Per Caritatem

[The following is an excerpt from Peter Kline’s forthcoming book, Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology]Kierkegaard by Peter Kline

Writing with apophatic desire within Christendom is what leads Kierkegaard to adopt what is perhaps his most basic and pervasive literary form, namely, irony.[1] Writing with passion requires the indirection of irony because Christendom has confined theological speech within what Kierkegaard calls a “dreadful illusion.”[2] Coming late in a theological and religious tradition that had formed itself into a body of social institutions and patterns of speech in which one was a Christian automatically, simply by being born into a Christian society, Kierkegaard was disturbed with what he regarded as Christendom’s ability to deceive people into the belief they were living a Christian life when in truth what surrounded them was a self-deluded caricature of Christian speech and action.

The reason such “reduced circumstances,”[3] as Kierkegaard names them, call for irony, as apposed to a direct form of speech, has to do with what makes Christendom’s illusion dreadful. It is crucial not to underestimate or caricature Christendom, even if one’s judgment is that Christendom is itself a caricature of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, what made Christendom’s illusion about itself dreadful was not that it was false in relation to an objectively measurable and presentable understanding of Christianity’s truth. Christendom is not a doctrinal error. Nor is it simply an ethical error, a failure to live up to an objective Christian ideal. What is dreadful about Christendom is not any easily identifiable lapse or hypocrisy but rather its profound intellectual and emotional sophistication. Such sophistication has the capacity to embed one in an illusion from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself, at least by any straightforward means. Christendom includes earnest debates about doctrine and ethics, intentional divisions into denominations each of which defends the truth of its perspective, thoughtful reflections on the history and mission of the church, etc. For Kierkegaard, therefore, the way to approach truth and break through illusion is not to step back and “reflect” objectively on one’s situation and the ideals, values, and doctrines one is striving to embody. Such a move simply places one squarely within Christendom, no matter how “radical” such reflections are.

Rather than produce a dogmatics or a system of doctrine, Kierkegaard sought to write theological truth by cultivating in himself and in his reader what Jonathan Lear calls “anxious, disruptive experiences of irony.”[4] Irony as Kierkegaard sought to cultivate it, however, has nothing to do with apathetic detachment or a refusal of commitment. For Johannes Climacus, “the presence of irony does not necessarily mean that the earnestness is excluded. Only assistant professors assume that.”[5] Kierkegaard, like Socrates, deploys irony for ethical-religious purposes, as a way to deepen commitment and intensify earnestness. He assumes on the part of his reader a basic commitment to and familiarity with Christian identity, that is, he assumes Christendom. Yet he also assumes that a truly earnest pursuit of Christian truth under the “reduced circumstances” of Christendom will involve an “awakening” to how modern familiarity with Christian identity has reduced Christian speech to a species of “chatter,” even (or perhaps especially) when it is most sophisticated. Kierkegaard writes, “every Christian term, which remaining in its own sphere is a qualitative category, now, in reduced circumstances, can do service as a clever expression which may signify pretty much everything.”[6] A “qualitative category” is one that withdraws from conscription into quantitative projects of identity and power, projects to which Christendom’s bishops are wholly committed in Kierkegaard’s view. Categories such as “revelation,” “God,” “Christ,” “salvation,” etc. are for Kierkegaard categories of self-dispossessing action that have “no relation to survival as evidence of [their] truth.”[7] Christendom, however, has turned such categories into terms for leveraging its own power, that is, ensuring its own survival on the condition of reducing Christian categories to place holders for whatever powers and identities are in vogue. As Mark Jordan puts it, such categories become “terms used by everyone for everything—say, in churches, used by the weak for dictated testimony and by the powerful for repeated judgment in the name of ‘tradition.’”[8] Christian speech has in modernity lost touch with its “own sphere.” It has surrendered its own capacity for disturbing speech, for passion, in order to ensure its own survival.

To cultivate passion for truth in such reduced circumstance requires exposing the familiarity with which one assumes Christian identity and speech to disturbance and disruption. Such disruption generates experiences of irony insofar as I am led to experience my once familiar pursuit of Christian identity and speech as suddenly strange and difficult. I experience irony when I experience my own earnest attachment and performance of Christian speech as a form of chatter, uncannily hallow and bereft of truth, caught up in the interests of power, domination, and clever evasions of truth-telling. This is not because I am able to glimpse objectively the distance between chatter and “authentic” Christian speech—the fantasy of Christendom’s bishops, theologians, and self-assured converts—but because I longer know or have an objective sense of how to speak or live Christianly. My Christian identity has become a problem, a difficulty, an open question.

