When it comes to history, literature, politics and philosophy, ancient Greece and Rome were in many ways the breeding ground of great minds. Butler Library at Columbia University decided to honor those men by etching their names over the entrance as a reminder to the students of Columbia that they stand upon some of the greatest minds of history. But that’s now become problematic since they’re all “Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male,” as an article on CNN so cleverly put it.
In a show of “inclusiveness” and a rejection of these men for being men, a group of women in 1989 unveiled a banner showcasing the great women of literature on top of the library. The names included Sappho, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Brontë (meant to reference the three Brontë sisters) Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.
This trend has continued with this year’s version sharing the names of Maya Angelou, Gloria E. Anzaldua, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, A. Revathi, Ntozake Shange and Leslie Marmon Silko. It is portrayed by the media as seemingly a great triumph, but this exercise in progressivism and female empowerment is missing the bigger picture.
These women might be the bastions of literature at Columbia, but those men are part of the reason this country and universities exist in the first place. Let’s look at just some of their achievements:
Homer – No one has any definitive evidence that an individual named “Homer” actually exists, but he is infamous for Greece’s two literary epics: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The first gave us the phrase “trojan horse,” which is still used frequently today to epitomize subterfuge and also to describe a particular computer virus.
Herodotus – Considered by many the world’s first historian and tourist advisor, he gave us the first descriptions of ancient Egypt burial practices before the Rosetta Stone helped crack the Egyptian language. He also coined the term, the Seven Wonders of the World, which is still used today to describe some of the globe’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring places.
Sophocles – A playwriter of Athens, he is responsible for many innovations, like “scene painting” to add atmosphere and including a third actor to help with character building, which helped pave the way for the dramatic arts. He is best known for his play Oedipus the King, a masterpiece of Greek tragedy, and for influencing the term “Oedipus complex.”
Plato and Aristotle – The teacher and the student, both Plato and Aristotle are among the most well-read of all of the ancient Greek philosophers. In fact, the entirety of Plato’s body of work has survived intact for more than 2,400 years. Plato is responsible for Republic, a work of political philosophy that discusses justice, governance and the immortality of the soul. He also had a deep influence on St. Augustine. Aristotle is known for much of his thinking on science and the study of logic, but he is perhaps most famous for having Alexander the Great as his student. The young man eventually conquered much of the known world and instituted a common language known as Koine Greek, which is the language used by the Apostles and early Christians to write the New Testament. In addition, he also influenced Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas.
Demosthenes – Known as the greatest of all ancient Greek orators, Demosthenes was known for his speaking prowess and for his public rejection of the efforts of Philip of Macedonia and later his son, Alexander the Great, to unite Greece. His political philosophy continues to influence global politics to this day.
Cicero – Credited by some with helping grow the Renaissance’s interest in public affairs, humanism and classical Roman culture, Cicero was perhaps the greatest of all Roman orators. A contemporary of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Some of the political theorists Cicero influenced over the centuries includes John Locke. Thomas Jefferson used Locke’s writing to create the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Virgil – A Roman who wrote perhaps one of the greatest works of poetry in the Western world, the Aeneid. His work is so influential that he was Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy, another seminal work of literature.
Considering the influence these men had on our current world, the students of Columbia should perhaps hit the history books again. While most of the women they want to highlight did achieve great things in literature, they pale in comparison to these men who, in many ways, helped create the foundations of Western literature, governance, history, debate, playwriting, poetry and perhaps, most importantly, the language of the New Treatment. They deserve to have their names carved on Butler Library, but it has nothing to do with their sex and everything to do with their contribution to our current world.
Besides, I’m sure that these men all had great women in their lives. After all, they all had a mother.