Ten or twelve life-changing books: #9

9. 1982. Robert Louis Dabney. Defense of Virginia

There is simply no way to summarize the devastating impact of this book. It took everything I thought I knew about American history, politics, and common sense, put each element systematically through the wood chipper, then reconstructed the totality from the ground up. I still haven’t recovered, really. Just to give one trivial example: before Dabney: Lincoln the greatest hero ever. After Dabney: Lincoln the greatest war criminal in Christendom to his day. Yet Dabney rarely or never mentions Lincoln. It is a sustained argument, a course in how to think.

All of Dabney’s work — covering an astonishing breadth of topics, even poetry — are worthy of study. His solitary defect is that shared by all the American theologians of the 19th century — a well-intended but ultimately self-destructive neutrality-stance in basic epistemology. Fortunately, across the pond, Bavinck was working away at a much better version. We can read the Prolegomena of the nineteenth-century Americans with a sigh, or a smile, and a shake of the head. Post-prolegomena, Dabney sparkles even in Systematics. But it is social theory where Dabney glows. For a child of our era, the Defense is the most transformative. As Dabney himself predicted, no refutations have been forthcoming; mere murmuring is occasionally heard.  The recent sneaky, back-stabbing effort by that wretched spaniel Sean Lucas will have to be dealt with in its place.  Save it; let us not now dwell in that muck.

What is great about Dabney is, yes, the passion-fueled logic, but in addition, he is an example of the universal particular. No man was more a loyal child of his time and place than Dabney: yet the defense here of his “murdered mother Virginia,” as concrete and historical as it comes, rises up to insights that completely transcend that and all times: what it means to be human, and what it means to hear the Word of God louder than the word of man.

4 thoughts on “Ten or twelve life-changing books: #9

  1. Tim,

    Could you please explain what you mean by a neutrality stance in basic epistemology, and give an instance of how Dabney manifests such?

    By such neutrality:
    Do you mean Locke’s “blank slate” notion?
    Or, do you mean Rousseau’s ‘man just needs more education/information,” (always being morally capable to use that education/info for good)?
    Or, do you mean something else?

  2. Brian,
    No certainly not Locke or Rousseau — Dabney rejects them decisively. I’m thinking more Reid and Hamilton and so forth. A naive common-sense realism that is taken to be shared with the disputant, regardless of where it might lead. Granted, Dabney is better than most, since he does from time to time turn the argument back around with “and this can ONLY be accounted for by God” but I think it is still the Generic God not the triune self-revealing God at that point. He comes within in an inch of the transcendental, but it is still a chasm it seems to me — or have I missed something?

  3. Well, I ought not to really say whether or not you missed something since I haven’t read Dabney much (but I do hope to read his Defense of Virginia soon as a result of reading your review). I do view the South’s rebellion as a sinful insurrection, but perhaps that will change after reading Dabney’s “Defense …” with careful consideration.

    However, “… and this can only be accounted for by God” does in prima facie fashion sound pretty good for an unpacked transcendental, especially coming from a professing 5-Point Calvinist believer in Christ (where I’m comfy maintaining that Dabney would deny the notion of God according to something like the Universalist Freemason’s ‘Higher Power’ (of which any sincere belief in such a generic Higher Power will do).

    Now, a so-called “consistent” (can I sic my own comment?) Christian Evidentialist, even also as a 5-Pointer, would say something similar to Dabney’s predicate mentioned/quoted above, but a big difference is that on the Evidentialist’s own terms, the Evidentialist would/”should” leave out the ‘only’ part, since committing to ‘only’ would require too much certainty for him in apriori fashion during apologia to limit the possibilities to the One and Only (and Triune) God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *