One of our own at the U of C defends the classics

February 19, 2021 • 1:00 pm

I have mixed feelings about this op-ed in the Washington Post by one of my renowned University of Chicago colleagues, Dr. Shadi Bartsch, the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics. The article’s title, for one thing, is a bit confusing.  For isn’t it the far Left who is demanding the ditching of the classics, not the far Right? But what Bartsch means is that she won’t allow the far Right to appropriate the classics in the service of white supremacy.

But’s that’s just a quibble that’s quickly resolved when you read her piece. What my issue is with a generally good op-ed is her claim that any text can be read in any way that’s amenable to both the present times and one’s political ideology. In other words, “timeless” texts like the classics can be so malleable that they can be used to teach almost any lesson you want to impart. Click on the screenshot to read:

She first describes how the texts have been appropriated by the far Right, and then asks the rhetorical question: isn’t the Left correct in arguing that, given their appropriation by white supremacists, the classics should no longer be taught?

The alt-right has no compunction about appropriating antiquity for its own ends — as can be seen images from the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion, as some rioters wore Greek helmets and carried flags with the phrase “molon labe” (“come and get our weapons”). This distorted reference to the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. reflects the supremacist belief that the Spartans saved “the white race” from barbarians.

I don’t want to throw up my hands and yield ancient history and ancient literature to this group.

Yes, historically, many of these texts have been used to justify and support ideologies and actions we condemn today, from defending slavery to suggesting women are lesser creatures than men. Wouldn’t it be better for us to use texts without tainted legacies and not risk seeming to condone the stories’ content or the history of how the texts were used?

Of course most of us would say “No! We must keep teaching the classics!” Although I’m not an expert on classics, many readers here are, and when we discussed this recently in light of a New York Times article highlighting the classics-dissing of Princeton Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, many of you made eloquent arguments why Padilla’s desire to dismantle the field was deeply misguided.  Most important, the claims of the Right that they “own” or can use the classics to buttress white supremacy is bogus. The ancient Greeks and Romans apparently had no concept of “white supremacy”. What they did have a concept of was Greek or Roman supremacy: a form of xenophobia that made their own societies superior to all others, white or not. Roman and Greek slaves were not all people of color; they were mainly people of all colors drawn from those whom these societies had conquered. And we should realize that and teach that. We might not be able to buttress white supremacy with the classics, but we can buttress xenophobia!

Further, as several people pointed out, you can teach the lessons of the classics that are in the classica and redound through the ages—and there are many of these lessons from both philosophy and literature. (Not all literature is sufficiently opaque or ambiguous that you can’t discern its meaning!)

This bleeds into the third reason: Western civilization and the idea of democracy are steeped in classical ideas, and for no reason alone beside history, their study should be retained.

That, of course, demands that we read the classics in a certain way: the way that, we think, the authors intended them to be read. Yes, they’re not all peaches and cream, and we don’t have a perfect idea of “intention”, but you can well apply criticial studies to these texts and trace their legacies over the past two millennia.

Bartsch, however, has a different idea: don’t worry about intention—the basis of “critical studies” or “close reading”, not imposing external ideologies on literature, that transformed English-lit in a salubrious way—but simply try to read the texts in a way amenable to your own times and values.

Her take:

Wouldn’t it be better for us to use texts without tainted legacies and not risk seeming to condone the stories’ content or the history of how the texts were used?

That approach ignores a basic fact: Times change, and so does the way we read. In antiquity, Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” an epic poem written in 19 B.C. about the foundation of Rome, was understood as praise of the emperor Augustus. In the Middle Ages, readers took it to be an allegory of the life of the Christian everyman. In the 20th century, Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini put it to use as a foundational text for the third Roman Empire. During the Vietnam War, the poem was interpreted by antiwar readers as a manifesto against imperialism and warmongering

Today, the poem can be read as offensive. A Trojan, Aeneas, claiming to be on a divine mission, attacks the native peoples of Italy and wins, eventually leading to the growth of the Roman Empire. What’s here if not a celebration of the West’s hegemonic history?

