The West and the Woke
Dr. Donna Zuckerberg’s "Not All Dead White Men" (Harvard University Press: 2018) is a book about ancient literature and its misuse online. Zuckerberg focuses in minute detail on a few “subreddits”—subsidiary discussion groups within the behemoth chat website called Reddit. The threads known as R/MensRights (ca. 240,186 subscribers), r/seduction (ca. 408,214), and r/theredpill (ca. 292,612) have become infamous as “Alt-Right” or “Red Pill” hotspots because they express vehement dissatisfaction with such things as globalism, democracy, and (the book’s particular concern) feminism. It is Dr. Zuckerberg’s contention that such online fora “use the literature and history of ancient Greece and Rome to promote patriarchal and white supremacist ideology.”
Dr. Zuckerberg (sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) holds a Ph.D. in ancient Greek and Roman tragedy from Princeton. Contemplating her high profile and impressive credentials, one initially wonders why she devoted an entire book to an internet movement whose total population amounts at most to one third of one percent of the U.S. population.
The answer comes in the book’s introduction: “These men, no matter how small their numbers, have a disproportionately loud presence in the online discourse about sex and gender.” They are moreover ascendant and emboldened, because the 2016 election of President Donald Trump gave authority and legitimacy to people who use ancient literature for nefarious ends.
Zuckerberg names two such people: Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and his former national security official, Michael Anton. Bannon used to run the far-right website Breitbart, and Anton wrote in favor of Trump during the election under a Roman pseudonym for the Claremont Review of Books (full disclosure: I am the assistant editor of that publication. I have however neither met nor worked with Anton).
Zuckerberg’s argument here, and therefore her premise, is preposterous. True, Bannon called Breitbart “the platform for the Alt-Right.” But he was ousted in disgrace from both the website and the administration almost a full year before Not All Dead White Men was published. As for Anton, what exactly is the charge against him? That he supports Trump and reads ancient literature? He has never once argued in favor of white nationalism or male supremacy. Meanwhile his readings of Roman history—though they may not be politically aligned with Dr. Zuckerberg’s—could hardly be called ignorant or dishonest.
Was Zuckerberg unable to furnish any other moustache-twirling, Reddit-loving classicists whose imperium was more current at press time? Her links between r/theredpill, Stephen Bannon, Michael Anton, and the American regime are impossible to sustain. Unless, that is, one stipulates that all forms of social conservatism—from the most bilious resentment of sexually frustrated incels to even the mildest suggestion that men and women may generally enjoy different things—can collectively be considered one “virulent strain of antifeminism,” as the book’s jacket puts it. This does in fact turn out basically to be Dr. Zuckerberg’s premise.
Misogyny Then and Now
Much of "Not All Dead White Men"'s argument is dedicated to Stoicism, the ancient philosophy of imperturbable serenity and universal reason. Many young men who feel incensed at accusations of “toxic masculinity,” and at the excesses of modern feminism, find in Stoics such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) a model of defiantly unflappable manhood for an age gone mad.
Now, it is true that Red Pill writers often put Stoicism to morally and intellectually indefensible use. Dr. Zuckerberg dredges up some vile quotes: for instance, the blogger Dayrush “Roosh V” Valizadeh advocates “protecting women from their obviously deficient decision-making” by legally placing them under the supervision of a male guardian. Some of this nonsense is partially inspired by the Stoic teaching that emotion scrambles reason, as well as by Roosh’s own conviction that women are incorrigibly histrionic.
In actuality, as Zuckerberg points out, prominent Stoics such as Gaius Musonius Rufus (a Roman educator from the 1st century AD) insisted that women are equal to men in their capacity for logic and virtue. The sages of the Red Pill are therefore every bit as unpleasant and unserious as one would expect from people who go by names like Roosh V.
But Roosh and his ilk are not the only ones who count as beyond the pale in Dr. Zuckerberg’s estimation. Similarly deplorable is anyone who “[does] not necessarily believe men and women should hold the same roles in society.” She censures all those—among them the Classical Athenian soldier-scholar Xenophon—whose ideal of gender relations is “one of complementarity, not equality.” The distastefulness of such ideals is taken as read without argument in the book.
Dr. Zuckerberg’s belief in the fungibility of sex and gender informs the argument of the book’s most bizarre chapter, “The Ovid Method.” The topic here is citations of the poet Ovid by men who practice and teach “pick-up artistry,” an oily technique of routinized seduction. Ovid—who lived under Rome’s first emperor, Augustus—gives purposefully transgressive advice about how to seduce women in his "Ars Amatoria" (“The Lover’s Art”). Pick-up artists also think they can perfect a fool-proof method for getting laid, so some of them consider Ovid a fellow traveler.
