The Case against Martin Bernal
by David Gress

from The New Criterion vol. 1, December, 1989


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Who would have thought it possible to enlist Bronze Age Greece in the current academic war against Western civilization? This is precisely the situation within the profession of classics, a discipline that has certainly been familiar with political polemics in the past. There is a substantial and respectable Marxist contingent of British and Italian classicists, headed by the touchy and irascible Geoffrey de Sainte Croix, who for four decades has tried to browbeat us into accepting that the class struggle is the key to understanding ancient society. Classicists impatient with the slow pace of social change in Italy felt obliged to support the cultural hegemony of the Communist party. From the 1950s to the 1970s, with the exception of the great scholar Arnaldo Momigliano, most work of grand scope in Italian classics came from Marxists like Santo Mazzarino, Francesco de Martino, and Sebastiano Timpanaro. Despite their crude metaphysics and simplistic sociology, however, these scholars were ultimately, like their non-Marxist peers, loyal to their subject. They would have been shocked and dismayed to learn that classical scholarship would eventually provide propaganda for distorting and dismantling higher education.

Just this is Martin Bernal’s objective in his recent book, Black Athena, subtitled The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. [1] Bernal, professor of government at Cornell University, a former Sinologist, and, like many of his fellow academics, a supporter of the Communist side during the Vietnam War, tells his readers candidly that “the political purpose of Black Athena is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.” Apart from the fact that this charge has become a straw man—the chief problem in the academy today isn’t European cultural arrogance but its opposite— Bernal’s account, and the political circumstances in which it appears, raise some important questions about scholarship and propaganda in the academy and, a fortiori, in what remains of the general culture.

The provocative, even sexy title Black Athena promises proof that the foundation of Greek culture, its philosophy, art, literature, and historiography—all, in short, that traditional humanists have held up as archetypes and models of Western greatness—was not, after all, the work of white Europeans but of Egyptians and Levantines. In fact the book does not prove or even argue anything of the sort. Its appeal to the anti-intellectual activists on America’s campuses is based on a deception. Bernal nowhere discusses Greece of the classical period; rather, he contends that Bronze Age Greece, of the second millennium B.C. (that is, a thousand years before the age of Sophocles, Phidias, and Pericles), was heavily influenced by, and perhaps even a colony of, Egypt and/or Phoenicia. This is an interesting argument, present-day ideology apart, but it offers no logical support whatsoever for the claim that “classical civilization” has “Afroasiatic roots.” What Bernal does is to announce that he is about to fire a devastating broadside at the intellectual and moral edifice of traditional classical scholarship and at the political uses to which it has supposedly been put. What follows is indeed a broadside—but one aimed at a completely different (and undefended) target. The original target remains intact, though Bernal and his admirers proclaim that it has been destroyed.

Bernal offers two reasons to support his argument that the second millennium is relevant to the achievements of the classical period a thousand years later. First, he writes that the so-called Dark Age of Greece—from 1100 to 750 B.C., between the end of the Mycenaean and the beginnings of the classical period—did not, as almost all classicists claim, mark a complete break in culture. According to Bernal, population, language, literacy, religion, and culture all survived essentially unchanged. Because there is no evidence for this view, Bernal cannot provide any. Rather, he defiantly proclaims his impatience with “positivists” who incessantly demand “proof.” One of these narrow-minded scribblers is Oswyn Murray, the tutor in ancient history at Balliol College, Oxford, who in his book Early Greece states the consensus as follows: “Discontinuity with the past was virtually complete: later Greeks were unaware of almost all the important aspects of the world that they portrayed in heroic poetry. … The Greek world from the eighth century onwards is a product, not of Mycenae, but of the Dark Age.” [2] In fact, the only conceivable reason that Bernal asserts continuity of culture through the Dark Age is that by doing so he can claim that there is a link between Afroasiatic Bronze Age Greece and a putatively Afroasiatic classical Greece. Such a link, of course, is necessary to his larger political purpose.

