Are the Classics Racist?
It was only a matter of time before Cicero got canceled.
The New York Times
recently profiled Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who wants to destroy the study of classics as a blow for racial justice.
The critique of classics as stultifying and privileged isn’t new, but in the woke era this attack is more potent than ever and has a better chance of demolishing a foundation of Western education.
At a time when Abraham Lincoln doesn’t pass muster in the progressive precincts of America, poor benighted Homer, whose chief subject was toxic masculinity, probably doesn’t stand a chance.
In its report, The Times writes that the critics believe that the study of classics “has been instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination.” Or as Padilla himself puts it, “Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself.”
It is rare to find other instances of scholars so consumed with hatred for their own disciplines that they literally want to destroy them within. Presumably if an ultraprogressive astrophysicist concludes that his field is desperately out of touch with social justice concerns, he simply goes and does something else for a living rather than agitating to have students stop learning about space.
One would think Padilla’s own amazing personal journey would, in itself, make the case for the wonders of the classics. He came here as a child from the Dominican Republic, lived in a homeless shelter in New York City, discovered a book on Ancient Greece and Rome — and with help from a mentor, got into a prep school and went on to get degrees from Princeton, Oxford and Stanford.
For him, evidently, the classics weren’t very exclusionary, and indeed there’s no reason that they should be.
The rigors of Greek and Latin, the timeless questions raised by Plato and Aristotle, the literary value of some of the most compelling poems, plays and tracts ever written, the insights of early historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the oratory of Pericles and Cicero, the awe-inspiring beauty of the architecture, sculpture and pottery — all of this is available to anyone of any race, ethnicity or creed.
To look at all these marvels and see only “whiteness” speaks to a reductive obsession with race that is destructive, selfdefeating and, in the end, profoundly depressing.
The Times complains that, paraphrasing critics, “Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below.”
There’s quite a simple reason, though, that Greece and Rome have been subjects of study and fascination for so long — their cultural, political and legal contributions are so vast and enduring. The Greeks gave us the example — flawed and incomplete to be sure — of democracy, and the Roman stamp is still discernible on our legal system and institutions.
Western thought and literature have proceeded throughout their history in dialogue with the classics, constantly interacting with the arguments, themes and characters of those long-ago forebears. This isn’t true of other ancient societies. Of course, the Greeks and Romans were blinkered, exclusionary, repressive and violent, but who wasn’t? Where in the ancient world did slavery not exist? What society afforded women equal status with men? Where did any ruler respect the dignity of all people?
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the Greeks and Romans and the rest was that their writers critiqued and lampooned their own societies. This willingness to engage in self-criticism became one of the hallmarks, and strengths, of Western culture.
The critics give the Greeks and the Romans the same treatment as the American project, ignoring what was exceptional about them for a monomaniacal focus on their failings, even if the failings were commonplace everywhere else.
They want to impoverish American college students and ultimately the Western mind in an act of ideological destruction. This is galling enough; it’s even worse that they call it progress.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.