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Where have you gone, Classics?

      Princeton professor of Classics, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, has been in the news for his attack on the subject he teaches. Peralta argues that the Classics have been an elitist subject taught exclusively by white men and embraced by the far right as evidence of white superiority. Peralta favors transforming the subject into a vehicle for revealing the history of racism – or throwing it out altogether.

     Peralta was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York. A precocious child, he found a book in a homeless shelter that introduced him to the glories of ancient Greece and Rome and inspired a love for the Classics. He eventually went to Oxford and became a respected scholar. His story ought to validate the power of the Classics to spark a love of learning and the quest for knowledge. But somewhere along the line, Peralta seems to have lost his love for the subject. He heaped scorn on the “lily white” Roman Empire and became obsessed with the history of slavery in Greece and Rome. He condemned the Classics as “equal parts vampire and cannibal.”

     “Classics was a cheat code for mastering whiteness,” he wrote. And he expressed the hope that the field “dies…and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”

      Peralta’s campaign is part of the contemporary fad in academia for reconsidering history and literature in the perspectives of race, class and gender and judging those subjects according to the skin color of their practitioners. It’s important that we know the history of the crimes as well as the virtues of all civilizations throughout history. But it’s also an error to judge the past according to the values of the present. And Peralta seems to disregard the pervasiveness of racism throughout history. He doesn’t offer an example of a society that has been flawless or free of selective oppression. And his discovery of the downsides of Greece and Rome ought at least to argue that contemporary America is not uniquely evil. 

     Peralta comes across as someone consumed by bitterness and anger, who’s lost the love that first awakened him.

     “The fact that I had to latch onto this Greek and Roman business in order to get out of the ’hood – this is not something to be happy about,” he said.

     He implicitly accuses the Classics of justifying slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism. He blames the great works for their misuse by bad people and for the sins of the societies in which they arose. It’s hard to imagine that getting rid of the Classics would help extenuate the evils of racism, as if racists fuel their malice by reading up on Homer and Virgil. Moreover, the Classics are so little known today that cancelling them would hardly be a brave and conclusive act. A kind of intellectual laziness and grandstanding seems to be at work here.

        I have no doubt that Peralta, a man of color, has suffered from racism and has legitimate grievances against white culture. But I can’t help feeling disappointment for his apparent loss of love for the Classics and for the inspiration they gave him when he was a child. Peralta’s move to the United States and his intellectual awakening opened a world of opportunity for him. After all, he escaped a country known for its racial caste system and wasn’t kept down in America on account of his color. His story should be celebrated as a tribute to what can be accomplished by hard work, aptitude, passion and freedom.

        Recently Peralta exhorted the incoming freshman class at Princeton to “tear down” the institution and rebuild it into something better. That sounds like the standard cry of armchair revolutionaries. They exult in the tearing down, but never seem to get around to the rebuilding. How much more inspiring it would have been if Peralta encouraged the freshman students to discover ways in which the Classics can shine light on our contemporary ills and the persistent flaws and glories of human nature. W.E.B. DuBois, an African-American descendant of slaves, set an example: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not…Across the color line, I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…”

        The works of Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Plutarch along with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe and others have inspired people of all nations and races throughout history. Those great writers wrestled with abiding themes of the human condition: war, religion, justice, hubris, suffering, good and evil. They explored universals – the quest for self-knowledge and the question “How are we to live?”

        Roosevelt Mantas, also an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, offers a different perspective. Like Peralta, he discovered the classics in his youth. Mantas who became the director of Columbia University’s “Core Curriculum” programs, celebrates the value of the Classics and their transformative powers. Although he agrees that education doesn’t have to center on Western Civilization, he argues that it’s essential.

      “The Western tradition is by no means monolithic,” Manta wrote. “One of its hallmarks is its internal contentiousness. It is rife with fissures, where overturning the past is preferred to venerating it…Contemporary notions like human rights, democracy, gender equality, scientific objectivity, the free market, equality before law, and many issues cannot be adequately accounted for without studying the Western tradition.”


       What is a “classic?” The term has been stretched almost to the point of silliness. My Best Choice bread crumbs are billed as “classic.” But in the realm of literature, a classic is simply a work that’s survived the test of time. These treasures belong to all humanity. They are meant to be read and debated for their fallacies as well as their beauties and truths. One reason the classics of the Western tradition have persisted is that many great cultures have left no comparable record.  

      In an essay entitled “Why read the classics?” Italo Calvino wrote that a classic “is a book which with each reading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading…a book which never exhausts all it has to say to its readers…a book which comes to represent the whole universe…”

        The failures of Classics departments shouldn’t be held against the classics themselves. To disdain such works, or worse to cancel them is like walking on ground littered with priceless gems and kicking them aside like so much gravel.


         My seven-year-old grandson came upon a child’s graphic version of the Iliad and Odyssey from the library. The stories of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus possessed him. He carried the hefty volume around triumphantly like a shield. He could have passed for Dan-el Peralta as a child, sitting in a corner reading, transfixed by wonders of the ancient world. The words of Homer didn’t seem archaic to him. The Trojan War, in his imagination, is still being fought today…One evening, his parents heard him bawling in the other room. They rushed in, thinking he’d had an accident. But he’d just read about the death of Odysseus’ faithful dog Argos, who’d recognized his master after Odysseus’ absence for 20 years. If a work of art can reach across the abyss of some 3,000 years and move a child to tears – I call that a “classic.” And I feel confident that Homer and his ilk are not threatened by the attacks of unhappy professors.        



(Sources: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Princeton Alumni Weekly)


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