Bernal’s second argument concerns linguistics. The vocabulary of ancient Greek is 50 percent non-Indo-European, and classical Greek grammar, he avers, shows a language “worn down” and streamlined by long use in a sophisticated culture. Bernal is right about Greek vocabulary (though his figure of 50 percent may be a bit high), but the point is not relevant. Even if there were cultural continuity from the Bronze to the classical ages, the lexicon of a language is no evidence for the cultural or ethnic composition of its speakers, as any good linguist or anthropologist knows.

Moreover, vocabulary elements and place names aside, the Greek language is one of the most obviously Indo-European features of the culture. Two brief examples: the Greek verb is an archetypally Indo-European structure in that it displays both main types of verbal system found in that language family: the aspectual, which emphasizes duration and frequency of action (as in Russian verbs), and the multi-tensual, which locates an action in time (as in Spanish verbs). Second, most linguists consider ablaut (a change in the root vowel to denote changes in tense, as in English strong verbs like sink/sank/sunk, or in word type, as in bear/burden) to be a basic feature of Indo-European languages; Greek displays it to a high degree, more so than Latin. Bernal’s argument that Greek grammar was worn down because it had been used on a literate level for a millennium without interruption is simply absurd. Latin lost about a third of its inflections and numerous archaic features in the space of two hundred years. There was plenty of time between the Dark Age and the era of frequent surviving inscriptions for Greek to do the same. These points may seem minor, but they are sufficient to show that Bernal simply does not make the case he claims to make and that his supporters believe he has made.

“Who were the Greeks?” has been a fundamental question for classicists for at least the last two centuries. Few have dared to provide a clear answer. Ancient Greek mythology, religious practices, political and social institutions, philosophy, language, and historiography do not tell a single, easily decipherable story about Greek ethnic or cultural origins, nor do they contain a simple civilizational code that would permit modern scholars to locate the Greeks in comparative perspective. If, for example, one studies religious beliefs and customs in isolation, one discovers evidence of Greeks who could not possibly have co-existed with those revealed by an examination of literature or political institutions. Greek civilization, it seems, was a mix of radically different, incompatible forms.

This diversity of basic elements is, of course, a major reason that Greek civilization remains the greatest and most fascinating of all high cultures. It also explains why many of the most distinguished students of comparative culture and mythology have been wary of Greek evidence. The late Georges Dumézil, for example, argued that all Indo-European-speaking peoples looked at society and the cosmos in terms of a tripartite division of both divine and human functions, such as the priest, the warrior, and the laborer who respectively served religious, political, and productive functions. Dumézil had no trouble in fitting the Romans into this scheme, but he found problematic variations in Greek culture.

Good scholarship on Greek origins requires a range of skills that few have the ability or the time to acquire. Since the early years of this century, moreover, classical studies have lost their formerly central place in Western liberal education. We find it almost inconceivable today that three years of Greek and five of Latin were standard requirements in college preparatory schools throughout the United States before 1914. As late as the 1970s, the standard grammar used in my Greek courses at the University of Copenhagen was one written by an American scholar a hundred years earlier. By contrast, few people calling themselves educated today expect to be able to sprinkle their writings with classical allusions or quotations, nor do they expect to recognize them in older works. And, I might add, the classics are but one of many threatened branches of academic learning.

In this era of galloping anti-intellectualism, virtually the only works in the classics to gain notice beyond the narrow confines of the profession are those that, by design or by accident, serve some contemporary political purpose. The main objective in the American university today is to attack and abolish core curricula on European thought and history on the grounds that they have nothing to offer the multicultural society of the future, tainted as they are with the ineradicable sins of sexism, racism, and chauvinism. (Forget for the moment the inconvenient fact that the very idea of attacking sexism, etc., is an artifact of Western culture.) In recent years, politicizing academics and their student followers have added a curious twist to this charge. Going one step further than maintaining that there are, in principle, no objectively great cultural achievements that all educated people should know about, these academics tell us that, if any such achievements do exist, they are under no circumstances the accomplishment of “Dead White European Males.” Rather, all greatness is due to women, blacks, and other groups whose true prerogative has been wrongfully suppressed by these same white European males. Thus they add the charge of false indoctrination in the past to that of irrelevance in the present; together, these two charges are meant to justify the practical policy of reverse indoctrination for the future.

