Should we destroy the classics to save them from whiteness?

[image: reproduction of a Trojan archer sculpture, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; this is essay #271 in my Patreon/Medium series]

A friend of mine the other day asked me if I had read an article in the New York Times talking about Prof. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, of Princeton University, and his crusade to save the Greco-Roman classics from their (alleged) whiteness. I looked, and my first thought was “this is far too long, is it really going to be worth my time?” You see, one of the classic authors in question, Seneca, always reminds me that time is by far the most precious commodity we have:

In the end, I decided to read the article, which turned out to be both fascinating and more than a bit irritating. And now here I am, sharing my thoughts with you so that I can convince Seneca that I haven’t entirely wasted my time.

Padilla has had a remarkable life, which the author of the article, Harper’s Magazine deputy editor Rachel Poser, covers in some detail. Born in the Dominican Republic, he was brought to the United States by his parents when he was four. The family had a hard time legalizing its situation, and his father went back to the Dominican Republic, leaving Padilla’s mother to fend for herself with two young boys in New York City. They changed various apartments and eventually ended up in a stinky homeless shelter in Chinatown.

Padilla’s life changed one day when he found a small book in the shelter’s small library. It was entitled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome.” The boy took the book and never returned it to the library. It had a major impact on his life. Some time later he met a photographer named Jeff Cowen, who recognize something extraordinary in the then 9-year old Padilla and helped him apply to Collegiate, one of New York’s elite prep schools, where he was admitted with a full scholarship. He started to study Greek and Latin and felt, as Poser puts it, overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts.

After that, Padilla went from one ivy educational institution to another: full scholarship as an undergraduate student at Princeton, Master’s degree at Oxford, doctorate from Stanford. And finally back to Princeton as professor, specializing in Roman history.

But Padilla is bent on a mission to destroy the entire idea of the classics because, he says, they are inextricably steeped in whiteness. He thinks that the classics have helped spread racism throughout higher education, and that they have been instrumental in the very invention of whiteness and its domination of other cultures. He is quoted in the article as saying that “if one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color, one could not do better than what classics has done.”

The entire discipline, according to Padilla, simply does not deserve a future, being “equal parts vampire and cannibal.” At a conference at the Society for Classical Studies in 2019 he said: “I want nothing to do with [the classics]. I hope the field dies … and that it dies as swiftly as possible.” A couple of years earlier he had published a paper in Classical Antiquity where he compared ancient Roman slavery to the cross-Atlantic slave trade of the American colonies. He decided that he had to “actively engage in the decolonization” of his mind, which is one reason he turned to Afro-pessimism and psychoanalysis (at least some versions of which are pseudoscience).

Padilla is disturbed by the co-option of the Greco-Roman classics by modern ultraconservatives. For instance, during the Capitol riots of January 6th, he saw a man sporting an ancient Greek helmet on which it was written “Trump 2020,” another one with a t-shirt emblazoned with the Roman eagle and fasces that also said “6MWE” (6 Millions Wasn’t Enough, an obvious nasty reference to the Holocaust), not to mentioned flags with the Greek motto “Molon labe,” meaning “Come and taken them,” which is the phrase that was allegedly uttered by the Spartan king Leonidas when the Persian king ordered him to lay down arms.

Padilla could reasonably be charged with hypocrisy, railing against the classics and whiteness while holding a nice professorial position at Princeton, a very white institution with a notorious history of early implications with slavery. And if he truly doesn’t want anything to do with his own discipline one would think the solution is simple: stop working in it.

But that would be too quick, and partially missing the point. It is certainly the case that Greco-Romanity has been repeatedly co-opted by fascists of all sorts, beginning with the original one: Benito Mussolini. “Fascism” got its name precisely from the Roman fasces, which were a bundle of wooden rods, sometimes marked by the emerging blade of an axe, that symbolized the power of Roman magistrates. Though even there the story is actually more complicated, as the fasces originated with the Etruscans and the axe came from Crete, both thus predating the Romans.

