Opinion

Cancel the Classics?

The study of the ancient world is under assault from within

Pundits spend a lot of time thinking and writing about signs of ascendant madness on the political right — conspiracy theories about stolen presidential elections; cults obsessed with cabals of child-molesting cannibals supposedly running the country; outright attacks on the institutions, norms, and traditions of American democracy by officeholders and ordinary citizens alike.

But it isn't only the right that's fallen into a form of madness over the last few years.

The left has its own fevers, though to many the mania appears less ominous than the one surging through the right. This is understandable. For one thing, those in the throes of a kind of moral panic on the left aren't parroted and encouraged in their destructive work by the president of the United States. For another, the left's cultural insurgents share many of the same moral convictions (in favor of justice and equity, against racism and other forms of discrimination) as less extreme liberal allies, who see their more radical brethren merely as progressives in a hurry. That makes them seem less threatening than right-wing populists. Finally, there's the matter of status and authority. Unlike the right, which takes its cues from talk radio, cable news, and social media outlets, left-wing radicals are often highly educated and able to cite works of politically engaged scholarship in defense of their views.

I'm talking, of course, about the interrelated trends that often get described as "woke" but can perhaps be more accurately labeled "antiracism," a concept popularized by a leading, and bestselling, advocate of this style of insurgent cultural politics. Antiracism differs from other forms of scholarly activism in eschewing the exploration of and critical engagement with discrete examples of injustice in the past and present. In its place, today's radicals favor sweeping denunciations of holistic systems of oppression as a prelude to tearing them down.

Racism (and its corollary "whiteness" or "white supremacy") infects entire cultures and epochs, we are told, contaminating everything it touches. That is the first axiom of antiracism. Here is the second: Everything racist must be razed to the ground or erased from our public life. Put those two claims together, and we're left with a movement of activists convinced that much of our civilization prior to the past few years deserves to be torn down, uprooted, and dismantled so that something less morally tainted can be built in its place.

We can see an expression of this antinomian outlook in the San Francisco school board acting to change the names of public schools in the district to eliminate references to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other morally impure figures from the American past. And we can also see it at work in elite colleges like Princeton University.

Last summer, after the university announced it would remove Woodrow Wilson's name from a prominent school on account of his racism, several faculty members demanded in an open letter that the administration go much further, to make Princeton "for the first time in its history, an antiracist institution." One of the co-authors of the letter, a member of the Classics Department named Dan-el Padilla Peralta, has subsequently made clear that this means his own field — the study and teaching of the history and literature of ancient Greece and Rome — must die "as quickly as possible."

That's a quote from a respectful profile of Padilla in The New York Times Magazine that tells the remarkable story of his life — how as a young child he came to the U.S. with his impoverished family from the Dominican Republic, how he soon became enamored with the history of classical Rome, how he attended Princeton on a scholarship and then completed graduate work at Oxford and Stanford, only to return to teach at Princeton, where he's now leading a movement to deconstruct the field of Classics on the grounds that it "has been instrumental to the invention of 'whiteness' and its continued domination."

The author of the profile, Rachel Poser, does an admirable job of laying out Padilla's indictment of his own field. But she could have done more to clarify exactly what he aims to accomplish. At points it sounds like he merely objects to "Classics" as a distinct academic discipline, because ideas and iconography from classical Greece and Rome have supposedly inspired white supremacists from the 19th century down to the 2017 Charlottesville rally and Capitol Hill insurrection of last month. This implies that Padilla would be satisfied if the historians, philologists, and experts in ancient literature who currently reside within departments of Classics were simply dispersed and relocated to other departments within the university.

But this can't be right. Neither the proto-Nazis of the 19th-century American South nor the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville knew or cared anything about which departments host scholars of ancient Greece and Rome. This is no doubt one reason why Padilla is quoted as saying much more radical things, like that he's "advocating reforms that would 'explode the canon' and 'overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,' including doing away with the label 'classics' altogether."

This more radical reading of Padilla's goals also makes sense of the fact that he has chosen to embrace an activist project, complete with programmatic statements about the systemic evil infecting his own discipline, rather than simply change the emphasis of his own scholarship. One could imagine a scholar becoming convinced that his research emphasis or academic department has had negative effects on the world and acting to remove himself from it by switching departments or altering his scholarship, perhaps by devoting less attention to elites and more to the lives and struggles of ordinary people in the past. Many fields of history have seen precisely such a turn to "history from below" over the past few generations without those favoring the change attempting to dismantle history as a field or denouncing scholars who continue to study the past in different ways.

