Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s speech at the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference on November 4, 2022.
Did Socrates deserve to die? Until recently, it seemed that civilization had come to a consensus on that one: Socrates’s trial was a miscarriage of justice. No, he did not deserve to die.
The current crop of professional classicists appears to disagree. In June, a professor of ancient history at the University of West Georgia, Nadya Williams, published an article in Inside Higher Ed comparing my husband, former Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz, to Socrates—and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. Socrates, Williams writes, was a groomer, not a gadfly. He claimed to be punished for his speech, but really, he was punished for his “unethical behavior.” Just as the Athenians correctly judged Socrates’s character, the argument goes, so should Americans judge the character of our public intellectuals. Though Williams stops short of recommending that Katz be sentenced to drink hemlock, her message is clear: Socrates deserved to die, and Katz deserved his cancellation.
I will not dwell on my husband’s story. But “classics Twitter” celebrated her article, and the Society for Classical Studies, the main professional organization of classicists in North America, shared it approvingly. If ever you were under the illusion that studying great books makes you a good—or even just more liberal—person, one look at classics Twitter would quickly disabuse you of your folly: an army of so-called scholars spends its days sucking up to a handful of powerful figures in the field who preside over a steady stream of bullying, name-calling, and petty disputes.
But the problem is that too many modern classicists don’t study great books. They study themselves—or rather, whatever contemporary identity categories earn them the most clout in this political climate. Consider the program for the 2022 annual meeting of the Society of Classical Studies: endless panels on gender, such as “Gender and Violence in Latin Poetry,” “Gender and Power,” “Gender, Power and the Body in Late Antiquity,” “Epigraphy and Gender in the Greco-Roman World,” “Exploring Ancient Definitions of Womanhood Beyond the Binary,” a Roundtable on Trans in Classics, and “Queer Representations and Receptions of the Amazon”; and likewise, of course, panels on race and activism, with such papers as “The Liberation of Black Earth: What Indigenous and Black Agricultural Movements Can Teach Us about Solon.”
I’ve long thought that the joy of studying the humanities generally, and the classics in particular, is studying cultures at once familiar to and far removed from contemporary cultures and peoples. Modern culture must infiltrate the study of classics: How could we not view classical civilization through a contemporary lens? But the goal, at least, should be to see beyond that lens—to interpret the texts as objectively as possible through the painstaking and humbling work of philology.
Today, this goal of objectivity is branded racist. To quote professors Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Sasha-Mae Eccleston in a recent issue of the American Journal of Philology, the “presumptive rigor of philology” functions as, among other things, “a mode or metonym of exclusionary elitism throughout the field.”
Padilla once declared that he’d like the traditional field of classics to die “as swiftly as possible.” And indeed, ongoing attacks on philology are ripping away the foundation of the discipline. Classicists study many things: literature, philosophy, history, linguistics, art, and archaeology. Each sub-discipline demands a different methodology. Historians could be in history departments and philosophers could be in philosophy departments, but one thing has held the sub-disciplines together: knowledge of Greek and Latin. Without this, the field of classics has no guiding principle, no raison d’être.
In 2021, however, the Princeton classics department eliminated its language requirement for undergraduates. Students can now graduate with a degree in classics from the nation’s top-ranked university without taking a single course in Greek or Latin. A student who purported to understand Japanese culture without speaking a word of Japanese would be rightly skewered for his hubris. But such hubris is now the name of the game in the Princeton classics department. What the texts actually say is irrelevant. As a recent hire argued in her job talk, it doesn’t matter whether Thucydides ever talked about race; we should read race into Thucydides all the same.
Of course, Princeton’s classics program still requires a language: not Greek or Latin, but theory. Students learn to speak like Brooke Holmes, a professor known to discuss, for instance, “the ever-fuzzier boundary between human and nonhuman actants in the various new materialisms and the causal traffic between human and nonhuman communities and networks.” As an undergraduate, I was impressed by this kind of language. Now, I recognize it as superficial and sophistic.
None of this is unique to classics, but the field makes a good case study because its collapse has transpired so quickly. I often think back to 2015, when I spent the summer at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. A great deal of political unrest occurred that year—the Grexit vote in Greece, the Obergefell decision in America—and I was taken aback by my professors’ and fellow students’ seeming apathy toward current events. I wanted to talk politics; our conversation centered on Bronze Age ox-hide trade in the Aegean Sea.
Be careful what you wish for. One year later, a new figure rose to prominence in the field: Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Donna Zuckerberg, who had earned a Ph.D. in classics from Princeton and started an online classics journal called Eidolon. In it, she published a piece called “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor,” a “call to arms” for classicists to step out of the ivory tower and fight the Donald Trump supporters who billed themselves as the inheritors of Western civilization. Step out of the tower most of them did, seemingly never to return.
Can classicists return to a discipline predicated on love of and deference to ancient sources, one that prizes Socratic humility and liberal truth-seeking? Three reasons for optimism stand out.
One is that the activists are exhausted from their “emotional labor.” In 2020, Donna Zuckerberg closed Eidolon, which had become an avowedly intersectional feminist publication, with the following explanation: “How can I spend my energy reading Greek and Latin when a pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans? . . . How can I write coherent sentences when I think about the growing danger of an autocratic coup by the Trump administration? . . . How does anyone have time for anything aside from self-care, activism, and treading water?” Padilla, meanwhile, suggested in the New York Times that after destroying the discipline of classics, he’d move on to politics.
Another is the work of scholars with growing platforms, such as Roosevelt Montás and Anika Prather, who continue to celebrate the study of great books as liberatory, not oppressive, for racial minorities.
A third reason for optimism: despite the best efforts of academics, ordinary people remain interested in the classics. When Eidolon came to an end, I was part of a group of dissident classicists who founded a new online journal, Antigone, with hundreds of articles that “dust down the Ancient Greeks and Romans and bring them into fresh conversation with modern-day readers of all ages.” By all metrics, the site has been a great success.
When Socrates was killed, his disciple Plato imagined new ways to restructure society, through new forms of philosophical expression and with a new forum for learning and conversation: the Academy. Now our own academy faces execution at the hands of the people Socrates warned us about: zealous, unreflective sophists. Serious scholars should take a page from Plato’s book and start building.
Socrates (469 - 399 BC) the Greek philosopher is forced to commit suicide in prison by drinking hemlock, surrounded by his grieving friends and followers, 399 BC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)