The Unbearable Whiteness Of The Classics

The woke argue that the study of ancient Greece and Rome should be junked. Oy.

A visitor examines a painted head of a Greek warrior (a copy of the 490 B.C original) during the exhibition “Gods in color” at the Athens Archaeological Museum. (By Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the more eye-opening documents you can find online is Martin Luther King Jr’s hand-written syllabus for a seminar he was teaching at Morehouse College in 1962. It’s a glimpse of what King believed an educated black man should know. It’s a challenging list: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God, all the way to Bentham and Mill. There’s also a copy of the exam questions he set. Among them: “List and evaluate the radical ideas presented in Plato’s Republic”; “State and evaluate Aristotle’s view of slavery.”

What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race. There are few things more thrilling than to enter a whole new world from another era — and to see the resilient ideas, texts, and arguments that have lasted (or not) through the millennia. These ideas are bound up, of course, in the specific context and cultures of the past, and it is important to disentangle the two. But to enter the utterly alien world of the past and discover something intimate and contemporary is one of the great joys of intellectual life. MLK wasn’t the only classics student among the great civil rights leaders. Malcolm X was too.

My own classical wonderment came from learning Latin. From the age of 11 to 18, at my selective high school, I studied, translated, and wrote in Latin. My inner gay-boy nerd marveled at its logic and near-total consistency, the matrix of its grammar, and, over time, even the prose style of its greatest writers. I came to chuckle at Catullus, and at the deadpan irony of Tacitus; I learned how to write sentences by reading Cicero. I shared some of the excitement that so many first experienced when these texts were recovered and engaged again in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

This strange, ancient, muscular language was also a key to the texts, rituals, and prayers of my church, opening up another dimension of meaning as well. It felt as if, stuck in a small town in England in the dreary 1970s, I had been given the keys to live in another universe. My one regret was not taking Ancient Greek. Imagine if I could read the Gospels in the original!

But I read in the New York Times this week, as one does, that, in fact, I was deluding myself. Rather than being liberated, as I felt I was, I was actually being initiated into “white supremacy”. And there is now a broadening movement in the academy to abolish or dismantle the classics because of their iniquitous “whiteness”.

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Racial “whiteness” as a concept would, of course, have been all but meaningless to all the ancient writers I grew to love. It’s beyond even an anachronism. How on earth do you reduce the astonishing variety and depth and breadth of texts from an ancient Mediterranean world to a skin color? How do you read Aristotle and conclude that the most salient quality of his genius was that he was “white”?

You can arrive at this deranged conclusion, it seems, in two contrived ways. One is to view the ancient world as some kind of founding proof of the superiority of the “white race”, whatever that means. Imperialists and fascists have always loved this theme; Mussolini was especially fond of it. The very word “fascism” comes from the Roman “fasces”, a bound bundle of logs that was used to signify the authority of the state. In the same NYT piece, we are reminded that the “marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline ‘Every month is white history month.’” 

This dreck is not just bigoted; it’s ahistorical, anachronistic, and reductionist, and it ignores the vast range of classical thought, in which radicals and liberals have found as much intellectual nourishment as conservatives and reactionaries.

The other way to see the classics as a form of “white supremacy” is to embrace critical race theory. Some now argue that the study of ancient Greece and Rome “forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy” that endures to this day. This is because Western democracies can trace many of their formative ideas back to Greece and Rome — and many of these same democracies went on to practice imperialism and even slavery, thousands of years later. Some even justified their brutality with reference to classical texts. This intwining of the white supremacist assumptions of the Enlightenment with ancient Greece and Rome means the classics are therefore fatally tainted.

I’m sorry, but that’s it? That’s the argument? An entire, diverse, multi-faceted, multicultural civilization that sprawled from Turkey and North Africa to the borders of Scotland — a source of fascination to people of all political persuasions and races over the centuries — cannot be taught because some racists in the past abused its texts? That’s like saying that science should no longer exist because some scientists once practiced eugenics.

The man at the center of the NYT profile, one Dan-el Padilla Peralta, is a fascinating case study in all this. He’s obviously brilliant and once found liberation in the classics the way I and so many others did. As a black immigrant from the Dominican Republic, he became a prodigy in classical scholarship. As recently as 2015 and late 2016, he was writing things like this: ‘For a dark-skinned child of the Dominican Diaspora who spent his formative years in Harlem, it was both captivating and empowering to detect the pulse of Greco-Roman antiquity in hip-hop. In the heat of that collision new worlds were born.”