One minor example of the alarming consequences of this agitation was the episode last year at Stanford University in which two white students were heavily penalized and forced to exercise ritual public self-criticism for blackening the picture of Ludwig van Beethoven on a poster after some black students had claimed that Beethoven was Negro. Clearly the black students had no interest in Beethoven’s place in European music and civilization, but only in the immediate political capital to be gained from annexing him to their own campaigns. A much more significant example of this agitation, however, is the shameless politicization of culture that is encouraged by the author of Black Athena.

If Bernal’s first claim is that Bronze Age Greece was an Egyptian and Semitic colony, his second main claim, to which he devotes the first volume of Black Athena, is that the ancient Greeks of the classical period and, indeed, most classicists until the early nineteenth century knew of and accepted the fact of these Egyptian and Levantine roots. According to Bernal, it was only in the era of European colonialism and racism that classicists decided, for ideological reasons, that the ancient Greeks, as the forefathers of Europe, had to be Indo-European and white, and that they could not owe anything of importance in their culture to Africans or Semites. As for Egypt, he writes that “after the rise of black slavery and racism, European thinkers were concerned to keep black Africans as far as possible from European civilization.” Bernal is not willing to state categorically that ancient Egypt was in fact a civilization of black Africans. Rather, he is content to imply that the Egyptians may have been partly or predominantly black, which in today’s climate is more than enough to annex Egypt, like Beethoven, to the dossier of hitherto suppressed black achievement. Bernal also supports the speculative theory that classical Egyptian derives from a common East African tongue that is also the ancestor of Semitic languages (including, of course, Hebrew). Politically, this theory permits the argument that Semites, too, owe their language and culture to blacks. I can’t help thinking, in regard to Egypt, that it would be salutary if those activists who want to infuse core curricula with the contributions of “persons of color,” women, and non-Europeans would indeed take the trouble to study Egypt and its cultural influence. By taking Egypt seriously, these activists might learn those things about high culture that they refuse to learn from Europe, and they might also come to realize, however dimly, the immeasurable gulf that separates their own complaints and resentments from the cultural achievements of Egypt.

I should at this point declare my own interests in the matter. I work on the periphery of a university that is currently suffering severely from anti-European cultural arrogance, or, to speak frankly, from black racist attempts to impose indoctrination in the place of teaching and scholarship. I consider it harmful for Bernal to title his work Black Athena, since he well knows how this will be read by the audience for which he is writing, namely as an argument that Greek culture was black culture. The black activists who have seized on Bernal’s book could not care less about the serious ethnographic, linguistic, and anthropological questions that Bernal’s argument raises. They have no interest in learning classical Greek or in understanding the problems and issues involved in the study of Greek religion in order to discuss competently what the Greek language might owe to the Egyptian or Phoenician languages, or what elements of Greek religion might derive from Afroasiatic roots. They will use Black Athena the same way they used the claim that Beethoven was black: as a truncheon in their battle against the place of European thought and history in the academic curriculum. For them, and I regret to say for Bernal, Greek civilization is interesting not because it contains lessons of abiding value, but because it retains a certain, albeit etiolated, symbolic value in the public mind and therefore must be controlled by those who are now in the business of political indoctrination.

