Tomorrow's Classics Lecture. Tumbledown College. Someplace. USA
Earlier this year I was confounded to read in Arts and Letters Daily that in the
United States there is a movement in some university classics departments to purge the teaching of classics of its emphasis on white privilege and its inherent racism. Appalled at this utter nonsense on the 6th of March I penned a response, as below.
Unsurprisingly I have received no acknowledgement. I have no doubt my supposed iconoclasm shocked their sensibilities – moreover, how dare an antipodean intrude upon their private hate-fest. Even worse he failed to genuflect at their altar of towering
In the event I am going to include this piece in my work on Christendom and the development of our civilisation.
The increasing inanity of American academe is too good a target to miss. I confess this is lengthy piece but I do hope you find it worthwhile.
I first read about Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s deprecating comments about his own undoubted field of academic expertise my first thought was that the poor fellow had totally missed the fundamental point about the universality of the classics.
Having sparked my curiosity I alighted upon Rachel Poser’s most interesting feature article in the New York Times [2 Feb 2021] followed by Professor Johanna Hanink’s sympathetic accompaniment in the Higher Education Chronicle
[11 Feb 2021].
From these I gather that there exists a cohort of contemporary American classicists who are actively seeking to revise the teaching of their discipline.
From the aforementioned two writers I understand the contemporary American critique of the classics may be summarised as follows:
That the stories of ancient Greece
and Rome play an abnormal part of America’s national imagination because they have been woven into the fabric of that country’s history. There exists a supposedly ‘sinister’ side to this adulation of antiquity inasmuch some of the defenders
of slavey purportedly sought justification in the pro-slavery sentiments of certain ancient philosophers. That some American monuments designed on classical lines, were in actuality, constructed to evoke the Old South. The classical tradition became ineluctably
bound to American nationalism and foreign policy – justifying for example American intervention in the Greek Civil War of 1946-49.
President Trump’s executive
order Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture underscored the point that Washington and Jefferson sought to use classical architecture to connect the new Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity. This architectural
policy, still extant, officially encourages classical and traditional architecture for all new federal buildings. According to its critics, this policy invokes rosy visions of Greco-Roman antiquity and the early United States.
These critiques probe over an extended range in which little is spared, the notion for example, of ‘Western Civilisation’ is in itself an American construct developed by “New Historians”
working at American universities in the aftermath of World War One. The exalted and ‘triumphalist’ status afforded to the idea of ‘Western Civilisation’ and the inclusion of classicism in the American nationalist narratives helps to
ensure the pre-eminence of a certain identity group: being, American, Western, white, male.
To this end, the appropriateness of the “Great Books”
history courses should be questioned. That the study of classics as a ‘fairy tale’ Western origin story should be abandoned and the de-privileging of Greco-Roman antiquity will introduce a new generation of classicists
better in tune with the world’s shifting realities.
These critics continue by positing that there is much anger in the discipline of classics emanating from conservative
angst at its supposed decline in the hands of liberals. There is also angst among those drawn to the discipline but are hindered by its exclusivist structures.
There is exasperation at the media coverage of this latest chapter in the so-called culture wars inasmuch its coverage omits the intellectual innovation and knowledge advancement that is happening in the classics, much of it is thanks to classicists of colour
— not because of the current disciplinary structures, but despite them.
However, all is not yet lost. Fortunately there exist some classicists who are setting
the classics on a new and obviously politically correct new path. Professor Hanink details that through the prisms of these saviours it is demonstrated ‘incontrovertibly’ ‘how ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize
racist and other exclusionary practices and narratives’. These worthy souls are now ‘exposing’ how the academic discipline of classics is: “both a product of and long-time accomplice in violent societal structures, including white supremacy,
colonialism, classism, and misogyny”.
then applies the usual anticipatory defensive position - There are, of course, some who feel threatened by this kind of work – thereby dismissing anyone having the temerity to take issue with her argument as being intrinsically inadequate. She
suggests that those who might cast a critical lens over her argument are categorised as believing that any revision of the classics is not only an attack on Western civilization but on the United States’ putative leading role in it.
