“Being Modern Does Not Mean Ignoring the Past”

Pierre Vesperini, an ancient philosophy historian, has just published Que faire du passé ? Réflexions sur la cancel culture. In his new book, he tackles the current woke movement and cancel culture that seek to silence – or even erase from history – any figure, work, or opinion considered out of sync with modern sensibilities. So, should we start from scratch? Not so fast!
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: Increasingly fewer people are studying Greek and Latin classics in both France and the United States. Why? Have these disciplines become obsolete in today’s materialistic society?

Pierre Vesperini: In my opinion, the dwindling popularity of classics is a trend that we can trace back to the birth of the bourgeois civilization in the early 19th century. “What purpose does it serve?” This is a typically business-minded question and actually affects all the humanities, including philosophy, art, and history. This shift started long ago and has grown as bourgeois civilization has continued to lose touch with the values inherited from previous aristocratic civilizations – particularly those of beauty, play, bravery, and those of Ancient Greece and Rome.

What would you say to those who claim that the classics only offer racist, bourgeois, and macho prejudices?

The old utilitarian hostility towards the classics has found a considerable ally among those who believe that they convey, as you say, “racist, bourgeois, and macho prejudices.” But there cannot be “racist” prejudices in Antiquity given that racism is a modern invention. The very notion of “race” did not exist in the Greco-Roman world. There are also no “bourgeois” prejudices as they were not bourgeois civilizations. There are probably “macho” prejudices, but these are found in all literature throughout history – think of Shakespeare. The real question is: Why do we study works from the past? Is it to take on their values? No. We study works from the past because we find them beautiful and great. Yet beauty and greatness can hide the fact that these works may reflect the prejudices of their time. The whole world mourned when Notre Dame Cathedral burned down. But does anyone realize what is on its facade? A woman representing the synagogue, with her eyes blindfolded by a snake and a fallen crown at her feet – a portrayal of the submission and irrelevance of Judaism. This is not some small detail lost in the overall decoration, but a central part of the main doorway. Should we therefore stop finding Notre Dame beautiful and instead regret that the flames did not consume the entire building? What’s more, we study works from the past to educate ourselves. Not only to learn about things that came before us – such as the prejudices of different eras – but also to consider those that are still around today, as well as others that have recently appeared.

You are a staunch defender of classics for all. What are your reasons?

I believe that everyone, not only the children of a wealthy elite, should have access to beauty and an education that maximizes critical intelligence and creativity. Being modern does not mean ignoring the past. All those who have made a difference in the world were steeped in the traditions of Antiquity. Think of the Founding Fathers, or Lincoln, Clemenceau, de Gaulle, Montaigne, Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud. In painting, think of Francis Bacon or Cy Twombly… I must insist on this point; education should not simply make classics accessible to all children. It is also important to teach both national and international literature, art history, music, and even philosophy. This discipline should be taught at a far younger age than it is currently. This humanist education is the only thing that can create true citizens, meaning citizens capable of analyzing the discourses and ideologies of their day, and capable of thinking and forming opinions for themselves.

Many professors claim that it has become impossible to teach and carry out their research because they feel censored by young students defending radical, anti-racist, or pro-LGBT causes. Is this state of affairs more prevalent in America or France?

A certain number of colleagues in the United States and England have told me about how difficult it is to teach without being accused of racism, simply for having mentioned an author seen as racist – even if they were anything but. This phenomenon has not yet gained much traction in France. In England, one such colleague decided to take the bull by the horns and initiated a frank, thorough dialogue with their protesting students – who only made up a small group – and it went very well. In a word, I would say that these students are asking a relevant question: that of the overarching presence of racism, misogyny, antisemitism, etc., in European culture. But the solution that they offer – not studying or even mentioning authors who, as members of this culture, shared its most common prejudices – is misguided. This is why we should create a dialogue with them and avoid trapping ourselves in what I call a “sacerdotal” attitude in which we uphold the major figures of European culture as “sacred cows.”

What is the purpose of statues? Should we take them down, like Lee in Richmond, or move them, like Jefferson in New York City? In France, what should we do with all the statues of Napoleon, or the one of Jefferson on the bank of the Seine River in Paris?

Statues – or even names given to public spaces, streets, schools, or libraries, for example – are used to honor the memory of someone. This is why the anti-woke argument claiming that taking down statues means erasing history is absurd. Taking them down is not erasing history but rather erasing the honor paid to someone. In my book, I defend a “case-by-case” policy which takes into account a certain number of principles. These include the relationship between the honored person and the context in which they lived, the extent to which the errors that they are being criticized for are representative of their life’s work, and the context in which they are celebrated. I believe that Southern generals, who killed hundreds of thousands to protect a system that the entire world of the time condemned, and who rebelled against a legitimately elected president, should not be honored in any way. I would go so far as to say that honoring their memory is like killing George Floyd all over again. As for Napoleon and Jefferson, I believe that their life’s work, their heritage, and what they represented in the world, justifies that we honor their memory – despite their flaws and faults. Honoring a memory is not the same as canonizing a saint. Demanding that a “great person” be morally perfect is as absurd as demanding the same thing of an ordinary person. I also think that we should honor the memory of their opponents, of Toussaint Louverture, the liberator of Haiti, for example.

Is this cultural guerilla war really new, or is it a longstanding phenomenon? Are words the only things that really change in this endless quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, the scholars and the ideologists?

It is a longstanding phenomenon. European civilization, since the Christianization of the ancient world, has been defined by a regular rehashing of the questions: What should we read? What should we do with the past, with ancient figures? This is due to both the importance of books in Christianity and the philosophy of history that has become embedded in our civilization, in which the past is inherently suspected, in a way, of delaying the return of Christ. Of course, no one thinks in these theological terms. But it is not difficult to see that they are nonetheless present in the way the Moderns think, only in a secularized fashion: “The world has changed and we are moving towards a bright future. Let’s start from scratch.”

Que faire du passé ? Réflexions sur la cancel culture
by Pierre Vesperini, Fayard, 2022.


Interview published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.