My second interest lies in the fact that I was a classics undergraduate and should therefore, if Bernal is right, have been exposed to the white European view of ancient Greece, what he calls the “Aryan Model.” At Cambridge I heard the lectures of, among others, F. H. Stubbings, Denys Page, J. E. Raven, Moses Finley, Pat Easterling, and Arnaldo Momigliano. I can assure Bernal (if he has any honest doubts) that none of these scholars was in the least concerned with the Aryan or any other “model” of the Greeks. On the contrary, for all that distinguished these scholars intellectually and temperamentally, they shared a love of and commitment to texts, to the real evidence of what the ancient Greeks believed, felt, and said about themselves. As I mentioned, Bernal states that he has no patience with “positivists” and their irritating habit of demanding “proof” of assertions. No doubt studying the records and painstakingly deciding what these records might or might not mean, and what conclusions one can legitimately draw from them, is infinitely less exciting than denouncing all those who perform such work as racists and ideologues. What is ironic, given the contrast in method, is that every one of the scholars I have mentioned was capable of broad, synthetic, and often provocative interpretations. The difference between them and Bernal is that they told you something new about the ancient world, whereas Bernal merely modernizes old anti-Western commonplaces.

What, precisely, is Bernal’s ideology? Behind his fashionable, anti-Western façade lurks a very traditional Marxism. After all, Bernal dedicates his work to his father, the well-known scientist and Communist fellow traveler John Desmond Bernal, “who taught me that things fit together, interestingly.” They certainly do. I must say that in my own moral scale Bernal senior ranks very low indeed, somewhere between Pol Pot and Jean-Paul Sartre. J. D. Bernal was one of those who voluntarily surrendered his intellect and scholarly integrity to the cause of the greatest mass murderer in the history of mankind: that of Joseph Stalin. [3] Bernal junior, ever the loyal red diaper baby, glories in this affiliation. He must, therefore, expect to have his work judged in the political context within which he operates. For Bernal senior, the context was Stalin’s attempt to subjugate Europe and exterminate all those he defined as his enemies. For Bernal junior, it is the post-1968 context of Third World liberationism and Marxist anti-imperialism. Speaking of the modern Middle East, for example, Bernal puts the word terrorists in sneer quotes and says that the Western image of the violent Arab or Iranian is the product of pure racism. Elsewhere, he refers naïvely to “the American repression” in Vietnam, as though it were a fact that needs no evidence. Not a word, of course, about the real repression and mass murder committed by Bernal’s Communist heroes after their victory in 1975.

This first volume of Black Athena, then, is not about ancient Greece at all, whether classical or Bronze Age. Entitled The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785–1985, it is an indictment of the past two centuries of classical scholarship for allegedly rejecting the “Ancient Model” of Greek culture, which stated that its roots were Egyptian and Eastern, and for imposing instead a racist “Aryan Model,” stating that the Greeks were entirely European and owed nothing to Africa or Asia.

The history of scholarship, including its politics, can be a fascinating subject if honestly presented. Bernal’s account is not honest. It suffers from a virulent case of the disease that afflicts all Marxist writing, a disease that manifests itself as an attitude of fundamental suspicion according to which no one (except the author) can do or understand anything correctly at all; rather, everyone (except the author) is blinkered, willfully or negligently stupid, prejudiced, and racist. The author and those with whom he agrees, on the other hand, are uniquely privileged to be free of all material and intellectual interests; living in the realm of pure objective insight, they alone have the tools to unmask the stupidity and nefarious plans of their political enemies.

