Ancient History, Cancel Culture and What People in the Future Might Think of Us

Dr. Roslyn Fuller interviews Dr. James Kierstead, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand about how our ideas of democracy have developed and what history can teach us about public life today.

Dr. James Kierstead

Why did you decide to focus on ancient history? It is definitely something most people don't think very much about - it's something I never heard very much about before I went to university - so I am curious as to what motivated you to make this subject your life's work.

As with a lot of people, I suspect the real reason I’m doing what I’m currently doing is a hodgepodge of personal interest (both senses); individual aptitudes and deficits; the culture I happened to be educated in; and a late-in-the-day stab at making oneself of some use to others. Like a lot of classicists, I first became interested in the Greeks because they seemed to have all the best bed-time stories. When my family moved from Canada to England my parents put me in an old-fashioned boarding school, and when they offered me the opportunity to learn Greek I grabbed it with both hands.

I loved it; it was difficult and fascinating, and promised an intimacy with a world that was both intriguingly alien and yet somehow also strangely familiar. Besides that, a lot of the most interesting masters were classicists, and, within that tiny world, the subject was still oddly prestigious. All the cleverest boys (it was all boys at my school) seemed to end up studying either Medicine at Cambridge (if they were good at maths) or Classics at Oxford (if they weren’t).

I did the latter, partly because undergraduate degree courses in England, unlike in most of the rest of the English-speaking world, tend to focus on a single subject, and I knew the Oxford Classics course would allow me to study literature, history, and philosophy as well as two very interesting ancient languages (Greek and Latin). At Oxford I had a particularly inspiring tutor, John Ma (now at Columbia), who opened my eyes to the Greek world as a site for anthropological and sociological investigation – and even for out-of-the-box thinking about politics.

The way the Athenians did democracy had anyway long struck me as in some ways more direct than our own ways of doing it, and so when I came to thinking about how I could best contribute to the world using the skills I happened to have acquired, doing solid, innovative work on the first few hundred years of democratic history seemed like the way forward. I went to Stanford to do a PhD on the topic with Josh Ober, probably the world’s pre-eminent scholar working at the intersections of Greek history and democratic theory, and the rest has been, as they don’t say, ancient history.

One final thing I’ll say about ancient history, since it’s one of the things that’s kept me motivated to do it, is that I do think it’s really helpful, when you’re trying to figure out the behaviour of human societies, to have as broad a view of the evidence as you can get. I mean, you can develop a theory of the past two hundred years of democracy (say) based on the democracies that have existed during that time – and I understand that you might want to limit yourself to periods with high-quality data about population numbers, GDP, and so on. But to really understand a social and political phenomenon like democracy in all its manifestations, you have to go back two or three thousand years, not just two or three hundred.

What do you think would surprise people the most to learn about ancient Western civilizations, such as classical Greece and Rome, and what do you think would surprise the ancient Greeks and Romans the most to learn about us?

I don’t think much would surprise people about the Greeks and Romans these days, to be honest. We’ve long since become familiar with the glory that was Greece: with the dazzling lyricism of Pindar, the power and depth of Plato’s philosophy, and the technical ingenuity on show in the Antikythera mechanism – familiar almost to the point of contempt. Nor does the seedy underbelly of ancient life raise many eyebrows these days: one of the great services of Christian propaganda (watch the 1951 Quo Vadis) and Marxist historiography alike has been to burn the callousnesses and cruelties of the ancient world indelibly into our conscience.

My bet, then, would be that what would most surprise people today about the ancient world was how boring it all was. Not as a subject of investigation, obviously – in that sense it’s endlessly fascinating. But we’re still liable to forget that the vast majority of the people in the ancient Mediterranean spent the vast majority of their time in mind-numbing, back-breaking labour: ploughing fields, spinning wool, and so on. They sowed in the autumn, harvested in the spring, and died in their forties or fifties – assuming, that is, that they’d survived infancy (almost a third died before their first birthday) as well as military service (in the case of the men) and childbirth (the women).

Athenian Black-figure cup showing ploughing and sowing, from around 530 BC.

What would surprise them about us? Pretty much everything, but most of all, perhaps, the contrast our lives would present with the world I’ve just described: the sheer length of our lives; how little physical labour most of us get away with (at least in the developed world); the amount of time so many of us are able to spend on education and leisure. Most of which comes down to our technological mastery, our ability to capture energy and deploy it to any number of uses (communication, travel, culture) each of which would make us seem, in the eyes of the average Greek or Roman, nothing short of godlike.

