Man of

Knowledge and Scholarship

Despite having no formal education, Douglass had an insatiable thirst for learning that drove him his entire life.

“Knowledge can be obtained under difficulties—that poverty may give place to competency—that obscurity is not an absolute bar to distinction, and that a way is open to welfare and happiness to all who will resolutely and wisely pursue that way—that neither slavery, stripes, imprisonment, or proscription need extinguish self-respect, crush manly ambition or paralyze effort—that no power outside himself can prevent a man from sustaining an honorable character and a useful relation to his day and generation.”

“Knowledge can be obtained under difficulties—that poverty may give place to competency—that obscurity is not an absolute bar to distinction, and that a way is open to welfare and happiness to all who will resolutely and wisely pursue that way—that neither slavery, stripes, imprisonment, or proscription need extinguish self-respect, crush manly ambition or paralyze effort—that no power outside himself can prevent a man from sustaining an honorable character and a useful relation to his day and generation.”

Douglass’s passion for knowledge was awakened when he overheard his master Hugh Auld remarking that teaching a slave to read would “forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.” (Bondage, p. 117) He became determined to master reading, believing it would be “the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.” (Bondage, p. 118)

When he toured Europe and North Africa in later life, he looked upon ancient ruins with the eyes of a man who might have been educated in the world’s finest institutions. Of the famed Roman baths, he remarked, “Hardly less indicative of their character did we find the remains of the stupendous Baths of Titus, Diocletian, and Caracalla, among the ruins of whose spacious apartments, designed to fulfill every conceivable condition of ease and luxury, one needs not to consult Gibbon for the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The lap of luxury and the pursuit of ease and pleasure are death to manly courage, energy, will, and enterprise.” (Life and Times, p. 420)

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