Machiavelli, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Their Friends

Anika Prather tweeted in 2020 this W.E.B. Du Bois quote:

I sit with Shakespeare & he winces not. Across the color line I move arm & arm with Balzac & Dumas, where smiling men & welcoming women glide in gilded halls-I summon Aristotle & Aurelius & what soul I will & they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension

I thought DuBois was making an allusion to Machiavelli, but I misremembered Machiavelli. In fact both, being scholarly, liked talking to dead white men. DuBois probably did not know of the 1513 “Letter to Vettori”, but clearly he was part of The Great Conversation and treated his books as live things, not dead texts.

I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I
remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the
cutters, who have always some bad-luck story ready, about either themselves or their

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I
take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and
courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where,
received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was
born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for
their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not
feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by
death; entirely I give myself over to them.

It would have been nice if DuBois had been alluding to Machiavelli. Then we’d have him saying he kept company with great scholars of the past by alluding to a great scholar saying he kept company with great scholar of the past, a cute trick. But I think it’s a coincidence.

The DuBois quote is from his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, which seems Emersonian in style and sentiment. A nearby quote which is interesting is on the danger to socialism of philistinism, a danger to which the modern Left has succumbed so far that they can’t even see it as a danger any more. It’s hard to remember that the the Old Left loved great literature, and that lack of respect for it was one of their main grievances against capitalism.

Above our modern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect; there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development; that will love and hate and labor in its own way, untrammeled alike by old and new. Such souls aforetime have inspired and guided worlds, and if we be not wholly bewitched by our Rhinegold, they shall again.