For Kierkegaard, the passion of Christian living is sustained by keeping the problem and difficulty of Christian speech and action open rather than closed. The truthfulness of a Christian life is conditioned upon it never ceasing to be an ironic existence, ever disruptive of a settled Christian identity, ever responsive to a voice from another sphere that withdraws from the objectifying patterns of speech that ensure Christendom’s survival. As Jordan puts it, “we restore weight to the old Christian terms by realizing that we have never been able to carry them or use them skillfully.”[9] There is that within the Christian categories to which I am committed, what is “qualitative” in them, that breaks my own understanding and use of them apart, that never allows me to handle them with authority, as grounds for cultivating an easily adopted identity. Such dis-possession, again, does not entail a deflation of earnestness. It is the condition of an ever-deepening engagement with and commitment to an infinitely difficult truth. It is the possibility of a passion for truth-telling that does not “fall down before the golden calf of whichever System or Anti-System happens to be in vogue.”[10] This is a passion that must “adopt despised speech,”[11] speech that refuses the interests of easily assumed and cultivated identity.

Kierkegaard’s authorship multiplies and performs various forms of despised speech, speech without authority, ironic speech that withdraws from any certainty about itself. Perhaps its most ironic gesture, or the one that gathers together all its preceding ironic gestures, is Kierkegaard’s final word as a Christian author in which he unsays even his own name as he declares, “I am not a Christian.”[12] This declaration occurs in the middle of his “attack on Christendom,” an attack on the familiarity of Christian identity and speech that is animated, as Jordan puts it, by “his hope that the ‘specific weight’ of Christian words might be felt on the other side of a satire that would devour Christendom, of an indirectness that displaces his own authorship, making even his own name the ironic token of missing voices from the other sphere.”[13] Søren Kierkegaard, that author who gave up every attachment in order to devote himself to the task of writing out what is entailed in “becoming a Christian,” declares at the end of his life that he has not, finally, become a Christian. “Christian” is not an identity that he can adopt, in part because becoming a Christian is not about assuming an identity but about undertaking a living response to a voice that calls him out of even his own name. Kierkegaard does not yet know how to respond to the voice that calls him, that calls him to give up everything, to become nothing. Yet, ironically, this not-knowing is what keeps him in proximity to this voice, straining to let it be heard, not least by himself.

Kierkegaard’s straining to hear and respond to the divine voice within the reduced circumstances of Christendom shows itself in his experimentations with form, his experiments with writing otherwise than as doctrinal exposition or self-assured moralizing. What is characteristic of Kierkegaard’s ironic writing experiments, for Jordan, is that they are “nearer burlesque than austere irony.”[14] The forms of the authorship perform their own distance from reassuring objectivity by way of passionate caricature that re-stages theological and philosophical characters and themes at slant, with a wink, with “histrionic gestures and fantastic scenes.”[15] Jordan: “read him as re-staging fans’ passions for Hegel, for Father Abraham, for Greek lyric and versions of Don Juan, for fairy tales and drunken speeches, even for the endless scribbling of the despised Adler.”[16] Even at its most Christianly religious, Kierkegaard’s writing does not settle down into measured and calculated forms “since any theology of God incarnate as a poor man executed for blasphemy must speak in the mode of ridiculous passion for an object otherwise despised.”[17] And within Christendom such ridiculous passion “requires choices both of institutional affiliation and devices of writing that are more exaggerated, like the choices of a bad actor or a buffoon. Kierkegaard makes such choices when he writes polemic in his own name against the memory of Bishop Mynster and his Christendom.”[18] Such earnest buffoonery offers itself as “a parodic invocation, a bit of camping, an artifice of fantastic desire.”[19]

Kierkegaard’s irony is apophasis under the conditions of modernity, apophasis when negation no longer prepares the heart for praise but drives the logic of “the system.” It is apophasis as an act of mourning the loss of forms appropriate for praising a God who will not be made the guarantor of the church’s survival at the hands of the state. Irony negates performatively by letting an un-masterable difference into its speech, the infinite qualitative difference between an identity and the self becoming nothing before God.

[1] For my reading of Kierkegaard’s irony, I am helped by Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[2] Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 41-4.
[3] Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 146. Hereafter BA.
[4] Jonathan Lear, Wisdom Won From Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), ch. 4.
[5] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 277n.
[6] BA, 146.
[7] BA, 36.
[8] Mark Jordan, “The Modernity of Christian Theology or Writing Kierkegaard Again for the First Time,” Modern Theology 27:3 July 2011, 445.
[9] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449-50.
[10] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 444.
[11] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 450.
[12] Kierkegaard, ‘The Moment’ and Late Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 340.
[13] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 445.
[14] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[15] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[16] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[17] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[18] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 448.
[19] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 443.


The following is a guest post by Peter Kline. Peter is an Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University in Theology and Philosophy. In addition to Kierkegaard and apophatic thought, Peter has interests in psychoanalysis, mysticism, art, and aesthetics. He is also a practicing artist, and his work can be found at: by Peter Kline

This is one of the pieces of art that I plan on submitting as part of my dissertation, “Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology.” And here is an excerpt from the dissertation that can be read as a bit of commentary on the painting. I’m interested in exploring what it would mean to inhabit a space between the word and the image, painting and writing toward “nothing,” toward the apophatic space and time that keeps everything in motion, that releases the word, the image, the self with its projects off itself into a temporality timed by the rhythm, the “repetition,” of eternity.


Like Foucault, Kierkegaard “writes in order to have no face.”[1] He writes in order to face the “divine nothing” and in that (de)facing he yearns to become nothing, nothing to be hawked by theory retailers or put to use by purveyors of any Christendom, old or new. What marks apophatic discourses as apophatic is their limitless self-critique, their willingness to take back and negate everything that is given in speech, even negations, or to take back as the manner of giving. This breathes into discourse an elusiveness, often quite subtle, that the commentator must become attuned to, with a patience, humility, and artistic ear that work against the scientific desire to “master” texts.

The simultaneity of giving and taking back is what Kierkegaard practices as “indirect communication” and “double-reflection.”[2] This simultaneity, which requires that one write at a slant or with a swerve, is how he lets discourse perform the paradoxical simultaneity of time and eternity—Øieblikket [“the instant,” or “the glance of the eye”]—in which time is thrown off center, off itself, forward. Kierkegaard’s authorship throws language off center, off itself. It lets the outside of speech into speech and so writes itself around and toward what cannot be named or gathered into definitive and stabilized meanings. Kierkegaard writes in the tension of passion between time and eternity, with one eye looking into time, the other looking into eternity. He winks at his reader, disrupting his own discourse even as he writes it, the way a wink disrupts the gaze even as it performs it. This is exactly the sense of Øieblikket, the glance of the eye, in which eternity approaches and withdraws in the same instant, opening time forward. An approach that withdraws as it approaches is one that makes room. Kierkegaard writes in order to make room for his reader, to release the reader forward into the roominess of eternity, rather than suffocate them with a smothering, tightly determined discourse.

Kierkegaard writes beyond the concept, beyond even his own concepts, or he allows a beyond, a rupture, a fragmenting, into the writing of concepts. He writes to release and revitalize an energy, a passion, a sense, an anger, a tenderness, a sorrow, a joy, a laughter that concepts cannot allow to burst forth. Hiin Enkelte, “that single individual,” is the limit concept of Kierkegaard’s writing, the limit of the concept, the stumbling block on which every concept trips and falls, or else learns to dance, to get off itself. Hiin—“that”—pushes Enkelte beyond the concept, beyond the abstraction of “the” individual to that one, right here—hello! Hiin indicates the movement of an address—“My dear reader!”—an address that is already a response to what opens, to what is given, prior to thought and prior to speech, the sheer thatness of that other, the shock of relation and responsibility that elicits a joy (and terror) that arrives before language and outlasts it. One might think of the joy of babies (in-fants, non-speakies) who learn to smile in the presence of the other before they learn to speak, who beam with the joy (and terror) of existence before learning the “ambiguous art”[3] of language. Kierkegaard writes in order to return his reader to, to repeat forward, this smile older (and newer) than speech:

Thus the upbuilding address is fighting in many ways for the eternal to be victorious in a person, but in the appropriate place and with the aid of the lily and the bird, it does not forget first and foremost to relax into a smile. Relax, you struggling one! One can forget how to laugh, but God keep a person from ever forgetting how to smile![4]

Kierkegaard’s wink always comes with a smile, an apophatic smile, with the joy of relating and communicating outside of, beyond, prior to, along the edge of, or simply without the concept. Academics, as a rule, are trained to forget how to smile, especially in their writing. To read Kierkegaard well, however, one must be able to smile, and wink, and dance—to let the outside in.


[1] Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge

[2] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 73ff.

[3] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 231.

[4] Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 12.


Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.


Hegel's Introduction to the System_RWoodAnyone who has put in the time and effort to read Hegel knows how incredibly difficult and dense his texts are and thus what a welcome gift a lucid commentary would be. Dr. Robert E. Wood has provided such a gift in his newly published translation of and commentary on Hegel’s “Phenomenology” and “Psychology,” entitled, Hegel’s Introduction to the System. Not only does Wood’s translation offer new insights, but also his decision to insert his commentary after particularly difficult and noteworthy passages allows the reader to engage in an ongoing interplay—or as Gadamer would say—a “dialogue” with the text and with Wood, who has devoted a lifetime of scholarly energy and passion to the study of Hegel’s thought.

