Self Made Men & Women | Frederick Douglass Speech

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Today’s reading has been edited and adapted from the lecture Self-Made Men by Frederick Douglass, first delivered in 1859.

The subject of today’s talk is not new. The individual, in one form or another, has been a frequent and fruitful subject for analysis and contemplation. This subject has come up for consideration under a variety of attractive titles, such as “Great Leaders,” “Peculiar Geniuses,” “Scientific Explorers” “Literary Giants” and “Successful Entrepreneurs,” but under whatever name or designation, the vital point of interest in the discussion has ever been the same, and that is, character itself, and this in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.

The tendency to the universal, in such discussion, is altogether natural: for when we consider men and women, as a whole, are (what they have been; what they aspire to be, and what, by a wise and vigorous cultivation of their faculties, they may yet become) we see that it leads irresistibly to a broad view of the individual as a subject of thought and inquiry.

The old saying that the proper study of humankind is ourselves, and which has been the starting point of so many lectures, essays, and speeches, holds its place, like all other great sayings, because it contains a great truth and a truth alike for every age and generation. It is always new and can never grow old. It is neither dimmed by time, nor tarnished by repetition; for humanity (both with respect to the individual and the species) is now, and evermore will be, the center of unsatisfied human curiosity.

The pleasure we derive from any department of knowledge is largely due to the glimpse which it gives us of our own nature. We may travel far over land and sea, brave all climates, dare all dangers, endure all hardships, try all latitudes and longitudes; we may penetrate the earth, sound the ocean’s depths, and explore the starry sky, in the pursuit of other knowledge; we may contemplate the glorious landscape, gemmed by forest, lake, and river, and dotted with peaceful homes and quiet herds; we may whirl away to the great cities, all aglow with life and enterprise; we may mingle with the imposing assemblages of wealth and power; we may visit the halls where Art works her miracles in music, speech, and color, and where Science unbars the gates to higher planes of civilization.

But no matter how radiant the colors, how enchanting the melody, how gorgeous and splendid the pageant: the awakened individual, with eyes turned inward upon their own wondrous attributes and powers, surpasses them all.

A single human soul standing here upon the margin we call time, overlooking the solemn past (which can neither be recalled nor remodeled), ever chafing against finite limitations, entangled with contradictions, eagerly seeking to pierce the clouds and darkness of the ever mysterious future, has attractions for thought and study more numerous and powerful than all other objects beneath the sky.

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