How the alt-right embraces, and distorts, classical literature
Classicist Donna Zuckerberg on the movement to weaponize antiquity for racism and misogyny
For years, champions of Greek and Roman classical literature have worried about its declining prominence in American culture. In 1998, for instance, classicists Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, in “Who Killed Homer?,” blamed overspecialized, jargonspouting academics for losing sight of everything about the ancient Greeks that made them worth studying — and for not “demonstrating to the living the importance and relevance of the long-ago dead.”
Today, economic worries are further sidelining the classics. Debt-burdened students are shifting away from liberal arts to supposedly more-lucrative majors, like business, and some colleges are dropping classics and other humanities majors. But recently, a surprising group outside the university walls has taken up the mantle of explaining why the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans remains vitally important: the alt-right.
Along with related far-right online communities that share similar politics — pickup artists, men’s rights activists and others — the alt-right is fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean and often references its texts and historical figures
to promote a reactionary ideology. It’s not the revival that advocates of the classics expected or wanted, but there is no denying the fervor of these writers.
Outsiders may know the alt-right from its disdain for liberal democracy, its belief in hardwired racial and gender distinctions, and its use of crude online memes to promote President Trump and ridicule its enemies (disproportionately women, Jews and members of minority groups). But the alt-right is also fiercely committed to preserving and championing the great works of Western civilization. In its adherents’ eyes, politically correct “social justice warriors” want to kill the classics, maliciously, as part of a larger project of “white genocide,” which they define as the erasure of the white race and its culture through interracial reproduction and the celebration of diversity.
Defending the classics against this purported coldblooded attempted murder has been of paramount importance to the alt-right almost since its inception. In 2016, when the community was still relatively young and unknown, then-Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart reporter Allum Bokhari wrote in an article titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” that “attempts to scrub western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right.” They argued that this issue was of special concern to “natural conservatives,” defined as mostly white male “radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritizes the interests of their own demographic.” They continued: “This follows decades in which leftwingers on campus sought to remove the study of ‘dead white males’ from the focus of western history and literature curricula.”
The alt-right’s motivation for defending the classics differs from that of the mainstream public intellectuals — people like Fareed Zakaria, Alex Beam and David Denby — who argue that the ancient texts deserve study because they showcase such universally human subjects as bravery, grief, perseverance and tragedy. To them, the rise of identity politics in the academy — what some call “grievance studies” — could be the classics’ undoing.
But as Yiannopoulos and Bokhari noted, the alt-right has also embraced identity politics. Progressive scholars apply gender and race theo- ry to the study of the classics to open the ancient Mediterranean to more inclusive readings that emphasize the roles of women and slaves, for example. Alt-right readers focus on race and gender, too, but with the aim of praising whiteness and masculinity — and justifying the privileged place that white males enjoy in society.
The alt-right takes a two-pronged approach to defending the classics. First, it pushes back forcefully against what it considers the “wrong” (i.e., progressive) kind of classics. In the summer of 2017, the BBC aired a cartoon about Roman Britain that included several people of color. In response, Paul Joseph Watson, editor at large of Infowars, wrote on that site: “Few things are more insidious than attempting to re-write history to achieve your unhinged political agenda. Resist all attempts to historically normalize politically correct myths. Who controls the past controls the future.” (In fact, Roman Britain’s population was somewhat ethnically diverse and included a North African contingent.)
This response embodied many alt-right tropes found in discussions of the classics. Watson accused the cartoon of being anachronistic in service of an agenda, whereas he considers his version of history to be apolitical and factually accurate. He also called the left “unhinged,” even as he dropped ominous hints about an apocalyptic cultural nightmare as the natural consequence of cartoons that depict nonwhite Romans. (“Who controls the past controls the future.”)
While some within the alt-right focus on fighting the wrong kind of classics, others work to articulate what they want ancient Greece and Rome to mean in the present day. Ancient Sparta has proved particularly attractive to far-right online communities (as well as to former White House adviser Steve Bannon, whose computer password at one time was “Sparta”). It is praised for its ethnic purity — maintained through the policy of xenelasia, or the expulsion of foreigners, mentioned by the historian Thucydides — and, of course, for its military discipline. The use of slaves for manual labor freed the Spartans for military pursuits; that two-tiered society also appeals to the alt-right. Jon Harrison Sims, writing for American Renaissance, draws on the myth of the Dorian invasion — the idea that, in prehistoric times, people of Nordic descent migrated to Greece and brought their language and culture — to argue that classical Sparta was populated by fair-haired whites.
