Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics

Article excerpt

Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. By Ted A. Smith. Encountering Traditions. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. Pp. [xvi], 204. Paper, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-8047-9330-8; cloth, $75.00, ISBN 978-0-8047-8850-2.)

In Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, ethicist and theologian Ted A. Smith sets out to reinterpret the legacy of John Brown for modern readers. The title of the book comes from Herman Melville's poem "The Portent" (1859), which imbued Brown's execution with meaning beyond a this-worldly context. However, because the poem was written before the Civil War and emancipation, its sense of Brown's ultimate significance was ambiguous. Since no one knew what the future would look like, Smith argues, it was impossible for Melville to offer an "ethical evaluation" (p. 3).

This idea drives the main argument of Smith's book. He uses Brown to argue for the limits of contemporary ethical frameworks, giving a "privileged place to universalizable moral obligations" for practical action (p. 4). For Smith, Walter Benjamin's concept of "divine violence" offers a different conceptual path (p. 3). Rather than thinking about immanent concerns, like those posed by just war theory, Smith argues that violence should be thought about with "a larger vision of the shape and direction of history," much as Brown himself understood his own actions--and as Melville's poem suggested (p. 160). As Smith notes, most accounts of Brown paint him as either a hero or a terrorist because they tend to frame the abolitionist's actions around universal ideals--oftentimes centered on the question of whether the state is a legitimate enactor of violence. …

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