Dabney, Discussions: volume 4

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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
We come to bury Dabney, not to praise him. We should go ahead and call him out for his racism, the same as we would call out General Sherman for his. There’s no way to defend it. Why would we read Dabney? I suppose for starters he did see where many trends would lead. And he could write well. His prose routinely reaches Johnsonian heights.

Politics

His essay “The New South” is a tragedy on Hamlet-like levels. I can’t go with him on the Lost Cause mythology, but I can certainly agree with individual insights. He defines the true wealth of a nation consisting in “cultured, heroic men who intelligently know their duty and are calmly prepared to sacrifice all else, including life, to maintain the right” (Dabney 19).

The true enemy in any society is the demagogue who seeks “only the good of the dear people” (53).

As to his famous essay on women voting, I’ll just say this: his argument, if consistent, only proves that land-owning gentlemen should vote. That’s not such a terrible idea, and it has worked quite well at times. But if that’s his argument, then he needs to change the thrust of his essay.

Education

Throughout this volume Dabney’s thesis on education is that education is training for virtue, not just throwing book facts at the child. The art of reading or literacy is not education; it is a means to education (189). This will be reflected in good literature, which is always identified “by all that is decent in manner, elevated in sentiment, and thorough and just in argument” (204).

Review of Negro Education:

Dabney makes a number of very good and very flawed points. He is absolutely correct that throwing books at young students, whether black or white, is not education. Behind this is a subtle presupposition that the State is God.

Dabney says the Negro will be better served by manual labor than by education. Here is where his reasoning, while occasionally on point, gets sloppy. On one hand he is right in a general observation: people who have to work hard on the farm all day do not have time for literary pursuits. The point I think he is trying to make is that a season or a generation of manual labor will instill values that will better serve them for literary pursuits. As it stands, he is wrong because he does not go far enough. He is right that manual labor can teach discipline and virtue, but he does not develop his logical conclusion: supposing this works for the Negro, will not later generations be fit statesmen? I do not know how Dabney can logically say no.

Let’s take his argument in another direction: many white people will be better served by learning trades than going to college.

Another error he makes is an economic one: he says that the time spent in labor will be too much for literary pursuits. In 1880 that was true, but one of the truths of dominion labor theory (think of a non-gangster free market) is that technology and specialization reduce the costs of labor while increasing the output. Translation: more time for books.

The argument for public education is that education the urchins of society now keeps them out of jail later. Dabney counters that prisons in the North and in Prussia are filled with educated urchins. I think the truth is somewhat in the middle. The schools generally don’t teach good morals, but neither is it a cause-effect relationship as Dabney maintains.

Dabney’s next argument is that the lot of mankind has always been manual labor. If a man will be working in farms and factories, does he need abstract learning? On one hand, no. On the other hand, this abstract learning has today given us medical and technological advances. Dabney’s argument fails on this point.

And while Dabney’s argument that public education would bring blacks and whites in the same classroom is morally wrong, it is prophetically accurate in what would happen as a result: whites would leave. If you want to find the most racist, segregated places today, find where white liberals are.

Economics

Throughout his Discussions, Dabney is plagued by several tensions. While he correctly holds to natural theology, his discussions of education come very close to theonomy While he excoriates high church culture, his beloved South was far closer to Toryism than it was to Whiggism. John Knox would not be at home among the cavaliers in the Carolinas, yet Dabney wants both worlds.

Against the labor unions he correctly points out that it raises prices and by forcing its workers to go on strike, makes them eat up their savings (295). Strikes and forced higher wages follow an economic law: the hardships are always shifted down to the lower aspects of the community.

Strikes always interfere with the law of supply and demand, which is ruthless in its consequences.

Even worse, in states with anti-right-to-work laws, I am forbidden to do what I want with my labor. When someone owns and dictates my labor, I am there slave.

Philosophy

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Dabney was a strong a philosopher but an underwhelming apologist. His lectures on the study of philosophy and the new infidelities are worth your consideration.
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
If I remember rightly, Banner of Truth has not republished his more, shall we say, problematical writings - those on racial questions since he was, as you say, a straight-up racist (and a man of his times, to cut him very little slack).