Sparta’s efforts to stay ethnically “pure” appeal to the white supremacists of the alt-right for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, the military culture of Sparta has been embraced by white nationalist militias including the Oath Keepers, and Spartan imagery is common at farright protests. The response by Sparta’s King Leonidas to the Persian King Xerxes’ demand at the Battle of Thermopylae that the 300 Spartans turn over their weapons — “Come and take them” (“molon labe”) — has become an all-purpose right-wing rallying cry; the Oath Keepers have a “Molon Labe Pledge.”
But the alt-right’s interest in classical antiquity goes far beyond co-opting imagery and policy from ancient Sparta. I’ve seen the works of Greek authors used to justify sexism: On his blog, alt-right writer Matt Forney published a guest written article about Aristotle titled “Mate, Hate is Great! A Philosophical Defense of Misogyny,” and on the site Return of Kings, a writer analyzed Xenophon’s “Oeconomicus” to argue that men should gaslight their wives and tightly restrict their behavior. Ovid, author of “The Art of Love,” has been embraced as the first “pickup artist” for writing a manual on how to find, attract and seduce women in the city of Rome. (Although the pickup-artist community, sometimes called the “game” community, is not synonymous with the alt-right, several of its most prominent members, such as the blogger who runs the site Chateau Heartiste, are part of both.)
One of the most insidious and disturbing examples of classical appropriation by the altright is its embrace of Stoicism, a philosophical school that began with Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. Today, the adjective “stoic” is most commonly used to describe people who don’t show what they’re feeling, instead keeping their emotions under tight control. Ancient Stoics, though, were less interested in the display of emotions than in understanding what causes them. The Stoics aspired to live rationally, which meant accepting that each person could exert complete control over their own behavior. Emotions, they thought, were usually a result of irrationally believing that somebody else’s actions, or other outside forces, determined one’s psychological reaction. The Stoic thinker Epictetus wrote in his “Discourses” that the appropriate response to the death of your child is to say to yourself, “I knew I had fathered a mortal.” Anger was particularly anathema to the Stoics: The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca the Younger wrote an entire treatise about anger’s destructive force: “De Ira” (“About Anger”).
It may seem strange that the alt-right, of all groups, would embrace a philosophy hostile to anger — think of the images from last summer’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville of young white men holding tiki torches, their faces contorted with rage. Online, however, many influential alt-right writers profess to be devotees of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” and Epictetus’s “Enchiridion” appear on lists of recommended texts on the Red Pill subreddit.
Appeals to Stoicism supposedly help assert the value of Western civilization in defense of reactionary conservatism. But men also use them to assert their inherent moral superiority to women and people of color, who are often stereotyped as irrational and emotional. On one “game” site, Black Label Logic, “Meditations” is praised as a tool men can use to buttress their “natural” logical superiority. It teaches “a man how to be a man through gaining control of his emotions, and reactions to the world, and transforming them into action,” writes an anonymous author.
The assumption that only men can master their emotions is not found in ancient Stoicism: Both Seneca the Younger and Musonius Rufus assert that women are as capable of making reasoned decisions as men. (And there is nobody more frustrating to argue with, I can assure you, than an angry male troll who has convinced himself that he is perfectly rational and calm, and that you are the one who is “unhinged.”)
Alt-right thinkers present themselves as protectors of the classics who are saving the cultural heritage of the West from social-justice-warrior professors who secretly want to destroy it. This vision resonates powerfully in our cultural moment. But it’s silly. The challenge for progressives who love the classics is to present a vision that’s just as vital and relevant, but that sees ancient racism and sexism, where they exist, as topics to be explored thoughtfully rather than mindlessly celebrated.
The alt-right claims it’s protecting the cultural heritage of the West from liberal professors and “social justice warriors.”