Two articles in the on-line journal Eidolon this month take on the so-called “Alt-Right” and its misuse of Greco-Roman civilization to justify the doctrine of white supremacy. Both of them get an important point wrong.
In “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy argues that “As long as Classics justifies itself by claiming to be the foundation of Western Civilization, . . . it will continue to find itself uncomfortably at the contested center of the continuing culture wars.” She goes on to urge classicists—by which she seems to mean professors of classics—to abandon the “myth” of the “Greek Miracle,” the “supposedly unique flowering of arts, philosophy, and science between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and western Anatolia.” She calls for increased critical engagement with the ugly realities of Greek civilization: slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, and exploitation.
Johanna Hanink, in her rather more interesting “It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception,” likewise takes classicists to task for desperately “insisting on the genius, exceptionalism, and ‘miracles’ of ancient Greece and Rome.” Her alternative is “critical classical reception,” founded on three pillars: an openly “activist” agenda, use of the “personal voice,” and acknowledging that “Greek and Roman antiquity have played a major role in constructing and authorizing racism, colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, Western-centrism, body normativity, and other entrenched, violent societal structures.”
No one—or at least no one I know, or hope to know—will disagree with Kennedy and Hanink that some White supremacists and their politer enablers misunderstand the classical world. If David Duke, or for that matter either of the Steves, King or Bannon, could be transported back into fifth-century Athens or first-century Rome, they would find themselves in a world without much that they could recognize as white, European, or civilized. Western civilization—if it exists at all—is a problematic concept, and its relationship to Greece and Rome is not straightforward or a simple matter of foundation or creation.
On the other hand (and one of the things that we have learned from the Greeks called “Sophists” is that there is always another hand), Kennedy and Hanink underestimate the force of the classical world in the present. Greece is not important because of the origins of democracy or drama, or because of Pericles and the Parthenon, or even because it gave rise to all the -isms that some classicists love to hate. It is important because without what happened in Ionia during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, we would not know how to think. Kennedy and Hanink would not know how to write the kind of essay that they have contributed to Eidolon.
This is a bold claim, and I don’t have space to defend it here. I’d like to suggest, though, two things: first, that intellectual and cultural developments in western Anatolia in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, marked the beginnings of what we now call science and philosophy; and second, that no miracle was involved.
When I look at the surviving fragments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, all active in sixth-century Miletus, I see a new kind of explanation emerging. These early thinkers—it begs a question to call them either “philosophers” or “scientists”—offer explanations of physis, roughly “the way things grow,” and in so doing they create a new kind of thought. Their explanations build on one another, and together they create three assumptions:
- Explanation of physis will depend on abstract qualities: for Thales, “the moist”; for Anaximander, “the limitless”; for Anaximenes, “air.”
- Explanations of physis will be continuous; that is, whatever explains phenomena in the parts of the world that we experience will also explain phenomena inaccessible to our experience, like celestial bodies or events. There will be no need to appeal to supernatural forces or beings.
- Explanations of physis will be progressive; that is, any explanation can be replaced by a better explanation—one that offers a more plausible or convincing account of phenomena. Persuasive argument and disagreement are essential to explanation.
There is no need to invoke miracles to explain this new way of thinking. It’s about what one would expect from a place and time with access to a radically new information technology—alphabetic literacy; with a new economic tool that encouraged abstraction of value from physical objects—coinage; with a need to think about how to create societies from scratch—colonization; and with easy access to older, richer cultures in Egypt and the Near East.
There is more to it, of course. All three Ionians depend on mythological frames of reference and draw on Near Eastern and Egyptian cosmology and astronomy. Other cultures, notably China, developed important ways of explaining how things are. But the Ionians’ abstract, continuous, progressive way of thinking opens the door that leads to modern science, to philosophy, to academic argument, and to Kennedy and Hanink’s articles. When Kennedy and Hanink assume, without needing to give it much thought, that they can state a position and give reasons for it, that someone may respond to it or disagree, and that the stated positions will be judged by the quality of the arguments on both sides, they are following the track first trod by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. And by no one else.
–Lee T. Pearcy