Saving the Classics from Blindness

McCosh 50, the largest lecture hall on Princeton campus. Photograph Source: David Keddie – CC BY-SA 4.0

Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a classics professor at Princeton, was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “He Wants to Save the Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” Padilla, according to the article, believes classics, as an academic discipline, “has been instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination.” I won’t argue with that. I don’t know enough about classics as an academic discipline. I do know something about academic disciplines more generally, though, and I have to say that, in my experience, most are characterized by at least unconscious, if not conscious, racism.

The racism at the foundation of this country is no longer in dispute. And if the country is based on racist oppression, that attitude is going to characterize its institutions as well, not least of those institutions being colleges and universities. Higher education has traditionally been the privilege of the social and economic elite. It wasn’t simply that most people couldn’t afford to pay tuition. Most people couldn’t afford not to be actively earning money. Most people had to work. 

The exception, of course, was hereditary aristocrats, the social and economic elite, nearly all of whom, if not actually all, were white. They had the time and money to go to college. So with a very few exceptions, they were the only people who did. Since they were the only people who got advanced degrees, they were the only people who got teaching positions at universities. The system of academic privilege perpetuated itself, generation after generation. Things changed somewhat after WWII, when the GI Bill made it possible for veterans of all social classes to go to college. Even then, though, few of those who benefitted from the GI Bill could afford to continue their education beyond the undergraduate level. So academic privilege continued to be reserved for whites, and primarily white men. 

When you think of a college professor, what image comes to your mind? A middle-aged white guy, right? A man in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. That isn’t simply the image that comes to mind for the person on the street when they think of a college professor. It’s the image that most academics have of themselves. It’s the image in the minds of individuals on academic hiring committees, independently of whether they’re conscious of it. 

When you think of a swan, you think of a white swan, right? Because white swans are what you mostly see. You may know that there are black swans, but they are not part of the world of your experience, so when you think of swans, you think of white swans. That’s the way it is with academics. The people they mostly see, the people they mostly work with every day, are white men. So when they think about whom they want to hire to replace a retired colleague, or to fill a new curricular need, they can’t help but imagine a white man. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a black scholar characterized as “good, too.” Hiring committees will go through their pool of applicants with the aim of producing a short list, or look at their short lists with the aim of making a job offer and they will look at a minority candidate and will nod approval. Yes, that person is “good, too,” meaning that they’re already out of the running. 

Once, when I was interviewing for a position, back when the interviews at the American Philosophical Association were conducted at tables in large ballrooms of the conference hotel, I saw a black man sitting at the table where my interview was to take place. Cool, I thought. This department is clearly really cool. Except that it wasn’t. The black man wasn’t a member of the hiring committee, i.e., a member of the department. He was another job candidate. 

I don’t know whether he got the job, but I kind of doubt it. Academics are conservative. I don’t mean politically conservative. I mean socially conservative in that they are slow to change. Things are changing in higher education, but they are changing slowly. There has been genuine progress is racial diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, but acknowledging that progress amounts to damning with faint praise. Things were so bad that even with the little progress that has been made, they are still pretty bad. 

So I’m ready to believe that classics, as an academic discipline is pretty racist. There’s no question that many racists have appropriated classical culture, or their imagined version of classical culture, to support their own racist agenda. The question is the extent to which this imagined version of classical culture corresponds to reality.

A number of points are relevant to this debate. First, ancient peoples didn’t really have a concept of race. They did, of course, have a concept of outsiders, and a disturbing track record of treating them badly. They also had slaves. The ancient Greeks had slaves. So did the ancient Romans, and while some were treated relatively well, the overwhelming majority were treated pretty horrifically. The article on whether we can save the classics from “whiteness” details some of that treatment. 

“We have so many testimonies of how profoundly degrading enslavement was,” Padilla told Rachel Poser, the author of the article. 

Enslaved people in ancient Rome could be tortured and crucified; forced into marriage; chained together in work gangs; made to fight gladiators or wild animals; and displayed naked in marketplaces with signs around their necks advertising their age, character and health to prospective buyers. Owners could tattoo their foreheads so they could be recognized and captured if they tried to flee. 

The thing is, most of those slaves were white. The Greeks actually enslaved one another. One didn’t need to look different, or be considered intellectually or morally inferior, to suffer the kinds of horrific treatment detailed above. One, or more correctly one’s city, simply had to lose a war with another Greek city. The victors got to take the vanquished as slaves. Some Greeks objected to enslaving other Greeks, but most didn’t. 

That’s what’s really disturbing about the history of slavery in the classical world. The ancients didn’t need to view their slaves as somehow inherently inferior to themselves in order to justify their situation as slaves. The system of slavery was based purely and simply on power, not on race. 

And the thing is, slavery in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to Greece and Rome. It was ubiquitous. The ancient Egyptians had slaves, and so did the ancient Hebrews. “Slavery,” writes Paul Lovejoy, in Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge, 2012), 

has been an important phenomenon throughout history. It has been found in many places, from classical antiquity to very recent times. Africa has been intimately connected with this history, both as a major source of slaves for ancient civilizations, the Islamic world, India, and the Americas, and as one of the principal areas where slavery was common. (p. 1.)

Black Africans were themselves involved in the slave trade (see, for example, “When the Slave Traders Were African,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 20, 2019, and “My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves,” BBC News, 18 July, 2020). It was a way of making money, a way of providing for oneself, a way of surviving in an age when life was cheap, when there was no concept of human rights. 

Few ancient societies bear close scrutiny. Few would fare well by contemporary standards. We admire their literature or artistic achievements and forget the inhumanity, the suffering and misery, that gave rise to the wealth that made such achievements possible. 

Despite the pervasive inhumanity that characterized classical Greece and Rome, I doubt they were any less humane than most ancient societies. Inhumanity, and, in particular, the institution of slavery, seems to have characterized all “great” (meaning large) ancient civilizations. It is important not to forget that. It’s also important, however, not to misrepresent it. Ancient societies weren’t racist because, again, the concept of race that we employ today was unknown in the ancient world. What they were, was brutal and often, as the quotation above from the article on the debate about the classics started by Padilla makes clear, sometimes horrifically so. 

The brutality of ancient societies is a sad fact of human political history. There is a bright side to acknowledging it, though. However much our own society continues to be characterized by brutality and, in particular, by brutal racism, humanity as a whole has made progress. Martin Luther King Jr. appears to have been right when he observed that while the arc of the moral universe is long, “it bends toward justice.” 

Classics, as an academic discipline very likely does need serious reform, as do so many other academic disciplines. But studying the classics, looking back, hard, at the civilizations that gave birth to our own, is a crucial part of our own progress toward the justice of which King spoke. 

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: