Hume and Aristotle on Reason, Feelings, and Actions

Note: This is one of my undergraduate essays for the Philosophy Minor. I had great professors who used to engage me very effectively while giving me time to think and react. These great teachers are the reason why I definitely want to keep learning Philosophy.

Aristotle and Hume present two very different theories regarding reason, action, desires/passions and morality. Both of these philosophers have contributed immensely to our understanding of these issues. In this essay, I shall contrast two views upon which they differ. I shall first present two arguments which Hume gives in favor of his view that reason does not oppose passion. I shall then contrast it to Aristotle’s opinion regarding this matter. Then I shall provide Hume’s argument regarding whether actions and passions are reasonable or not. I shall compare this particular argument with Aristotle’s beliefs towards this issue. I shall end this essay by debating which aspects of these theories are better and why.

Aristotle believed that there are two kinds of reasoning[1]: Theoretical and Practical. He calls the later Practical syllogism. The purpose of theoretical reasoning is to know things.  The answer to theoretical questions is not under our control. For example: What is determinism? In contrast, practical reasoning is geared towards figuring out how to do things. For example, How to be good? According to Aristotle, a rational and virtuous person asks the right sort of practical question which is whether to perform an act or have a feeling towards another person. Such an agent would ask himself whether to get angry when provoked, not how to get angry. Aristotle believes that a good practical argument is one whose premises are true and logically imply a worth-pursuing end. He believes that a reasonable and rational agent will know which end is worth pursuing due to the excellence[2] of his character. Aristotle believes that the end which leads to Eudaimonia[3] is worth pursuing. Achieving Eudaimonia requires choosing well and striking the mean according to a rational principle, reason. Aristotle believes that reason is the faculty which guides us in action, feelings, emotions, and desires. Reason can recommend an action over another, and it can tell us what to care about. Do I care about apologizing to her? Should I apologize or simply walk away? Reason helps to answer such questions.

In contrast, Hume believes that there is no practical reasoning but only theoretical reasoning. He points out that reason only helps us discern what is true or false. It does not tell us what to do, what to care about etc. It does not tell whether to act or not but only tells the consequences of an action. Furthermore, he believes that reason is inert since it does not produce but only channels the impulse to act.  Hence, he concludes that there is no such thing as practical reasoning.

With the above in perspective, let us examine how Aristotle and Hume differ from each other with regards to passion and reason, their nature, and interplay.

Hume argues that reason cannot combat passion. He presents two different arguments for this particular viewpoint. I shall outline these arguments and discuss how Aristotle might respond to these. I shall further consider the way Hume would reply to Aristotle.

Aristotle divides the soul into three parts: nutritive[4], senitive[5], and rational. Aristotle further divides the rational part into emotional-desiderative part, calculative part, and contemplative part[6]. The emotional-desiderative (E/D) part is concerned with emotions, desires, and feelings whereas the calculative part is concerned with reasoning. Hence anger and anxiety originate from E/D and an agent’s ability to respond to a particular situation stems from his calculative part. Aristotle believes that humans function well if their E/D and calculative part are functioning well. The E/D functions well if it obeys the calculative part of the soul. The calculative part functions well if it reasons properly[7].  Aristotle believes that sometimes E/D pushes one away from the path which leads to Eudaimonia. In such a case, the calculative part (if working properly) fights back the desires. For example, an agent feels like stealing candy from a kid. His calculative part reasons with him not to do so since it is morally wrong. The calculative part wins this fight in a continent (strong-willed) person whereas the E/D is victorious in an incontinent (weak-willed) person (Aristotle, 1996).

Hume presents a different picture of this interaction between desires (E/D part) and reason (calculative part). He locates desires and reason inside the brain not inside the soul. He refers to everything present in the mind as perceptions. He believes that there are two kinds of perceptions: ideas and impressions. Idea is a copy of an object. My idea of K-2 is a copy of the actual mountain. The impressions are either of sensations (visual, auditory etc.) or of reflection (anger, joy, fear etc.). Hume refers to emotions and desires as passions. He believes that passion does not conflict with reason. His first argument proceeds as follows: Reason is inert; i.e., it cannot produce an action or give rise to will. Reason can only prevent the impulse of passion by providing a contrary impulse. This contrary impulse when operating alone should be able to produce volition. If this contrary impulse originates from reason itself, then reason should have an original influence on volition. But reason dose not have any affect on volition. Therefore, it does not oppose passion (Hume,1990).

Aristotle would object to the above argument as follows: Let us look at a drug-addict who is unwilling to take the drug. He has this strong urge to take the drug but he reasons that he should not do so. He tells himself the following “By taking the drug, I will only hurt myself more”. Hence, he decides not to take the drug. This sort of argument, which leads to his action, is produced by reason. It is thus safe to conclude that reason can oppose passion. Hume would reply to this as follows. Reason by itself does not oppose passion. It opposes only the judgment which forms the basis of passion. If the agent comes to know that his judgment is flawed, then his passion will yield to reason without any opposition.

