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Frederick Douglass: Slaves to Holiday

This is the fifth installment in a series on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The last post, on slavery in fact rather than in form, can be read here


In his Narrative, Douglass reflects on the nature of the slave holiday and how they bolstered the slave system. He recalls:

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery…Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation…Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty…many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.

Douglass has concluded that vice is as vicious a master as cruel men. This means that the way we spend our leisure is utterly important to our freedom.

Vice is a vicious master.

Douglass and his fellow slaves recognize quickly that slavery to vice is just as bad as slavery to a Southern planter. Throughout their holidays, the slaves ate past their fill of molasses, drank past their fill of rum, and enjoyed gambling and fighting until they were sore and tired. This vacation left them sick and in pain, and ready to go back to work; back to a different kind of pain, if simply as a relief from the holiday pain.

They were deceived into the idea that vicious leisure is simply akin to leisure. In being given holiday, they were allowed to do anything but pursue virtue. This perpetuated their slavery and bolstered the untrue belief that a person could choose only between slavery to a cruel master and slavery to vice.

Vice remains a cruel master to many today. While those enslaved to vice may not see themselves as enslaved at all, they live daily under its burden, toiling for it. This is easy to see in extreme cases—drug addicts will do anything for a fix and alcoholics are slave to the drink—but it holds true even for less auspicious forms of vice.

We disregard friends and our own health so that we can stay home, entrenched in sloth and gluttony as we seek out happiness in Netflix and frozen pizza. We ignore our loved ones and become callous and cruel as we seek to feed our selfish ambition and climb the ladder at work. We budget poorly and put ourselves into debt so that we can buy the stuff we want, hoping materialism will give us peace. We continuously discover new vices to worship, and give all of ourselves in pursuit of them.

This modern slavery, a sinister and shadowy slavery, puts even the best of people beneath the yoke. It means we must see ourselves rightly and think independently, that we might be free of those vices that would be our master.

Holiday time matters.

In light of this, how we spend our holidays is of the utmost importance. If we seek to free ourselves from the yoke of slavery to vice, we must do so by enjoying virtue rather than vice. This requires that we reexamine our view of happiness, acknowledging that while vice might seem to make us happy, it is in fact a cruel master that robs us of our very freedom. We must, together with Aristotle, assert that it is virtuous activity that truly leads to happiness and orient our leisure time to reflect this truth.

The mentality of “working for the weekend” is incorrect from the start. Work should be done well, with virtue and conviction, so that it is an enjoyable part of our existence. It cannot be the four letter word some of us consider it to be if we are to enjoy a life of virtue. Moreover, we cannot be those who spend our leisure time with thoughtlessness. To shut your mind off is to disregard freedom, and to look forward every day to the hour in which you get to stop thinking or doing anything productive sets a dangerous precedent for your life.

We cannot live looking forward to moments of vice unless we want to be slaves to vice. Our holiday time reflects who we truly are; they represent our deepest desires and wants. If we spend them shutting our brains off, searching for happiness in vice, or rejecting virtuous leisure time, then our slavery to vice is nearly certain. Rest is important, but true rest comes not in vice, but in virtue.

May we be those who use our holiday time well, and refuse to be enslaved to the vices our culture deems desirable.

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