But I’d suggest that if this is the path we take, we’re in trouble.
The alt-right has no compunction about appropriating antiquity for its own ends — as can be seen images from the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion, as some rioters wore Greek helmets and carried flags with the phrase “molon labe” (“come and get our weapons”). This distorted reference to the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. reflects the supremacist belief that the Spartans saved “the white race” from barbarians.
I don’t want to throw up my hands and yield ancient history and ancient literature to this group.
Yes, historically, many of these texts have been used to justify and support ideologies and actions we condemn today, from defending slavery to suggesting women are lesser creatures than men. Wouldn’t it be better for us to use texts without tainted legacies and not risk seeming to condone the stories’ content or the history of how the texts were used?
That approach ignores a basic fact: Times change, and so does the way we read. In antiquity, Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” an epic poem written in 19 B.C. about the foundation of Rome, was understood as praise of the emperor Augustus. In the Middle Ages, readers took it to be an allegory of the life of the Christian everyman. In the 20th century, Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini put it to use as a foundational text for the third Roman Empire. During the Vietnam War, the poem was interpreted by antiwar readers as a manifesto against imperialism and warmongering.
Today, the poem can be read as offensive. A Trojan, Aeneas, claiming to be on a divine mission, attacks the native peoples of Italy and wins, eventually leading to the growth of the Roman Empire. What’s here if not a celebration of the West’s hegemonic history?
But a middle path is available between avoiding such works entirely and endorsing a racist and sexist set of values: namely, interpretation. When I read “The Aeneid,” I don’t see an endorsement of colonization. I find in it what I am primed to find as a politically liberal Westerner in the 21st century. I find problems with its “heroic” protagonist and his search for a homeland: Aeneas causes carnage in his “divine” quest to become king; he even sacrifices people alive. I read the poem as a warning about the power of propaganda to veil the abuse of power.
Going back a millennium to ancient Greece, consider Thersites in Homer’s “The Iliad.” He is physically repulsive, “the ugliest man below Ilion.” At an assembly he dares to criticize King Agamemnon. Mostly, he echoes what the heroic Achilles has said earlier (Agamemnon keeps all the good stuff for himself). But Odysseus beats Thersites with a scepter until he collapses. The ruling class has asserted its place.
Or has it? A century ago, readers of “The Iliad” would comment that Odysseus gave the troublemaker just what he deserved. Today, I’d ask: Why does Homer include this voice of blame within the epic at all? What does it mean that the scepter bestowing the right to speak is used as a weapon to silence? What are the social implications of equating ugliness with low social status?
Does it matter what the “right” meaning is? No, because literature doesn’t do things by itself. We make meaning with a text, we don’t simply absorb it or somehow get stained by it.
That is why, in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Brazilian educator Paulo Freire half a century ago suggested that marginalized peoples should reinterpret the same texts that their oppressors use and transform them in their own service. Disconnecting the classics from elite education is entirely possible today: These texts are available in translation to basically anyone with access to the Internet or a library.
What we need to do is “take back the classics.” For millennia, they have been read differently by different cultures. There is no reason they cannot withstand the test of our time, too. We can save the classics, as long as we believe the sins of the father should not be visited upon the sons and daughters.