In addition to above, Hume presents another argument in support of his conclusion that reason cannot oppose passion. He points out that passion is an original existence and not a copy or modification of something else. For instance, anger is anger in itself without reference to any other object. Beliefs are made up of ideas which are copies of objects. It is impossible to have an opposition between the two since such an opposition implies contradictory ideas. But we know that passion is not an idea (Hume, 1990). Aristotle would object to Hume by pointing out that he is making an unwarranted assumption. There is a fallacy of accident here. It is a general rule that only ideas oppose ideas but Hume is applying it to an unusual case. Passions are the kind of things that can be opposed by reason even though they do not have the same characteristics. Hume would reply to Aristotle by stating that when people think that reason has prevailed over passion, it is in fact their calm passion[8] which has. For example, all of a sudden I get this urge to scream in public. Innate to me is this calm passion of appearing normal in public. Together, this calm passion (in this case it’s called a background desire) and my belief that it is inappropriate to scream in public produces my action. Hume might further point out that since the agent has the ability to figure out that there is no correct reason (basis) to start screaming out loud, his desire will yield to reason without opposition.

In addition to the above, Hume and Aristotle also have remarkably different opinions regarding whether passion and action are reasonable or not. Hume’s argument concerning this problem proceeds as follows: What is reasonable is apt to be true. Passions are not the kind of things which are true or false. Therefore, passion is not reasonable. He believes that passions and desires themselves are not reasonable/unreasonable. It is the judgement upon which they are based that’s reasonable/unreasonable. Hume asserts that an act is causally produced by the interaction of both a background desire and a belief. A morally conscience and rational agent would have a background desire which is founded on some reasonable judgment.  For example, agent X sees a bracelet in an antique store and thinks that it belonged to his grandma. He now has a strong desire to procure the item. But if X is told that his grandma’s bracelet was never sold then he would know that his supposition for desiring to possess the bracelet was false. Hence such an unreasonable background desire (desire to have a memento which once belonged to grandma) will not cause him to act (Hume, 1990).

Aristotle will answer Hume as such. A reasonable background desire is one which leads towards Eudaimonia. It is reasonable to have a good life. Hence the desire to have a good life is also reasonable. Thus, according to Aristotle, what makes a desire reasonable or not is its goal (Aristotle, 1996). Aristotle will interpret the above example as follows. It is reasonable for agent X to want what he thinks he is getting (grandma’s memento); but, it is unreasonable to want what he is in fact getting (the bracelet is not his grandma’s). Having someone else’s bracelet will not make agent X happy. Therefore, it is unreasonable to have the bracelet. Hume would object to Aristotle by asking him how the agent knows that this desire to possess the memento and to achieve Eudaimonia is reasonable. It is the reasonableness of the judgment that forms the basis of a desire and not the goal of a desire which makes it reasonable. Aristotle would reply to this by mentioning that desires can be reasonable since they arise from reason. My desire to have a better life exists because I reasoned that it is better to have a good life. Hume would object to this by saying that desires are impressions that exist separately from ideas and hence from reason. They do not arise from reason.

Furthermore, Hume argues that action is neither reasonable nor unreasonable. His argument is as follows. Reason can be true or false. Actions by themselves are neither true nor false. Therefore action is not reasonable. Hume believes that factual statements (is-statements) can be true or false; but, the kind of statement which is relevant to moral acts is an ought-statement. For example, I ought not hurt the bird. He believes that ought is an impression of our sentiments. The act of stealing itself is not unreasonable. It is the notion of morality embedded within the sentiment which makes it unreasonable (Hume, 1990). Aristotle would reply to this by pointing out that the sense of ought is in fact captured in an is-statement. The is-statement “It is wrong to hurt a living being” captures in its the essence the ought-statement “one ought not hurt a living being”. Furthermore, an action is reasonable if it is consistent with the excellence of the character not because it is consistent with the notion of morality embedded in the sentiment (Aristotle, 1996). Hume would object to this by pointing out that Aristotle’s reasoning is circular. Aristotle specified that reasonableness of the act determines the excellence of character. Now he is claiming that the excellence of character determines the reasonableness of an act.

I shall now present my reasons for believing which aspects of each argument are better than that of other’s. I shall use biological and philosophical arguments to support my opinion. In my opinion, Hume’s argument is superior to Aristotle’s in some ways and Aristotle’s argument is better than Hume’s in certain other ways. Hume correctly locates desires and reason within the mind. Modern science has proven that the brain has separate centers designated for thought-processing, reasoning, and emotions. Science has proven that part of the mind that is involved in reasoning is far different than that which produces emotion. When a person feels anxious and his heart beat increases, Adrenaline is being released under the signals received from the brain. This same region of the brain is not active while one reasons things out. Aristotle was correct when he supposed that reason opposes passion. Consider a case where an agent who is used to living a life of luxury is exposed to extremely tough forest environment. He now has to survive without aid of any technology. Within him would rise a passion to understand how its surrounding works. He would now have a passion to observe the animals around him in order to learn how to survive in the wild. This passion was originally absent in him. It arose once he reasoned that he has to survive. If a biologist were to trace the molecules in his brain, he would observe that certain chemicals released from the reasoning centre are affecting his emotion centre via synaptic transmission. It can be biologically proven that reason can create passion. Hence, the reverse is also true. If reason can create passion, then it can oppose it as well. Not all passions arise from reason. For instance, a mother’s love for her kids is an innate irrational passion.

Hume was correct when he said that the idea of morality is inside the sentiment. Notice that the sentiment is closely related to the heart. If I am very happy, then my heart feels light. If I am very angry without a reason, then my heart feels at odds. When an agent does something wrong which he considers wrong, he feels a constriction of the heart. A heavy burden falls on the heart. This heaviness in the heart is evidence that the notion of morality is actually located within the sentiment which has close association with the heart.

Hume was also correct when he said that feelings and actions themselves are neither right nor wrong. Furthermore, he correctly concluded that passions create the impulse to act/feel and reason only channels it. I believe that this relation between will, reason, and action is more tightly interwoven than Hume visualized it to be. Consider a robot which has only feelings and sentiment but no faculty to reason. He thus has this notion of morality and immorality. If he is tempted to rob, then he would have an impulse not to commit robbery and yet another to commit robbery. But since he has no reasoning ability, he cannot know what to do. If he is now given such ability, he would be able to form an opinion such as “It is wrong to commit robbery since it is immoral”. Reasoning not only directs/channels the impulse, but it also gives it motion. Without the reasoning, he would be not be able to decide what to do. Hence he would not do anything. The impulse is there, but it is inert since it cannot produce an action. Only with the help of reasoning can the impulse produce an action.

Overall, Hume and Aristotle present different arguments regarding action, feelings, and will. They differ in opinion because of their contrasting assumptions. Each argument is better than the other in some sense. Hence one cannot justly regard one argument is superior than the other by comparing them.


Aristotle, “The object of life” from The Ethics of Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. pp 63-110, Penguin, 1996

Hume, David, “excerpts” from A Treatise of Human Nature, Pp. 413-418, 455-476, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1990


[1] Reasoning is defined as the process by which humans consider answers to a question by considering what is to be said for and against it.

[2] Aristotle defines excellence  as a virtue which makes the thing of which it is a part, function well. For instance, the excellence of a knife is a sharp, long blade.  According to Aristotle, the excellence of humans is in choosing well.

[3] Eudamonia is Greek for Happiness. Aristotle believes that it is living well, having and exercising excellence, functioning well as a human being, and having a wide range of choices to choose from and living a long life.

[4] According to Aristotle, this part is concerned with growth, nutrition and reproduction.

[5] Aristotle believes that the function of senitive part of soul lies in locomotion, motility, and feeling sensations (visual, auditory etc.).

[6] This part is concerned with thinking and contemplation.

[7] Aristotle believes that one is reasoning properly if one asks whether he should do something, in the deliberative mode. For example: Whether I should steal or not? He believes that this kind of reasoning leads to Eudaimonia.

[8] Hume divides passion into calm and violent passions. The former includes benevolence, kindness, and mercy. The later include anger, lust etc. A person is considered to have a strong mind if his calm passions prevail over violent ones.

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.

Defence of the Colonized in “M.Butterfly” and “Death of the King’s Horseman”

Note: I wrote this essay for one of my undergraduate English courses at the University of Toronto.

Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman” and Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” are both postcolonial prose. Contrary to Hwang, Soyinka forbids the readers from reading the text as representation of “clash of cultures”. However, a closer analysis of the play suggests that it is in fact about clash of culture as well as about gaining an understanding of the idea of transition and its importance to the Yaruban culture. Both “Death and the King’s Horseman” and “M.Butterfly” are an attempt to conserve the importance and validity of the indigenous cultures. The texts achieve this purpose in two steps: 1) representation of the oppression of the indigenous culture; and 2) defence of the indigenous culture.  Whereas, “M.Butterfly” presents a bold defence of the Oriental culture, “Death and the King’s Horseman” presents a passive defence of the Yoruba culture. In this essay I’ll prove the above claim as follows: The endogenous race/culture is shown as oppressed through recurring themes of ethnocentricity, orientalism, alterity and colonial mimicry. Finally, the defence of the endogenous culture is presented directly and indirectly through dialogue and structure.