Although we have much more information about classical Greek society than most people believe we do, this information is either written in text form or archaeological. So, when we think about ancient societies, we have to use our imaginations to visualize them. We don't know exactly how their musical instruments sounded, or when we read a speech, we have to imagine the exact tone it was delivered in. And that is the case for all history up until about a century ago - in other words up until a time that is still within living memory. History that is recorded visually and auditorily is only now really becoming history in the sense that we begin to rely exclusively on those records for an idea of 'what happened'.

How do you think this surfeit of recorded information will affect the study of history in the future?

There are two problems here – not enough information, and too much. Both are problems (as well as opportunities) because of the human propensity to make stories and theories out of whatever material is to hand – especially the stories that we would particularly like to tell, and the theories we’d especially like to be right. This is what the psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning’ – our tendency to use information, not to correct our own prior assumptions, but to reinforce them.

Ancient historians have this problem because, as you say, in a lot of cases we don’t really know what happened in the ancient world. We have stray bits of papyrus, texts that happened to make it through the bottleneck of manuscript transmission, slabs of marble with inscriptions on them. Bits of bone and some seeds we managed to dig up; here and there a statue head. Ancient historians have always been a bit more like detectives than modern historians, with their archives littered with smoking guns. Or maybe we’re like philosophers, hesitantly inferring our way forward through the dark with the light of the assumptions we’ve brought with us. Which means that, as in philosophy, the assumptions you bring with you can make a big difference to what you think you see.

Sometimes we ancient historians like to play a fun game with the students. What would future alien archaeologists make of us if they had the same crappy kind of evidence we often have about the ancient world? What would they write about you in their journals if they only had ten emails, a paragraph from a review of your book, a snatch of your obituary to go on? What would they think about our priorities as a society if all they could do was dig through our landfills?

As you say, though, it’s very likely that future archaeologists will instead have an opposite problem – too many Facebook posts to trawl through, too many Instagram snaps of our cats. But the strength of our tendency to shape the world to our own fancies means that this may simply make their different theories more detailed, not less partial. In the end, then, both historians of ancient Greece and of modern Toronto will face the same problem – how to make sure the theories they construct aren’t disastrously wonky ones. This is why I think the kinds of principles Heterodox Academy, of which I’m a member, has been trying to defend – viewpoint diversity, open discussions, no-holds-barred criticism – can’t be seen as optional add-ons to academic enquiry. They’re the conditions for any honest intellectual investigation, any kind of enquiry, that is, that really wants to get at the truth of how things are, or were.

I recently read an article about the posthumous cancelling of Philip Johnson, an American architect who was in his younger years, a Nazi supporter. Although he later recanted his views, there is some doubt as to how sincere he was.

The cancelling chiefly involves removing Johnson's name from projects he was involved in.

Modern cancellings like this often remind me of the way that ancient Egyptians would erase representations and records of deceased leaders that the current Pharaoh wished to expunge from history, for example the 'sun king' Akhenaten and female ruler Hatshepsut.

To me there seem to be two conflicting understandings of history: one as a celebration of the most accomplished and 'best' people, a kind of 'Hall of Fame' that one gets as a 'reward' for being good, and the other simply as a record of what happened, whether you like it or not. The more impactful whatever that thing was, the more of a headline act it is going to be in the history books, particularly if we can see the impact in the present day, and regardless of whether it was ultimately a good or bad thing.

What are your thoughts?

Is cancelling ultimately futile, anyway, as demonstrated by some of the Egyptian examples I referred to?

Is cancelling just part of the historical process? Is it a societal decision to 'forget' or excise some unwanted development? Or to recognize people who better encapsulate our values? Do we naturally 'edit' as we go?

Or is it creating gaping holes in our understanding of history?

Your thoughts!

Those two views of what history is go back a long way, at least as far as our friends the Greeks. Herodotus, at the beginning of his historia (investigation), tells us that he’s written it so that the achievements of men won’t be forgotten – including the ‘great and marvellous deeds’ done by both the Greeks and the barbarians during the Persian Wars. His successor Thucydides claimed to be doing a more objective kind of history, one that scorned the ‘fairy-tale stuff’ Herodotus went in for.

I don’t want to over-simplify things (and there’s a lot more to be said about both Herodotus and Thucydides’ approaches to history), but basically these two views have always been around, and can be seen as issuing from two different tendencies in human nature. One is a kind of moral and spiritual tendency – a tendency to tell stories about who we are, to venerate our ancestors, and to hold up examples of heroism and villainy for the improvement of future generations. Then there’s a more rationalistic, empirical, truth-seeking tendency, one that was became central to the post-Enlightenment project of scientific history, which by and large saw its over-riding purpose as finding out, to use von Ranke’s excellent phrase, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (how it actually was).

