Hey friends. The substacks, I tell you: they really get you. I have two paid subscribers over there and now I’m hooked. Sheesh. Anyway, I’m gonna start trying very slowly to transfer my remaining audience to that platform. So I’m gonna put half the essay here, and then you can find the rest there
efore the invention of race
1 it was not at all uncommon for invading peoples to incorporate ancient monuments into their religious observance. Stonehenge is a perfect example. It wasn’t constructed by just one people. Various features date to various times, and it was built over the course of a thousand years (3000 to 2000 BC). Stonehenge was begun by a people who’d migrated to Britain from the Mediterranean, and then was taken up by a people whose DNA was from the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Then it was used off and on for the next several thousand years by various religions.
For a more contemporary example, take the Hagia Sophia. Constructed by Justinian as a Christian temple, it was converted to a mosque by the Ottomons. The Turks have a long history in fact of taking up Ancient Roman iconography and buildings. The original Seljuk Turk kingdom in Anatolia was called the Sultanate of Rum, and the Ottoman Empire at times described itself as the continuation of the Roman empire.
Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine us doing this. North America is filled with extremely old monuments, but the colonial nations didn’t appropriate them, they either destroyed or fossilized them in museums. Right here in the Bay Area, we have our Emeryville IKEA, which is built on Shellmound Way. This commemorates the ancient shell mounds of the Ohlone people. In a pagan society, we would’ve associated one of our own gods with the gods of the Ohlone people (which is how you end up with the temples to, say, Zeus-Ammon and Jupiter-Ammon that dotted Libya). Even in a pre-racial Christian society, they might’ve been converted into sites for veneration of saints, as reputedly happened to pagan holy sites in Britain.
Before race, when a new people moved into a new country, the move might be extremely violent and might involve the cultural extinction of the existing people, but eventually the invaders would kick the tires and make themselves at home, and there would be a synthesis of old and new cultures as well. Look at Britain. The Anglo-Saxons were the most cultivated and literate Germanic people in Europe, and the only Germanic people to have a vernacular literature, but Anglo-Saxon high culture was virtually extinguished by the arrival of the Norman nobility, not because the Normans had no use for it (which they didn’t), but simply because all the places at court and in the churches were soon filled with French-speaking Normans. But over the course of three centuries of war with France and intermarriage with Anglo-Saxon people, an English-language identity bubbled up again.
Of course that didn’t always happen! The Ptolemaic dynasty seemed to keep Ancient Egyptian culture at a distance. They assumed the title and the iconography of the Pharaoh, but their capital was always Alexandria, far from the traditional sites, higher up on the Nile, where Pharaohs had ruled, and Cleopatra was supposedly the first and only Pharaoh to know how to speak the Greek language.
But by and large some kind of synthesis usually occurred between new peoples and old ones.
Thank you for reading Woman of Letters. I am putting buttons throughout it because that’s what the guides tell you to do. Please click the buttons.
I think often of this rich mixing of culture when I think about the Great Books. The GBs are a set of texts that were hailed as being the shit, the bee’s knees, the source of all Western culture, and the best basis for a university education, by a small group of early-to-mid 20th century educators (most notably Mortimer Adler). For a while GB programs were popular at American colleges, but eventually they died out, due to calls for more ethnic diversity and subject diversity in curricula. Nowadays the GBs are making a resurgence at conservative Protestant and Christian colleges. They’re the unofficial curricula of the Christian Nationalist movement, the unholy union between Christianity and right-wight nationalism that seems to animate much of Ron DeSantis’s policy agenda. Sometimes I joke that the Great Books are “the curriculum of my own extermination.”
There’s an impression by people on the right that the Great Books are subject to some extreme amount of controversy in left-wing circles. That they’ve been dethroned, somehow, and indicted as unbearably racist and sexist.
That’s not true. There was controversy in the 80s (the so-called “canon wars”) over whether the concept of canonicity was meaningful, or even if it was inherently tainted by hierarchical assumptions, but the opponents of the canon faced a major problem: if there’s no canon, why would anyone study English? You can say they study English to learn some techniques of interpretation, but what makes something worthy of being studied by those techniques? That’s like teaching prayer without specifying to which God. Ultimately professors need something to study; students need something to be taught. And the objects that are more worthy of study tend to form the canon.
The outcome of the canon wars wasn’t an erasure of the idea of a canon, but it did shift the canon in a more contemporary direction. The need for more racial and gender diversity meant (for obvious reasons) privileging 19th and 20th century works over those from antiquity.
But people to this day get assigned Plato’s *Republic* in class. Nobody disputes that Plato is an important writer.