The theme of Orientalism is persistent throughout both of these texts. Orientalism refers to Western/White-centered belief that establishes racial “Others” as sexually exhausted, passive, feminine, and in need of civilization. This belief in the inferiority of the racial “Others” was used as an excuse by the European and English nations to colonize other regions. The colonists are represented as persistent in disciplining the indigenous culture. This persistent practice stems from the fact that they regard the natives as comparatively ignorant and in need of civilization and guidance: “You think you’ve stamped it all…lurking under the surface somewhere (pg.26)”. It is obvious that the colonizers consider it their responsibility to clean up the act of the Yoruban natives. Simon Pilkings, the district officer from “Death and the King’s Horseman”, shows no respect for their rituals and does not try to understand the significance of these rituals for the Yoruba people. He stubbornly tries to enforce British law on an African culture. Thus, the freedom of the natives is compromised under the colonial rule. As in “Death and the King’s Horseman”, Orientalism is evident in M. Butterfly as well. Haedicke has established the following translation of gender differences into political language: Male=West and Female=East (Ma, RuiQi, 1996). Madame Butterfly is Gallimard’s fantasy of a perfect woman who is submissive and feminine. Butterfly excites Gallimard because she gives him a false sense of security by allowing him to have power over her: “Song:…I have already given you my shame (pg.35).” It is obvious that Gallimard doesn’t really love Song but his fantasy, Madame Butterfly. He is excited by the idea of exercising power over his Butterfly: “Gallimard: ..writhe on a needle (pg.31-32).” Here, Hwang is metaphorically stating that West loves to exercise power over the East since this satisfies its fantasy of the passive East. The West loves the idea of power over weak nations and not strong ones because it gives it a false sense of security. This is obvious during Gallimard’s dialogue with the girl in Act 5. She deliberately removes her clothes in front of Gallimard. This terrifies him because such boldness challenges his power and authority over the female sex.: “Girl: Then slowly, I lift off my …Gallimard: No. She’s-why is she naked? (pg.11).”

Both of the plays allude to the political position of the East. However, they adopt different strategies. Soyinka directly represents the power of the colonists by allowing the readers to observe the relationship of Amusa and Joseph with Picklings and Simon’s attitude towards tribal rituals. Simon Picklings is shown to exert full influence over the natives. In contrast, Hwang employs extended metaphors to convey the same message. Song’s character is marginalized. We rarely come in contact with the real Song. Most of the time, its Madame Butterfly who demands our attention. Thus, Hwang is alluding to marginalization and subordination of females (East) in a patriarchal society ruled by men (West). Females are regarded as blank pages on which men can freely write the things they want such as submission and femininity (Ma, RuiQi, 1996). Thus, Hwang is alluding to how powerful imperialists set out to colonize relatively poorer nations, draw borders, and establish colonies wherever they will. Butterfly is played by a man disguised as a woman. A real female protagonist is missing, which reinforces the idea of marginalization of the female gender in a patriarchal society. In addition, Song enters the courtroom dressed as a male; and, thus the voice of females is completely removed from the courtroom arena (Ma, RuiQi, 1996). These extended metaphors reinforce the idea that Orient’s position in World Politics is considered to be weaker than that of the English. Thus, the theme of Orientalism is persistent throughout both texts on literal and metaphoric levels.

Additionally, both plays analyze how ethnocentric beliefs of the exogenous culture lead to oppression of the endogenous culture. Ethnocentricity refers to the practise of viewing other cultures and ethnicity in terms of one’s own. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, Elesin is captured by Simon Picklings because he plans to commit ritual suicide. Elesin’s downfall is mainly due to two reasons: 1) his love for material life (he delayed his ritual suicide since he preferred to be with his newly-wed wife during his last hours); and 2) Simon’s ethnocentric belief that suicide is wrong. If Simon would not have interfered, the ritual would have continued after the terms of marriage were fulfilled. Simon’s interference played a vital role in causing this Yaruban tragedy and thus lead to the oppression of the Yaruban natives. Similarly, in “M. Butterfly”, Gallimard’s downfall occurs because of his ethnocentric belief that his Butterfly is a modest and inexperienced Oriental maiden. The roots of his fantasy lie in the Western culture of that time as well as his weak sexual ego. During that time the Orientalist beliefs about Oriental men and women prevailed in the West. Thus, he, like many other Westerners, view Madame Butterfly as a passive and self-sacrificing female who is his “perfect woman”: “She is outwardly…It is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education (pg.27).”  He imposes conditions of passivity and inferiority on her. Song uses his ethnocentric beliefs to trick him into believing that she is exactly what he thinks she is, a submissive Oriental woman: “Gallimard:…She feels inferior to them-and to me (pg.31).” Hwang is again referring to how the West tends to impose conditions of passivity onto the East.