And then he was born again. He came to see the white supremacists’ cooptation of the classics as inextricable from the classics themselves; and believed their influence had helped not only construct American slavery but the persecution of Haitians by the Dominicans in his native land. He saw these power dynamics working through history, and he suddenly felt complicit in them. This epiphany demanded a wholesale reboot of his intellect — “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind” — and a wholesale dismantling and, if need be, destruction of his entire field of study.  

That’s quite a leap. The NYT piece attempts to explain Padilla’s conflation of the ancients with racism thus: “Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together.” First: what does that actually mean? Second: how could that claim be falsified? Like all the rest of critical theory, it can’t. Or this: race is “a ghostly system of power relations that produces certain gestures, moods, emotions and states of being.” It permeates everything everywhere. Like the Holy Ghost?

Perhaps this is the clearest thesis statement: “Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below.” I take the point. Yes, Enlightenment figures saw Greece and Rome as civilizational heights — because they were. And yes, they linked them to European society, because, after all, much of Europe was occupied by Rome, which was so deeply influenced by the Greeks. They also distinguished white Europeans from the rest of the world’s population in troublingly racist ways, from the perspective of the 21st Century. We should take account of this, and note where and when this ugly theme emerges. But that Enlightenment thinkers sometimes mis-used the classical texts does not invalidate the texts themselves.

And why can’t you teach this critique of 18th century racism — alongside the classics themselves? Why can you not, for good measure, add great works from other cultures, and expand the idea of classics, rather than rubbish it? Another classicist, Ian Morris, gives this answer in the NYT piece: “Classics is a Euro-American foundation myth. Do we really want that sort of thing?” Well, as a way to understand the roots of our civilization, why shouldn’t we?

I’ve become fascinated by these moments of conversion, of “waking up” to see everything through the prism of race and identity. Padilla did not just become more aware of how the classics had been abused in the Enlightenment, he had a real epiphany. There was no way to reconcile his previous love for the classics from the systemic racism they now represented to him. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla says, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.” So now he teaches classics by getting students to role-play Romans, or as a way to encourage critical theory activism. Everything else must be cleansed.

I’m still stunned by how so many believe this big a leap is the only option; or that these crude binaries — white bad, non-white good — are somehow helpful. I’m struck by how many intelligent people seem prepared to abandon any consideration of culture, economics, immigration, region, or family structure in understanding racial dynamics in history or today. I’m amazed that racist terms like “whiteness” are now deployed routinely — as if such a thing exists, as if white people, with their vast political, cultural and personal differences, are somehow interchangeable as a single oppressive mass, as if “white values” is not on its face a baldly racist term. 

But racial Manichaeism really touches our erogenous zones, as Padilla’s newfound zeal shows. To see the world as binary and to choose the side of righteousness makes life much more meaningful. It banishes doubt and complexity. It makes us feel better to be part of a tribe and to have a simple enemy or ally who is clearly visible — just check the color of their skin, as every elite student is now trained to do.

Padilla, it seems to me, was able to resolve some of the huge challenges of modernity and his own psyche and background by surrendering his mind and soul to a purely racial, and thereby tribal, analysis of the world. It is a form of psychological liberation, an epiphany millions also seemed to experience last summer, but it is a dark one. Critical theory, unlike most religions, posits no transcendent escape from its worldly strictures and systems, pinions you to the cross of your various identities, and offers only the promise of permanent struggle as a reward.

I prefer another form of liberation — out of race and identity and into learning, out of one’s own identity and into others’, out of the present and into the past, another world entirely, waiting to be explored and understood. I believe in the “higher individualism” of “the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it,” in the words of W.E.B. DuBois. There’s freedom there, as so many have found in reading the great works of the ancient past. I yearn to be where DuBois found himself

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

It is a tragic irony of history that while this freedom of the mind was once withheld from generations of African-Americans by actual white supremacists, it is now in danger of being withheld once again by neoracists of a different but just as tenacious kind.

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In your Dishcast episode with Michael Hirschorn, you argue that appeals to economic malaise are more effective and politically smarter than direct appeals to race. On the other hand, in a 2019 episode on Ezra Klein’s podcast, he suggests that equality of opportunity is in some cases a sham because a family might not even have enough to make equal opportunity a reality. Your response (and I’m paraphrasing) is that you would be prepared to “go very far to the left” for the descendants of slaves but no one else. How would this not be racially polarizing? How do you reconcile these views?

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