Now there's a wall between us, something there's been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm."--Bob Dylan
From America ex America to E Pluribus Unum
The unexpected election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the office whence--we like to believe--freedom issues forth into the world, has ushered in an era of profound disorientation that most of us are still trying to make sense of nearly nine months later, whether we are an ardent fans looking forward to renewed greatness or rather members of the Night's Watch standing sentinel for the apocalypse. Indeed: Where are we? Are we staring at a relic of the past, a rock and roll oldies concert headlined by sagging musicians on their last tour; or are we bearing witness to the fountainhead of a brave new America?
Aristarchus of Samothrace, a second-century BCE Greek critic of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, advocated a technique for understanding one part of the poems by looking at all other parts for context, an approach that became known in Latin as Homerum ex Homero, reading "Homer from Homer." It is certainly valuable and often very satisfying to see a human artifact as a self-contained whole, and many have found it helpful to take this approach with other written works like the New Testament and the American Constitution. Nevertheless, much is left out by ignoring both the broad cultural context in which an artifact is produced as well as the irreconcilable contradictions that may obtain even in a careful work of genius. America itself is currently suffering from many cultural blind-spots that would help it to better understand itself. We have fallen victim to an America ex America approach in trying to understand the circumstances we now find ourselves in. Many of us tend to believe that, for all its acknowledged faults, America is the greatest country in the world, in the history of the world, even though many Americans would be hard-pressed to give any kind of detailed description of most cultures from the past or the ways and customs of other countries today. Our exceptionalism has justified a certain laziness that presumably less-than-great nations cannot fall prey to because they are still trying to figure out how to be as "great" as us. So, in the aftermath of the 2016 election we found many of our expect political and cultural commenters trying to make sense of things in familiar American terms: President Trump was a populist like Andrew Jackson. His isolationist, America First rhetoric was nothing new: Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh had plucked similar strings in the past, but their song had just not resonated quite as much. The Trump election was the pendulum swinging back to the Republican side after eight years of a Democrat in the White House. Maybe it was a "backlash" to the country's first black president. Maybe it was just another rare but familiar anomaly in American political life, a "Dewey Defeats Truman." The farthest the American mind seems willing to step outside of itself in most cases is to wonder to what extent we are becoming like horrific trifecta of foreign autocracies of the early-middle 20th century: Germany, Italy, Russia (on which see the excellent work of Masha Gessen). The best and most scholarly of these answers to the question of where are we? may be found in the so-far three iterations of the "Trump Syllabus" (see one, two, and three), all of which explore the Era of Donald Trump through many different lenses, including race, class, gender, economics, and media studies. But most of these lenses are decidedly American.
Yet, like any human artifact, America is much older than it seems and it is much more worldly, much less exceptional than it believes it is (even though it may still be exceptional). It it thus the conviction of the creators of this course experience that the Era of Trump is better understood by an E Pluribus Unum approach: we must seek out the many relevant sources and apply the many relevant methods at our disposal, in order to move toward (hopefully) one coherent understanding. Accordingly, we believe that the study of the ancient world--all of it, really, but particularly the ancient Mediterranean world--can help us understand more fully where we are right now and where we may be headed.
When should a leader consult the past? Whose past? What era? What region? How much of the past should be studied and how carefully? A course experience like this trains would-be leaders to consider these questions carefully.
We can be very specific about what benefits we see in applying the professional study of leadership in the ancient world to the Era of Donald Trump:
- Almost all of the words we might use to talk about Trump--or any other leader--are thousands of years old and have origins and shades of meaning that are still felt and may still help us think and communicate more clearly and more constructively. So far in the Trump Presidency new and controversial words are cropping up weekly, like "cosmopolitan," an ancient Greek word that describes a "citizen of the world" (for more on which see here). Much of what this course is about is helping ourselves develop a richer, more precise language for engaging in political discourse, one that hopefully alleviates some of the vagueness, hyperbole, and high emotion that seems occasion political rhetoric more and more in the Era of Trump, a trend encouraged and advanced by the president himself.
- Many of the technical terms that we use to analyze Trump’s leadership were around in the ancient world or have their origin there, e.g., tyrant, demagogue, populism, narcissist (from the mythological figure Narcissus). Accordingly, this course devotes specific modules to these terms.
- Modern forms of government and ideas about good governance have extensive precedent in the ancient world. Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic played crucial roles in the conception of early America. Many leaders from that time can serve as reference points for reflecting on Trump’s leadership, figures such as Pericles, Alcibiades, and Julius Caesar. Leaders such at Cyrus the Great of Persia have emerged as models for thinking about Trump by his Christian evangelical supporters. And the supposed political ideology Athenian historian Thucydides has even been a topic of discussion within the Trump White House itself, notably by his (former as of August 18, 2017) chief strategist Steve Bannon and his Secretary of Defense Mike Mattis.
- Issues of race, gender, and the treatment of immigrants and foreigners, though topics most Americans do not immediately associate with the ancient world, are highly relevant to the Era of Trump: the cultural identity that Trump’s most racist supporters have sought to construct often uses the ancient Mediterranean world and its perceived “whiteness” as a starting point.
- Many of our familiar modes of political discourse--oratory, drama, art, propaganda--have ancient analogues that are in some ways strikingly familiar and yet very strange. The familiarity can help us see the universality of human leadership and political life and the strangeness can challenge us to think in new ways about our own world.
- The psychological experience of leadership, both as a constellation of personality traits/behaviors and as a range of experiences (anxiety, sorrow, fear, envy, anger, joy), were of great interest to ancient thinkers whose legacy is a seemingly inexhaustible array of helpful insights into the modern leader’s psyche.