But a middle path is available between avoiding such works entirely and endorsing a racist and sexist set of values: namely, interpretation. When I read “The Aeneid,” I don’t see an endorsement of colonization. I find in it what I am primed to find as a politically liberal Westerner in the 21st century. I find problems with its “heroic” protagonist and his search for a homeland: Aeneas causes carnage in his “divine” quest to become king; he even sacrifices people alive. I read the poem as a warning about the power of propaganda to veil the abuse of power.

Not supremacy, timeless lessons.

. . . .Does it matter what the “right” meaning is? No, because literature doesn’t do things by itself. We make meaning with a text, we don’t simply absorb it or somehow get stained by it.

That is why, in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Brazilian educator Paulo Freire half a century ago suggested that marginalized peoples should reinterpret the same texts that their oppressors use and transform them in their own service. Disconnecting the classics from elite education is entirely possible today: These texts are available in translation to basically anyone with access to the Internet or a library.

What we need to do is “take back the classics.” For millennia, they have been read differently by different cultures. There is no reason they cannot withstand the test of our time, too. We can save the classics, as long as we believe the sins of the father should not be visited upon the sons and daughters.

I think that this is a perilous path to take. Of course different critics will have different interpretations, and yes, you can have a Marxist or a feminist or a Freudian interpretation of Anna Karenina or The Plague, but what does that teach you? It teaches you to stuff everything you read into the Procrustean bed of OUR culture and OUR ideology; in this case, left-wing liberal politics. It lets you see your ideas confirmed over and over again: it is the very embodiment of confirmation bias. And it gives you the misleading impression that all literature was actually written expressing a (sometimes unconscious) ideology.

Finally, if you read some texts trying to “make your own meaning”, you will miss the very meaning the author intended to instill.  If you were, say, a white supremacist making your own meaning from literature, you’d have a hard time turning  Soul on Ice or the first part of The First Next Time into texts supporting white supremacy. “Making your own meaning” covers a multitude of sins, and while it’s interesting to transform ancient works of art into ones seen though a modern filter, like the many “revised” stage versions of Shakespeare, those involve adding your own art to that of the artist’s. There’s no problem with that, of course; the problem is with pretending that that’s what the artist intended.

And with the Greek and Roman classics, if you insist on ignoring the nasty bits, and want to draw a straight line between Plato and Ibram Kendi, you’re going to miss a lot. By all means, take from literature the things you find amenable or consoling or edifying, but I do object to taking out of a work the very same things you put into it.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

46 thoughts on “One of our own at the U of C defends the classics

  1. If more people read about Augustus and his entourage of propagandist poets (like Virgil), Donald Trump would be less surprising…however Augustus, I like to think, is no Donald Trump because he was actually intelligent, albeit privileged and set up by his adoptive dad, Caesar.

    To stir it up, I should find some good Persian outfits to wear to these demonstrations. Go all Darius on all those white supremacist asses whose only connection to the Classics comes, not from Herodotus, but from cheesy Hollywood movies.

  2. I think the poster child for an ancient book being continually reinterpreted to suit evolving political and ethical conditions, sometimes with deleterious effect, has to be the Bible.

    1. On BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz this evening Andy Salzman just said (apropos of online reviews):

      It does slightly make you wonder what on Earth the first reviews of the Bible were like – because that has shifted some units over the years; both the blockbuster original and, if I may say this as a second generation lapsed Jew, the unnecessary sequel.

  3. I don’t see the far right claiming the classics to support their ideology. I see the woke left rejecting the classics based solely on the race and gender of their authors. The latter is what must be resisted.

        1. They don’t have to read. They just watch 300 and the Troy (where Brad Pitt was a decidedly not gay Achilles) and go from there.

    1. > I don’t see the far right claiming the classics to support their ideology.

      Suppose they do. Why should I care? They have no influence in academia.

      If you are concerned about questionable interpretations of the classics, scrutinize movies and video games. After all, these are the main sources for the general public.

  4. While we are on the subject of Hollywood cheese, we cannot forget the priceless 1956 epic “The Conqueror” with John Wayne as Genghis Khan and Susan Hayward as his love interest, the Tartar
    princess Bortai. It is ranked as one of the worst films ever made, and won Mr. Wayne a Golden Turkey award for his preposterous starring role, wearing, in its sole bit authenticity, a droopy mustache. If “The
    Conqueror” were not so hilarious, it might be criticized as a vehicle for Mongolian Supremacy. Except, of course, that the wokesters have no sense of humor, and Mongol Supremacy, being non-white (except in the estimation of certain school boards), is presumably OK.