A moment’s reflection, however, should make clear that just because X is used for ill purposes by one group or another it doesn’t mean that X itself should be thrown away. For instance, the principles of genetics where co-opted by the American (and subsequently Nazi) eugenic movement. While we are certainly morally obligated to fight eugenics, it would be bizarre to suggest that we should do away with genetics as a scientific discipline. Moreover, Padilla doesn’t seem bothered by his mother’s embracing of Catholicism, despite the fact that the Christian religion has been a far more direct engine of oppression and colonization than the classics.

Padilla really ought to know better, given that his specialty is history. The “white” version of Greco-Romanity is a recent invention, dating from the Enlightenment and the successive period of colonialism (which, incidentally, is not a phenomenon limited to “the west”). Not at all coincidentally, that was also the period during which the modern concept of race — alien to the ancient Greco-Romans way of thinking — developed, as a result of so-called scientific racism (which is actually not scientific at all). Of course, xenophobia and distrust of the foreign have always existed, but they have also never being confined to the Mediterranean area.

As for slavery, which rightly takes up centerstage in Padilla’s thought, it certainly was widespread in the ancient world (though, again, not just the Greco-Romans, think Egypt, for instance). And as far as I know nobody — and certainly no classicist — denies that. But even there, the situation is more complicated than it may at first appear. The Greeks and the Romans themselves often ended up being enslaved by other people, because slavery was a common destiny for those defeated in battle. That’s why Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius:

None of the above makes ancient slavery or xenophobia acceptable, and even less laudable. But it means that to draw direct parallels with modern racism and the early modern slave trade is either disingenuous or misguided.

The ancients were also clearly sexists, another thing we don’t want to imitate from them. Not surprisingly, though, there too things are not quite so simple. For instance, while in Athens women had essentially no rights, they were highly respected and strongly influential in Spartan society. While they were property of the head of the household (the pater familias) during the Roman Republic, they acquired the right to own and inherit property during the Empire. And some ancient writers were remarkably forward looking in that respect as well. Addressing his friend Marcia, who had lost an adult son, Seneca writes:

That is why historian Mary Beard, commenting on Padilla, has remarked: “To ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration. My line has always been that the duty of the academic is to make things seem more complicated.”

Indeed. Because things often truly are more complicated. Poser, to her credit, mentions a number of other scholars who have a more nuanced take than Padilla’s on the classics. For instance, Denis Feeney, a colleague of Padilla at Princeton, remarked that the classics have actually just as often been used in the pursuit of radical and disruptive causes by civil rights movements the world over — including by African-Americans, Irish Republicans, and Haitian revolutionaries. Nelson Mandela was inspired to le go of his anger and adopt an attitude of outreach and cooperation by Marcus Aurelius. Similarly, the heroines of so many Greek tragedies have inspired feminists like Simone de Beauvoir to challenge the patriarchy. The poems of Sappho have consoled gay writers like Oscar Wild. Pericles’ Funeral Oration is an hymn to democracy, yet another idea we got from the ancients, together with the Socratic notion of free inquiry.

The reality is that the classics — like history more broadly — are valuable precisely because different ages and people read different things into them. If one focuses on the worst parts, then one gets Mussolini and the 2021 Capitol rioters. If one focuses on the best parts, then one becomes inspired by some of the great minds of humanity’s past.

Unfortunately, and for a variety of socio-political reasons, we live in an age where nuance seems (temporarily, one hopes!) lost, where simplistic cries of “away with them all!” are commonly uttered and mindlessly endorsed. The reality is that there have never been unqualifiedly bad or good cultures, anywhere, at any time. Human beings are too complex for that to be the case. So by all means let us critically analyze our history — not just western, but of any people and places — with an eye toward learning from our forerunners’ mistakes and another eye toward celebrating and building on their achievements.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store