- Although Americans tend to believe that their constitution and the government it established is the final and best one, nevertheless many ancient historians and philosophers felt otherwise: to their thinking--which was informed by sometimes centuries of empirical evidence--governments went through a natural cycle (an anacyclosis) according to the character of their leaders and citizens (see the writings of Herodotus, Plato, and Polybius). Classicists may then be forgiven if we suspect the American constitution is less durable than those who take only the America ex America approach. The alarm bells we sound may then serve to heighten our fellow citizens' awareness of the vulnerabilities to our precious system of government.
All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again--J. M. Barrie
Is this approach to ancient leadership “anti-Trump”?
This course is the result of a collaboration between over a dozen professional classicists. At no point in the creation of this course did we take a poll to see who voted for/against Donald Trump for president. No one was asked if the material they assembled for the course was "pro-Trump" or "anti-Trump." We all began with the same question, “What can the ancient world, both its source material and its methodologies, teach us about the Era of Donald Trump?” We see ourselves first as truth-seekers and educators (not political or ideological partisans), and so we deserve to be called out wherever we fall short of this goal. We chose to focus on the Trump Era rather than the president himself, in order to include any and all aspects of American and world culture that have lead to this Era.
Despite our open-ended question, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that many, if not all of us, have serious and ongoing concerns about the character, beliefs, worldview, experience, and mental health of candidate and now President Trump and also about the decisions, statements, and behavior he has exhibited so far in office. Those who experience this course of study are likely to be able to guess what our concerns are. Nevertheless, the modules that make up this course are not focused on the question of “what is wrong with President Trump and his supporters?” Nor do we attempt to make and defend evaluative claims about President Trump. No one among us is a professionally trained American historian much less a presidential historian. We are also not primarily sociologists or psychologists, though we utilize research in these areas to understand our own subject matter as it relates to the ancient and modern world. We are instead researchers who are professionally trained to excavate and interpret source material from the ancient Mediterranean world, including literature, art, architecture, and other cultural artifacts. Our main goal is to use our training in ancient leadership to help ourselves and those who take this journey with us understand the current world we find ourselves in. Thus, our modules typically begin with the discussions that are already going on throughout the American community, including those started by Trump himself and those who support him.
The Flow of This Course
The first module, "What Are Words For?", takes up the question of the words that have been used to describe President Trump, many of which have a Latin or Greek origin. One of the goals of the module is to consider the meanings of these words very carefully and work toward a more constructive discourse on (presidential) leadership. "Voices Carry" explores the ancient myth of Echo and Narcissus in Ovid's Metamorphoses, compares Narcissus to the present-day construct of narcissism, and invites readers to reflect on the good (if any) and the bad sides of a narcissistic leader. The album's title track, "American Pie," takes up the question of race and racism both in America and in the ancient world, which is often seen as the origin of so-called Western Civilization. "The Weight" explores the use of the Greek historian Thucydides as an authority in the Trump White House on matters of military and political strategy. Readers are introduced to fifth-century Athens, and Athenian democracy, which will be a theme for many modules in the course. "People Are People" treats the theme of populism and demagoguery from ancient Athens to the Roman Republic to modern America in the wake of the Trump presidency. "Shelter from the Storm" continues the theme of democracy but within the context of the ancient Athenian theater and its depiction of suppliants-often suppliant foreigners--on stage. "Our Only Goal Will Be the Western Shore," a reference to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," takes up the question of immigration in the ancient world and what it means to be or become a natural citizen. "There Can Be Only One" teases out both the direct and indirect relationships between the Trump brand of presidential leadership and the imperial or kingly leadership of Cyrus the Second (or "Great") of the Persian Empire. This module on imperial kingship is followed by "I Know Your Anger, I Know Your Dreams" (a reference to Living Colour's "Cult of Personality"), which treats ancient definitions of tyranny (and the "tyrannical man") as well as the experiences that the life of a tyrant were imagined to entail by the ancient philosopher Xenophon. "Into My Heart, Into My Life (from Tom Petty's "Face in the Crowd") surveys the history of portraiture, especially tyrannical portraiture, from the ancient world into the 20th century and today. Students are trained to "read" a portrait in the same way they might read a poem, teasing out meaning from all the symbols and their associations. "She's Always a Woman" returns to the theme of the psychology of the leader discussed in "Voices Carry," with an exploration of one ancient biographer's portrait of the fifth-century Athenian statesman, Alcibiades, who has been "diagnosed" as a psychopath by at least one modern psychologist. Last but not least, "Electric Ladies, Will You Sleep?" (fm. Janelle Monae's "Q.U.E.E.N.") explores what it means to be a woman in power in the ancient and modern world as well as a woman behind the power, as in the case of Melania and Ivanka Trump.
Mallory Monaco Caterine
The cover art for this course is modeled on the American Pie album by Don McLean (1971). One of the best predictors, it seems, for support of President Trump among white voters was a "cultural anxiety" or "fear of societal change" (as opposed to economic anxiety). McLean's song is a song about the death of Buddy Holly in February of 1959 ("The day the music died"), which was followed by the 1960's counterculture--a great period of cultural anxiety that is still being felt today. This juxtaposition of American Pie with American Pi invites us to consider to what extent the feeling of loss that McLean sang about is the same feeling of loss in many contemporary Trump supporters who expect the president to "Make America Great Again," with "again" being an unspecified and perhaps imaginary time in the past.
We thank enthusiastically Mali Skotheim for her wonderful cover image!