Now, a post-modernist would no doubt tell you at this point that all historical projects, even the most scientific-seeming ones (even Thucydides!) have their axes to grind and fishes to fry. And that’s often true – the kind of historiography that tends to grow up around family history and war memorials, for example, does often seem to be motivated by the side of us that wants to venerate our ancestors. Ideally, though, proper historical cultures and institutions will try to make sure that works in these genres can be exposed to the kind of discussion and criticism that will make it more likely that they adhere to some basic requirements of accuracy and even-handedness, whatever the emotional wellsprings they drew on and whatever the larger narratives they’re a part of.

While wanting to honour the heroes of the past is a natural human tendency, then, it’s important to make sure that this doesn’t over-ride something else we’ve long seen as important: the truth about what happened, an accurate sense of which can be quite handy for individuals and societies as they try to negotiate the present and future. Something similar can be said about the desire to condemn the villains of the past, or even to cut them out of the story. Condemning people is something we’ve long gone in for, of course, and in some ways, it’s a necessary part of human social life: if we want to live together, it can make sense to have certain norms, and it can also make sense to want to take action against individuals who breach those norms.

As with our tendency towards ancestor-worship, though, it’s important to keep our tendency to police social norms within certain boundaries, and to give rein to it, if we decide we have to, in a way that doesn’t catastrophically compromise other values and interests we might have. In the case of historical figures, there is, besides, a whole host of other complexities: inflicting social sanctions tends to be something we do to influence living people, so doing it to figures who are long gone immediately raises some tricky questions.

Does cancelling work? Sometimes, as you say, there’s a kind of Barbara Streisand effect where individuals others wanted to erase from the historical record have only become more famous. But it’s hard to tell exactly which figures were successfully erased because the ones who were have, by definition, left no trace. I’m pretty confident that most of our knowledge of the past will remain intact, and I wouldn’t even describe the recent decision to remove the names of figures like Abraham Lincoln from schools in San Francisco (for example) as leaving permanent holes in our history. But we do need to be reasonable about the good in figures like Lincoln as well as the bad; and the one-sidedness or the current discourse about the past, especially in the academy, is making it increasingly hard to take a balanced view. As in other fields, that can hamper our ability to see things as they really are or, in this case, were.

Today we take for granted that democracy is a form of government that is supposed to be universally desirable. But in ancient times that wasn't the case. How do you think ideas of public life have changed between then and now?

I think two things have happened over the long long term on the democracy front. First of all, the idea or ideal of equality – that we’re all in some sense equal, or at least that we should treat each other as equals in the political realm – that idea has triumphed in the past couple hundred years. We now live in a world, where, as you put it, democracy is universally desirable, or where, as Amartya Sen expressed it, democracy is ‘a universal value.’ That’s the case even in places where we might well question the sincerity of the official commitment to democracy – in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for example. (There are, in fact, only a handful of regimes in the world today that don’t at least claim to be democratic, however cynical some of those claims might be). Ronald Dworkin has made a similar point about modern political theories, virtually all of which now present themselves in egalitarian terms. That doesn’t mean democracy is completely without its discontents right now, even in the West, and I have some concerns myself about the apparently unstoppable rise of technocratic elitism. Even today’s self-regarding expert class, though, tends to justify itself by claiming it can improve the well-being of the whole of society. Virtually nobody nowadays makes claims to political power based on birth or a special connection to a divine realm, and that does represent is a shift in our way of looking at politics in the years since we first started living in complex states in the fourth and third millennia BC.

The other thing that’s happened, though – and this is something you go into in your book Beasts and Gods – is that the ideal the Greek had in mind when they came up with the word dēmokratia has been diluted over time. Or, really, the ideal of all of the citizens – even the poor ones – running their affairs directly was more or less entirely lost during the European Dark Ages (with a few honourable exceptions), and when modern mixed constitutions started to really get going in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the Greek aristocratic authors’ distrust of democracy, not the common Athenian citizen’s zeal for it, that got mixed into those systems. Of course, it’s always worth remembering that our systems extend political rights to far more people (we don’t exclude women, and we don’t have slaves), but what those rights cash out as in terms of active political power isn’t much. So we’re still in the position that the English were in, according to Rousseau, in the eighteenth century – fancying ourselves free (and even democratic) when our only real power is to cast a vote or two once in a blue moon.

There was a kind of rediscovery of Greek writing and ideas during the Renaissance. How, if at all, did that affect political thinking? Do we think of democracy as a good thing today, because this rebirth and quite revolutionary time in European history latched onto Athenian ideals? Would our history possibly be different, if those Greek ideas had not floated around at that time, when our notions of modern nation states and government were coalescing?