This is all standard American liberal fare. It plays to, and might resonate with, a certain and a limited audience – Americans. The intellectual issues addressed are American ones. Unfortunately,
with usual American arrogance of assumption, the disgruntled American classicists are trying, yet again, to impose American views of the classics on Western Civilisation.
not all the Western World is enamoured at this prospect.
In a recent and timely article for the New York Times, foreign correspondent Norimitsu
Onishi observed in a detailed article on contemporary intellectual debate in France, that politicians and prominent intellectuals are concerned that progressive social theories from the United States on race, gender and post-colonialism are a threat to
French identity and the French republic.
9 February 2021 the article leads: “The threat is said to be existential. It fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France’s
intellectual and cultural heritage.
The threat? “Certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States,’’ said President Emmanuel Macron.”
Onishi continues by citing education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer who declared: “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities.’’
Blanquer went so far as to suggest that universities, under American influence, are complicit with terrorists by providing the intellectual justification behind their acts.
In another development some 100 prominent scholars penned an open letter in Le Monde supporting the minister and decrying theories “transferred from North American campuses”.
French historian Pierre-André Taguieff said the French people are ‘exasperated’ by phrases such as "systemic racism'' and "white privilege," which he says are
an "artificial importation" from America.
There is of course a dreadful irony in this. I remember in the 1980s reading that the locus of philosophical thought had shifted
from Europe to North America. At the time I entertained doubts about this. Today however, I have no doubts that the current nonsense emanating out of America’s academe can be directly traced to the then influx of ideas from French postmodern thinkers
such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – both of whom have had a profound effect on the direction of American academe which has today become, as Jarret Stepman observed: “the locus of the wokeness”.
In France a continuing major culture battle is now enjoined yet again the increasing endeavours by some zealots to gender-neutralise the French language. As Stepman further opined:
“Nevertheless, it’s a positive development that even left-leaning French leaders such as Macron see the woke ideology—once loosed from ivory towers and unleashed on society—as a monumentally destructive force”.
The countries of Central Europe, together with their former captor, Russia, have needed no such epiphany. Having suffered under the cultural yoke of communism they remain firmly opposed to the latest
American export of liberal-totalitarian cultural revisionism.
Sadly, the foregoing serves to highlight the decline of America as a serious contributor
to the intellectual development of the arts and humanities. But it is with even greater regret that I watch the other members of the Anglosphere following suit. Canada is the locus of its own peculiar intellectual prolapse. Australia has slavishly followed
every American intellectual trend since the 1960s. New Zealand doesn’t matter and Britain is busy reinventing itself into the world’s first truly culturally neutered society. As the Anglosphere slides into intellectual irrelevance, it is heartening
at least to see the afore-detailed European cultures stepping up to their role as the intellectual standard-bearers for Western Civilisation.
But, to return specifically
to the charges of the critics.
The reading, study or pursuit of the classics is no mere academic subject to be taught as part of the attainment of a university degree.
After all, what earthly good can the doings of civilisations that existed over three millennia ago be of any use in resolving contemporary social, political and economic problems?
purely in this utilitarian light there might be little cause for keeping any tertiary classics departments open. The critics might as well pack their bags now and consider themselves lucky to have existed on the ‘white man’s’ teat for as
long as they have.
So why read the classics?
A point deliberately overlooked
by critics is that every civilisation, every culture, every society and every family has its foundation myths, its traditions and history. Some of these are older, more complex, and richer than others. These traditions and history provide the anchor, the context
and social cohesion for the subsequent historical and cultural narrative of that civilisation. These stories, broadly described, are the classics pertaining to that civilisation.
of these classics have been maintained by an oral tradition, as evidenced by, say, the Australian aborigines. More advanced cultures developed the written script to record their historical and intellectual endeavours.
What we have come to know as Western Civilisation traces its lineage from the foundational stories and myths of the ‘cradle of civilisation’ history; through the Abrahamic historical account, to
the Greek civilisation and through to the fall of the Roman Empire. In broad brush terms this is what is meant by the Western classics.
Our civilisation is fortunate
inasmuch it contains an extensive written record of much of this period. Like all history this record is subject to constant review and oft reinterpretation. Other civilisations, say for example the Chinese and the Indian, also have an extensive written tradition
which is continually pored over by scholars for fresh insights into the nature of their respective cultures.