Thanks to this disease, Bernal acknowledges no need to be fair, comprehensive, or accurate in his account of the history of classical scholarship. For example, Black Athena includes a section entitled “Developments in Classics, 1945–65.” This twenty-year span comprises a tenth of the entire period he covers in his volume, one that is full of important and exciting developments, not least in the field of Mycenaean and early Greek history. Does Bernal devote a tenth of his text to this period, examining the work, say, of Oswyn Murray on society, Walter Burkert on religion, John Boardman and James Cook on Greek overseas trade and colonization, Kenneth Dover on literature—to name but a few? Of course not. He offers three pages on Michael Ventris’s decipherment of Linear B, a system of writing and record-keeping used in Mycenaean Greece. In 1952 Ventris proved that the language of Linear B was an early form of Greek. According to Bernal, while many classicists immediately recognized the proof as a major discovery, they were dismayed by evidence that the Mycenaeans used Greek, because Mycenaean culture was derived from that of Minoan Crete which was in turn influenced by Egypt and Asia. If there was continuity of Greek language from Mycenaean to classical times, Bernal argues, then there was also continuity of Afroasiatic influence.

The truth is that the classicists had no problem whatsoever with Linear B, nor with Egyptian influence on Mycenae. What they could not and cannot accept, however, is continuity of Afroasiatic influences across the Dark Age—not because they are racists, but because all the evidence is against it. Bernal believes that he has a political, ideological, and moral obligation to assert such influence, but this does not make it real. What the classicist Peter Kidson wrote remains true: “When the Greeks emerged from the shadows of their Dark Age, they had shed almost all the political and religious institutions that might have linked them with Egypt.” [4]

Elsewhere in his attack on postwar scholarship, Bernal states his belief that the “Aryan Model” is losing support and that classicists will soon have to admit that a black and African Egypt did indeed contribute essential features to Greek culture. Bernal offers no evidence for these contributions, preferring to stay on the safe ground of the second millennium, where lack of evidence permits the most egregious assertions. But let us for a moment take his point seriously. If Bernal is right, we would expect to find Egyptian influence not just on the peripheries of Greek vocabulary or religious practices but on the central elements themselves, on what was most unique in classical culture. Do the institutions of classical civilization resemble those of Egypt or the ancient Near East?

Perhaps the two most characteristic and lasting achievements of classical civilization are political democracy and the writing of history. In the political sphere, the Athenians invented the strict concept of absolute equality (isonomia) among citizens, discovered the virtues of unrestrained free speech (parrhesia) and of innovation in politics, and believed that genuine democracy required that the chief offices of the state be distributed by lot and not by election according to merit. These beliefs were unique in history. No other people believed in and upheld for so long the Periclean notion that the survival of the state depended not on mere physical force but on the participation in government of its citizens, since only the freedoms guaranteed by such participation provided the reason and the motivation required to preserve the city.

Egypt was a noble culture, but to assert that it had anything at all to do with Greek democracy is ludicrous. The Greeks believed passionately in free human will—even, or especially, when that will conflicted with that of the gods. Politically, they rejected hierocracy and priestly rule before recorded history begins. Egypt, by contrast, was a theocracy in the most literal sense throughout its long history: the king was god, and by his divinity upheld the land and all its inhabitants. “Pharaoh was not mortal but a god,” according to Henri Frankfort, who goes on to write about the Egyptian view of change: “The ancient Near East considered kingship the very basis of civilization. Only savages could live without a king. Security, peace, and justice could not prevail without a ruler to champion them. … Egypt viewed the world as essentially static. It held that a cosmic order was once and for all established at the time of creation. … Nature itself could not be conceived without the king.” [5] The Greek, always asking “what’s new in the city?” (“ti neon ep’astu;”), seems like an alien creature by contrast. And alien of course he was: alien to the traditional course of human history. In this regard, the Egyptians were far more typical. An Egyptian minister of around 1000 B.C. said: “What is the king of Upper and Lower Egypt? He is a god by whose dealings one lives, the father and mother of all men, alone by himself, without an equal.” A more un-Greek thought would be hard to imagine.

Regarding history, the Greeks’ crucial discovery—one that permitted them to invent the writing of history as the account of the interaction of human affairs over time—was the discovery of time as the destroyer of all things “except the gods,” as Herodotus put it. Because things of this world come to be and pass away, each according to its nature, the only possible account of the events of this world is one that examines each entity—person, nation, or empire—in its individuality. The purpose of Greek history was to give an account of individuality, whereas that of Near Eastern and Egyptian chronicles was to reduce all events to the uniform and ceremonial pattern of the cosmic order.

