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MYTHOLOGY AS HISTORY

11:00 PM, Mar 17, 1996 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Thus for many scholars factual accuracy is no longer the criterion for judging versions of history, which instead are judged in terms of the motivations of the historians: An Afrocentric account of classical antiquity can be regarded as "an alternative way of looking at the past," arguably even superior to the traditional account, because "it confers a new and higher status on an ethnic group whose history has largely remained obscure."


But some things really are true, and others really are false. If truth is so unrecognizable or irrelevant that we can't have certainty about simple matters of empirical fact, it is hard to see how we can be so certain about the moral truth underlying the Afrocentric rewriting of history: If we cannot say that some historical accounts are wrong simply because they are false, it is unclear that anything entitles us to reject (for example) the version of history promulgated by deniers of the Holocaust (even as we acclaim the version promulgated by Afrocentrists).


A renewed substantive interest in the classics would nevertheless be welcome, however dubious its motivation. But this consideration leads to an important question about the Afrocentric view of classical antiquity: If Greek philosophy is all that remains to provide us a clue to the wondrous Egyptian system of thought from which it supposedly derived, shouldn't undergraduates influenced by Afrocentrism be flocking to classics courses, seriously studying Plato and Aristotle, to recover as best they can the wisdom of ancient Egypt?


Needless to say, no influx of Afrocentrist students into classics courses is occurring. That, finally, is what is most depressing of all: The Afrocentric concern with Greek civilization seems to be restricted to sterile (and unpersuasive) arguments about the color of the skin of the great men and women of antiquity and resolutely to ignore the contents and the character of their words and deeds.



Joel Schwartz has taught political philosophy at the University of Michigan and been a program officer at the NationalEndowment for the Humanities.