Peter Beinart’s assertion last week, in “The Racial and Religious Paranoia of Trump’s Warsaw Speech,” that “the West is a racial and religious term” has raised more than a few eyebrows, primarily for its implication that to champion Western Civilization is to participate in bigotry. Jonah Goldberg’s article in National Review took Beinart to task on this point, offering a rousing defense of Western Civilization. But not yet fully debunked is Beinart’s initial premise: that is, that “the West” is code for white, Christian culture—a culture that belongs to white Christians, and to them alone.
I encountered a similar sentiment last November when, in the wake of the election, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty of the Princeton Classics Department gathered together for a “town hall meeting” to discuss what Classicists should do when the world is hurting. Can the study of Classics in any way help promote a better, freer society? Over the course of the meeting, several students and professors, distressed by the alt-right’s appropriation of Classical rhetoric, began to apologize for our discipline, suggesting that Classics was actually making society less free. Perhaps, they mused, we should not speak of “The Classics” or “The Canon” in capitalized letters, for fear of, on the one hand, legitimizing the alt-right and those who would seek to use Classical ideas for personal and political gain, and, on the other hand, alienating students who do not come from the Western tradition, students who feel that the Classics do not “belong” to them.
Do the Classics belong to any of us? The Ancient Greeks and Romans are no more my ancestors than they are the ancestors of the Korean-American girl who broached the topic. Indeed, what with the Goths and the Ottomans and a couple thousand years of separation, today’s Greeks and Romans themselves can scarcely claim ownership of the Classics. I have always thought that the joy of studying the Classics, and the Western Canon more broadly, is that they do not belong to any of us—that they are universal, as evidenced by the countless readers, from classical Athens to Medieval Syria to Renaissance Florence to early-modern Amsterdam to present-day China, who have interpreted the same texts, performed the same dramas, and pondered the same questions.
It would, of course, be disingenuous to argue that Western Civilization is not primarily composed of white men engaging with the works of other white men. But Western Civilization does not belong to white men, and that makes all the difference. Whosoever we are and whencesoever we come, we are able to opt into Western Civilization by exploring its Canon—by watching Sophocles and Shakespeare, reading Herodotus and Heidegger, viewing Caravaggio and Kandinsky, listening to Bach and Beethoven, and then adding our own voices to the mix. Just look at the black Princeton Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who grew up in New York City as an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic and is now one of the nation’s leading Classicists—Western Civilization belongs as much to him as it does to anyone. Nearly half of my graduating class in the Princeton Classics Department was “non-Western” by Beinart’s standards—black, Asian, South Asian. In our group were Muslims, Orthodox Jews, atheists, Evangelicals, Episcopalians, and Catholics. Nonetheless, our class labored together through the same declensions and conjugations. Western Civilization belonged to none of us and to all of us.
Moreover, when does Western Civilization—or, in Beinart’s words, “white, Christian hegemony”—begin? It’s impossible, of course, to say, but for those of us who have taken any kind of Great Books course, Western Civilization begins with two poems by a man named Homer. And who was Homer? Was he blind? Was he a rhapsode? Was he, in fact, a man? Was he one person or many? Did he even exist? We have no idea.
That is to say, we have no idea who, if anyone, first recited or wrote the texts foundational to what we call Western Civilization. The Iliad and The Odyssey may not, then, be called “white” poems—the poet’s (or poets’) race is unknown to us. We appreciate the poems for their words, their stories, their meter, their mēnin; we do not appreciate them for their author and the insight he offers into his racial or religious identity. Any affinity readers feel towards the proverbial Homer, whoever he (or, for that matter, she) was, comes not from a common race, religion, ethnicity, or gender, but from the shared questions and ideas that are expressed in his poetry. We may, of course, posit that they are the questions and ideas of a white man, but truly we do not know.
And even if we did know that there was once a blind white guy named Homer who lived in Smyrna, worshipped the Olympian gods, and recited poetry, his poems themselves would demand that we not read too much into their author’s identity: Homer attributes his song to the Muses, not to his own genius. This attribution serves to universalize the poetry, to elevate it above one man’s perspective. We are supposed to be reading the words of the all-powerful and immortal Muses; the blind bard Homer is but their temporary vessel.
Western Civilization begins, then, with a poem, not a person—that is, not with anyone whose race or religion can make any difference to our appreciation or interpretation of the text. And were it not for certain literary theorists who have sought to make our focus the “lived experiences” of the canonical artists and writers, we might all participate in Western Civilization by engaging only with the poetry, not the people. That is, after all, what a great many of our canonical writers seem to have wanted. Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Augustine, Milton—like Homer, they eschewed personal responsibility for their writing, claiming instead divine inspiration. They surely wanted some measure of personal glory, but that glory would come from writing something that was worthy of the Muses, something containing insight that transcended the experiences of one man. Similarly, Thucydides and those historians who have followed his lead tell the stories of their societies in hopes, they assert, that those stories prove useful to other societies in the future when history undoubtedly repeats itself: they, too, write with the expressed purpose of transcending the experiences of one man and one society.
In other words, it’s not that Western Civilization isn’t about race or religion; it’s that Western Civilization isn’t about specific people at all. Western Civilization is supposed to be about something bigger than any one of us—a communal striving towards truth and beauty and goodness. We have, at times, failed miserably, committing grave evils that limit the ability of non-white and non-Christian men and women to partake in that striving. Any champion of the Western tradition must denounce those evils and work tirelessly to prevent future ones, for they are hideously alien to the task before us. But we must not, as Beinart does in his analysis of Trump’s Warsaw speech, make the mistake of blaming “the West” for the shortcomings of our President. If Trump were actually to become its champion—ensuring that the right to strive for truth, beauty, and goodness “belongs” to all—the Muses themselves might sing his praise.