But that's precisely what Padilla and his ideological allies are doing — asserting that any approach to studying the ancient world that doesn't seek to write "an entirely new story about antiquity" is complicit in murder, slavery, and subjugation. Dumping everything done up to now and starting over from scratch is the only way to dismantle "structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition." That's because (in Padilla's words) "systematic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself." Hence the statement that ends the profile, from a classicist at Brandeis University named Joel Christensen who supports Padilla's efforts and insists that classics must be taught in a way that places racism at the center of everything. "Otherwise we're just participating in propaganda."

That gets things exactly backward. To insist that one's own research program and emphasis is the only valid one is the expression of a propagandistic outlook — and the antithesis of one rooted in the spirit of the liberal arts, which derives from the ancient virtue of liberality, meaning generosity and openness to the plurality and complexity of human life, experience, and history. In the profile of Padilla, the two scholars who best exemplify this virtue are the world-renowned classicist Mary Beard, who says that in her view "the duty of the academic is to make things seem more complicated," and Renaissance scholar Anthony Grafton, who claims that "an exhaustive exposition of the ways in which the world has defined itself with regard to Greco-Roman antiquity would be nothing less than a comprehensive history of the world."

Padilla and his cheerleaders, by contrast, come off like narrow-minded ideologues eager to tear down anything that resists their ambition to act as commissars imposing and policing an official Truth.

Imagine a scholar who pointed out (as many have) that the genocidal, eliminationist anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible was ultimately rooted in the theological anti-Semitism that was cultivated by Christianity for the better part of two millennia. The claim would be a little crude, since the two forms of hatred are different in multiple respects, but it wouldn't be entirely wrong.

But now imagine that this scholar went two steps further than this — to insist, first, that because of the omnipresence of Christianity during the Middle Ages, the entire epoch is tainted by anti-Semitism; and second, that the only way to avoid complicity in the genocidal, eliminationist anti-Semitism that followed from the period is to study and teach it solely through this lens. Kings, popes, bishops, philosophers, theologians, artists, architects, poets, aristocrats, peasants — all of these people and classes, all of the culture and politics they created and took part in for well over a thousand years, must matter to us only to the extent that they contributed to and took part in the development of a pathology that reached its demonic apotheosis roughly 500 years after the historical period came to a close.

The reasonable response to such a demand would be to refuse the moral blackmail — to insist that the world in both the present and past cannot be reduced to any single account of its unfolding, and that to hold otherwise is a rather spectacular failure of perspicacity and imagination, and evidence of an intellect in the grip of a kind of hysteria.

The saddest passage of the profile is the one where Padilla "cringes" at the memory of "his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition," a longing he now sees as nothing more than a craving to be assimilated into a "system of structural oppression."

But the classical tradition is so much more than this. It is, for one thing, an enormously important window into the foundations of our civilization. Are there morally disturbing aspects of this civilization? Of course. (Has there ever been a civilization in human history about which we could say otherwise?) But there are good things about it, too. If we want to understand ourselves, good and bad and everything in between, ancient Greece and Rome is where we need to start, at the beginning of the long, immensely complicated story that eventually wends its way down to us. To cut us off from that story, or to reduce the image to just one thread in the tapestry, is to condemn us to ignorance about ourselves.

Talk of the dangers of ignorance raises the possibility of achieving its opposite — knowledge and wisdom. And that's the second and arguably even more important case for studying the classics with an eye to more than compiling a list of moral crimes.

Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Cicero, Livy — to become conversant in the writings of these authors and learn about the worlds in which they lived is to be placed into conversation with some of the greatest minds about some of the most monumental events in human history. It is to become culturally literate on the highest levels. It is an education in how to think, in how to achieve self-understanding and a salutary humility about our own vaunted superiority. It is to learn how to begin liberating ourselves from our own prejudices.

Whereas refusing to read these authors and learn about their worlds — or to do so merely in order to melt them down in the moral acids of our own unexamined certainties — is to close ourselves off both from our own past and from the possibility of living a fully self-aware life in the present.

That there are people in our time who see little value in the study of the classics is hardly surprising. There have always been those who care little for learning, or who value it only for its usefulness in advancing practical projects. But that such a crude form of philistinism has begun to gain a foothold in the very institutions tasked with preserving and passing on our classical inheritance is troubling. It's a sign that present-day political concerns and obsessions have begun to intrude on and badly distort the work of the university.

We learn at the end of the profile of Dan-el Padilla Peralta that he suspects "he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world" — and that he "has even considered entering politics." Since his work in the university has already evolved into a trendy form of cultural politics, it is perfectly fitting that Padilla appears headed toward a fully political life beyond the classroom and field of classical scholarship. Let's hope he doesn't do even more damage on his way out.

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