Self-Evident Eloquence

In an 1852 speech celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass finds himself in the awkward position of having to persuade his fellow countrymen to accept the manifest consequences of the self-evident truths proclaimed in our founding document, and so to abolish slavery.

How does one demonstrate the self-evident? “Where all is plain there is nothing to be argued,” he protests.

But his complaint is rhetorical, serving as the springboard for an eloquent exposition of the humanity of the slave, and the liberties that flow from it.

The term self-evident is not quite synonymous with the obvious. It is not only possible, but very common, for fallen men to deny principles that, when properly examined, prove themselves.

As Aristotle explained ages ago, the human mind functions according to certain basic rules, which constitute the substance of reason itself. It is only by the application of these basic principles—such as that one thing is not another thing, or that contradictory statements cannot equally be affirmed—that the mind is able to shed light on more complex particular questions.

Quite literally, we cannot think straight without resorting to self-evident truths. Conversely, whenever our thinking is crooked, it is because we have contravened one or more of these essential points.

As Socrates taught, and as Douglass well understood, it is often necessary to prove fundamental truths, not because they don’t prove themselves, but because the influence of money, pleasure, or other distracting forces has caused that proof to be overlooked.

The simplest and most powerful form such demonstration takes is the exposure of a contradiction in an opponent’s beliefs or behavior.

To those who deny the humanity of slaves, Douglass responds by citing the “seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be,) subject him to the punishment of death.”

“When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave,” he wryly concludes.

As for those who would deny that manhood confers inalienable rights, Douglass meekly inquires: what then is there to celebrate on the Fourth of July?

Where does one find such self-contradictions today? One example that comes to mind would be those decrying the loss of life they falsely assert will ensue, if laws are adjusted to discourage the murder of innocents in the womb.

Do such as these believe human life has value, or not?

For another present-day application, consider this cartoon, which explains what should be obvious more eloquently than this blogger ever could:

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