How Renaissance writers picked up Greek ideas about politics is a big topic, one that interested readers can get a fuller introduction to in Jennifer Tolbert Roberts’ book on the reception of Athenian democracy by later ages, Athens on Trial. As Roberts book shows, though (the subtitle is The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought) the tendency was always to read Athens through the eyes of its aristocratic critics (especially Thucydides and Plato) and hence to view democracy as a danger rather than a panacea. That, as you know, was the way that even the American founders viewed democracy.

1824 portrait by Thomas Stewardson of the English banker, MP, and radical historian George Grote (1794-1871).

It was only really after the English banker and radical George Grote’s revolutionary History of Greece (1846-56) that a more positive view of Athenian democracy became widespread. It’s also important to remember, in any case, that other factors besides ideas probably did a lot to pave the way for representative democracy – not least the unprecedented explosion in wealth in European nations in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Having said all that, ideas clearly did play a role in helping usher in more democratic ways of doing things, and many of these ideas were ultimately Greek ones. Grote, for example, spent his time as an MP trying (and failing) to introduce the secret ballot (something the Athenians had used in their courts). Egon Flaig, in his book on the history of majority decision-making (Die Mehrheitsentscheidung, 2013) finds that when the modern pioneers of free societies do make arguments for majority voting, these arguments tend to derive ultimately from Greek sources. So, in sum, it’s true that Greek ideas about democracy weren’t always well-known in the West, and it’s also true (as the late David Graeber pointed out) that they were often not well-received when they were known about. Nonetheless, they were always there in the tradition, and when their time did finally come they were eagerly taken up and made use of. And, undoubtedly, they had some impact.

Something I never really thought about until I researched ancient history, is how continuous the state of Rome has been, that it literally existed for 1000 years, and then continued in the East as the Byzantine Empire until the Ottoman conquest of 1453, and in the West less directly via the Holy German Roman Empire. So, in a certain sense, Rome never really stopped existing, unlike the democracy of the ancient Greek world which more or less stopped with the Macedonian conquest ca. 323 B.C. and then didn't really come onto the European stage again for close to two thousand years. How does that affect us, our customs and ideas of political institutions? I've always thought that, at least in Western Europe, we are much more Roman than we are Greek, but perhaps you have a different view.

It’s true, of course, that the Roman and Greek worlds never really stopped existing. Though there is an argument that at least some of the differences between the West and the rest in the modern period are due to the lack of a single strong state authority that took in most of Europe over the last millennium in the way that the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties encompassed much of China. Did this lead to a great number and diversity of states, more room for experimentation, and more competition (leading in turn to more innovation)? It’s certainly arguable (indeed, Walter Scheidel has just argued it in his book Escape from Rome).

As for how much we are Romans and Greeks, that depends partly (to paraphrase Tonto) on what we mean by ‘we.’ We two, as Canadians of European extraction, probably owe more of our day-to-day cultural habits to Germanic customs (meat-heavy diets, for example, or a fondness for beer) rather than Mediterranean ones (something Michael Bonner, another Canadian, has written about). We in general of course owe Romance languages (spoken natively by almost one seventh of the global population) to Rome, not to mention Christianity (professed by around a third of the global population), which emerged out of Jewish and Greek contexts and found its way to regional (and eventually global) adoption through the Roman Empire.

As for our political institutions, I think they at the moment are mostly indebted, not so much to the classical Greek democrats, but to what I’d call the Greco-Roman theory of the mixed constitution. The most influential form of this theory – one that held up a mixture or balance of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy as the best regime – was developed by Polybius, a Greek who was brought to Rome as a hostage after the Roman victory over Macedon at Pydna in 168 BC. This was obviously most influential in the US, whose founders openly drew on Polybius’ ideas in designing their new constitution, with its system of checks and balances between the House of Representatives (the democratic element), the Senate (the oligarchic element), and the Presidency (the monarchical element).

This idea of checks and balances between different powers is mainly an American one, but it seems to be having a growing impact on how we do democracy in other parts of the world as well: witness, for example, the creation of a Supreme Court in the UK in 2005. Our democracies today are largely Roman-American affairs, and only tenuously Greek. This brings me back to the possible motivations for studying ancient history. One thing ancient history can do, I think, is to snap us out of complacently modern ways of thinking about politics. Do we have to depend almost exclusively on elections, or could we in some instances use random allotment to boost popular participation in politics, as the Greeks did? I’ve long been of the opinion that the path to a truly participatory democracy in the future begins in classical Athens, and I was glad to learn that you and some of the other good people at the Solonian Democracy Institute have come to similar conclusions.

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