How could someone who wrote beautifully about an innate human proclivity for the divine brutalize slaves?

In 2015, I took a class on the Enlightenment at American University. For my final project, I spent hours scrolling through the digital archives of the Affiches Américaines, the newspaper that existed in colonial Saint Domingue (Haiti before the revolution). In the Affiches Américaines I clicked through lists of escaped slaves, classified ads for horses, news items from around the world, arrival logs of ships and event listings for the privileged of the island. The newspaper was at once fascinating and horrifying. Classified ads for horses appeared next to a seemingly routine announcement of an escaped mother and her five-year-old. 

The cover of the newspaper Affiches Américaines of Saint Domingue (pre-revolution Haiti). This issue begins with a digest on escaped slaves.

The writing of a doctor named Charles Arthaud stood out. In addition to a spiteful rivalry he had with another doctor on the island that played out week by week in the newspaper, Arthaud caught my eye because he was very clearly an intellectual. He cited Rousseau, he insisted on using the scientific method and he played a pivotal role in creating the island’s learned society. As I clicked my way through the newspaper and read his other writings, a picture of Arthaud began to form: He was a doctor who moved to the colony from France in the early 1770s. He owned a plantation and slaves near the town of Limbé. His writing was juicy, and very eighteenth-century. Topics include the nasty tropical disease yaws, large phallic monuments the Taino indigenous people had built years before (they were all massacred before Arthaud arrived on the island) and the mystery of the skeletal remains of a group of indigenous people who all had flattened skulls.

Arthaud also wrote beautifully about natural religion and the proclivity of all humans to experience divinity. In explaining why the natives built their phallic monuments, Arthaud’s prose came alive with enthusiasm for natural, and seemingly universalizable, religion (the translation below is mine):

l’homme […] est conduit à l’idée d’une cause supérieure, au sentiment d’un Etre suprême, par la séduction de tout ce qui le frappe et l’étonné, lorsqu’il ouvre les yeux sur la nature et lorsque tous ses sens sont émus par toutes les merveilles qu’elle produit

A higher power guides man to the apprehension of a supreme Being; he is guided by the seduction of everything that strikes him and astonishes him when he opens his eyes in nature, and all his senses are overwhelmed by the marvelous things that nature produces.

And yet at the same time, Arthaud owned, and presumably brutalized, human beings.


At its heart, the Enlightenment — and Arthaud’s thought — embraced empiricism. When Arthaud sought to demonstrate that natives with flattened skills belonged to a different human species (it didn’t occur to him that they were strapping their babies to boards that flattened their heads), he incorrectly and painstakingly applied the scientific method through a medical examination of skulls. When Arthaud criticized Charlevoix, a French Jesuit Priest, who wrote about the laziness and idolatry of ingenuous people, he criticized Charlevoix for not being more empirical.

Arthaud’s affinity for empiricism and science also extended to his views on race. During a brief stint back in France, he was one of many doctors who conducted a “scientific” examination of an African albino. In his pamphlet on yaws, he mentions that the slaves’ black color was caused by a “mucous tissue.” Arthaud took part in the beginnings of the hardened, scientific racism that became pervasive in the nineteenth century and eventually evolved into eugenics.

(I won’t get into some of the other stuff I researched, like Buffon and views on race before Arthaud, but it’s worth noting that Thomas Jefferson also participated during this time in the growth of more “scientific” racism.)


In a research paper I wrote for my class, I tried to wrestle with how someone who was so intellectually curious and who wrote about universal human religion could be so dead wrong about race and could presumably have behaved horribly toward his slaves. Ultimately, as I immersed myself in Arthaud’s writing, I came to the conclusion that his racism and his intellectual greatness came from a similar part of himself, and more importantly, a similar part of his era. Arthaud, this Enlightenment thinker par excellence, believed above all else in his power to reason and his power to apprehend truth. He believed in his logic, and tragically, his logic became, among other things, the horrible logic of racism and white supremacy. This I believe is the ironic flaw at the heart of the Enlightenment, the ironic and tragic flaw we’re still grappling with today. The Enlightenment empowers us to upend our previous ways of thinking and to think for ourselves. Unfortunately when we think for ourselves and when we construct our own morality, we can be so tragically wrong. 


There is so much we can learn from this in the twenty-first century, and I’d like to quickly sketch a way forward through this terrible dilemma by using the thought of three of my favorite thinkers: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reinhold Niebuhr and Emmanuel Levinas.


My favorite quotation from Ta-Nehisi Coates is as follows:

We can approach history denouncing the craziness of others, or we can approach it trying to understand how we might possibly have done the same thing.

This quote, from a random blog post of his from many years ago that I’ve cited it before, offers us a useful way to read Arthaud. The most important question for us reading Arthaud in the twenty-first century isn’t so much the question of how he could have been so terrible to his slaves, but is more the question of how we could be like him. This is the way to read through the slaughter-bench of history; we must ask ourselves how we could do the same thing.


And as we read the atrocities of history in terms of how we could also perpetrate them, it is important to remember one of the central insights of the leading twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the Calvinist way of thinking from which he came: Humans are capable of real evil, and we must never forget this. While I wouldn’t go as far as Niebuhr in the way he conceives of original sin, I think we in the contemporary world — and perhaps we as inheritors of the world Arthaud and others created for us — are too quick to dismiss are own proclivity to make incorrect moral judgments.

We are ultimately left with the difficult but essential Niebuhrian takeaway: while not being paralyzed into inaction, we must exercise radical humility.


Finally, I believe the thought of the twentieth century French-Lithuanian-Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas has a lot to offer as we respond to the challenge that Arthuad’s thinking raises.

Levinas is famous for believing that the “ethical” precedes the “ontological.” In less fancy-speak, he believes that our first motivating factor should be our obligation to others. This obligation to others, represented by the face of the other, comes before any metaphysical speculation about who we are or our place in the universe. Above all else, we are obligated to the other. It is clear that Arthaud puts his obsession with logic and empirical thinking before his ethical obligation to the other, but more generally, Levinas offers us a radical and practicable way of being in the world. Ask yourself at every moment: How am I acting in terms of my obligation to the other? While most people today certainly don’t arrive at their worldview from metaphysical speculation that precedes the ethical, it does seem like the modern sensibility of focusing above all else on the self comes stems from a philosophical mistake, a mistake to which Levinas offers a correction.

My hope is that I, and you, dear reader, come away from an exposure to Arthaud feeling humbled and terrified. In what ways are we similar to Arthaud? In what ways does the powerful ability to reason that we inherited from the Enlightenment lead us astray? In what ways are we, like Arthaud, scrupulously measuring flattened skulls in order to conclude that these people must have come from a different race?

One response to “How could someone who wrote beautifully about an innate human proclivity for the divine brutalize slaves?”

  1. […] Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while — following my blog post on scientific racism and the Enlightenment a couple people recommended Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic critique of the Enlightenment. […]

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