Ethnocentric views prevail because people usually perceive other cultures and nations through a cultural lens. They use a set of preconceptions to become familiar with the foreign culture. Ultimately when they come in contact with the foreign culture, these preconceptions may act as a barrier which prevents them from truly understanding the foreign culture. Ethnocentric views also persist because of alterity. Alterity is a term that describes the possibility that the beliefs, priorities, and actions of one person, group, and culture may not be understandable to an observer no matter how hard one tries. Thus, alterity alludes to the possibility that there will always be some gaps in the understanding between two unique individuals or cultures. Dialogical alterity is a type of alterity that affirm the “Otherness” of others, insofar as the other entails different histories, traditions, and range of experiences (Bouchard, L.D, 1990). Dialogical alterity is visible in both of the plays. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, Olunde engages in a conversation with Jane merely on the basis that he has received Western education and thus partially if not completely removed the distance between himself and the Westerners. Jane and Olunde are unable to understand each other fully because of dialogical alterity. Thus, they utter ethnocentric statements. Jane considers him to be a heartless person because he seems so cold about his father’s death. Olunde is very sarcastic about the ball since its taking place in the middle of a war: “Olunde: Others would call it decadence (pg.53).” It is obvious that British ways offend Olunde; but he doesn’t voice his thoughts clearly and instead chooses to ask sarcastic questions. He is adapting to the Western culture but is still sarcastic towards it; and, he tends to keep his Yaruban identity separate and distinct from his Western identity. Here, dialogical alterity does not classify Olunde as “Other” because he has been Westernized. He is adopting the ways of the British and this makes him one of them. In contrast, his father is jailed because he completely refuses to abide by British rules. Here, again dialogical alterity leads to oppression of the natives. Similarly, in “M.Butterfly”, dialogical alterity is responsible for Song’s oppression by Gallimard. His fantasy of Madame Butterfly is a result of dialogical alterity. Gallimard believes that Song is submissive. Thus in Scene 13, he forces her to admit that she is his Butterfly. It is clear that Song does not want to be called his Butterfly. She/he hesitates to admit that she/he is Gallimard’s fantasy. It should be noted that this scene is placed next to the one in which Gallimard gets promoted. By juxtapositioning Gallimards’s promotion with Song’s submission, the author is alluding to the fact that just because West is powerful it thinks that East should be submissive to it and obey it just like Song obeys Gallimard. Here dialogical alterity at the political level is presented metaphorically. Gallimard (West) is unable to understand Song/Butterfly (East). All he understands about her is how he sees her as his fantasy. Thus, real Song (East) is already established as “Other” and hence oppressed due to dialogical alterity. The West is following its set of preconceptions about East and is looking at it through a cultural lens. West falsely believes that East is powerless before it and no matter how hard East and West try to understand each other there will always be a gap between them. Thus, Song and Gallimard are unable to interact on a realistic level because of dialogical alterity. In Scene 7, Gallimard calls Chinese arrogant while talking to Helga. However, in front of Song/Butterfly, he hides his true feelings towards Chinese people. This could be because he does not want to hurt his Butterfly or because he thinks that Butterfly will not be able to understand why he feels like this towards Chinese people.

Furthermore, these plays present oppression of the endogenous culture in the form of colonial mimicry. Colonial Mimicry is defined as the desire for a reformed, recognizable “Other”, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite (Cheng, Annie-Anlin, 1997). This means that the dominant group is mimicked by the oppressed group: “The colonized subject must be disguised, mimed, as almost the same, but not quite. His/her incomplete imitation in turn serves as a sign…of the failure of authenticity (Cheng, Annie-Anlin, 1997).”  Thus, the colonized will always be viewed as the “Other” because his/her “reformation” can never be complete; i.e., he/she will always hold some of his/her own cultural views dear to heart despite assimilation into the dominant culture. Colonial mimicry thus is a result of oppression of the colonized. The colonized mimics the dominant exogenous culture, willingly or unwillingly, to ensure his/her safety. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, colonial mimicry is evident when the African servants are seen dressed in English clothes; e.g., in Act 3, Amusa is seen wearing knickers like English do. As Amusa and Joseph become subservient to the colonizers, they embody the traits of docility and intellectual confusion (Olakunle, George, 1999). This is obvious as we contrast Iyaloja’s and Elesin’s eloquent speeches with those of Amusa and Joseph. Speeches of Amusa and Joseph do not contain any beautiful metaphors and are not eloquent at all. Amusa, the sergeant, speaks least eloquently: “Amusa (commencing his retreat): We dey..we no warn you (pg.39).” The author seems to be pointing to the fact that the further a native gets from his culture, more docile he/she becomes. However, Olunde does not become docile by distancing himself from his culture. This is because he never really leaves his culture like Amusa and Joseph did. Unlike Amusa and Joseph, he intends to participate in Yaruban rituals. Moreover, Olunde doesn’t blindly mimic Westerners but rather tries to understand them in order to be one of them. Olunde, Joseph, and Amusa are hybrids (Olakunle, George, 1999). They have integrated Western ways into their life, but they still respect Yaruban rituals. Amusa is horrified when he sees the Picklings wearing egungun because he takes the value of the mask at the metaphysical level. In contrast, Olunde is not at all shocked to see Jane wearing the mask at the ball. This difference is due to Olunde’s Western education. His education allows him to understand that Jane would never wear the mask like natives do (Olakunle, George, 1999). Like Amusa and Joseph, Olunde is a hybrid because despite his Western education he still plans to follow the Yaruban traditions and rituals: “Olunde:…I would like to touch his body while it is still warm (pg. 56).”  Hybridity leads to disintegration of the self:

