Photo: partial image of Not All Dead White Men cover
Not All Dead White Men Review
By Olivia Wells
Written by the editor-in-chief of the late Eidolon (who happens to be the sister of Mark Zuckerburg), Not All Dead White Men introduces readers to the inner workings of the “dark side” of modern interpretation of Classics: Reddit’s Red Pill Community.
“The Red Pill,” as Zuckerberg explains at the book’s outset, refers to the subreddit, r/ the red pill, and is made up of subgroups within including the Alt-Right, the manosphere, Men Going Their Own Way, and pickup artists. The name “The Red Pill” references the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which ingesting the red pill awakens characters to the brutal realities of life. Reddit’s Red Pill Community is a “group of men connected by common resentments against women, immigrants, people of color, and the liberal elite” (1) who all believe that modern society is unfair to heterosexual white men— that they live in a world that unfairly preferences women (i.e. a “gynocentric society”). Members of this community believe that “taking the red pill” is equivalent to realizing the reality of the “gynocentric society.” What Zuckerberg finds, however, is that these men appropriate classical texts as a veneer of intellectual authority to further their misogynistic theories and beliefs.
Not All Dead White Men strives to determine how and why the “manosphere” uses the Classics, examining the lack of nuance and frequency of contradictions present within Red Pill interpretations. The book is structured into four chapters, discussing the Stoics, Ovid and modern-day pickup artists, and the myth of Phaedra, drawing comparisons between ancient and modern false rape accusations. The chapters are rife with explanations and summaries of terms, myths, and historical perspectives, both in regard to antiquity and present-day Reddit activities. These two periods, however, were discussed too separately given that the book was intended to be about their connection. Zuckerberg fails to link and analyze these links between ancient and modern interpretations enough. Oftentimes, she appears to rely more on summary of background—offering up detailed passages that are so lengthy that they jeopardize the clarity of her argument.
The book strictly focuses on misogyny and gender tropes within the Red Pill, and Zuckerberg does not touch on any racial aspects of the subreddit, despite the fact that racism is inherently prevalent in Alt-Right Classics communities. She explains that she neglected the racial aspect of her discussion because the Red Pill ideologies are more coherent on the topic of gender politics versus the more contested issue of white supremacy, also reminding her reader that in antiquity there was “no meaningful concept of biological race” (6). However, this rupture between race and gender does not blend cohesively into the Red Pill community, as it is filled with arguments about the superiority of white, Christian, heterosexual men against other genders, religions, and races. Despite this missed opportunity, Zuckerberg’s discussion only of gender does not detract from an overall interesting and informative message.
A large portion of the book was focused on determining whether there were equivalents of modern topics and occurrences like rape culture or casual sex in ancient cultures. At its close, one is left to wonder whether these are questions even worth pursuing. Our modern culture is so vastly different from ancient cultures, that it does not seem valuable to compare the two in this way. However, due to Red Pill communities taking for granted that these concepts are directly comparable from ancient to modern times, their interpretations of classical texts are that much more misogynistic because they literally believe we live in the same type of society.
Being an analytical scholar, it is easy to recognize that ancient cultures and our modern culture are vastly different and one cannot take literature from antiquity and directly translate it to today. Men’s communities detailed in the book like Men Going Their Own Way, men’s human rights movement, seduction community, and alt-right white supremacist groups believe that classical texts are about them personally. As Zuckerberg puts it, “These men see themselves reflected in ancient Greek and Roman writers, and they use references to ancient literature as a site for discursive negotiation of their place in the history of white male culture. They elide the immense differences between our society and classical antiquity to attempt to prove the incontestable value of patriarchy and white supremacy – and to argue for the reinstatement of those oppressive systems of power today” (44). Their superficial readings of texts are an excuse to live in an idealized world where women have the little to no rights that they once had in antiquity.
Not All Dead White Men exposes the sad truths of Classics in the modern age. Clearly these superficial interpretations are not mainstream, but Classics is a field that historically is full of elitism, sexism, and racism—something which cannot be ignored. Even within the past couple of years, white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville carried symbols of the Roman state on flags in 2017 and Capitol insurrectionists wore merchandise with ancient Greek inscriptions in 2021. They are not the “natural inheritors of the legacy of classical antiquity” (189), as they claim, but we already knew that. In a 2017 panel, famed classicist Dan-El Padilla Peralta explained that merely pointing out the erroneous Red Pill interpretations of classical texts is not enough. Instead, classicists must work to dismantle structures of power which have historically been supported by the classical tradition and that we must rewrite history and the classical canon.
Classics can be seen as a mirror for the societies throughout history who interpret it. How each society interprets the histories and texts tells more about the values and virtues of the society than it does about Classics itself. Even comparing Red Pill 21st century interpretations of Classics to the study of Classics during the Enlightenment, to the classical education of the American Founding Fathers, we can see vast development in what exactly is heralded within the field. Where does the field of Classics move from here? Within the past couple of years, various colleges and universities have renamed their Classics department to names like “Ancient Mediterranean Studies” or “Ancient Greek and Roman Studies.” Although small changes, this movement of classicists is working towards diversifying Classics as a field in topics of study and scholarship. Zuckerberg points out that there is still a lot to do, but her book puts these issues of misinterpretation and the lasting influence of the Classics on the map.
 Rachel Poser, “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” The New York Times, February 2, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/magazine/classics-greece-rome-whiteness.html
Olivia Wells (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies (Mediterranean Archaeology) and minoring in History and French.