Bernal makes much of the arguments of a German Egyptologist, Siegfried Morenz, who allegedly supports the notion of the Egyptian influence on Greece. But unfortunately for Bernal, Morenz in fact emphasizes how different Egyptian ideas were from those of the Greeks. As he notes, “History in Egyptian might be translated as irw, that which must be done again and again, because historical action occurs according to norms that bind the actor to ceremonial repetition.” [6] In traditional cultures like Egypt, reality and ritual, legend and history coincided. The king became real by incessantly repeating the archetypal actions that founded the world. It is very possible that Mycenaean kings thought and acted the same way; classical Greeks emphatically did not. They discovered a new way to examine the political and social world and to orient themselves in it. Some scholars argue, convincingly in my view, that this new approach had a political cause, namely the Persian Wars in which Greece came close to extinction. But this point is no help to Bernal, because Egypt, too, underwent crises without developing either democracy or historiography.

The Greeks developed both because they wanted to master the world rather than be mastered by it. It was a noble effort, beyond the understanding of those who want to prevent today’s students from learning about it—an effort that often failed, but one that continued to provide the inspiration for us to struggle against the barbarians.

Black Athena is pernicious because it serves a political purpose hostile to the culture of scholarship. (Its very title is deceptive, because the author offers no evidence that the goddess Athena was considered to be black. He says, rather, that her great-aunt may have married an African or a Phoenician, which no one doubts.) The interesting arguments that one might have with Bernal on Bronze Age settlement, the introduction of the alphabet, Egyptian or Semitic elements in the lexicon of classical Greek, or even on the history of classics are unfortunately vitiated from the start by his resentful and truculent tone. Placing himself “in the spectrum of black scholarship” rather than “within the academic orthodoxy,” he assumes throughout the book that many professional scholars who see no evidence of strong Egyptian influence on classical civilization suffer from “passionate and systematic racism.” This is to misrepresent grossly the ethos and requirements of scholarship. Specialists on early Greece face specific problems that cannot be wished away. Evidence for important areas of ancient Greek life simply does not exist. These scholars have, therefore, developed a technically complex, consistent, and highly productive set of methods for testing evidence and proposing hypotheses where evidence is lacking. It happens that these methods yield results that Bernal, for political reasons, does not like. His reaction is to denounce this scholarship as politically tainted in order to justify his own anti-scholarship. Bernal’s denunciations, delivered with a uniformly spiteful tone, give his work the same moral and scholarly status as the Aryan science of the Third Reich or the Lysenkoite genetics of Stalinist Russia; that is, none whatever.


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  1. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Volume I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785–1985, by Martin Bernal (Rutgers University Press, 1987). Go back to the text.
  2. Early Greece was published by Fontana in London in 1980 and was reprinted by Stanford University Press in 1983. Go back to the text.
  3. Postscript 1994: In the preface to Volume 11 of Black Athena (1991), Martin Bernal took note of my reference to his father. In a surprisingly temperate tone, he agreed that his father had been an influence. Regrettably, however, Martin Bernal neither mentioned nor responded to my main criticism. Indeed, all of Volume 11 consists of further dicussion of the Bronze Age Near East, which remains entirely irrelevent to Bernal’s central ideological claim. Go back to the text.
  4. In his essay “The Figural Arts” in The Legacy of Greece, edited by M. I. Finley (The Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press, 1981). Go back to the text.
  5. Kingship and the Gods, by Henri Frankfort (University of Chicago Press, 1948). Go back to the text.
  6. Quoted in Christian Meier, Die Entstehung des Politischen bei den Griechen (Suhrkamp, 1980). Go back to the text.

From The New Criterion Vol. 8, No. 4, December 1989

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