Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.13

John Bloxham, Ancient Greece and American Conservatism: Classical Influence on the Modern Right.   London; New York:  I.B. Tauris, 2018.  Pp. x, 284.  ISBN 9781788311540.  £72.00.  


Reviewed by Donna Zuckerberg, Eidolon (zuckerberg@eidolon.pub)

Preview

Bloxham’s stated aim in this book is “to illuminate the history of ancient Greek ideas and examples used by American conservatives from the aftermath of World War II to the administration of George W. Bush” (pp. 1-2), and he unquestionably succeeds in achieving this goal. His study is an exhaustive catalogue of not only references to Greek writers—particularly Plato, but to a lesser extent Xenophon, Aristotle, and Thucydides—but also arguments by conservative thinkers that seem to rely on the classical ideas, as well as a few instances in which classical writers are invoked by conservatives purely for prestige value (which he terms “window-dressing”).

For readers who see obvious value in such a catalogue, I recommend this book unreservedly. Others are likely to find this book frustrating, even infuriating, for its inability to establish its own stakes and unwillingness to take any political position even when analyzing highly charged political topics.

The chapters in this book are arranged so as to analyze conservative thinkers in roughly chronological order. The first chapter, “Plato’s Ideas had Consequences: Greek Thought and the ‘New Conservatives’”, explores the use of Plato and Aristotle by postwar conservative thinkers, particularly Richard Weaver and Willmoore Kendall. Bloxham is careful to overstate neither Weaver’s influence nor the depth with which he read and analyzed Plato. The most engaging section of the chapter concerns the appropriation of Socrates both by critics of McCarthyism and by avowed McCarthyites such as Kendall.

Chapter 2, “Leo Strauss and the Ancients against the Moderns,” uses the lens of classical reception to analyze Strauss’s political philosophy. Strauss is a difficult writer to comprehend—intentionally so, as Bloxham points out in his analysis of Strauss’s preference for esotericism. Strauss’s unwillingness to articulate his ideas plainly creates numerous challenges for readers, as does his tendency to refer to Platonic passages without commenting on the ancient text or explaining in any detail why it supports his argument, and Bloxham’s guidance through these difficulties is helpful. He also performs a close analysis of Strauss’s commentary on Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and argues that Strauss’s reading of Xenophon as esoteric and ironic, while interesting and enjoyable, is ultimately untenable.

Chapter 3, “Rise of the Neoconservatives,” assesses the influence of the Greeks on a number of neoconservative thinkers, including Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Charles Murray, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Francis Fukuyama. Bloxham identifies influence as either direct from the Greeks or indirect through Strauss, although he begins the chapter with the caution that Strauss’s “impact on their development as a whole has been exaggerated” (p. 99). References to classical thinkers in these authors tend to be fairly superficial, and Bloxham concludes, “Plato and Aristotle had prestige and could be added to an already thought-out argument as the icing on the cake rather than as the filling, as was the case with Strauss” (p. 129).

Chapter 4, “The Classicizing of the American Mind,” addresses the use of antiquity by William Bennett and Allan Bloom during the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s. Bloom was a student of Strauss, and there are clear echoes of Strauss’s ideas in his work, but the chapter’s focus on education has the effect of splitting up the logical flow between the previous chapter and Chapter 5, “War and Greece,” which explores the Straussian influence on neoconservative thought at the beginning of the Iraq War. As in Chapter 3, Bloxham argues here that the role of Strauss in shaping neoconservative thought is usually overstated. He also addresses the turn made by classicists such as Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson to comparison between Athens and America. A brief conclusion mentions a few instances of apparent classical reception during the 2016 presidential election and in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

At the beginning of the second chapter, while describing the difficulty of interpreting Strauss, Bloxham observes, “Partly the danger is that shared by any political writer—political allies tend to absolve them of unpalatable views whilst opponents interpret the darkest of meanings from anything with a hint of ambiguity” (p. 57). The general context of the quotation, taken with the overall tone of the book, make it unlikely that Bloxham intends this statement as a wink to the reader, a sly meta-comment on his own reception. Nevertheless, I took this insight as an admonition to readers to fall into neither of those traps and to read dispassionately. My own resolve to do so lasted until halfway into the book, when I began to question Bloxham’s unwavering dedication to neutral assessments of deeply racist arguments.

Bloxham mentions Page duBois’s 2001 book Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives on the first page of his introduction, before asserting that his project is “nothing so partisan.” Bloxham covers similar ground to duBois, particularly in his fourth chapter—although he fails to cite her at all in his discussions of Bennett or Bloom, which are remarkably similar to hers.1 But unlike duBois, Bloxham refuses to take a political stand on any issue.

One could argue that Bloxham’s approach is valid, and it is unfair to criticize this book for failing to take a stand when the author was so plain in his desire not to do so. However, in this case I think we should question the central premise of the book’s aim for two reasons.

