Conservatism and Classics…

Donna Zuckerberg of Eidolon writes on the interest of the “alt-right” in antiquity, and, specifically, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. “It is time,” she says, “For Classics as a discipline to say to these men: we will not give you more fodder for your ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders”. How?

When you hear someone…say that they are interested in Classics because…Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint…Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy.

As it happens, I am interested in Classics as the foundation of Western civilisation and culture. It just is. To take the more indisputable examples, consider the Platonic and Aristotelian roots of our philosophy and natural science; the Athenian underpinnings of republicanism; the Homeric influence on poetry; Cicero’s unwitting contribution to the Renaissance and the Roman promotion of the Christian faith. None of this makes me a white supremacist. The Chinese doubtless think Confucius, Laozi and Sun Tzu provided the foundation of Chinese culture but that need not make them Asian supremacists.

Zuckerberg continues…

In your scholarship, focus on the parts of antiquity that aren’t elite white men…Model a kind of Classics that isn’t quite so congenial to the neo-Nazis of the Alt-Right.

One’s study of Classics must include people who were not rich white men: Hypatia and other influential female thinkers; Severus and other figures with African origins and, above all, Avicenna and other Arabic scholars who revived and furthered Greek science and philosophy. These are important people who deserve attention. But we are not being asked to include such men and women in our studies. We are being asked to focus them. Why? Less because of their historical, cultural and philosophical relevance, I suspect, than their political convenience. It is bad to give more attention to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Homer, Cicero, Seneca and Plotinus, for example, not because it is misguided to think were of more historical importance but because it gives “fodder” to reactionaries.

To be sure, all kinds of men and women make superficial reference to the classics to ennoble their ideas. (Ms Zuckerberg wrote quite an entertaining piece on the Roman roots of pick-up artistry.) But what bugs progressive classicists is less, I think, the idea that actual fascists will seek inspiration in their field (where, after all, they will not find race mysticism, populism or especially pronounced anti-semitism) but the idea that the classics might inspire conservatism: special appreciation of European culture and attachment to its social, intellectual and artistic traditions. That people might consider the modern world, read the classics and wonder if one or two things have gone wrong along the way strikes even them as an all too plausible idea to imagine.

At the risk of being unkind, I think progressive classicists devalue the people and the societies they study, and, consequently, the civilisation that they informed. Ms Zuckerberg, for example, commenting on a would-be alt-right intellectual, sniffs that…

…his understanding of antiquity is of a world inhabited by only a few extremely elite men. He has no sense of or interest in social history, cultural history, women, slaves, children, and broad historical trends. The ancient world is reduced to a textbook model for leadership, character, and masculine virtue.

Could it not be all those things? Antiquity was not, of course, any kind of idyll, including much that was of its time or that should never have existed. But we can find inspiration. Slavery was ubiquitous in history, after all, but the likes of Plato and Marcus Aurelius were not.

Zuckerberg veers from attacking the alt-right to attacking her embattled traditionalist peers…

…many…agree, quietly, that as a field we’ve lost something in our increasing focus on race, class and gender in the ancient world. Our field is still, in many ways, in thrall to the Great Men model of history.

The Great Man theory, at least in its more simplistic forms, is too naive in assuming that “greatness” transcends its times. Individuals are influenced by their social conditions. It is not coincidence that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, say, appeared in successive generations. But what are “social conditions”? It is not just economic and political factors but influence of our peers. Great teachers produced great students. Happily their work survived for us to study too.

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About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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3 Responses to Conservatism and Classics…

  1. Simon says:

    I’m reminded of how Thomas Jefferson, Maximilien Robespierre and Benito Mussolini all admired Greco-Roman antiquity and saw themselves as the embodiment of that particular ancient civilization’s classical virtues. I guess everyone gets the idyllic past that fits their own ideological worldview the best…

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    • bsixsmith says:

      Civilisations, like religions, are contested spheres. What is important to bear in mind is that the treasures of antiquity accumulated slowly rather than being present at all times in their complete forms.

      Like

      • Simon says:

        As a matter of fact, I’m kinda surprised that Donna Zuckerberg didn’t mention that Fascist Italy was explicitly modelled on Plato’s Republic – at least as closely as an industrialized modern society could be.

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