Classical studies, generally thought of as an elite and isolated corner of academic study, has been surprisingly prominent in headlines over the last few years. Victor Davis Hanson, conservative classical scholar and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has a new book coming out in March 2019, in which he draws parallels between ancient and contemporary politics. In The Case For Trump, as he explained in an interview with The New Yorker, he argues that we ought to think of Donald Trump as a tragic hero straight from the pages of Greek drama. The tragic hero, he says, is defined not by their bravery or altruism. Rather, “the natural expression of their personas can only lead to their own destruction or ostracism from an advancing civilization that they seek to protect. And yet they willingly accept the challenge of service.” As Hanson defines them, heroes are those who solve problems at the risk of vilification, which is exactly what he sees Trump as doing.
In all tragedies, Hanson explains further, “the community doesn’t have the skills or doesn’t have the willpower or doesn’t want to stoop to the corrective method to solve the existential problem,” so the community brings in an outsider, someone willing to get their hands dirty. Hanson is coy about what exactly our “existential problem” is, but the ambiguity is dispelled when he launches into an ill-informed and biased polemic against Mexican immigrants. We’re also left to wonder what “community” he’s referring to, as if the country wasn’t deeply fractured across political lines during and after the presidential election. When did all of us collectively agree that Trump was a necessary evil? Ultimately, we’re left to scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we ought to listen to a classical scholar’s opinion on politics and immigration at all.
The specific argument of his book is perhaps less important than the fact that a classical scholar is presenting an argument about modern politics. Classics has a reputation for being a bulwark of conservatism within academia and culture at large, a tool for enforcing power rather than dismantling it. This understanding is becoming less accurate as the discipline expands; writers from Virginia Woolf to Michel Foucault have used classical literature and mythology to challenge the hegemony of Christian belief (especially in relation to gender and sexuality), and scholars from increasingly diverse backgrounds contribute to ongoing research and debate. Emily Wilson’s version of the The Odyssey, the first English translation of the epic poem by a woman, was released only last year, an indication of how the demographic makeup of classical studies is shifting. Still, elements of conservatism persist within the field. The question becomes whether we should tell classical scholars to “stick to writing papers” (or whatever the equivalent here would be of telling football players to only focus on sports) without running the risk of anti-intellectualism. What do we gain and lose by these historical comparisons, and do they enrich or limit our political discussions?
In many cases, this discourse serves to express anxieties over the “fall of Western civilization.” Ancient Rome and Greece are well-established cultural touchstones, the foundation of our political institutions and beliefs. We want to place this tumultuous moment within a kind of historical continuity, which serves to both reify it and hold it at a safe distance.
This was evident in the production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that caused in controversy in June of 2017. The director created unmistakable parallels between Trump and Caesar, even giving Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, an Eastern-European accent. Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar, told The Washington Post that the point of the play is “that when a tyrant comes to power and the way you fight that tyrant, it’s very important how you then try to deal with the problem because if you don’t deal with the problem in a proper way, you can end up losing democracy for like, 2000 years.” It’s debatable whether this production is truly referencing classical antiquity or the English literary canon (are we reaching for Shakespeare as a touchstone here or Roman politics, or something else, that nebulous thing called Art?). Either way, the production lended a historical importance to our present moment that both paid homage to the particulars and lent it a timeless and universal dimension. One could argue that Hanson’s book serves a similar function, albeit with a different agenda. He’s trying to understand the Trump presidency through Greek mythology, to explain Trump as an archetypal figure. He pins him down as a definitive “type” while glossing over certain individual facets of Trump’s character (namely, racism, misogyny, and financial greed).
The intersection between classical studies and modern politics also reflects growing anxieties over populism. When democracy falters, we rush back to the source to understand what is happening and why. David Stuttard, scholar and Fellow of Goodenough College, London, published a book in late 2018 that served just that purpose. In Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, he writes that Alcibiades, a divisive Athenian statesman associated with the disintegration of Athenian democracy, wanted to “Make Athens Great Again.” Stuttard calls him the “Donald Trump of Ancient Greece” in another article, further driving home the point. While the comparison (an imperfect one, as pointed out by Ryan Shinkel in the LA Review of Books) is hardly the crux of Stuttard’s book, it is certainly another attempt to bring the past into the present, to make sense of 21st century populism by looking backwards. We see surface-level similarities, “strong men” shaping history, populist politics driven by forceful personalities, and the connections practically make themselves.