The first reason is the difficulty of taking a bipartisan approach to inherently partisan subject matter. This kind of task, while challenging, is not impossible: consider Eric Adler’s 2016 book Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond,2 which does not appear in Bloxham’s bibliography. It may have been published too late for Bloxham to consult, but would have certainly been relevant to his fourth chapter. Adler’s approach is measured yet engaging, exploring all sides of complex and fraught issues. Bloxham’s methodology, on the other hand, is to catalogue instances of classical reception in conservative writers without making any kind of qualitative assessment. His insistence on staying far away from politics makes it difficult for the reader to understand why the project matters. This book is based on Bloxham’s dissertation, and its origin may explain his low-stakes analysis of high-stakes issues.

More egregious, however, is Bloxham’s unwillingness to reckon with the deep and consequential racism of so many of the thinkers he mentions. He mentions that Richard Weaver was a Southern Agrarian, a school of thought that “romanticized the Old South” and “small-scale farming” (p. 13), eliding entirely the slave labor that made small-scale farming in the Old South possible. Bloxham also notes that James Q. Wilson was “responsible for the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing (clamping down on minor examples of anti-social behaviour led to lower general crime rates and made people feel safer), which was adopted by the New York Police Department in the 1990s ” (p. 111). Bloxham doesn’t precisely endorse this theory, but neither does he mention how its implementation was characterized by racial discrimination.

But the most outrageous example is Bloxham’s description of references to Aristotle in Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s 1994 The Bell Curve(p. 117), which merits fuller quotation:

According to Herrnstein and Murray, the Founding Fathers were following Aristotle in their discussion of the implications that follow the inequality of men… This ‘natural aristocracy’ discussion might not have been quite so offensive if only applied to class, but here it was used to argue that blacks had, on average, lower IQs than other races and therefore that affirmative action policies were unfair. Aristotle was quoted only minimally in the work, but the conjunction of Aristotle and his views on racial intellectual differences was still somewhat jarring given the history of antebellum slavery advocates citing Aristotle to justify slavery.

Perhaps out of a sense of caution following the vitriolic reception of The Bell Curve, Murray’s 2012 work [Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010] excluded analysis of America’s racial minorities…

There is no clearer illustration of the abdication of morality at the heart of Bloxham’s approach than this: racist scientism is critiqued for its failure to use a less-offensive approach focusing on class, while the critics are painted as “vitriolic.” Bloxham’s only real interest here is in the “somewhat jarring” use of Aristotle, and on the next page he notes that “throughout Murray’s career, the most frequently cited classical author was Aristotle, and it was usually the sections on happiness from the Nicomachean Ethics.”

Nor is this an isolated case. In the subsequent chapter, Bloxham uses a similar argumentative strategy when explaining why conservatives are staunch opponents of affirmative action: “An individual who had missed out on a university place to somebody who had achieved lower test scores would feel that they had suffered an injustice, and the fact that it was done to solve a different injustice would not solve the problem for the individual adversely affected. The fact that ethnic minorities could gain entrance to prestigious universities with significantly lower test scores than would permit whites to enter particularly riled conservatives” (p. 134). There is abundant evidence that, since its inception, standardized testing in the United States has been used to provide seemingly objective evidence that white people are more intelligent than people of color.3 Bloxham does his best to provide apologetic readings of both Murray and Bloom, but he misses the bigger picture: the tests Murray and Bloom use to justify their racism are themselves tools of white supremacy.

Bloxham would likely say that I’m being hyperbolic. In fact, he already has: on the antepenultimate page of the book, he summarizes my essay “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor” and writes, “The notion that positing Antiquity as a source for western civilization puts one in the same league as white supremacists might seem somewhat hyperbolic (as does the collocation of the Trump administration and Nazi Germany)” (p. 235). But white supremacy doesn’t always, or even usually, wear a swastika armband or a white hood. It usually looks like systems of power designed to lift white people up and keep black and brown people down—for example, police methods that disproportionately target people of color and tests designed to call into question their intelligence.

Bloxham’s claim in his introduction to an approach that is less partisan than that of duBois turns out to be rather disingenuous. A book that provides neutral or sympathetic readings of conservative ideas while omitting critique from the left (or dismissing that critique as extreme or “vitriolic”) is, unsurprisingly, a conservative project, in spite of its attempts to appear objective.

Bloxham succeeds at providing a detailed accounting of the influence of ancient Greek thought on conservative writers, but he does so without reference to policy ramifications and without asking why such reception matters. In doing so, he becomes complicit in the continuing use of antiquity to systematically oppress people of color.


Notes:


1.   Page duBois, Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives, New York: New York University Press, 2001.
2.   Eric Adler, Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016.
3.   See, for example, Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999 and William C. Kidder and Jay Rosner, How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds: An Educational and Legal Analysis of Disparate Impact, Santa Clara L. Rev. 131, (2002).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Home
Read Latest
Archives
BMCR Blog
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Commentaries
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010