prone to aggressive anger than whites, so that blacks were more naturally adapted for Christian morality. Oddly enough, this made blacks morally superior to whites, while also making them more adapted for slavery than whites were. She implies that George Harris was naturally inclined to a spirited resistance to his enslavement only because his father was white, and thus his mixed race birth gave him some mixture of Anglo-Saxon spiritedness.

There is some evidence, however, that Stowe began to change her mind shortly after the initial publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She wrote a foreword to Nell's The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). Nell commented not only on the black participation in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but also on the black resistance to slavery displayed by Denmark Vesey, David Walker, Nat Turner, and the Virginia maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, who all showed the black history of revolutionary heroism.

In 1856, Stowe published her second novel--Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, in which she portrayed the heroism of a black revolutionary--Dred--who was the son of Denmark Vesey, and who led slaves in revolt from his hiding place in a large swamp. When Dred first appears in the novel (vol. 1, chap. 18), he quotes the Old Testament as favoring vengeance against oppressors and as contradicting the passive obedience taught by the New Testament. By contrast, another slave--Milly--teaches the same Christian passivity taught by Uncle Tom. But in this novel, the heroism of Dred suggests that Stowe is reconsidering her earlier depiction of Uncle Tom as the model of Christian heroism.

Speaking to another slave, Dred aggressively takes his stand:

"When a man licks his master's foot, his wife scorns him--serves him right. Take it meekly my boy! 'Servants, obey your masters.' (Ephesians 6:5) Take your master's old coats--take your wife when he's done with her--and bless God that brought you under the light of the Gospel! Go! You are a slave! But, as for me, . . . I am a free man! Free by this," holding out his rifle. "Free by the Lord of hosts, that numbereth the stars, and calleth them forth by their names. Go home--that's all I say to you! You sleep in a curtained bed.--I sleep on the ground, in the swamps! You eat the fat of the land. I have what the ravens bring me! But no man whips me! --no man touches my wife--no man says to me, 'Why do ye so?' Go! you are a slave!--I am free!" (199-200)

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Thomas Aquinas reads the Bible as supporting the natural moral emotions of spirited vengeance displayed by someone like Dred, and thus Aquinas corrects Jesus's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in the light of natural law as rooted in the natural morality of human life.

Aquinas defends "vengeance" (vindicatio) as a virtue. Against the teaching that we are to always love our enemies and never resist evil, Aquinas insists that vengeance is a part of justice because it expresses a natural inclination shared with other animals to irascibility, a special inclination of nature to protect individuals against harm (ST, I-II, q. 107, a. 2; II-II, q. 50, a. 4; q. 108, aa. 2-3).

Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory of morality explains this by arguing that human moral emotions are rooted in the evolved dispositions of animals to feel anger towards those that threaten them. This naturally evolved animal inclination to ward off attacks is the deepest root of that sense of injustice that underlies all human morality.

Any question as to whether the black race was adapted for slavery by its natural passivity and lack of spiritness should have been settled by the courage of the black soldiers who fought in the American Civil War. Darwin was fascinated by this, and he was proud to meet Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded the first federally authorized black regiment to fight in the South. Higginson visited Darwin twice in the 1870s, and on the second occasion, he spent the night at Down House. Higginson called Darwin "even a greater man than I had thought him."

Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin, ed. Henry Louis Gates and Hollis Robbins (Norton, 2007).

Stowe, Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, ed. Robert Levine (Penguin Classics, 2000).

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Usual Reader said...

The americans' obsession with their own kind of slavery is sickening. Please, look at the rest of the world in 1860. And when I talk about the rest of the world I mean the rest of the whole world, not other european nations and colonies. Just look how the world was in 1860. Just look how it is even today and please, stop with that repulsive, obsessive, masochist sickening whining about slavery.