“By hybridity, I do not mean a condition where two discrete entities coexist or intersect in the same agent while at the same time retaining their distinct shapes and self-efficiency…I mean a situation where the two entities or identities are incommensurable and can therefore be entangled in the same subject…such hybridity functions ultimately as a result of deformation. (Olakunle, George, 1999)”

Since no one in their right mind would like to have a disintegrated/split self, hybridity and thus colonial mimicry are a result of oppression. Similarly, in “M.Butterfly”, Song represents colonial mimicry as an effect of oppression when he appears in the court wearing a suit. The only way to be recognized and respected by the French court is to appear like a Westerner and not a Chinese: “Song does not come to power in the end nor assume the success of his political critique by acquiring some authentic Chinese male identity…he does so by donning an Armani suit (Olakunle, George, 1999).”

Lastly, both of the plays present a defence of the indigenous culture. In “Death and the King’s Horseman”, the Picklings are introduced while they were wearing the egungan. Metaphorically, this implies that Picklings, representative of English bureaucracy, are in reality not any different from the Yaruban natives. Thus, deep within the English are the same as Yaruban in that they have the potential to be equally savage. Simon is shown as a person who has no respect for his own religion.  Thus, the traits of hybridity (disintegrated self) are superimposed onto him. In Author’s note, Soyinka asks his readers not to interpret the novel as “clash of cultures”. In accordance with the author’s note, several critics are of the view that this novel is not about cultural clash. These critics maintain that Elesin’s failure to commit suicide was due to his longing of the material world and not because of Simon’s interference. However one cannot ignore the fact that if Yaruba was not colonized, then this ritual would have continued after the rights of marriage were fulfilled. Thus, this novel is essentially about “clash of cultures”. Then why state the opposite in author’s note? Soyinka’s strategy is to make the readers more focused onto the Yaruban culture and less on British ways and discourse. He prepares the readers to do so by inviting them to look at the play’s “threnodic essence” and not to think of it as “clash of cultures”. (Soyinka, 1975) He also foregrounds Yaruban myths, metaphors, and people. Only fragments of the Western lifestyle are shown, and the West is essentially set in the background: “Olunde (waves his hand towards the background). The PRINCE is dancing…give to that (Pg.53)”. Thus, this writing style allows a passive defence of the Yaruban culture and heritage. In contrast, Hwang defends the Orientals very boldly on literal and metaphoric level. On literal level, Hwang uses Song to voice his thoughts about Western Orientalist mentality: “The West…can’t think for herself (pg. 83).” Furthermore, Hwang metaphorically reverses the “gendering of ethnicity”. (Lye, Colleen,1995)  Song switches gender at a “real” level. However, Gallimard switches gender on a figurative level as he wears Butterfly’s kimono. His gender switching is a result of “ambiguous sexuality”. (Lye, Colleen, 1995)  Thus, Gallimard’s feminization serves as an extended metaphor to present the feminization of the West.

In conclusion, a thorough comparison of “M. Butterfly” and “Death and the King’s Horseman” leads one to conclude that these postcolonial proses serve as a voice of the indigenous culture. The authors successfully depict the oppression of the indigenous culture by depicting events that can be analyzed in terms of orientalism, ethnocentricity, alterity, and colonial mimicry. Both authors attempt to conserve the validity of the indigenous cultures by imposing negative qualities, which were originally directed towards the colonized cultures, onto the colonizers. Hwang’s gender switching metaphor and Soyinka’s foregrounding technique are good examples of how the authors manage to redirect the negative qualities onto imperialists. At the end of these plays, the readers realize that there is actually no real difference between West and East. Thus the readers view them at equal levels and identify the victims of oppression. Finally, the readers come to appreciate the beauty of the indigenous culture and the courage of the natives.


  1. Bouchard, L.D. (1990). Integrity and alterity: Death and the King’s Horseman in the theater of understanding. Morphologies of faith: essays in religion and culture in honor of Nathan A. Scott, Jr.  Scholars Press. Atlanta. pp. 217–43
  2. Cheng, Annie-Anlin (1997). The Melancholy of Race. The Kenyon Review. (19:1)  pp. 49–61
  3. Hwang, H. D. (1989). M.Butterfly Penguin Books USA Inc. New York, USA
  4. Lye, Colleen (1995). M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority discourse in an international frame. London: Minnesota UP
  5. Ma,RuiQi (1996). The Ideology of Cultural and Gender Misunderstanding in D.H. Hwang’s M.Butterfly. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. (23: 4) pp. 1053–63.
  6. Olakunle, George. (1999). Cultural Criticism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Representations. (67). pp. 67–91
  7. Soyinka, Wole (1975) Death and the King’s Horseman. W.W.Norton and Company New York. USA

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.

