War Against the Classics
In their attacks on the canon of dead white males, today’s social justice activists pick on a critical tradition pioneered by dead white males.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the study of Greek and Roman classics has been a particular casualty of the past decade’s furious culture wars. Recently, for example, we’ve witnessed everything from an editorial in Inside Higher Ed defending Socrates’ death sentence to the YA author of a “sapphic retelling of The Odyssey” admitting she never read the original poem in its entirety. More gravely, curricular changes have been considered or implemented, expelling Homer, Virgil, and other classical authors from syllabi, whether in American high schools or Oxford University’s Classics department.
Like many apparent novelties introduced by today’s social justice movement, however, attacking the classics is a long tradition pursued by writers and thinkers who are themselves luminaries of the Western canon. It’s a tradition that extends back to well before even the last round of culture wars in the late 20th century, which saw the publication of paradigm-shattering books like Edward Said’s Orientalism (which traced the East-West divide back to the Iliad), Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (which claimed that Greek civilization derived from African and Semitic sources), and I. F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (which emphasized that the Athenian philosopher was tried and sentenced to death essentially for opposing democracy).
For one thing, there has long been a tension between the worldview of Greek and Roman writers like Homer, Plato, Ovid, and Aurelius and the values enshrined in the Jewish and Christian testaments—hence the fundamental distinction many thinkers have made between Athens and Jerusalem or Hellenism and Hebraism. The classics celebrate worldly heroism, submission to the impersonal and amoral force of fate, a plurality of gods, and reason’s power to access metaphysical truth. The singular God of the Bible, by contrast, condemns rival deities, communicates through revelation, and commands humility and personal morality, not the warrior’s triumph or the philosopher’s insight. The Christian canon’s most memorable rebuke of the classical mentality comes when Dante places the classical Ulysses in Hell for his questing hubris and immoderate desire, later championed by Tennyson in an era of imperial expansion, to “sail beyond the sunset.”
Modern authors have often pursued a more secular version of the same argument: that classics promote a dangerous amorality, one incongruous with emerging democratic thought. According to Ian Watt’s pioneering study The Rise of the Novel, Puritan writers Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, middle-class men who lacked the aristocrat’s classical education, both rejected the epic as a backward, barbarous survival of violent and undemocratic ages. Instead of writing to a Homeric or Virgilian heroic model, they wrote what they saw and felt, inventing the realistic modern novel in the process.
Likewise, among the Romantic poets, William Blake exclaims in a note “On Homer’s Poetry,” “The Classics! It is the Classics, and not Goths nor Monks, that desolate Europe with wars.” With his idiosyncratic and visionary faith, Blake renews the Christian charge against the classics’ seemingly nihilistic celebration of the warrior’s triumph—a very un-Christ-like ethos. He also hints at a political motive when he defends his ancestors, Northern Europe’s indigenous peoples, the Goths, deprecated as warlike barbarians by Greco-Roman colonizers. The claim, Blake implies, is pure projection.
Blake’s charge is a prologue to the 20th century’s revision of the classical legacy. Some writers adopted and revised the classics with subversive intent, undermining them from within. James Joyce recast Homer’s violent Odyssey in Ulysses as a pacifist and anti-imperialist lower-middle-class domestic epic, the story not of a 20-year journey but of an ordinary 24 hours. Joyce’s Ulysses slaughters his wife’s suitors only by driving them from her mind with his superior kindness and sensitivity.
But other writers—especially literary critics and theorists—reprise Blake’s and even Dante’s anti-classic censures more forthrightly. In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, perhaps the discipline of comparative literature’s founding book, Erich Auerbach famously contrasts The Odyssey unfavorably with the Hebrew Bible. Homer’s world is one of aristocratic stasis and paradoxically mystifying clarity; neither its characters nor its world are capable of psychological depth or historical change. The obscurity of Genesis’s narrative, on the other hand, demands readerly participation. It hints through its very narrative opacity at psychological inwardness and social dynamics: Its people live out dramatic upheavals as individuals and as a collective. Similarly, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer judge The Odyssey to be the origin of the West’s imperial domination: a story about the supposedly enlightened male’s entitlement to master nature, natives, and women.
Just as Blake defends the tribes of Northern Europe against Greco-Roman calumny, Auerbach, Adorno, and Horkheimer—all of them exiled as Jews from Hitler’s Germany—demote Homer as a way of rebuking German nationalism, which saw itself and its own supposed martial greatness as the heir of “Aryan” Greece. In lieu of classical models, they write in defense of Jewish traditions from Genesis to the critical theory anticipated by Marx and Freud.
The critics of the classics, then, from Dante to Auerbach, are a more serious company than their heirs among today’s social media activists might suggest, and the points they raise—against amoralism and aristocracy, martial triumphalism and cultural supremacism—aren’t easily dismissed.
How can this challenge be answered without capitulating to the often mindless iconoclasm of today’s culture war? The South African novelist and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee provides the best answer in his essay “What Is a Classic?”
The classic defines itself by surviving. Therefore the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed. For as long as the classic needs to be protected from attack, it can never prove itself classic.
But we have to read the classics to question them, to be aware of how their survival has shaped our world, and to deliberate the ethical and aesthetic questions such a riven tradition puts to us. Dropping them from the curriculum is not an option.