  5. Bartsch, however, has a different idea: don’t worry about intention—the basis of “critical studies” or “close reading”, not imposing external ideologies on literature, that transformed English-lit in a salubrious way—but simply try to read the texts in a way amenable to your own times and values.

    Seems to me, Prof. Bartsch’s approach comports most closely to the so-called “reader response” theory of criticism — a transitional phase of sorts between “close reading” and deconstructionism (or between structuralism and post-structuralism, if you prefer).

    Anyway, it’s a good, thoughtful piece.

    1. Good, thoughtful, and right. If we as readers give the original intention of the authors short shrift, that’s their problem, not ours. Unless we are reading it specifically as history, of course.

  6. Most of Roman culture was stolen from the Greeks, who in turn assimilated g*ds and ideas from other places. Some of those things have stood the test of time, 2,500 years on. Others haven’t. There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater; and even the ideas and attitudes that are regarded as “problematic” now can be informative. After all, the inversion of the concept of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is what gives Wilfred Owen’s poem its power.

    Of course the Classics are open to reinterpretation – you can read Achilles as a gay hero, if you should choose to. And the Greeks were admirably frank in acknowledging the flaws in both their heroes and their gods.

    1. I wouldn’t say Roman culture was stolen from the Greeks. Perhaps some engineering which to Romans took to new levels. But the Romans saw the Greeks as decadent and had a live-hate relationship with Greek culture. On the one hand an educated Roman always knew his Greek and may have even had Greek slave tutors (really whites had slaves of whites you say?!) but they also saw them as a bit on the decadent side and figured they’d all lose it if they acted like them. It was complicated. Some emperors did enjoy those Greek beards though.

  7. I look forward to Ms Bartsch’s re-reading of that timeless classic, Winnie the Pooh. It would be unfortunate if The Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews, a white male, remained the definitive interpretation of such an influential book in the Western canon.

  8. Roman and Greek slaves were not all people of color; they were mainly people of all colors drawn from those whom these societies had conquered. And we should realize that and teach that.

    Wellll….the Spartans took whole Greek towns as slaves. That’s why they trained all of their citizen men as soldiers – they needed all hands on deck to put down the continuous slave rebellions they faced amongst their Greek slaves.

    Finally, if you read some texts trying to “make your own meaning”, you will miss the very meaning the author intended to instill.

    I’m not sure why you can’t teach or learn both. IMO the hardest thing about many of the classic works is getting by the language differences. Once you do that, have your conversation with classmates or book club about what the author meant and what you see in it.

  9. I don’t get the “Molon labe” thing. Because what happened next is that the Persians did come and take their weapons and killed everybody who hadn’t retreated. Thermopylae was a disastrous defeat for the Greeks

    1. > I don’t get the “Molon labe” thing.

      It was a PR coup to turn a disaster into an inspirational example of defying the odds in defense of one’s country. Ancient Athenian writers could be critical of Sparta’s performance at Thermopylae, but much of the Greek world seems to have accepted Sparta’s newly-made reputation as an effectively invincible polis.

    2. At Thermopylae, the Spartans and some of the allied Greeks were annihilated; the rest of the Greeks withdrew. The Persians were defeated by the allied Greek navies at Salamis the next month, and then the following spring, at Plataea, the allied Greek army, with a large Spartan contingent present, defeated the Persians decisively.

      A traditional interpretation of the action of the Spartans at Thermopylae is that it delayed the Persians a bit, allowed most of the Greek force to withdraw, and had great moral effect in boosting the morale and resolve of the Greeks. One could argue, counterfactually, that much the same effect could have been achieved by withdrawing the whole Greek army, without the sacrifice of the rearguard. One could also argue that the moral effects were retrospectively invented. Moral suasion, shaming, and appeals to honor, were, however, key elements in the complex politics of the Greek city states; Athens used these to insure the Spartans were committed to the spring campaign of 479 BC.

