If a bigot of European descent wants to find some thin veneer of respectability for objectionable views, it is likely that person will turn to the literature and accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and Romans and maybe also Hebrews, and to the intellectual lineages connecting those ancient peoples to us today. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but if we’re honest, we know it’s true.
In turn, others may cast an eye of suspicion on anyone who is drawn to such subjects. Does this person like the Bible and Homer and Cicero merely because it is a justification for hating some demonized minority?
It’s not a completely stupid suspicion, either. If I saw a person walking down the sidewalk with, let’s say, a bloody knife, I’d certainly give a wide berth, even knowing that there are countless legitimate, innocent, harmless explanations that might account for the situation. Even though there may be numerous good reasons for studying the sources of European thought, if it is indeed a possible sign of evil thinking then it’s not unreasonable for someone to treat it with caution.
Still, that isn’t the full picture. It’s far more complicated than that. For instance, let’s think of the non-bigot, this person who looks at potential bigots with suspicion. Where does this antibigotry originate? If we believe the apologists for classicism, it arises from the European tradition itself, blossoming out of those very same classical sources. I believe Allan Bloom, for instance, makes this assertion somewhere in Closing.
The nomos-phusis distinction of the Greeks, the Hebrew teaching about humans as made in the image and likeness of God, the gospel message of love for neighbours and enemies and of the rejection of judgement, the Pauline proclamation of salvation for the Gentiles without their ceasing to be Gentiles, the vision in the Macedonian and Roman Empires of a civilization that could encompass and unite all peoples into a singular language and governmental structure and literary tradition — all of these elements eventually produced in some groups a thing never witnessed in all human history: a conscientious aversion to racism and sexism and xenophobia and all manner of bigotries, a thing that is indeed still taking shape in our own time.
Perhaps, however, that only means the tradition has transcended itself and rendered itself obsolete? Perhaps in the rejection of bigotry we must choose to reject our own literary and philosophical heritage as well, either because it represents too great a temptation to self-aggrandizement and xenophobia, or else, some might even say, because it is already in itself a massive instance of bigotry that cannot ever be justly celebrated once we have seen the need to jettison our bigoted impulses.
In my view, though, it is entirely possible both to resist bigotry and also to embrace a heritage, and I believe that in principle a great majority of antibigots today would agree; and the “classical” lineage would seem to be particularly well suited to such a synthesis.
Indeed, in theory at least, the study of classical texts could itself very well lead to or strengthen the rejection of bigotry. This might be the small upside of the bigots’ misappropriation of these ancient texts. Maybe the occasional bigot, out to flatter herself in the study of the great thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition, will end up educated out of her bigotry, even almost in spite of her own best efforts.