Plato Was Not White

PlatoAnother teaching semester is about to ramp up, and as is often the case, I have some Platonic dialogues lined up to teach.  I’ve taught at least one dialogue in  almost every semester since about 2005, and on the campus of Emmanuel College, where I’ve taught since 2009, people who know about me at all know about me as “that Plato guy.”  My sense is that the relatively few people who know about me on the Internet regard me likewise.

Perhaps that professional investment in Plato (personally, I’m more of a postmodern Augustinian with leanings towards MacIntyre’s brand of neo-Thomism) has made me more irritable than I should be when the old Athenian ends up in the crosshairs of well-meaning folks who wish to set right the balance of power and take away the overlordship (I prefer that Anglo-Saxon compound word to the Hellenism “hegemony,” and I grant the irony) from “dead white males.”  I think the political questions there are fascinating, but a matter of some historical import gets in the way of the politics, if one isn’t careful: Plato wasn’t White.

Whiteness, as sociologists will tell you if you ask, isn’t merely a matter of skin pigmentation: it’s a much more complex and more historical phenomenon. The stories of “light-skinned” Black people in the twentieth-century United States show some of this complexity.  Because they’re part of a narrative that involves centuries of institutional slavery, being “light-skinned” does not confer membership in the social group of political power. There might be social benefit relative to White people or even among other Black people, but also possible is a betrayal-anxiety renders such a Black person subject to different sorts of injustice, perhaps even suspicion that they’re masquerading as white by their own choice or betraying “their people” because they “look white.” 

Likewise, human beings born into the former (or current) European Empires with lighter-than-average pigmentation don’t get treated as “white” so much as exotic specimens of “those people” who “look like us.” Pigmentation figures in but only pigmentation as one variable in a complex, multi-variable system.

Where did Plato go in all of this?  My brief answer is that the name “Plato” has become a token in a game that the historical man Plato would not have recognized.  The fact of the matter is that Athens, though a significant regional power in the fifth and fourth centuries, was not the sort of global empire that the British and French and Germans and Dutch grabbed and maintained a couple thousand years after he wrote his rightly-famous dialogues.  In fact, reading around in the actual texts of Plato and his contemporaries reveals a fascination not with “white” empires (there weren’t any yet) but with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and other, more far-reaching powers who have become, in the age of European empires, the colonies of the new world powers.  And that’s the point: “White” names a very recent development in the grand human story, not one that’s perpetual or inevitable.  And that means we’re free to imagine other possibilities.

That’s what’s insidious about declaring Plato “White” too easily: such a move threatens to obscure the contingency of history, in which the man Plato was not “White” because that term takes its twenty-first-century meaning not from skin-coloring but from a centuries-long (but not THAT many centuries!) narrative of Capitalist-formed human slavery, nationalist-based empire-building, and–I grant this point–attempts to co-opt texts like those of Homer and Euripides and Plato as parts of a “Western Canon,” a movement that claims them as part of a project of “civilization” undeniably tied up in the story of how northern and western Europeans became “White” as opposed to the Asian and African and American tribes over whom they won military supremacy.

Or, to put it another way, I fear that when we 21st-century folks point at Plato and shout “White!” we forget the contingency and thus the mutability of the story of “White” and grant “White” a historical longevity that it just doesn’t have.  My hunch is that we might actually find more political grain to glean when we grant the historical contingency of the era of European overlordship, and I eagerly note that Washington, D.C. in the twentieth century is something analogous to Baghdad in the ninth or Rome in the first or Babylon centuries before that without being identical to any of the above.  But to insist on the “Whiteness” and thus the moral badness of someone who wasn’t around long enough to see that part of the human story strikes me as a reductionist move that ultimately cuts off conversations that are worth having.

Is Nathan Gilmour, twenty-first-century English professor and blogger, White?  Yes.  And there are better ways and worse ways for him to be so.  May he always be aware enough of his place in complex historical stories to strive towards better ways of living with his neighbor as the contingent, historical being that Dasein finds itself being.

Was Plato White?  No.  And my hunch is that the best way of reading him is not as a forerunner and pioneer of the British Empire but as someone alien to our own experiences precisely because he was a Greek and thus not a beneficiary of Empire the way that Nathan Gilmour is.

5 thoughts on “Plato Was Not White

  1. Plato the man was not white in the way that you’re suggesting–but “Plato” the idea certainly is white, maybe the whitest of all men-cum-ideas. If Whitehead was correct that all of Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, then Plato is the progenitor–unaware, yes, and probably unwilling–of the entire Western canon, which has been the measuring stick for whiteness for decades, even centuries. 

    In other words, I think what this post demonstrates is the need to separate thinkers, writers, and artists as people from the images their work creates for us. There are two separate conversations to be had here.

  2. Michial Farmer And yet, when I teach Platonic dialogues to white undergraduates, they encounter him not as a familiar father-figure but as an entirely alien interlocutor.  My hunch is that the “Western Canon,” whatever Harold Bloom thinks that means, is a construct far more familiar to academics than to students, and I think we miss good opportunities to–dare I say it–teach Plato to undergrads who know nothing but late capitalism as a multicultural text of sorts.

  3. ngilmour No doubt he’s foreign to undergraduates, and that’s a good reason to teach him. But Adam Smith is also foreign to them, despite their existing in late capitalism, so I’m not sure foreignness to undergraduates is the best judge of “whiteness” or canonicity. Certainly Plato is foundational to their metaphysics–particularly if they go to Christian colleges–whether they know it or not; part of what I do when I teach Plato, in fact, is demonstrate the degree to which they tacitly accept Platonic principles without even thinking about them.

  4. Michial Farmer ngilmour I’ve found that undergraduates can fairly readily talk about supply and demand, the notion that markets should be liberated from national interests, the immuntability and infinity of human desires, the scarcity of resources, and other Adam-Smith concepts with much more fluidity than they can discuss notions of human desire as radically disciplined, the nature of wisdom or courage or temperance as modes of human excellence, and other such Platonic concepts.  In other words, when I get MacIntyrean on them, they see what I’m teaching as new stuff, not as what they’d already been thinking all along.  But that might come from the sorts of students I get–they tend to be budding Libertarians around here.

    With regards to the category “White,” I’d definitely make a case that Smith is where Plato is not.  After all, his theories take their shape right in the middle of the Atlantic slave trade and the expansion of the British and Dutch Empires.  I suppose it’s the same reason I’d call Marx an anti-Capitalist writer but wouldn’t call Aristotle the same–I think historical contingency matters when we talk about these concepts.  I agree with you that the narrative of Plato’s co-optation is worth thinking and writing and teaching about, but I also think that historically contingent concepts deserve to be treated as historical, not as timeless.

  5. ngilmour Yes, but my students typically believe that God is more “real” than they are, that human love is a reflection of divine love, and (many of them) that art is supposed to be a mirror of the world around it and that it is “less than” that world. These are all Platonic ideas that have filtered down to them through Western metaphysics and particularly through Christianity. In that sense, I’d say that Plato is a contributer of the tradition you’re referring to as “white.” He’s part of the metaphysical structure against which someone like Derrida (who is also non-white in the ways you talk about Plato being non-white) kicks against.

    Where I think we can agree is the notion that “whiteness” is a historically complicated and contingent idea and that it’s a very bad reason to disqualify a given writer from the classroom. Some people–and again, Plato is the perfect example–interrogate the canon from within the canon; he thus has value to both traditionalists and progressives. My guess is that any great thinker is going to do this to a greater or lesser degree. Even Smith, who is certainly a less-great thinker than Plato, makes students rethink what capitalism is, for example, and on what basis it’s built.

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