Cancel Culture in the Classics

Image: statue of Herodotus in Vienna, Austria, via iStock

Can we really read a racist in the 21st Century?

CW: racism

At the end of my first year studying Classics, I came across an intriguing book. Well, actually, it’s probably not that interesting to most people. Even to the avid classicist it’s on the dry end of the spectrum. A Lexicon to Herodotus provides a contextualised definition for every word in the corpus of the ancient historian, as well as recording every instance of occurrence. Kind of like a very specialised dictionary. Boring? Yes. Expensive? Definitely (only £171 on Amazon – luckily it’s accessible online). Useful? Unfortunately, that too – Herodotus makes up a compulsory part of the Mods course, so every undergraduate classicist is likely to make use of this lexicon at some point in their studies. 

The content of the book isn’t really the most interesting part – it’s the writer. Some of you may have already heard of him, but for those of you who haven’t, allow me to divulge a few of his achievements. J. Enoch Powell graduated with a double starred first in Classics from Cambridge University and was a full-fledged Professor soon after in 1937, aged 25. He had masterful control of not just these ancient languages, but also Welsh, Modern Greek, Portuguese, and Urdu. In 1939 he enlisted in the British Army, commissioned into officer training after answering the question of a Brigadier with a Greek proverb. Passing out at the top of his class, he advanced to the rank of Brigadier himself by the end of the Second World War. He was also a published poet. And after the war, he was a central figure in British politics for nearly 40 years. He was, undoubtedly, a figure of remarkable talent. He was also, quite undoubtedly, a racist. 

Enoch Powell is most famous not for his extensive academic, military, and political achievements, but for a speech delivered in 1968 to members of the Conservative party, of which he was a leading member – then Shadow Secretary of State for Defence. The so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, itself an allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, makes for a chilling read. Powell vehemently attacked the increasing levels of post-war immigration, painting a disturbing picture of a country divided by race: “In this country, in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Though he was soon dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet, his views nevertheless attracted support from across the party and incited a dangerous culture of racism and violence. Despite such a reprehensible political agenda, I think there is good reason to leave Powell on Classics reading lists – though not unaddressed. 

The survival of the discipline depends on its ability to both diversify its student body and demonstrate that studying the ancient world can mean engaging with a wide variety of progressive ideas.

The question of whether a troublesome historical figure should be ‘cancelled’ has recently become a familiar one, especially in Oxford where a fervent debate over the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oriel College made national headlines. This question is particularly relevant to Classics, a discipline renowned for its inaccessibility. Classicists must work hard to diversify their subject and make people from a variety of backgrounds feel at home in studying the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. Although a focus on outreach in recent years has improved the picture, Classics remains a course dominated by privately-schooled students, more so than any other course at the university. This problem is compounded by the fact that much of the material studied within the subject comes from a remarkably limited demographic: male elites. The survival of the discipline depends on its ability to both diversify its student body and demonstrate that studying the ancient world can mean engaging with a wide variety of progressive ideas. 

Some might make the case that Powell’s academic contributions can be separated from his racism. After all, his Lexicon to Herodotus is just a dictionary – surely with no room for his odious views to seep in. However, I suspect that many students, including myself, would protest against this kind of reasoning. In a recent Town Hall meeting between the Oxford Classics Faculty and students calling for reform, concerns were raised over the problematic nature of a grammar book used to teach Latin which tacitly expressed the author’s eugenicist views in its grammar tables. Though this may seem extreme, there is an especial need to demonstrate an explicit condemnation of such figures in our subject. Including them without any mention of their background can imply an acceptance of their despicable views, or at the very least a reluctance to confront them. To leave Powell’s work unaddressed is rather like allowing Cecil Rhodes’ statue to continue looming over the Oxford High Street: it bestows upon these characters a respect which they simply do not deserve. In doing so, we risk making them out as objects of reverence. It has been the insightful observation of political philosophers like bell hooks and Michel Foucault that power is found in its most dangerous form not in expressions of individual violence, but lurking as a faceless and structural phenomenon: difficult to perceive, even more difficult to remove. 

Though I myself was armed with a contextual knowledge of Powell’s career when coming across the book, having studied his speech in school, this is certainly not the case for many. So what is the appropriate course of action? Although some call for the complete eradication of materials connected with a troublesome creator, it seems to me that such a view is untenable. For one, it would leave many a reading list destitute. Surely we cannot abandon all of Aristotle’s contributions to Western Philosophy because he had deplorable ideas about the status of women and slaves? 

The only way to improve our normative moral standards is by scrutinising what is currently practiced and what has come before – but we cannot scrutinise something which no longer exists.

This policy would also amount to shooting ourselves in the foot, at least if we subscribe to the notion of moral progress (as most of us do). Just as views commonplace in the past are now widely condemned, so too will some of our views likely appear backward to future generations. The belief that moral perfection has already been achieved is one of great hubris. Should every generation obliviate the intellectual creations of the one which came before it, we would be stuck in a vicious infinite regress. The only way to improve our normative moral standards is by scrutinising what is currently practiced and what has come before – but we cannot scrutinise something which no longer exists. Just as it is possible to admire, examine, and reflect upon much of Aristotle’s philosophy while also holding contempt for some of his other views, so too can we make use of Powell’s expansive lexicon while using the opportunity to identify his despicable racism and criticise his misappropriation of the ancient world.

Like any subject, Classics has contributed to both progressive movements and hateful agendas alike. Although the complete removal of the latter from the records only leaves us more susceptible to a revival of such repugnant rhetoric, it is equally dangerous to leave them unaddressed. Where a resource like a grammar book can easily be replaced, it makes sense to get rid of it. But if, in the case of Powell’s lexicon – or indeed the entire Aristotelian corpus – we really can’t do without it, bringing the problematic nature of the author to the students’ attention can be a useful tool in itself. After all, it is by learning about and acknowledging the most despicable parts of human nature that we immunise ourselves against them.

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