The woke are succeeding where Plato failed. In Plato’s most famous dialogue, the “Republic,” the character of Socrates argues the ideal polity will exclude Homer and the rest of the Greek poets and dramatists. But Plato, who loved the poets, leaves the door open for their return. As with much else in Plato’s work, the proposed ban on Homer should perhaps be taken seriously, not literally.
Today’s cultural radicals, however, have no such subtlety. When they say we should get rid of Homer, they mean we should get rid of Homer, ideally replacing the “Odyssey” with a new novel by a trans woman of color. As Meghan Cox Gurdon reports in the Wall Street Journal, their “demands for censorship appear to be getting results” as high school teachers boast of dumping the classics.
Writing in Quillette, Lona Manning provides further background on this movement, loosely organized around the hashtag slogan #DisruptTexts. Encouraged by the current mélange of intersectional ideology and critical theory that has captivated the left, it’s an intensification of the left’s efforts to cull “dead white males” from curricula.
To be sure, efforts to excise the classics from education have been underway for decades. Yet, this latest attempt, however, has far more of an ideological edge to it. Instead of seeing the classics as irrelevant to the modern world, classics are viewed as malevolent sources of oppression.
No great work of art or literature is safe from being declared problematic by the new far-left moralists, which provides the #DisruptTexts project its justification. Those looking for something wrong with a work of art will always be able to find something.
Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised that these modern leftists aren’t always honest about what they’re doing. As Rod Dreher notes, high school teacher Heather Levine boasted to her peers of getting rid of Homer, then started backtracking and lying about what she had done when the Wall Street Journal article brought attention to her actions. This combination of duplicity and leftist jargon is meant to obscure, but examining Plato’s original effort to cancel Homer may clarify what is at stake.
Plato, speaking through the character of Socrates, does not hide the ball. He loved Homer and the other poets, but he nonetheless excluded them from his ideal polity, with Socrates rhetorically asking: “shall we carelessly allow the children to hear any old stories, told by just anyone, and to take beliefs into their souls that are for the most part opposite to the ones we think they should hold when they are grown up?” The obvious conclusion is that “we must, first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.”
Control over stories is control over what people believe and who they are. Any such educators who would remake society must therefore remake or replace the narratives that define its people. Thus, the critiques that Plato made against Homer and other artists are echoed in the woke efforts to remake the curriculum — for instance, that it is corrupting to imitate, even for art’s sake, that which is ignoble or wicked.
Hence the instances of woke panic over some obviously negative depictions of racism. It is thought that reading such things, even to condemn them, may be harmful. For the champions of #DisruptTexts and its allies, there is nothing deeper than the desire to control, combined with moral panic over the impurity of art that is insufficiently leftist.
In contrast, Plato’s disavowal of the poets and playwrights of ancient Greece is a nuanced vindication of Socrates and philosophy. Through it, Plato rebuts the charges of impiety and corruption of the young that had been leveled against Socrates.
What is truly impious and corrupting, he suggests, is telling tales in which the gods are human, all too human — lustful, malicious, petty, and cruel. This critique also demonstrated the superiority of philosophic dialogue as a means of understanding the divine, compared to the mythical works of the poets. All of this was embedded within a discussion of an ideal city that was itself hypothesized in order to illuminate why it is better to live a just life than an unjust one.
Plato turned on Homer to make several sophisticated points, and at the end of the “Republic,” he encouraged his readers to defend the poets and present reasons they should not be exiled from the ideal city. In contrast, the woke have rejected Homer, and the rest of the Western canon, because they hate any art that doesn’t reinforce their parochial ideology and cannot stand those who are different from them. In reality, their celebration of diversity is confined to a narrow spectrum.
Far from being genuinely multicultural, the woke are an insular subculture that replicates many of the worst traits of other such subcultures, including an insistence on didactic art. Yet, their overrepresentation in media and education (among other institutions) means that they wield real power, which they can use to mold children to transform society as a whole.
In this case, recalling Plato’s hypothetical cancellation of Homer illuminates the totalitarian control that woke educators seek as they attempt to radically remake society. The traditional texts of the Western canon are valuable for many reasons, which is why they’ve been treasured for hundreds — even thousands — of years.
Nathanael Blake is a Senior Contributor at The Federalist. He has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.