In Defense of the Classics, or Why Racism is Not Aristotle’s Fault

In his most recent newsletter, Andrew Sullivan takes on an idea that has gained traction on the woke left: the idea that the classics are somehow conveyors of white supremacy. Here’s Sullivan:

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”.

Andrew is referring to a recent NYT piece profiling former classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who had a conversion of sorts, away from being a fan of the classics (and a trained scholar) towards becoming an advocate for “dismantling” the classicist emphasis on the ancient texts from Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean that undeniably shaped Western thought. Peralta, and many other activists and scholars, have latched onto the idea that somehow texts like Plato’s Republic or the writings of Cicero perpetuate white supremacy. Sullivan points out this ridiculousness of this claim:

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”?

Andrew is right, of course. The idea that these texts are problematic because of American-style racism – a phenomena that really took off a millennium-and-a-half after these works were created – is ludicrous, and more importantly, dangerous. Racism is a real and persistent problem in our world today, a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and pseudo-scientific theories. It arises from the needs of American political and economic institutions built in the 16th and 17th centuries, whose legacies are own systems are built on top of today. Turning attention away from these purveyors of injustice, and spending time trying to tie Aristotle’s contextual and ancient justifications for slavery to the racism of post-bellum America, is not just intellectually dishonest, but also a distraction and turn-off that the fight for racial justice in America just simply can’t afford.

None of this should be construed as a denial of the history and effects of racism in America today. I’ve been very clear on this blog about my support for the work of racial justice. I want that work to succeed. But this is not the way to do it. All this kind of performative wokeness does is discredit itself for its intellectual dishonesty, distracts from the important issues facing minorities and their communities today, and turns off potential allies that we need for progress to happen. Not to mention, it also spiritually and intellectually impoverishes our culture to cut out entire swathes of scholarly work and history on the basis of authorial identity alone. And it perpetuate the worst kinds of stereotypes about the fight for racial justice, confirming for those who are wavering that what progressives and liberals really want is not a better society, but instead no society at all, at least not for those considered “sinners” according to the dogma of the woke fundamentalists (and who among us isn’t?)

I am spending this year slowly reading Augustine’s City of God. I look forward, after that, to digging into Aristotle and Aquinas, as well as some Marcus Aurelius and revisiting Plato’s Republic for the first time since undergrad. I received a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey for Christmas that I’m looking forward to. I’ve relied heavily the last few years on Hauerwas, Moltmann, Tillich, Barth, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, MacIntyre and Bonhoeffer. And I’ll top all of that off by offering up a reminder of my love for St Paul. I read and engage all these figures not because I’m trying to court white supremacy. I read them because, like it or not, these are the voices and ideas much of modern society, and even more importantly, Christianity itself are based on. You can’t think and write and talk about philosophy and literature and culture and faith and theology without these voices; they shape Christianity and the ways all of us think in foundational ways many people don’t even realize. They have influenced the world in ways we can’t escape, nor should we want to. And we can advocate for considering and reading and engaging more diverse voices today without throwing out these giants that those diverse voices rely on too (whether or not they like it or admit it.) Far from being problematic, these texts are in fact beautiful, and powerful, and can be impactful resources for fighting injustice and inequality. Anyone who tries to make the argument that the classics somehow stifle the fight for freedom and rights today has clearly never engaged the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, upon whom the very concepts of liberty and political rights as we understand them depend for their very existence.

I had a conversation the other night with a friend where we were reflecting on the decline of the academy and the liberal arts. One thing this friend noted from his time at seminary was the shocking fact that many of the students he attended with never in three or four years had to read Augustine. In many (if not most) colleges and universities today, students not only don’t engage the classics, but in the narrow pursuit of technical vocational competency, most never have to engage cultural and literary touchstones and classics. This is an incalculable loss to our body politic and our cultural heritage. We cannot form the kind of educated and informed populace necessary for the flourishing of democracy, and the ideals of equality and justice, that so many long for, without drawing on the power of the traditions that formed us in the first place. And its not just a loss because of the political impact; it’s a loss because simply because these works are good and beautiful, and to miss out on the good is always a tragedy. Beauty is a good in and of itself (as any one who has taken the time to read Aristotle or Augustine would learn).

I’ll give Andrew the final word on this note, as he highlights the importance of these ancient voices for figures like MLK and Malcolm X:

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.

May we have the courage and the wisdom these men had to draw on our shared cultural legacy as we continue trying to build a better world.


Coates: “Trump’s Ideology is White Supremacy”

For your must-read list this week: Ta Nehisi Coates’ new piece at The Atlantic, entitled “The First White President.” Here is a taste:

It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.” The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages. So it was with a candidate who called for a foreign power to hack his opponent’s email and who now, as president, is claiming to be the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own. Only grudgingly did Trump denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, one of its former grand wizards—and after the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Duke in turn praised Trump’s contentious claim that “both sides” were responsible for the violence.

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

Really, if you aren’t reading everything Coates writes, you are missing out. He is the preeminent public voice in the United States.

Read the whole piece here.