These cultures have carried down the centuries a
distinct and relatively quantifiable linear narrative about their history, their failures and achievements and their place in the world.
Unfortunately some civilisations
either did not have in the first place, or failed to leave, a literary record and accordingly they have disappeared almost without trace. It is largely through the work of contemporary scholars from more advanced civilisations excavating ruins, examining remaining
artefacts and surmising conclusions about these lost civilisations that we know anything about them at all.
Some of the more basic societal
units around the globe that relied on an oral tradition suffer from a distinct disadvantage in that they are unable to quantify their history. In terms of quality and depth of culture it is a sad but irredeemable fact that their culture will, eventually, be
subsumed by more sophisticated cultures.
If this is triumphalism then so be it. If telling the story of a civilisation is triumphalism then let it be. If writing the
history of a society’s failures and successes is triumphalism – too bad.
When I studied Latin and classics at school I did not do so under the
banner of triumphalism. And on this immediate point, it will not do to suggest that in the context of my schooldays ‘triumphalism’ was inferred. That is balderdash. I studied under the tuition of professional and apolitical teachers. I studied
with fascination at the political, social, racial and cultural mix that was the ancient world. I grew up retaining that fascination, heightened only by the equal fascination as to how such a cultural amalgam still directs my life as a member of what we now
call Western Civilisation.
Allow me to labour this point – the story of the classical world as so described and accepted – made a profound contribution
to the development of Western Europe and Western Civilisation. It also made a profound contribution to the development of Islamic Civilisation. However, until the period of European expansion, it made a miniscule contribution to Indian Civilisation and zero
contribution to Chinese, Indo-Chinese, Malay or early American Civilisations.
That the affairs of the ‘modern’ world, until most recent years, have been
driven by Western Civilisation is a matter of undisputed record. Although unpalatable to some, such is the record. Period. During this period mankind underwent a period of complex quantitative and qualitative enlightenment. The accompanying scientific, technological,
social, political and economic changes irretrievably shaped the direction of the world. During this period of hyper-change there were manifold successes, tragic failures, winners and losers. Thus are the affairs of men.
Sensible societies of the past accepted and adopted to change or they perished. They did not bewail their misfortune, call for an umpire and demand a change to the rules.
So I ask again, why read classics?
Quite obviously because for those of us brought up in the traditions of Western Civilisation
it provides a broader sense of identity with the past, our shared experiences with other cultures and provides a direction as to our place in the world. It underwrites and validates our own society.
In this context, let me directly address one of the complaints detailed above by critics of American classicism – the notion that classicism is interwoven into the fabric of American political society.
America’s recourse to classicism must be seen in the context of the political entity that emerged from the tragedy of what was effectively the First American Civil War [Independence Wars]. As
discussed above, every society needs its societal founding myths, the former colonies, then anchorless in the world, especially so.
The American foundation myth of
hardy, self-sufficient, honest-to-God and freedom-loving colonists rebelling against the might of the British Empire to gain their independence has been carefully preserved and manipulated through the ages. This was in large part initially achieved and justified
by recourse to a misty notion of Athenian democracy and moral superlatives about classical antiquity. These ideas were given visual impression through monuments and architecture and they were given intellectual expression through the high-minded notions of
liberty, equality, religious freedom.
To have one’s foundation myths and tradition rooted in high-mindedness is no bad thing. It provides a sense of nobleness
to live up to. Living in a society littered with monuments and buildings that speak of greatness, nobility, of history, the present and indeed, the future, should be inspirational - they make a statement about the foundation of that society – warts and
all – and they serve as a reminder not only to what that society was but what that society aspires to be.
Every civilisation built ‘monumentally’
for precisely the same reasons. Consider the temple at Borobudur, the Kremlin or the Imperial Palace [Kōkyo]. Although these were built at different times by different people with differing values of today, they were built with a single intent in common –
to reflect the greatness of that society.
It is true that some unpleasant characters in history also constructed their ‘grand-designs’. The fact that they
themselves were unpleasant does not however necessarily diminish the intrinsic or aesthetic value of their designs. Should we, for example, pull down the pyramids just because the Pharos were slave owning swine! If we were to judge and destroy international
architecture by such a perspective the world would be much poorer indeed.
