Plato And Racism

It is common nowadays to argue that racism is a relatively recent invention in human history. It is said to be a creation of European imperialists justifying their conquering, enslaving and colonizing other parts of the world. It was necessary, the argument goes, that the Christian conquerors of the Americas and enslavers of Africans needed to provide justification for the economically profitable subhuman treatment of the diverse people they encountered. Since European colonial adventurers tended to stake their claims in non-neighbouring lands, on account of Europe being hemmed in by the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, the robust Islamic world, and Orthodox Russia, they found the peoples there to be different in appearance as well as in customs, languages, religion, and other practices. By making white, Christian Europeans into the paragon of humanity, the story goes, the colonial powers could justify paternalism and exploitation of the indigenous populations, who were “less than human” and not worthy of the same respect as another European.

All of this is true in so far as it describes how Europeans constructed justifications for treating non-Europeans as inferior. But it simply does not describe any sort of meaningfully new phenomenon.

The  following excerpt is from Plato’s Republic, Book V, page 469.

First take slavery. Is it right that Greek states should sell Greeks into slavery? Ought they not rather to do all they can to stop this practice and substitute the custom of sparing their own race, for fear of falling into bondage to foreign nations?

That would be better, beyond all comparison.

They must not, then, hold any Greek in slavery themselves, and they should advise the rest of Greece not to do so.

Certainly. Then they would be more likely to keep their hands off one another and turn their energies against foreigners.

Page 470:

Is it not also reasonable to assert that the Greeks are a single people, all of the same kindred and alien to the outer world of foreigners?


Then we shall speak of war when Greeks fight with foreigners, whom we may call their natural enemies. But Greeks are by nature friends of Greeks, and when they fight, it means Hellas is afflicted by dissension which ought to be called civil strife.

Substitute “Greeks” for “whites” and this text reads like the most detestable white supremacist literature out there. Plato’s Greece and European Christendom are similar in other pertinent respects, too. Both were political disunities, filled with many states that warred amongst themselves, yet had a common religion and antagonism towards barbarians (Macedonians or Lithuanians, for example) and strong, neighbouring empires (Persian and Islamic, respectively). In both cases visionary figures dreamed of civilization that, if not unified, at least enjoyed fraternal relations among its constituent states. Both regarded “barbarians” or “savages” as inferior. In Europe the advocates of such figures are well known; in ancient Greece, Aristotle held these views.

This shows the problem with claims that racism is an invention of modern Europe. Unfortunately such viewsare all too widespread, and obscure demonstrably universal tendencies towards racism. For example, in a recent book review, J. Kameron Carter, author of the widely praised 2008 book Race: A Theological Account, writes that

We must remember that it was a form of theology … that gave birth to the modern/colonial/racial world in the 15th and 16th centuries, which then perfected itself in the 19th and 20th centuries when modern knowledges were consolidated as Wissenschaften.

Here Carter as theologian appropriately looks for historical antecedents to the racial thinking that arose in early modern Europe in theology. However, his statement is only accurate inasmuch as it is understood as referring specifically to the particular kind of racism that first arose in early modern Europe. This particular form of racism is conspicuous in its effects around the world today, and is certainly something worth studying, understanding, and fighting. However, if someone reads it and understands that “racism happened for the first time in 15th and 16th century Europe,” that person has believed wrongly. (In this case, it is also wrong to believe that Christian or monotheistic faith is what leads to racism, given that Plato was neither.) In fact, I believe this particular historical error is based on a racist assumption. It fundamentally depends on the myth of the “noble savage,” that superior, “natural” person untainted by Western civilization. That belief itself depends on a sort of “Western exceptionalism,” in which European civilization has produced a people fundamentally more developed than their counterparts in the rest of the world. Inverting this exceptionalism to claim that that development was a bad thing may be helpful in reducing bigotry, but it perpetuates prejudicial treatment of non-whites and thus reinforces racial categorization.

Racism is not, in fact, something all that different from what gets called “tribalism” when practiced on a smaller scale. Most people have, on some level, greater solidary with some sort of “in-group” defined over and against a group viewed as being “other.” Racism locates this all but universal human instinct specifically in ethnicity rather than (though sometimes coupled with) language, religion, city, or state. But it isn’t as unique as it’s made out to be. And since it is but a particular manifestation of a common prejudice, it is appropriate to treat it seriously without viewing it as some sort of historical anomaly.

13 comments on “Plato And Racism

  1. Michael Westmoreland-White says:

    Oppressing others has a long history, but Plato didn’t use the term “race” in the same way that later Europeans did. A “race” was simply a people group–not a group distinguished by color or body type and believed to be subhuman.

    • Theophilus says:

      Granted. Plato’s dividing lines were more based on cultural and linguistic difference than physiological. But physiological distinctions have ancient pedigree, too. The belief that the Hamites cursed by Noah were punished with black skin, an oft-repeated trope by historical modern Western racists, originates in the Babylonian Talmud.

  2. erin says:

    I agree with your basic premise, (I’m a lurker and enjoy your blog!)but at the risk of getting pedantic, there are a couple of important issues that jump out to me. First, and I take it you agree, Carter doesn’t seem to be under the illusion that prejudice is a modern invention, -having in fact read the OT.