Persuasion by Racism: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and Canadian Ghettos

Note: I wrote this essay while finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Before you read this essay, become familiar with the YouTube video “Science of Persuasion.” Science of Persuasion includes six elements: Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Liking, and Consensus. Reciprocity occurs when people are obliged to give back what they have received first; Scarcity is when people want what they are told they may have less of; Authority refers to the fact that people follow credible experts and resources; Consistency refers to requesting small initial commitments that might lead to bigger ones; Liking principle indicates that we like similar people, those who pay us complements, and those who work with us towards mutual goals; Consensus occurs when people look at the actions and behaviour of others to determine their own. 

Racism that takes places inside Canada, such as creation of Ghettos, is based on these principles. Coloured people who are clustered inside Ghettos cannot reciprocate due to poverty and less connections; White people are scarce and thus considered “superior” and “more intelligent”; its easier to find White authorities owing to their White privilege and thus easy to assume that colored people are “dumber” in nature; colored people like working with each other and thus may appear “close” towards the Whites because they pay each other more complements or understand each other’s issues more; networks and process of integration break easily in the ghettos because the Consistency principle indicates that small initial commitments to help out would dissappear when someone else’s better party invite leads to stronger and more consistent commitment levels; and, needs of coloured people are neglected as a lot of employers consense to hiring and retaining White people more than colored people

Since coloured people are left struggling with lower wages and seclusion from the White majority, there are less educated coloured representatives found in authoritative positions. Thus, they appear less productive and are more prone to being defamed, blackmailed, and abused. 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad has been classified as a “thoroughgoing racist novel” by critics such as Achebe (3). A close analysis of the novel proves that even though it is a racist novel, there are certain instances of non-racial behavior depicted in it. The dehumanization of the Africans, their classification as “others”, endowment of rudimentary speech, justification of European’s lack of communication with the natives, and setting of Africa and its natives in the background all serve as evidence in establishing this novel as racist literature directed at the Africans. However, at the end of the novel, there are certain non-racist events that lead one to conclude that the author believes that if the Europeans had tried to understand Africans, they would have realized that just like themselves they are only human. Even though the text exhibits racist attitude towards the Belgians, it also emphasizes that they are responsible for carrying out violent acts against natives under imperialistic rule. This novel is racist in the sense that it approves of Imperialism even though it condemns torture of natives.

Oxford English Dictionary defines dehumanization as deprivation of human qualities. Throughout this novel, the native Africans are dehumanized. African natives are likened to beasts, savages, ants, and instruments. “A slight clinking behind me…rhythmically clinking (para. 35, sec.I, 2).” In this paragraph, the author describes how the native Africans “appear” to him. He doesn’t narrate their emotions or their feelings at all. The natives are merely considered as “parts of machinery” by the Europeans. In accordance with Achebe’s conclusions, Jan Mohammad also describes dehumanization as an act of racism (1). Jan Mohammad provides a deeper explanation as to why such a literary technique was employed by the author. He defines the novella as an “imaginary” text. The “imaginary” is a developmental stage where the child (6-18 months old) identifies himself with his image. The child situates rivalry and aggressivity within the distance that lies between himself and his reflection. According to Jan Mohammad, the native African functions as an image/reflection of the imperialist (4). Conrad tends to project all the despised attributes of the European imperialists onto the “Other” (4). Thus when Marlow calls the natives criminals and savages, he is in fact projecting the guilt, which he felt because of European attitude towards the natives, onto the natives. By referring to them as savage, he is regarding the brutal enslavement of the natives as a very savage act. This serves as evidence that Conrad doesn’t approve of the method of the Belgian imperial government. However, the fact that the author actually projects these negative opinions about Europeans onto African natives depicts racism. It seems that Conrad considers the natives inferior enough to subject them to dehumanization via” projection of opinion”.

Dehumanization can also be explained in terms of the “Manichean allegory” that refers to the conversion of “racial differences” into “moral and metaphysical differences” (4). “They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells…over the sea (para. 35, sec. I,2).” Thus the author assumes that the natives are criminals because he thinks that they should obey the imperialists since they are morally and intellectually inferior to them. This assumption of the inferiority of the African race and then its translation into the immorality of their character depicts racism. “And between whiles I had to look…hind legs (para. 9, sec. II,2).” This again is an example of the Manichean allegory and is also considered racist content. The native is called an “improved specimen” and is compared to a dog. The protagonist is shown to take care of the fireman as if he is a little child with a lower intellect level (6). It is thus obvious that the author considers the natives intellectually inferior to the Whites. He thinks that educating them will improve them so that they can be used as pawns by the White imperialists.