These are, in a sese, old problems amplified in our era but not altered beyond recognition. As famed classical scholar Mary Beard points out in her book SPQR, anxiety over shifting boundaries and national identity, of what it means to be a citizen in an ever-expanding world, is a question of perennial concern. Some classical scholars have even used global warming to link our world with antiquity; Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire examines the role climate change (albeit climate change beyond the control of the Romans) had in the fall of the Roman Empire, prompting us to consider the impact global warming might have on contemporary politics.
Most of this discourse relies on view of antiquity as a place of primacy, of visceral and material immediacy. Most of us assume that ancient history tells us what universal behavior is, that it gives us a no-frills look at human nature and is therefore useful for navigating our current political climate. This viewpoint assumes, however, that our experience of reality isn’t shaped by historically-specific institutions and social movements. Dr. Richard Cherwitz, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote an article in 2017 called “Why Classical Theories of Rhetoric Matter in the Trump Presidency” in which we see such thinking at work. He asserts, “While we think our discourse today is unique to the times and circumstances in which we live, the reality is that patterns of thinking and talking are inherent in the human condition and therefore may be time invariant.” He zeroes in on the Roman idea stasis, an ancient Roman theory by lawyers to assess guilt in the courtroom, specifically determining guilt from the way someone behaves. He writes,
“Many legal observers and members of the media reasonably ask: If Trump isn’t guilty of wrongdoing and subsequently of covering it up, why would he say and do the things he does? After all, as the Romans knew, only a guilty person would behave that way. […] [This] indicates why we should remind ourselves and our students that the ways we think and argue are deeply rooted in the human condition and are explained by the rhetoricians who lived thousands of years ago.”
In other words, Cherwitz says, there is such thing as universal behavior, and the human condition (and rhetoric, a practice shaped by centuries of discourse, education, and specifically Western understandings of the public sphere) has remained virtually unaltered since the Roman Republic.
So what do these comparisons mean as a whole, and is it entirely ethical for us to make them? On the one hand, scholars are working to untangle the often inscrutable world of modern politics, to provide some solid ground in a civilization that seems to be losing faith in itself. They are reacting to and attempting to remedy our cultural anxiety, which can hardly be condemned. On the other hand, a troublingly one-dimensional view of the current administration can be gleaned in many of these examples. It is a gross oversimplification of reality to claim that authoritarianism, white supremacy, and discrimination against minorities are rooted in basic “human nature”. This pushes the workings of very specific historical processes and institutions to the background, erasing centuries of structural oppression and sidelining factors like class and gender. In that sense, comparisons with the ancient world can be employed as a tactic to deflect rather than elucidate, to shift the blame for our current political climate to human nature, something that is fundamental and immune to the influence of power.
We see a particularly insidious example of this in Hanson’s New Yorker interview, in which he essentially parrots the president’s famously blasé remarks on the Charlottesville riots. He argues that the Alt-right isn’t “monolithic,” that it’s more or less made up of unknowable people with no discernible common ground. In his view, they become a shifting amorphous crowd with no ideological foundation, and are therefore without personal responsibility.
Classical scholars, not without exceptions, generally speak from a position of privilege and are considered worthy of being listened to. We certainly shouldn’t tell them to stick to academic conferences and keep out of politics, as that places limits on the scope of our political discourse, but we ought to remind ourselves of the prestige enjoyed by classical scholars the next time we criticize an athlete (usually a non-white athlete) for “stepping out of line” and speaking out about oppression.
Classical studies is a deeply fascinating and multifaceted field, and includes scholars from all backgrounds and political opinions. It can be both a hotly-contested battleground and fertile terrain for making sense of the present day. However, we need to scrutinize the claims of classical scholars just as we would the claims of any other public figure, and understand the motivations and assumptions that underpin their ideas.