When he died in 1898 - 33 years after the end of the Civil War - he was buried in his Confederate uniform, at his request. He never did figure it out.

On to Thomas Smyth!
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
We come to bury Dabney, not to praise him.
Pretty sure he was buried in 1898. That little detail out of the way, I'll say I'm happy to praise Dabney and any other theologian when they are faithful to God's Word and criticize them when they aren't. But if you think burying the sinful ones is the best approach, you should probably keep your shovel handy.
 

TylerRay

Puritan Board Graduate
When he died in 1898 - 33 years after the end of the Civil War - he was buried in his Confederate uniform, at his request. He never did figure it out.
Or perhaps he knew something that you don't. Have you read his Defense of Virginia and the South? Have you read Johnson's biography of Dabney? If not, I'd encourage you not to assume that you have it all figured out, and that Dabney was just an ignorant Southerner.
 
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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Pretty sure he was buried in 1898. That little detail out of the way, I'll say I'm happy to praise Dabney and any other theologian when they are faithful to God's Word and criticize them when they aren't. But if you think burying the sinful ones is the best approach, you should probably keep your shovel handy.
It was a reference to Antony's speech in Julius Caesar.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
If I remember rightly, Banner of Truth has not republished his more, shall we say, problematical writings - those on racial questions since he was, as you say, a straight-up racist (and a man of his times, to cut him very little slack).

When he died in 1898 - 33 years after the end of the Civil War - he was buried in his Confederate uniform, at his request. He never did figure it out.

On to Thomas Smyth!
His racism was no worse than Lincoln's or Sherman's. As to why BoT doesn't republish some of his stuff, I doubt much of it is due to racism. Volumes 1-2 of his discussions deal with book reviews of Charles Hodge, Finney, and the like. No racism there.

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To my knowledge BoT never did his book on Virginia.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
R. L. Dabney's racial prejudicious was ungodly and contrary to the spirit of the gospel. And, before anyone asks, I have read him on the subject. His speech on The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes was one of the most genuinely chilling things that I have ever read. That said, I was not brought up in such a culture and have never been prone to such prejudices in that area myself. It is thus easy for me to be sanctimonious. The wisest thing to do with Dabney is to admit that his "racism" (I hate the word, but we are stuck with it) was a sad blot in the life of an otherwise brilliant man. Something similar could be said about David and Solomon's polygamy.
 

Ben Zartman

Puritan Board Sophomore
The only reason I read his Defense of Virginia is because I figured if anyone could eloquently and correctly defend the South, it was him. His writing on other topics is a joy to read. "Defense" was a sad letdown, but it was good to know that there is truly no good excuse for African slavery.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I'm reading his Practical Philosophy right now He was one of the last great Reformed writers until RIchard Muller to speak on the human will.
 

Pilgrim

Puritan Board Doctor
If I remember rightly, Banner of Truth has not republished his more, shall we say, problematical writings - those on racial questions since he was, as you say, a straight-up racist (and a man of his times, to cut him very little slack).
Banner did reprint Thomas Cary Johnson's "Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer" and "Life and Letters of Robert L. Dabney." The Palmer book is still available on their website. My recollection is that Johnson engaged in some Lost Cause musings and indulges in some "outdated" and "insensitive" comments on racial matters here and there. These comments were disavowed by Banner in the preface or somewhere, but they still published them. They also reprinted the 4 volume set of the Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell. I don't know how much of that gets into his racial views, (Palmer was the editor, so I doubt it was whitewashed) but it probably wasn't quite PC in the eyes of the wider culture to reprint that even in the 80s. To be sure, they didn't republish Dabney's "Defense of Virginia." But they haven't republished Rutherford on the "Pretended Liberty of Conscience" either. They've always been somewhat selective in that way, and are committed to "revivalism" and "pietism" of the First Great Awakening sort, especially in their earlier years.

Who is that man in their logo? That's right, it is George Whitefield, who also "evangelized" for the legalization of slavery in colonial Georgia. (It had previously been outlawed.) To the "woke" folks, Banner is guilty as sin in their perpetuation of "white supremacy" despite never reprinting that nasty stuff about "this vile stream from the fens of Africa."
 
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