No society is perfect. Every society has its flaws, failings and dark history. No society
can honestly say that it has lived up to the expectations inherent in its mythology its fond notions of itself. Quite obviously the United States is no exception.
seemingly insuperable question of race has lurked in the subconsciousness of political America since that country’s inception as an independent political entity. For sound reasons and poor ethics, some Americans were, until 1865, quite legally a slave
owning people. Since that time, the descendants of the slaves have, with mixed success, tried to come to grips with their status as citizens. Today, there exists an inordinately large class of Americans who claim lineal descent from the slaves and who
consider themselves to be completely alienated from everything about mainstream America.
The historical failure of American society in letting this sore fester over
the decades is palpable. Trying to talk to this alienated and now heavily politicised class about America’s founding myths is, currently, pointless.
looking to the future, something every historian should do on occasion, it is readily apparent that the solution does not lie in throwing out everything that is noble and decent in American society. It will not do to pour scorn on its history, its myths and
traditions, the inestimable good it has brought to the world and the continuing potential of good it can deliver to generations hereafter.
Whilst obviously the solutions
are complex, there is a significant blight that needs excising from our societal vocabulary, being the notion of ‘Victimhood’. This modern sociological construct invites anyone to be a ‘victim’ of anything; naturally the ‘victim’
is largely absolved of responsibility and even guilt. It is a pernicious and insidious canker in Western society that eats at the very heart of human dignity, enterprise and self-confidence.
There is no doubt that Black Americans have some genuine and long-standing grievances – so did their brothers in what is now known as the West Indies. The difference being that the West Indians got on with it. Of course many
Black Americans have done likewise, overcoming manifold obstacles, real and imagined, to become successful and acculturated citizens. It might not have been easy, but they have shown that it is possible.
In the halls of academe I have no doubt that, following their fellows in the social sciences, many classicists employ reductionist argument to inculcate the notion of victimhood into their students. It makes life much easier
if you believe that your troubles are all someone else’s fault.
Ploughing through Hanink’s and Posers papers, and then perusing the internet for details
about Padilla, provided me with much desolé. Without entering into demeaning fallacy of ad hominem argumentum I consider that Padilla has fallen for the trap of projecting his own experiences and emotions into his intellectual endeavours. This
I return to my original notion of the universalism of the classics. They are stories to be read and appreciated by everyone should they
be interested. They contain lessons and language that is humorous, tragic and inspirational for all occasions and all people, as appropriate to their situation, irrespective of the colour of their skin or circumstances.
In my own field of study I read various Asian classics. I am not bothered about their ‘triumphalism’; their inherent privilege or their sexism. I read them for what they are – universal stories
of metaphysics, the universal saga of good and evil, of power and disempowerment and of course, as art and the apocalypse.
In closing, I might add that the universality
of classics challenges us to think about intellectual problems pertaining to our society. To provide an immediate and random personal example, I was reading last night Giambattista Vico’s autobiography - idiosyncratically written in the third person
- when I came across this apparent trifling:
“Then, in reading Horace’s Art [of Poetry] that the richest source of poetical suggestion is to be
found in the writings of the moral philosophers, he applied himself seriously to the ethics of the ancient Greeks, beginning with that of Aristotle, to which, as he had observed in his reading, the authorities on the various principles of the civil institutes
frequently referred. And in this study he noticed that Roman jurisprudence was an art of equity conveyed by innumerable specific precepts of natural law which the jurists had extracted from the reasons of the laws and the intentions of the legislators.”
It should be noted
that Vico was at that time deeply immersed in the study of law. His book continues to recount afore-detailed inquiries with some interesting insights into moral philosophy, the law, Plato and Aristotle. As an historian and writer on politics I frequently avail
myself of the occasion to delve into ‘the ancients’ for insights into human nature, historical precedents and, above all, for pleasure.
BODY COPY ENDS
 Jarrett Stepman writing for the Heritage Foundation’s
Daily Signal [18 February 2021]
 Vico, Giambattista.
The Autobiography. [Part A] Trnsl. Fisch & Bergin. Cornell Paperbacks. Ithaca & London. 1962. Kindle Edition.