What does Frederick Douglass understand a man to be?

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In discussing Frederick Douglass ’s concept of humanity, or what he considers a man to be, one can pretty much begin with a quick reference to French philosopher René Descartes’s oft-quoted dictum “cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” For Douglass, the essence of the discussion was encapsulated in the fundamental distinction between humans and animals—in effect, that the former can be defined by the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps nowhere was this adage better articulated than in an address Douglass gave in 1872 titled “Self-Made Men.” Recognizing at the outset of his remarks the propensity for individuals to interpret that phrase—“self-made men”—as indicative of one who has propelled himself upward socially, professionally, and economically entirely of his own accord, Douglass immediately rejected any such notion without going to another extreme by suggesting that personal initiative and skill played no role at all in one’s success. Rather,...

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