There are passages in the Ars which seem—troublingly, if somewhat farcically—to advise taking advantage of unconscious women. Pick-up artists, too, are sometimes loathsome in their attitudes toward consent. Zuckerberg rightly excoriates them on this count. But she is also shocked to discover that pick-up artists believe that masculinity and femininity “are concepts with a fixed, ahistorical, essential meaning.”
Zuckerberg seems to assume that all intelligent people are far beyond such outmoded ways of thinking. Yet she herself puzzles over the fact that the sleazebaggery of Ovid’s poem and that of pick-up artists show “a surprising number of similarities in their methodologies.” That actually looks like evidence that men—in their baser instincts just as much as in their nobler impulses—have remained pretty much the same in essence since antiquity. This is perfectly simple to explain for anyone who has ever learned about the birds and the bees, and who did not subsequently adopt the position that birdness and beehood are pure social constructs.
It is one thing to take some unsavory men to task for being cads. It is quite another to equate such men morally with anyone who believes there is even such a thing as a man and a woman. This wholesale condemnation of all who believe in gender complementarity leads to a sweeping, undiscerning, and frankly unscholarly dismissal of innumerable distinct thinkers, ancient and modern, as morally bankrupt.
Lazy Thought and Radical Politics
The intellectual sloppiness of this approach becomes plain when Zuckerberg makes the shocking assertion that Greek and Latin are inherently anti-woman because “the words for virtue in both languages—andreia in Greek, virtus in Latin—literally mean manliness.” The most cursory glance at a lexicon will show that andreia is absolutely not the word for “virtue” in Greek. Andreia means one specific virtue, “courage,” which most ancients did consider uniquely needful for males. The word for “virtue” in general, used ubiquitously in the texts Zuckerberg herself cites, is aretē. It is quite unrelated etymologically to anēr, the word for “man.”
In Latin, virtus does mean “virtue” as Dr. Zuckerberg states, and it is in fact related to vir, which means “man.” But etymology is not destiny: the English “nice” comes from the Latin nescire, “to be ignorant,” but to use the word is not to insinuate that nice people are always stupid. Musonius makes almost exactly this point in his Third Lecture, which Zuckerberg quotes on the very next page. There, mystifyingly, she translates andreia correctly. Musonius said: “Someone might say that courage (andreia) is an appropriate characteristic for men (andrasin) only, but this is not so. It is also necessary for a woman...to be courageous (andrizesthai).”
Musonius was pushing back—as did Plato, and plenty of other ancient philosophers—against the traditional presumption that courage has a gender. Although andreia originates from a male root word, declares the Stoic, it should not therefore be limited to men. For Zuckerberg this is only more proof that Musonius “believes it would be positive for a woman to be manly.”
There is simply no escaping the circularity inherent in this kind of thinking. In one sentence andreia is used (fallaciously) to demonstrate that Greeks and Romans thought virtue was only for men. This despite Greeks’ and Romans’ own protestations to the contrary. In another sentence those very protestations are used to further convict the protestor. I cannot charitably imagine that such absurdities of illogic escape the notice of someone with Donna Zuckerberg’s educational pedigree. This should lead one to ask: what is going on here?
The Woke and the West
I think I know the answer. Zuckerberg is among a growing number of scholars who view the discipline of Classics, and the institutions which practice it, as inherently vicious. In "Not All Dead White Men" she protests that she wishes not to dismantle the study of Classics but to establish “a vibrant, radical, intersectional feminist classics.” Yet the book makes clear that this would entail approaching from a place of hostility all ideas, from whatever time period, which cannot conform to her own narrow concept of social justice.
This would leave very little from any time period to affirm, endorse, or celebrate. It would indeed mean completely abandoning our current tradition of Classical scholarship. That tradition preserves the geniuses of Athens and Rome because though they are human and flawed, yet they are magnificently wise. There can be no other good reason for studying the Greco-Roman world: either it is a foundational pillar of the West, or it is one among innumerable historical curiosities and objects of self-satisfied disdain for superior moderns.
It has become clear which Zuckerberg thinks it is. Not long ago she published an op-ed equating the dialectical inquiries of Socrates, forefather of Western philosophy, with the harassment of a catcaller. In another article, to which she makes reference in her book, she wrote that the very notion of “Western civilization” is “a slippery slope to white supremacy.” She is not alone in thinking so: The British philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and University of Iowa Professor Sarah Bond have all likewise argued that “western civilization” is a white colonialist construct and should be dismantled.
"Not All Dead White Men" is a case study in the mindset of a growing faction of thinkers who seek to tar every ideology but their own with the Alt-Right brush. No one who loves the West or seeks the truth should give such arguments any more ground than, frightfully, they have already gained.