Rachel Poser’s recent New York Times profile of Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta comes across as both glib and ominous. Referring to Padilla’s mission, the headline of the piece reads: “He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” The Herculean task Padilla has in mind is convincing other classicists to reject the privileged position given to Greece and Rome within the field. Why? Because he believes that classics as a discipline has played and continues to play an outsize role in the construction of whiteness and, thus, the perpetuation of systemic racism.
The immediate impulse of those who, like myself, are committed to helping others appreciate the beauty and profundity of the classical world is to mount a vigorous defense of Western civilization. Though such a response is commendable, it is incommensurate with the task at hand. But how does one defend Western civilization, that 2,500-year-old institution of interlocking ideas, concepts, and procedures? The mere fact that we, the citizens of the United States of America, are heirs to the immense intellectual and cultural treasures of ancient Greece and Rome creates a prima facie case that these two ancient civilizations deserve their privileged position in the West. From the codified curricula of the trivium and quadrivium to the rigors of philosophy and philosophical expression to Beethoven, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to the rule of law, democracy, the city, abolitionism, and property rights, the legacy of the classical world never ceases to amaze.
The testaments of those who have been seduced by the field’s siren song speak volumes about the power of that legacy, and might be the best way to counter Padilla’s arguments. Ironically, Padilla himself has spoken positively about his initial encounter with classical ideas. He recalls in the Times profile that as a young, poor, bookish immigrant from the Dominican Republic, in a filthy shelter in New York’s Chinatown he serendipitously found a book entitled How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome. As he began to dig deeper into the field, Poser writes, he was “overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts” and “captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic.” Absent from these recollections of his entry into the field is any trace of racial animus or bitterness. The ancient Greeks and Romans initially appealed to him not because he was a poor, black immigrant, but because he was an intellectually curious human being.
Much like Padilla’s, my own early admiration for the classical world can attest to the powerful appeal of the tradition. Unlike Padilla, however, I haven’t grown disillusioned with the field. My engagement with classical antiquity continues to affirm, for me, its civilizing values, rather than the corrosive barbarism of identity politics. As an African American, I am not an immigrant. I can trace my lineage back to slaves (and a few indentured servants) who lived in the early 18th century. I am thus living proof that the classical tradition has just as much to offer the descendant of slaves as it does those who are to the manor born. I suspect that this is part of what attracted the younger Padilla to the field: Like me, he sensed that the ancient Greeks and Romans promised a degree of cultural competence and uplift, if one could master them. Unfortunately, Padilla has since racialized that promise.
I was introduced to the classics through ancient Greek political theory. One of my professors at Colorado State University was Bill Hervey, an African American and Cornell Straussian who’d been a student of Werner Dannhauser and Allan Bloom. Political science was Hervey’s field, and he took an interest in my academic development due to my solid grades as a freshman in his Western Political Theory graduate course. He loved all things ancient Greek, especially Aristotle and Plato. The sheer mania with which he taught Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic was always accompanied by an equal amount of sophrosyne. His teaching and his love of the ancient Greeks were sights to behold. Most importantly, he taught me that the classical knowledge found mainly in the works of ancient Greek political theory was the very embodiment of a liberal-arts education. Such knowledge makes us free, he would say, by separating us from particulars of race, of class, of gender, of time and place, and of necessity. Real freedom is intellectual freedom.
This type of freedom has been completely lost on Padilla. He now calls that first experience of classical ideas, which he once found so exciting, a “sinister encounter.” All that he sees in the classical tradition today is whiteness and the oppression of black people. As Poser characterizes it, Padilla sees the tradition as inherently racist:
Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become a ‘site of contestation’ for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past.
Setting aside the silliness of postmodern tropes about the body and whiteness, surely Padilla is aware of the scholarly literature on blacks in the ancient world. Most notably, the African-American scholar Frank M. Snowden Jr. argues that classical antiquity’s familiarity with black people was through black-skinned Ethiopians. Based on the ancient evidence — literary, epigraphical, papyrological, numismatic, and archaeological — when the Greeks and Romans contrasted the physical characteristics of Ethiopians with whites, the description implied neither physical, mental, nor moral superiority or inferiority on the part of the Ethiopians. According to Snowden, the Greco-Roman world fundamentally rejected “color as a criterion for evaluating men.”
It is not clear exactly why Padilla has grown so alienated from an academic field he seems to have conquered based on his intellectual talent. What with matriculation from Collegiate Prep, Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford, one would think Padilla would be a lot more sure-footed and circumspect. One of the more shallow and fallacious claims Padilla makes in the Times piece is that classicists and the field of classics share responsibility for the Capitol riot that took place on January 6th. The fact that some of the rioters wore Greco-Roman paraphernalia — Greek helmets, T-shirts bearing Greek or Roman phrases — is enough for Padilla to admonish his fellow classicists for not recognizing that “systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself.” This guilt-by-association argument is simply absurd: Because “racists” like the classics, classics and those who study and teach them must be “racist.” It is no wonder that Padilla wants to destroy the field.
One can only conclude that Padilla’s desire to burn the field down is the product of a mindset that originated with academics at elite institutions in the 1960s, and gained momentum in the 1980s with the emergence of multiculturalism. This mindset seeks to highlight the Afroasiatic roots of the classics, and, as Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath discuss in their book, Who Killed Homer?, sees the West and its classical past as irredeemably racist, imperialistic, and sexist. Reinforced by senior classics professors who, at a minimum, view the ancient Greeks and Romans as merely two ancient cultures among many, it has gained steam to the point where the tradition’s defenders often feel as if they’re fighting a rear-guard battle. And that’s a shame, because whatever a student’s skin color or ethnic background, the classical tradition itself still has a power to challenge and change minds that the Afroasiatic alternatives can’t match — a power that once moved Padilla, and sadly no longer does.