The book consists of four parts. In Part I, Wood begins with an introduction to Hegel’s life and thought. In Part II, he sketches a helpful overview of the Logic, Philosophy of Nature, and the Philosophy of Spirit. In Part III, the “heart” of the text, we have Wood’s translation and commentary on key sections of the “Philosophy of Spirit,” viz. the Anthropology, Phenomenology, and Psychology. Then in the concluding section, Part IV, Wood provides an overview of the final sections of the “Philosophy of Spirit,” viz. Objective and Absolute Spirit. Wood has also taken the time to compile a helpful selected bibliography consisting of (1) works that offer a basic orientation to Hegel or that focus on a particular part of his work, and (2) works that focus specifically on themes in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit.

On a final and more personal note, I had the great pleasure to study under Bob Wood at the University Dallas. One could not encounter a more generous scholar whose love for philosophy and an ongoing pursuit of truth is so manifest and contagious. Wood’s love for teaching comes through in his text as well, and I encourage those teaching the relevant courses on Hegel to assign this text, which will offer tremendous help to students as they wrestle with and come to understand, as Heidegger put it, Hegel’s “greatness.”


For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.


With a basic sketch of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in place [see part I], I want to bring Douglass’s account into conversation with Hegel. After Douglass’s act of physical resistance or more strongly put, his act of violence, Covey never again physically abuses Douglass.  For Hegel, the master/slave relationship comes into existence when one person chooses to preserve his life rather than fight the other and risk his life. The one opting for life over death becomes the slave. Contra Hegel’s account of the docile slave who surrendered himself to his master’s will, Douglass confronts his master and is willing to risk his life in order to gain freedom. In his narrative, Douglass himself interprets the fight with Covey as a decisive moment in his struggle for freedom.Slaves Working in Fields

The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.[1]

According to Douglass, something beyond intellectual freedom—literacy and so-called “inner freedom”—was required for his “resurrection” from “the tomb of slavery,” his on-going social death experienced from sunrise to sunset. As an embodied, political being, Douglass’s experience of freedom was necessarily limited so long as Covey and the all-pervasive socio-political apparatus of chattel slavery had dominion over his body, controlling, monitoring, and defining his every spatio-temporal move. As I highlighted earlier, Douglass’s personal history including significant temporal markers and events—his birth date, the identity of his father, the death and burial of his mother—was erased, covered up, and controlled by the white other. When he resolved to stand up to Covey—an embodied representative of the larger socio-political racialized apparatus—Douglass began to re-write his own story and to forge his own historical and temporal markers.  His preface to the Covey episode indicates that he himself understood the fight as momentous, historic, and transformative. “The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”[2] In short, Douglass’s re-narration of this event suggests that not only was some form of physical resistance or force needed for his own sense of freedom, but it was also needed so that Covey might recognize him as an other, as a human being with volitional and rational faculties capable of producing deliberate and purposeful acts of resistance.[3] The (white) panoptic gaze inscribed in his body through multiple lashes of the whip and forced inhumane labor, the gaze internalized through his brokenness and reduction to an animal-like state, was at last cast off, deflected, turned aside.  In Douglass’s words, “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”[4]

Frederick Douglass SpeakingMy final point with respect to the Hegel/Douglass dialogue is to highlight the fact that in Douglass’s narrative, the slave does not attain freedom or recognition of his humanity through his labor for the master. To the contrary, Douglass says that the excruciating labor regime and brutality he endured under Covey’s supervision tormented his body and soul and depressed his spirit. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”[5] Rather than unveil over time the truth of his humanity, Douglass’s forced labor for the master’s sake, worked in a systematic and calculated way to extinguish—or at least attempt to extinguish—his higher capacities and thus to reduce him to an animal-like existence.[6] His work for Covey produced neither indifference to nor detachment from desire, but instead ignited and augmented a desire for freedom, a spatio-temporal existence defined and fashioned by his value as a (rational, volitional) human being and not by the economic value or any other benefits extracted from his subjugated body only to be handed over for the enjoyment of his master. Although on Douglass’s account acquiring skills through labor does not bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship, he is quite cognizant of the way in which the master’s identity is (as Hegel claims) dialectically related to the slave’s. How so? Covey decides against turning Douglass in for a public whipping. Douglass’s explanation for Covey’s seemingly inexplicable decision is that his master’s reputation as a slave-breaker was on the line.  The master had failed to break the slave; consequently, for Covey to surrender Douglass to the civic authorities would be to admit his failure and to lose his highly valued reputation.


[1] Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave/My Bondage and My Freedom/Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  New York:  Library of America, 1994, 65.

[2] Ibid., 60.

[3] I personally have no desire to promote acts of violence; however, if we take Douglass’s account at face value, we must wrestle with his claims that violence was a necessary component to his freedom.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] In fact, Douglass describes his first six months of Covey’s work regime as one of the most difficult periods of his enslavement.  “If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail or snow, too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night” (ibid.).