The classics has an uncomfortable record in the history of political thought. Classical themes have been used to booster repressive governments as varied as Nazi Germany and Facist Italy, the slave oligarchies of eighteenth century Britain and America and Renaissance theocracies. Classicism has also been by opponents of such governments, from the trade union movement to Western abolition movements.
Western political writers as diverse as Machiavelli, Mill and Marx were weaned on classical history. Thinkers from all parts of the political matrix have found inspiration, justification and allusion in the history and themes of antiquity for their own pet theories.
Shelley wrote “We are all Greeks, our laws, our literature, our arts, have their roots in Greece”.
For much of the history of classicism, the elite have been the main fans, and indeed benefactors, of the prestige given to ancient ideas. In the UK, the classics continues to be the preserve of the elite through private education. It is unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, that one of the best known British advocates for classics in education is a far-right Islamophobe.
In recent years, neo-facists have used classicism to justify misogynist and racist arguments. Often employing over-literal and uncritical readings of canonical classical authors, the writings of some figures from the alt-right have offered one-dimensional depictions of ancient society. The implication always being that if the Romans did it, it must be good.
In her book, Not all dead white men, the classical scholar Donna Zuckerberg (editor of The Eidolon) has offered a much needed response to this trend. Grounded in rigorous scholarship, she counters the arguments of members of the “Red Pill” online community. A broad group of articulate fruitcakes, loonies and open racists, the red pills have been given public space in recent years. They use classicism to legitimate positions, that are frankly disgusting: rape, slavery and white power.
Right handed scissors
A major problem with using the classics for progressive politics, is that the Roman authors were a nasty group of elite men, whose views would be reprehensible to the majority of people today.
Zuckerberg writes: “there is no denying that producing feminist readings and uses of the Classics can be a bit like trying to use a normal pair of scissors when you are left handed: they were designed with someone else in mind”.
Some texts of classical literature are what could be called normative texts. Laws, philosophies and even letters seek to counter particular trends in society. Texts outlining male control of women could be evidence that some women could exert a certain power or autonomy within given societies. The most famous examples of this might be from the letters of Paul found in the New Testament.
Other texts, such as satiric poetry, expresses ideas outré even to the Romans. Zuckerberg examines in length the “love poetry” of Ovid, which has bee used by some figures on the alt-right as justification for misogyny and even rape. As Zuckerberg points out in accessible detail, Ovid’s poetry was as much lampooning Roman social mores and the Lex Julia, Augustus’ moral laws which included the punishment of adultery with banishment.
Yet crucially as Zuckerberg writes “Treating the premise of this poem as fundamentally playful or subversive […] becomes irresponsible when there is a community using it today to normalize an attitude toward consent that would not be out of place in ancient Rome”.
Stale, pale, male and frail?
Classical literature is just one aspect of the evidence for ancient history. Archaeological, papyrological and epigraphic all offer qualifying information on normative texts. Such evidence brings alive ancient history in a vivid and human way that challenges our readings of ancient society. Indeed this challenge is of interest to the alt right who rally interested people by claiming that classical culture is in danger. Yet ancient culture was always more multicultural than supposed. For a patriarchy it is interesting that female goddesses such as the Mater Magna and the Egyptian Isis had increasingly important roles.
The Classics are presented as men above the emotionalism and ephemera of present day concerns . This is trend is clearest, in the alt-right co-option of stoicism. Bloggers such as Ryan Holiday have used stoicism to universalise social conditions such as institutionalised inequalities which continue to privilege white men. It is a way to negate arguments about institutional racism, without even responding to them. Disadvantage is universal to the human condition, after all.
Such writers, as Holiday, argue that women and people of colour show over emotionalism, even in the face of sexist and racist aggression compared to the responses of stoic and rational (white) men who can rationalise their own experiences of disadvantage (but not discrimination). It would be laughable if not so pervasive.
Zuckerberg writes “The Red Pill community reads ancient Stoic texts in large part to perpetuate their belief that they alone are rational enough to understand the world unemotionally, and therefore they should be in charge”.
This is a complete joke when the social structures of many democracies do not just privilege men but perpetuate violence against non-elite people, especially people of colour and women.
It is also perhaps a travesty of Stoicism, which can offer understanding and resilience, an ability to mindfully understand emotional responses to external events with out negating either the emotions themselves or the social import behind them.
Not all stoics perhaps, but it is still key to read all ancient texts in the context of ancient societies which were places of institutionalised inequality and oppression, and in the context of today with continuing micro-aggressions.
Not all dead white men is a very important book. Although at times it can feel like it gives too much space to reprehensible figures, rather than legitimating their views it brings them to light, making it easier to counter them. These views have developed over the years, half out of sight and half visible. Zuckerberg has pulled out the proverbial oven and is cleaning the bilge.
Today we witness a challenge against engrained privilege in progressive and democratic movements as diverse as Black Lives matter, decolonisation and #MeToo, but also the rise of far right and “red pill” terrorism. Voices like Zuckerberg’s are key to challenging this latter trend and supporting the development of societies which are open, inclusive and equal.
An important book to read.