      It would be very hard to argue that Thermopylae was a disastrous defeat for the Greeks. Given the sequelae of the battle, it was, at worst, a containable defeat before the tide of the war changed; at most, it was a delaying action and moral victory that enabled and inspired the later Greek victories. (Even to this day, there are units in the Greek and American armies that have the phrase “molon labe” in their unit insignia.) The results of a battle are not determined merely by body counts, or by who holds the field at the end of the day.


  10. The film Go Tell the Spartans was praised for its anti-Vietnam War stance:

    In sure, swift strokes,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the Saturday Review, “it shows the irrelevance of the American presence in Vietnam, the corruption wrought by that irrelevance, and the fortuity, cruelty, and waste of an irrelevant war.” Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic found it “… the best film I’ve seen about the Vietnam War.” Roger Grooms, in the Cincinnati Enquirer, judged it to be “… one of the noblest films, ever, about men in crisis.”

    Of course, it draws its title and theme from classicism…

    1. US audiences could’ve gotten there quicker by giving a close reading to Mr. Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American.

      1. When it comes to novels about that conflict I guess it has to at the top of the Pyle… (My apologies in advance.)

  11. A typo?
    RE “you’d have a hard time turning Soul on Ice or the first part of The First Next Time into texts supporting white supremacy”
    Do you mean James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time?

    1. Technically, The Fire Next Time was a collection of two essays written in the form of letters — the first from Baldwin to his nephew (which I take it our host is referring to above), the second labeled “a Letter from a Region of My Mind.”

  12. When I saw the title of the op-ed, I thought that it would be about how we would be surrendering the classics to the far Right if we start condemning them in totality and rallying against teaching them based on the claim that they’re all just a bunch of “white supremacy.” You know, the way the Woke are slowly causing the surrender of values like free speech to the Right. I’d rather not end up with the Right being the last place for people who support values like free speech and teaching the classics, but that’s what will happen if the Woke get their way.

  13. “reflects the supremacist belief that the Spartans saved “the white race” from barbarians.”
    I guess that comes from the requirement that anything conservatives do be framed as White supremacy. I know a bunch of folks who like the slogan, and I have never heard it framed in racist terms. It was fairly common among military folks of all races, and also among Texans, as it also relates to the battle of Gonzales.
    I can’t see how ancient Persians vs ancient Athenians is a particularly racial conflict. Even the Battle of Gonzales was largely people of Spanish heritage fighting people of English heritage. I would wager that most people, presented with unlabeled images of the leaders of each side, would pick Francisco de Castañeda as the Anglo.

    I have heard that Leonidas may have saved “Western” civilization with his sacrifice. That is not the same as “the White race” at all.

    To me, the biggest issue with labeling all those people as racists and supremacists is that few actually are. So when someone who is absolutely not a racist finds themselves labeled as one, they are likely to assume that the folks making those accusations are probably lying about everything else as well. It kills the possibility for dialog. Also, left and right seem to be pretty much meaningless terms these days anyways. Certainly not so fixed to a certain set of beliefs that one can confidently label one “the bad guys”. As for myself, I tend to oppose any group that has the means and desire to be the censors and book burners.

    1. Yeah, all of her claims about how these texts have supposedly been used seem like stretching at best. Oh, wow, a few people at the riot on Capitol Hill made references to the Greeks? Who gives a shit? (well, people like the author, obviously) It’s like the people who claimed we needed to ban The Catcher in the Rye because of Mark David Chapman. There will always be some people who use anything within reach to justify their ideologies, and there will always be moral busybodies ready to pounce on anything and everything they can.

      But I feel like this has become a common theme, especially over the last four or five years: the mainstream media/academia takes something insignificant and runs with it because, well, why not? It’s just more grist for the mill, and, even better, it can be replaced with the things they want us to be reading, watching, and listening to. It feels like political positions, pieces of pop culture, and other things that I’ve liked over the years have become “Right-coded” seemingly overnight at various times in the last few years, and it seems like it’s the result of a constant need by media, academics, and activists for more things to “expose” or “analyze through a [x] lens” or protest.