    I also think that “racism” could use some defining. It does have a technical definition in university, and it is more than just prejudice: it is prejudice that is in power, that has power and is perhaps inherent to that power either essentially or historically.

    So it’s important to acknowledge that while prejudice isn’t a western modern phenomenon, the way it has occurred through the west is unique if only for the expanse of influence and power it has had. The west’s prejudice has had a particular character that involves the exercise of power through its particular structures in ways that are unique to it. Is the “tribalism” of seventeenth century African tribes that warred basically the same as the racism underwriting the Middle Passage? I think the difference between racism and prejudice lies in the answer.

    Plato is a great reference because definitely you demonstrate his prejudice. But this can’t be examined without noting the strength and expanse of the classical Greek empire in which he formulated such ideas, -in which identities were able to be enforced. Fittingly, he is in many ways the father of western thought.

    So, erm, anywyas, sorry for the word jumble. Great stuff, thanks!

    • Theophilus says:

      Absolutely, modern Western racism is a historically distinct and devastatingly potent phenomenon. I’m not entirely on board with the university definition of racism, though. I suppose it works well enough to describe a certain specific phenomenon. But then you need another term to label groups such as black supremacists in the US, a disempowered group that engages in racially based prejudice. It also doesn’t include what I perceived as white supremacist attitudes I encountered among the local blacks (!) in Uganda several years ago. Never mind that I was fresh out of high school, by virtue of nothing but my light complexion I was considered knowledgable, wise and spiritually powerful by the locals. This sort of positive racial prejudice doesn’t fit well under the university definition of racism, either.

      • erin says:

        Yes, exactly; I agree a different term should be used. There is enough energy generated by the label racism that conversations might push further if we used new labels instead of creating new definitions for old ones. What motivates my point is that the specific use of racism in universities is one minority voices have shaped and I want to give those voices the right to define it. I’m probably spitting in the wind with this one, though, as there is no one word to stand in for racial prejudice as easily.

        Let’s just call everyone bigots :)

  3. dbarber says:

    I’m a bit confused about what your interest is in this post. If the point is that certain elements of tribalism can be found in modern racism, then yes, of course. But you seem almost to want to conflate tribalism and racism. So while, obviously, certain elements found in modern racism pre-existed modern racism… well, what’s the point of foregrounding this? Are you claiming that modern racism is nothing new? Because it is new (tribalism may be a necessary element of modern racism, but it is by no means equivalent to modern racism). And to deny this seems to adopt a depoliticized and ahistorical perspective — which seems to be your real aim, to which i’m asking: Why are you interested in this?

    Would it suffice to change “the modern invention of racism” to “the invention of modern racism”?

    Because if we conflate modern racism with Plato’s racism we basically blunt all the edges of of modern racism, i.e. the very racism with which we have to deal.

  4. dbarber says:

    p.s. I understand that you have articulated this: “Racism is not, in fact, something all that different from what gets called “tribalism” when practiced on a smaller scale.”

    But that just seems to avoid the question, as if you are saying “they’re not that different, once you put aside the substantial differences”. And the difference isn’t just “scale.”

    This seems to be like saying: “Hiroshima was not, in fact, something all that different from what gets called “a barfight” when practiced on a smaller scale.”

    • Theophilus says:

      The point is that sometimes the existence of modern racism is used as part of a “noble savage” narrative, in which neither even obliquely similar phenomena nor the building blocks of racism are present in non-Western cultures. That’s all.

      This sort of awareness might be helful in explaining why, for instance, Nazi racial ideology transplanted so well to Japanese-occupied Korea.

      • dbarber says:

        Well i don’t see why that would require saying that Euro-Christian modern racism is not a “meaningfully new phenomenon.” You haven’t really addressed my questions, which is fine, but honestly it seems to me a very strange argument that you’re making. It really does seem to me like you want to minimize the significance of a violence that not only is still with us, but that had both a scale and a quality/character that is unmatched. It seems, in short, that you’re attempting to say that “White Christianity isn’t all that bad, comparatively.”

      • Theophilus says:

        I’ll grant that I indulged in some overstatement. I’m not intending to minimize the importance of modern Western racism, either. But this is a blog, and as such it is a platform for various musings, not all of which are so terribly important for the well-being of the world, or anything like that. Saying the underpinnings of racism are universal is far from the most important thing that could be said about the topic, and I know it. But it’s true enough, has some relevance, and doesn’t get a whole lot of airplay, so I said it.

  5. truthisreason says:

    Nothing but mindless drivel written by a multicultural cultist. Does not Nature itself create races (sub-species) within each species? I suppose Nature itself is a nasty racist who needs to become more hip and “diverse”. Diversity is ruined by this nonsense, because it homogenizes everything. Homogenization makes everything into one gray blob, rather than actually respecting the true diversity of Nature. Long live Plato in the realm of Forms!

    • Theophilus says:

      So you say “Nature itself creates races (sub-species) within each species” and “Nature itself … needs to become more hip and ‘diverse’”? You contradict yourself and don’t make any sense. All I can tell is that you seem angry.

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