Rachel Poser has a an interesting long article in the Times about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a classics professor at Princeton who is also a black immigrant from the Dominican Republic and did some of his growing up in New York homeless shelters. Padilla is trying to somehow reconstruct classics as an anti-racist discipline. The issue is prominent in academic life right now, partly because so many deplorables have appropriated classical symbols for their own ends:
On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw a man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw a man in a T-shirt bearing a golden eagle on a fasces — symbols of Roman law and governance — below the logo 6MWE, which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a reference to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for “Come and take them,” which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.
It is certainly true that many on the far right are into Greece and Rome, but I consider that neither here nor there; after all many of them also wear shirts and drive cars.
My question is this: why should anyone study ancient Greece and Rome?
The old answer, tried out in the Renaissance and adopted whole hog in the eighteenth century, was that the ancients had special wisdom we needed to learn in order to improve our own world. The Enlightenment project was partly about reconstructing society on a non-Christian basis, and it seemed to the 18th-century revolutionaries that their own immediate past was too saturated with religion to be of much use in that endeavor. For inspiration they looked farther back in time, to Greece and pre-Christian Rome. They also found political models that helped them tame or break away from monarchy. From the classics they also adopted a new strategy for feeling superior to the rest of the world (something every culture seems to want). Instead of thinking they were better because they were Christians, they decided they were better because they respected individual rights, believed in the rule of law, had powerful states, and in general were more "civilized" than others. Some eighteenth-century folks equated this with race, but not everyone thought that way; many thought Europeans had a mission to spread this wonderful civilization around the world.
As the nineteenth-century world left the Romans behind in terms of power and technology, the idea of the classics as a great repository of wisdom was less emphasized. Instead they came to be seen as the origin point of what was increasingly called western civilization. This, Europeans and Americans increasingly thought, was our story, part of how we came to be the best and greatest civilization in world history.
But in our time all of this has been questioned. And I wonder, if you don't think of western civilization as something special and good, and don't think the classical texts contain some wisdom we could use in solving our problems, why study them? Why should someone like Dan-el Padilla Peralta study ancient Rome, or teach students about ancient Rome? If what you want is to practice anti-racism, shouldn't you forget about the Romans and study the modern world?
For the past century or so much history teaching has been caught in an in-between place. We still study and teach the same periods, like ancient Greece and medieval France, but we shift the focus to women, workers, slaves, and so on. You can take a whole course in Women in the Roman World. This has always made me wonder. If you aren't studying the Romans because you think their empire is sort of awesome, their political history fascinating, their architecture and engineering impressive, or just because you like the stories, why study them? If you want to study women and oppressed people, why not study some other period for which the evidence is ten or a hundred times better, when you have texts that really allow you to explore topics like marriage, family life, industrial discipline, or what have you? I would say that we studied and taught about women in the classical world solely from a sort of inertia. Many moderns no longer care about Caesar and the legions, but they have a lingering sense that Rome was important, thus, Roman Women, or Slavery in the Ancient World.
To get back to Padilla:
Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.
To see classics the way Padilla sees it means breaking the mirror; it means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics as a way to forestall change; he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression. Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past. This past semester, he co-taught a course, with the Activist Graduate School, called “Rupturing Tradition,” which pairs ancient texts with critical race theory and strategies for organizing. “I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry,” he told me. “When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.” But if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up. “I would get rid of classics altogether,” Walter Scheidel, another of Padilla’s former advisers at Stanford, told me. “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field.”
Again, I just don't get this. If what you really care about is race theory and political organizing, why drag the Romans or the Greeks into it? I honestly do not see what is gained, from the perspective of critical race theory, by devoting one minute of time to the ancient world.
I also dispute flat out that classical education denigrates anybody on the basis of race. The Greeks and Romans did not even know what race was. If classical education is about anything in particular, it is about class. It certainly was for the Romans, among whom upper class status was all about knowing the right texts and the right ways of speaking about them. The same held in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when people studied Greek and Latin largely because those were things that the upper class knew about, and they wanted to join the upper class. This view of education has the virtue that it makes upper class status open to anyone who can learn the necessary stuff. The Romans had many faults but they were pretty open about letting Africans and Gauls and even Britons join their elite, provided they had enough money and the right education.
And this gets me back to one of my favorite questions: if you don't think of universities as repositories of knowledge, and professors as people who have that knowledge and share it, why go to college at all? A cynic says, to get a good job, but I know many young people who flat-out reject that sort of careerism. To them, and this includes three of my own offspring, even to think about how much money you might make is to sell out completely to the corrupt system. Plus, the logic of this is just dumb; if universities aren't teaching anything valuable, then their graduates shouldn't get higher salaries, and we should fix that.
It seems increasingly to me that our whole system of humanities education is caught in that in-between place. We have abandoned the idea of seeking wisdom in the past, and the idea of "great books" or "great works of art" that hold some timeless value, and the idea that being educated means knowing anything in particular. It is hard to find anyone who will defend the idea that people who have been to college are somehow better than people than people who have not. Is there anything left to humanistic education to hold onto? I regard the leftist professor's idea of teaching anti-racism or deconstructing the system as smoke and mirrors; again, if you want to be a political activist, go be a political activist. What do Virgil, Shakespeare and Jane Austen have to do with it? I think these folks lack the courage of their convictions; if they think the model of society and education on which college is based is wrong, they should work to abolish it and start by resigning.
Padilla's reconstruction if the classics is doomed to fail, because Roman and Greek texts have nothing to say about modern anti-racism. They have been made to serve many purposes, but they will not serve that one. I am not sure what purpose they can serve in our time, beyond feeding our curiosity and sense of wonder. That is enough for me. But if it isn't enough for you, I don't understand why you want to bother with them at all.