      1. She is probably disingenuous here and doesn’t really give a shit herself. She (and the classics) are on the defensive, and all that hand-wringing about white supremacists using the classics is to ward off accusations by the woke that she ignores the “problem” of the supposed “whiteness” of the classics or that she is infected by white supremacy herself if she teaches classics.
        Traditional positivist scholars in the humanities learned not to say what they really think when the postmodern “theory” zeitgeist took over. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t mostly left academia long ago.

    2. > I guess that comes from the requirement that anything conservatives do be framed as White supremacy.

      To some American academics, it is apparently inconceivable that the US history of whites oppressing blacks isn’t all you need to know. So they assume that white supremacy was very important to Ancient Greeks fighting Persians or medieval Europeans fighting Muslims.

      1. I get the impression that they imagine a world where some particular categories of people not only hold various prejudices, but actively seek out others for the sole purpose of oppressing them. Not even as an incidental activity, but as something that they devote large amounts of time to.

        My wife’s family had a history with the Comanches. Her Grandmother related stories that she heard as a child, from elders who lived the stories. They shared real hate for that tribe, but it was not primarily because of irrational prejudices, it was a literal and justified fear that they could be raided, which came with the expectation that those not killed outright would be tortured gruesomely to death, or become slaves. If they had been subject to similar threats from the Norse or whatever, they would have hated them just as intensely. We certainly see them from a different perspective now, to the point of lending most of our sympathy to the Comanche. Such views are a luxury not afforded to those who lived in that time and place.

        As far as the ancients are concerned, I know the Athenians are alleged to represent Whiteness, but I don’t know if they were more or less White than the Persians of the period.Perhaps the Scythians or Sarmations might be a better fit for that title. I suspect none of those groups would be easy to put into modern leftist racial classifications.
        Certainly if the ancients were fixated on such issues, they might have left plenty of evidence of that in their art and literature.

        1. The rioters wouldn’t believe this, but the Persians were Aryan; “Iran” means “Land of the Aryans.” There seems to be an assumption among some people that because the Persians lived in Asia, they were “Asian” in the racial sense. It’s like assuming that because Cleopatra lived in Africa, then she must have been Black.

          1. I’d assume the rioters know that. Certainly the alt right’s intellectual enablers do. Bartsch’s interpretation of how the ultraright interpretes molon labe and why they used it is not necessarily correct. Maybe what the wanted to say was: We won’t surrender the presidency without a fight.

      2. Ironically they are practicing “ethnocentrism” on presuming all cultures are like the American one and all people are like Americans.

  14. It’s worth noting that slaves in Rose included indentured slaves. You could sell yourself into slavery and that had nothing to do with white supremacy.

  15. I appear to remember that the word ‘slave’ itself would be from the Slavs or Slavonic people (‘white’ tribes), although more recent research apparently contradicts that notion. It is possible they are just homonyms.
    There is no doubt, however, that the Greeks and Romans had slaves from more northerly regions.

  16. It should be mentioned that in Wokespeak the phrase “white supremacy” isn’t used in its ordinary narrow sense; that is, it isn’t used therein to refer to fascist or national-socialist ideology (only), but to white (European, Western) culture in general and as a whole, which is regarded by the Woke as systemically supremacist (and must hence be “deconstructed” as a whole, according to them).

    “White power and privilege is termed White supremacy. When we use the term White supremacy, we do not mean it in its lay usage to indicate extreme hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or the dozens of others like it. Rather, we use the term to capture the pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of White privilege, dominance, and assumed superiority.”

    (Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press, 2017. pp. 161-2)

    [The book is a very good introduction to Wokethink.]

  17. As noted already by many, the self regard of the Greeks and Romans is a form of ethnocentrism, not racism, as virtually all the nations, tribes, empires, and peoples they encountered were “white”. It is worth noting that the Romans, although quite taken with themselves, were also very appreciative of the Greeks and their accomplishments; educated Romans knew Greek, and often wrote in it, rather than in Latin. This of course did not prevent the Romans from conquering the Greek lands– in fact, it might have motivated it– nor from taking Greeks as slaves. (Roman slavery, though, was different, practically and legally, from the much later New World chattel slavery; in Rome, there was a pathway for (some) slaves to become respectable, free, members of society, and for their descendants to become citizens.)


Leave a Reply