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The Classics Survived University Witch Hunts Before, And Will Do It Again

The Princeton inquisition comes not for those who lapse from Christian habits
but for those who fail to recite the liturgies of social justice.

by Michael Poliakoff for The Federalist February 16, 2021

How do you eradicate a heritage? Princeton’s Classics Department is working hard at it, with The New York Times celebrating its efforts. It is hardly the first attempt at “canceling” the cradle of Western Civilization. The war on classics has a medieval pedigree; it is a sad irony that elite academics have joined forces.

Palimpsests reveal tangible evidence of how “deplatforming” was done in the Middle Ages. These are manuscripts, typically parchment, from which the original text has been sufficiently scraped, so the parchment could be recycled. In the Dark Ages, that meant erasing the pagan decadence of Greece and Rome to privilege Holy Writ and the writings of church fathers.

One of our key texts of political science, Cicero’s “On the Republic,” was a palimpsest that barely scraped its way (pun intended) through the Middle Ages to the welcoming Renaissance. With the ancient letters faintly recognizable, the scholarly 19th-century Cardinal Angelo Mai partially recovered this classic obscured beneath a text of St. Augustine.

The Princeton inquisition comes not for those who lapse from Christian habits but for those who fail to recite the liturgies of social justice. The New York Times is pulling out all the stops to promote their campaign in, “He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” Its subheading reads, “Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal – even if that means destroying their discipline.” The Times published the essay as a Great Read, “one piece of exceptional writing.”

Padilla, who graduated Princeton on a full scholarship and now holds a tenured position in its Classics Department, is outspoken in his indictment of the United States in general and his alma mater and current employer in particular for “anti-Blackness.” Peralto claims classics “has sown racism through the entirety of higher education.”

There were indeed starry-eyed Romantics like the 18th century Johann Winkelmann, Confederate sympathizers, and slave-owners who sought justification for their racial chauvinism in the classics. But does that make the classics culpable for “the invention of ‘whiteness’”? For Peralta, classics represent not the wrestling of the mind and soul with fundamental questions about the human condition, transcending race and ethnicity, but a social danger, the quintessence of white supremacy.

Notably, the Times essay does not mention black scholars of a different viewpoint, including W.E.B. DuBois. In “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), this civil rights activist wrote: “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

Nor is there mention of the late Frank Snowden, chairman of Howard University’s Classics Department, who explored “the absence of bitter antagonism toward blacks in the ancient world” in “Before Color Prejudice” (1983), published by Harvard University Press.

One of the ideas surfacing in the Times article is that classics departments should be dissolved and their members scattered to other departments. In other words, there would no longer be a home for holistic comprehensive study of Greece and Rome, but the dangerously benighted classicists could be properly supervised in other academic programs.

Convicted as the epicenter of Eurocentric racism, it would not be “safe” for classics to keep its departmental space. Presumably LGBTQ Studies, Ethnic Studies, African-American Studies, and other “area studies,” unlike the apolitical classics, would not suffer such a fate.

In the Peralta Plan, presented to Princeton on July 4, there would be a faculty committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty,” with guidelines to be authored by a faculty committee. It should come as no surprise that, in the words of the Times essay, “Padilla believes that the uproar over free speech is misguided.”

By coyly identifying free speech as only the means to the end of human flourishing, Padilla apparently stands with Herbert Marcuse, who preached “repressive tolerance”—protection only for the right kind of speech—to strengthen “the oppressed against the oppressors.”

In centuries past, the church burned heretics and bullied independent thinkers into obedience. Giordano Bruno perished at the stake in 1600. When, not long afterward, the Catholic Church insisted the sun goes around the earth, Galileo knew the flames were before him if he failed to recant.

Peralta and his colleagues have a new orthodoxy, a new catechism, and typically, the security of tenure. Rather than burning at the stake, those who challenge their call for reeducation and social engineering face termination and censure.

The study of classics, which has challenged people around the world and across time to examine themselves, their structures of government, their customs, and their follies, will in one way or another survive. Ironically, it might be faith-based institutions that will now guard this heritage far more carefully than the suave ruling class.

The sad, damaged palimpsest of our time will be the minds and hearts of students who fall prey to the Peraltas of leftist campuses. They will be the victims of their instructors’ irrational fear of the independence of thought that flourishes in the young when they are fed with the wisdom of the past.

Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.