Wednesday, February 3, 2021

What is the Point of Radical Classics?

Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus

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.


G. Verloren said...

You ask why people go to college if they don't see colleges as a place to gain valuable knowledge from the professors who hold it. You also ask why people are try to study the Classics if they aren't directly interested in the Ancient Romans and Greeks themselves. I think the answer to both questions is pretty simple - societal expectations and obligations.

Most people have never read Shakespeare or seen it properly performed, and yet everyone and their dog "knows" that Shakespeare is "great English literature", and therefor reflexively treat it as a marker of class, education, intelligence, sophistication, etc. It is socially desirable to have read Shakespeare; or if not to have actually read it, than to pretend to have read it; or if not even that, then to at the very least put Shakespeare on a collective pedestal like everyone else.

Most people have never eaten filet mignon, or beluga caviar, or rare truffles, and yet if you asked them they would happily tell you that they're among the most amazing foods on the planet, some of the best you'll ever taste, and no one in their right mind would dislike them, or argue that they're overrated or even arguably bad.

Most people wouldn't begin to know what to actually do with a top end sports car, or a sprawling mansion, or a private jet, and they would languish in disuse and neglect - and yet there's not a single person in our society who doesn't know that being able to state you own such a thing is a mark of prestige and a source of envy.

People typically purchase things that they don't actually need or want because such things are status symbols, and spending money conspicuously on them is ostensibly rewarded with a degree of social cachet which most people are taught to strive for reflexively. It's not even so much that they are indicators of success - they are effectively viewed as success itself, made manifest.

In a shocking proportion of our society, conspicuous consumption doesn't exist to show off massive individual wealth - massive individual wealth exists solely to enable conspicuous consumption. It is the raison d'etre of many millions of American citizens - the ultimate end goal of all their earthly endeavors.

"The American Dream" isn't to live a good life, or to have all your needs and desires satisfied, or to be a healthy and well adjusted person - it is simply to become rich; stupendously rich; rich beyond all reason or justification. There's no point or purpose to the pursuit of opulence and extravagance. It is, to most Americans, a self evident good purely in and of itself.

For countless Americans, there is no deeper purpose. There are simply certain things which "everyone knows" you are "supposed to do" in order to be "successful".

The objective of college is college.
The objective of wealth is wealth.
The objective of politics is politics.

Many people don't do things because there's some deeper reason - they do things simply because they have always been expected to do them.

They were born into a specific religion, and so they believe in that religion forever. They grew up rooting for a certain sports team, and so they root for that team forever. They belong to the social and political faction of the Greens, and so they will forever view members of the Blues as enemies to be defeated at any cost.

Nika! Nika! Nika!

John said...

@g - I actually agree with this completely. College is all about status. But why are the humanities connected to status? In the the past people thought they had good reasons for stating that, but to me it was all ultimately connected to aristocracy: humanities were high status because that was what aristocrats were into. But now that we have rejected aristocracy, and no longer believe, at least openly, that maintaining the aristocratic tradition is a good thing to do, then why study the humanities? I just can't see any reason beyond inertia. Maybe that is enough. But I think the reason you are seeing all these attacks on college, especially from people in the tech world and people on the political right, is that the old justification of humanistic education is failing. The people groping for new justifications are turning to left-wing politics, because that is pretty much all they know, but as I argued in this post I don't think that defense works. Plus it further antagonizes everyone on the right. So I fully expect to see humanities enrolments continue their slide, and for more and more departments and even whole colleges to disappear. We need a new model of education, and I don't know what that will be.

David said...

As I've said before, when it comes down to students and instructors in classrooms, voracious nerd-dom--or, if you will, curiosity and wonder--counts for a lot. I think a model that puts out there some faculty who are able to convey curiosity and wonder and tells students, "In addition to your major, pick four (or six, or ten, or whatever) of these and build some acquaintance with the universe and all it holds, as well as some curiosity and wonder" sounds just fine. Of course, it's hard to get people with control of resources to pony up simply for curiosity and wonder. That includes both state legislatures and parents. And yes, the many of the latter are most deeply motivated by status-seeking or at least status preservation, while many of the former and their voters are motivated by a basic dislike of professors. Perhaps it is worth trying anyway? Perhaps if we could convince students and voters that a lot of us profs just like playing with cool stuff, not unlike the Mythbusters, they wouldn't be so hostile.

As for someone like Padilla, I think such profs, including those on the right as well, are motivated by a belief that a life that is not driven by a burning mission isn't worth living, and by a sense of guilt that they don't have mission enough. This reflects a certain grandiose quality to our culture. I don't have a burning mission, and I'm just fine with that. As far as I'm concerned, someone with a burning mission is as likely to end up as Gavrilo Princip (or Apis, the Serbian colonel who was the finger behind the finger behind the finger that pulled the trigger) as they are to be M. L. King.

David said...

Having now read the article, I would say that I was struck by how personal to Padilla the whole thing is: the article itself is very much about Padilla's personal history, his own relationship to the classics, his process of wrestling with his field and his identity. He's clearly a very intense person, so I think it was presumptuous of me to suggest he's just an hero wannabe searching for a burning mission. He seems to be honestly the sort of person for whom, whatever he does, there's an intense and burning aspect to it.

I think there's very much a sense that he fell in love with a field of study, has an intense lifelong relationship with it, and now finds himself, not surprisingly given his character, going through a difficult period in the relationship. I absolutely do not mean to trivialize his situation. His relationship with his identity is similarly intense and turbulent. He clearly feels at times that he must, in some sense, choose between his lifelong objects of devotion, and utterly reject one of them, because to stay with it is to utterly betray the other.

I was thinking about this in part to answer John's question, if you want to study women's history, why not choose another field. I think many of those who start to study topics like women in the ancient world are folks who find themselves wondering, "How can I be in love with something that would have despised me as a person?" And so--particularly if, for example, their identity as female is very important to them (and, take it or leave it, that's true of many people)--they try to work out that feeling by studying women in the ancient world. I think it's important not to trivialize this dilemma by saying the smart choice would have been another field with better sources; people's life choices are not rational. (I would stress that this sort of problem is not an issue for me personally. My identity in terms of standard identity categories is pretty weak. I'm trying to understand those who find themselves constructed differently.)

Anonymous said...

The goal is to destroy the culture. The classics make excellent targets because they are European, remote, and easy to subordinate to political narratives. Those who love the classics for themselves watch this with the same dismay that people have always watched such developments when a new culture solidifies its control over another.