The works of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Greek poet Hesiod, and the Roman poet Ovid are examples of great classic Western literature—and popular references within the red pill community. Men who believe society is oppressed by women frequently turn to the Western classics to validate their misogyny and, as Donna Zuckerberg explores in her newly published book Not All Dead White Men, they have plenty of texts to choose from.
Aristotle believed that slavery is natural and women are inherently inferior; Semonides’ poem “Women” claimed there are 10 types of women, each of which can be compared to an animal (only one of which, the bee, is decent); and in Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”), Ovid writes, “If she refuse to be kissed, kiss her all the same. She may struggle to being with… but if she fights, ‘twill be a losing battle.”
The red pill community’s attempts to co-opt the classics is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to confer the movement with legitimacy as the modern-day equivalents of these ancient Greek and Roman writers. In so doing, they also demonstrate various virulently sexist elements of the classics that, to date, have all too often been dismissed as unfortunate reflections of a two-millennia-old culture, rather than a serious shortcoming that should be addressed.
Zuckerberg’s book analyzes how different factions of the “red pill,” as members of the community refer to themselves, gravitate towards different texts. “Pickup Artists,” for example, consider Ovid to be a founding father of their theories of seduction. “Men Going Their Own Way“ (men who say they’d like to live entirely apart from women), are fans of the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who wrote that Zeus made women “as an evil for mortal men, a troublesome partner.”
Zuckerberg, who earned a PhD in classics from Princeton University and is the founder and editor in chief of the online classics literary magazine Eidolon, shows that red pill members often explicitly associate themselves with ancient thinkers. One redditor, she notes, wrote in /r/theredpill in 2016: “I am a classicist by training, Phd the whole nine yards. The Greeks and Romans were red pill in the extreme.”
In some ways, Zuckerberg says it’s no surprise that these men are drawn to the classics. “To a certain extent, I think everyone is drawn to these works,” she says. A predominant red pill belief is that “western civilization is the greatest ever construct of power and culture,” she says, and these texts reflect the origins of western civilization. “They [the red pill] can mine them for clues about what it was that made western civilization so great and so effective. That is their primary goal,” says Zuckerberg.
There’s no doubt that many ancient Greek and Roman texts express highly misogynistic viewpoints, and Zuckerberg says seeing the red pill community’s enthusiasm for them made her reassess for own reading of the works. She used to tell herself that these writers lived more than 2,000 years ago, and “we can’t judge them by their own cultural mores.” That no longer seems quite so convincing. “It’s easy for classicists to insist on the otherness, the foreignness of ancient Greeks and Romans, how different they were from us,” she says. “With the red pill, you see those boundaries dissolve, and an insistence on how much like us they are.”
Still, that’s not to say that members of the red pill are reading these texts correctly, or that ancient literature is nothing but misogynistic rants. Ovid’s works, for example, were likely written as parody of the didactic poetry genre of his time, and not meant to be read as a straightforward instruction manual. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, which describes women who go on a sex strike to force the men of their lands to stop fighting the Peloponnesian War, is read by both feminists as an example of collective feminist action, and red pill men as a example of women denying men sex as power play, says Zuckerburg. And many of the Stoics explicitly espoused egalitarian views, but the red pill embraces the philosophy as a way to excuse a lack of compassion for others. After all, the Stoics claimed that the most rational should not show compassion for those who are ruled by their emotions. The red pill, says Zuckerburg, believes in a strong dichotomy: they are rational, and everyone else is emotional, and therefore inferior—and they apply this same divide to men versus women.
Red pill readers have adeptly found and in many cases coopted the sexism that proliferated in ancient societies, and classics scholars must reckon with that reality. “Classical scholars must accept that, in the 21st century, some of the most controversial and consequential discussions about the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome are happening…on the internet,” writes Zuckerberg in the conclusion of her book. Scholars must address the sexism in ancient writing that makes them so appealing to the red pill, while also highlighting the nuances and more egalitarian thinking that elevate these texts above straightforward misogyny. Classics readers deserve a discussion about the ancient world that is “neither uncritically admiring nor rashly dismissive,” writes Zuckerberg in her conclusion. In other words, we need to acknowledge the misogyny in the classics, but we needn’t pass them off as red pill terrain entirely.