The Fires of Jubilee and Philosophy
The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates is a true story of Nat Turner’s violent and myth shattering rebellion that hastened ideological transformation before the Civil War.
In order for atrocious acts of slavery to be committed by particularly reasonable and educated individuals, there must be an empowering belief and ideology that is used to justify it in the first place. Beliefs are a filter that has been used since the beginning of human history as a way to interpret the events around us. The evolutionary purpose of such beliefs is known to have probably originated in aboriginal ancestors for survival purposes. If you heard a rustling in the dark, isn’t it better to assume it is a lion instead of assuming it’s the wind? Even if it really is the wind, your chance for survival was much greater by making assumptions of danger. Human belief has transformed and evolved into religious and philosophical ideologies as a way to interpret the world around us and define our place in it. Slavery evolved with the evolution of social groups, where people are grouped in society based on socio-economic conditions, some conditions and traits of a group may lead to improved status and power over other groups is called social stratification. In order for mass slavery to be viable, there has to be economical labor needs and population density, which means mass slavery began 11,000 years ago, after the invention of agriculture. Slavery was present in almost every ancient civilization and during the time of Aristotle, philosophical vindication of such practices was crafted.
Aristotle argued in his book “Politics” that some people are slaves by nature and not everyone who is a slave by law is a slave by nature and vice versa.
“For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…” (Aristotle, Politics)
He expressed that natural slavers were slaves because they lacked complete souls and qualities such as the ability to think as well as a non-natural slave and their incompetency meant they needed masters to control their lives. Aristotle clearly saw this as a form of charity. Homer argued that even if a slave wasn’t born a natural slave, if they had been enslaved anyone this transformed them into a natural slave. Plato also believed that some people were born inferior and needed to be ruled over.
Slavery in Christian Theology and Southern Vindication
St. Augustine believed slavery was a result of the fall of man, even though unnatural but an inevitable consequence of sin.
“It is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word ‘slave’ in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.” (St. Augustine , The City of God, 19:15)
Thomas Aquinas, who agreed with St. Augustine, had a fundamental role in the assimilation of Aristotle’s and other ancient philosopher’s work in Europe. He wrote his interpretation of Aristotle’s Politics and expressed that he didn’t agree with the basis that everyone is naturally born a slave, because all men are born equal in the eyes of God, but he expressed that, like St. Augustine, that the fall of man has caused incidental inequality among men. He agreed with Aristotle on the role of servitude but the combination of incidental societal and environmental factors can explain why it is justifiable that some men rule over others. He seemed to agree with Homer’s notion that environmental factors can transform someone into a slave and it be justified.
The bible as justification for slavery:
The Bible contains several references to slavery, justification came through interpretation of the law code of Deuteronomy as legitimate as long as Israelites were not among the enslaved. There were debt slavery laws and other types of legitimized bondage in the Code of Hammurabi, The Holiness code exhibits a form of debt slavery as well as the Covenant Code. In Exodus the law codes exhibited among a form of sexual slavery for not following a strict moral code. In the New Testament in the First Epistle of Peter, slaves were told they were to obey their masters, but masters also had to hold a code of conduct and treat their slaves as “brothers” because God is equally their master. This belief that slavery was justified by the moral code of Christianity and the belief that it was morally virtuous as long as slaves were treated well which fueled vindication in the South.
Nat Turner and Plato’s Cave
Part one of The Fires of Jubilee, goes through Nat Turners self-realization process in which he realizes his bondage physically, but his freedom mentally and spiritually which later goes into spiritual vindication and liberation of others in Part Two: Go the Sound of Jubilee. Nat Turner was considered to be very bright as a child and he was aware of his own intellectual superiority of the other children. This directly contradicts Aristotle’s justification for slavery that slaves were somehow mentally inferior to non-slaves. Nat was led to believe that Master Benjamin would liberate him or at least let him be one of the skilled slaves due to his superior intellect, when Nat reached the age of 12, when a slave had to begin working, after Benjamin’s death, Master Samuel did not appreciate Nat’s intelligence and Nat was lowered to the same standard as the other slave’s working in the fields. Nat was consumed by religion and attended negro praise meetings where after he thought he heard a voice, Nat believed he had been “ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” He awaited for divine revelation for what his great purpose was. Similarly, In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; he describes a scenario in which prisoners have been chained to a wall since childhood with their arms, legs, and necks held in place, so they can only gaze at the wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire and in between the fire and prisoners is a walkway where people and animals would pass through. The prisoners would only be able to see the shadows and would assume this to be real. They would not know the shadows were produced by something else unless they were somehow freed to examine their own circumstances or given contrary information. In The Fires of Jubilee, Southern Congressmen feared abolitionist pamphlets reaching the South and believed that “only through a conspiracy of silence, it seemed, could slavery be maintained and the Southern master class protected.” (pg. 45) Abolitionists spread pamphlets to the South knowing that if the slaves could see a reality beyond their own and conceive of a world in which they are free and have reasons to be, then they would begin to rebel.
Plato continues the scenario in which one of the prisoners has been freed. He would have trouble accepting that the shadows are not real. If the prisoner was allowed out of the cave, he would then be blinded by the sunlight but he would eventually come to an understanding of his situation. If he were to go back to the cave to try to free the other prisoners, most of them would reject it. The dialogue continues to speculate; if the prisoners were shown the truth and freed outside the cave, they would rebel against the prisoner who freed them. Nat and his insurgents experience this same denial when word of their rebellion already spread across the area. Several plantations had slaves that refused to join Nat’s insurgents and instead fought with pitchforks, clubs, and whatever they could get their hands on to save their masters from slaughter. Nat’s rebellion requires loyal followers, because he cannot force freedom onto people who do not see the faults in the system of bondage they rely on.
Nat and the Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Thesis, sparked a new understanding of the Bible. In Catholicism, the Bible’s teachings are interpreted for members by the Pope, whom they believe has divine infallible wisdom to do so properly. After the separation from Catholicism and the burst of new branches of Christian philosophy, gave birth to an idea that anyone can interpret the Bible for themselves. The Quakers in the North believed that anyone could suddenly have divine revelation and the Holy Spirit could speak through you and it would be as real an interpretation of the Bible as any. However, it was unheard of that a slave would have such divine inspiration. If it weren’t for such reformation and the Southern slave owners assimilating their slaves into Christianity, Nat would not have gained the followers he needed to pursue his rebellion. Just as slave owners felt inspired by the Bible to defend slavery, Nat found solace in the Bible, condemning it as well. “And for every Biblical lesson white preachers found to vindicate Negro slavery, the scriptures contained an opposite injunction against human bondage.” (pg. 35)
The Philosophical vindication of rebellion
Fredrick Douglas justified rebellion as a necessary evil when he said “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”
The dichotomy of Slave and Master and Conclusions
What the ancient philosophers did not consider, in their suggestion that natural slaves were born relying on masters, in this slave-master dichotomy, masters born as masters with the obligation of presiding over other people in order to care for them is another form of slavery. They are just as obligated to the slave as the slave is to them. What this believe did not foretell is the inevitability of the human spirit and man’s natural desire to be an individual, free from the constraints of others. If someone is born a master, they are subjected to inevitable rebellion. Modern ideologies suggest individualistic freedom, where not only is not one born a slave, no one is born a master either. People are free to not be under forced labor and they are also free to not assist live for others. This ideology breaks down the dichotomy of slave-master and is a similar modernization of the pre-societal hunter-gatherer ideology.