The African natives are granted rudimentary speech. When they do speak, their speech only shows their inferiority and savagery (5). “Catch ‘im…Eat ‘im (para. 15, sec.I).” Thus the natives on the ship only speak to emphasize their savage nature. When the cannibal natives choose not to eat the pilgrims and Marlow while on board despite the fact that they outnumbered them, Marlow gets really puzzled. His contemplation upon this act of theirs leads him to conclude that these natives know no restraint. “Restraint! I would as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield (para.15, sec.II, 2).” It is obvious that Marlow regards these individuals as lacking in morality and goodness. This is a racist assumption. Furthermore, the author calls African language as a form of babbling. “A violent babble of uncouth…planks (para. 44, sec I, 2).” Thus the author attempts to absolve Europeans for not trying to understand Africans by implying that their language is beyond human comprehension (6). In addition, their savage nature is mentioned to establish them as “Other” and this behavior is regarded as justification for European’s withdrawal from communicating with African natives other than for economic purpose. This separation of races on basis of cultural differences is considered racism.

As the novel progresses, Marlow’s racist attitude is replaced by a non-racist one (8). When one of the crew members, the helmsman dies, Marlow remembers and misses him. He affirms his feelings towards the helmsman by saying: “I am not prepared to affirm…getting to him (para.29, sec I, 2).”  The fact that Marlow values helmsman’s life more than his search indicates his affection for the native. Ridley notes a similarity between Helmsman and Kurtz. Both succumbed to the evil methods of the foreign cultures, by performing rituals and by shooting natives with a rifle respectively. Thus, both were detribalized; i.e., they were not considered a part of their own culture anymore. Conrad condemns both of them to death (7). The killing of the helsman does not count towards racism at all. It serves as an allusion to the fact that a human being morally degrades as he associates with the evil within. At the very end of the story, Marlow saves the natives from getting shot by the Europeans who were abroad the ship that was returning home from Congo. This unselfish act again depicts Marlow’s newly developed care and affection for the natives, which is seen only in the later parts of his journey. Overall, the protagonist’s attitude towards the Africans changes as the story progresses. As he spends more time in Congo, more easily he recognizes the natives as humans.

In this novella, Africa and its people are set in the background and are only brought in the foreground (allowed to participate in the story by speaking) to exhibit their savagery or evil. (6)  “A nigger was being beaten…went out and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again (para. 35, sec.I,2). The native remains in the background and never speaks out against his mistreatment. Thus, Conrad doesn’t consider the natives important enough to make them active participants in the story; i.e., he doesn’t allow them to mold and change it. This is another evidence of racism.

The author thinks that British are better imperialists than Belgians. Hence, he adopts a racist tone towards the Belgians. “There was a vast amount of red…yellow (para.22, sec.I, 2).” Here the author is pointing out the efficiency of the British imperialist empire. In contrast, he establishes Belgians as an inefficient imperialist government. “A heavy…work going on (para. 34, sec.I,2).” This theme “futility of work” is associated with the inefficiency of the Belgians. Conrad thinks that the Belgians are not doing any worthwhile work in civilizing the Africans. Analysis of the text leads one to conclude that the author is against the violence committed by the Belgian government in Africa. However, he does support Imperialism.“She had a distaste for the work…apple-pie order (para. 40, sec. I,2).” Thus, the author approves of the fact that the chief accountant taught the native lady how to do his laundry even though she didn’t want to learn this craft. In the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution was highly supported by the scientific community and the Western societies. This theory supports the notion that White race is superior to other races. This is how belief in Darwinism led to the implementation of imperialism (5). Author supports imperialism because he believes in Darwinism. However, he despises violence to which the Africans were subjected by the Belgian government. He projects his hatred of the violent acts committed by the imperialist Belgian government onto average Belgian citizens. “I found myself…their insignificant and silly dreams (para.86, sec.III,2).” He regards their ambitions as silly and considers them all as greedy individuals who hasten to earn money. He even considers their food unwholesome. This is again evidence of racism against Belgians.

In conclusion, Heart of Darkness depicts racism towards Africans only in the beginning and not at the end of the novel. Protagonist’s views are changed as he spends more time in Africa and reflects upon the cruelty of the Belgians.


  1. Bender, T.K. (2000)  Imagological considerations in Conrad’s vision of Africa. CLIO 29 (4): 441-447.
  2. Conrad, J. (1996) Heart of Darkness. Project Gutenberg. URL []. Access Date:2003-11-25
  3. Firchow, P.E. (1937).  Envisioning Africa-Racim and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. University Press of Kentucky: U.S.A.
  4. Kaplan, C.M (1997). Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Studies in Short Fiction 34 (3):323-332
  5. Nicol, A. Representation of race and gender in Heart of Darkness. URL[] Access Date: 2003-11-25
  6. Okafor, C.A. (2003).  Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe:Two Antipodal Portraits of Africa.  Journal of Black Studies 19(1): 17-28.
  7. Ridley, F.H. (2003).  The Ultimate meaning of “Heart of Darkness”. Nineteenth century fiction. 18(1):43-53
  8. Racism in the Heart of Darkness URL [] Access date: 2003-11-25

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.