Dabney, Discussions volume 4

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.


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.


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.


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.

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. 


Somewhat counterintuitively, 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.

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