Co-Workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Classics and Cosmopolitanism in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois
By David Withun.
Oxford University Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $80.00.
Reviewed by Chris Butynskyi.
Race, class, gender. These are three important components to identity, yet academics over the last few decades have managed to promote these three characteristics above all others. There is no need to get into an explanation as to why these three factors are deemed the most important or whether this is a form of Marxist reductionism or anthropological study. The greater point rests in the fact that most, if not all, disciplines examine their subjects with this new secular trinity in mind. Often, the next step is to politicize the respective subject matter in the hopes of either demonizing unpopular views or praising “new” ideas. While many academics claim to seek dialogue amid myriad perspectives, dialogue is difficult to find. Due to ideological and methodological movements (e.g., critical race theory), there is always a need for good and dutiful scholarship in the discipline of history. The discussion of topics long considered unpopular or antiquated (e.g., classical education) is still poignant and necessary.
Classical education, fairly or unfairly, is deemed by some to be racially insensitive and characteristically white-washed. This is nothing new. Intellectuals such as Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey attacked the tenets of classical education in the post-industrial era. One could even claim William James’s pragmatism has much to do with the reasons behind the decline and subjugation of the classical model of learning. A number of arguments for its elitism point to the popular audiences of classical education in the Western world—those being trained for the clergy and the gentleman class. Classical education was deemed inaccessible to particular groups (e.g., women, people of color) and impractical. In the modern era its proponents continue to fight an uphill battle even during revitalized surges. In our current time, one must be able to plant a foot firmly in each world (classical and modern) in order to dialogue and bring out the virtues of both approaches. American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), in his own time, was capable of existing in both worlds. A study of his classicism and cosmopolitanism is necessary and cannot be laden with popular agendas, especially since Du Bois himself sought reconciliation between seemingly opposing worlds. In his book, Co-Workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Classics and Cosmopolitanism in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois, David Withun examines the impact of the classics on the unique life of DuBois.
Withun divides the book into five main chapters: “The Classical Education of W. E. B. Du Bois,” “American Archias: Cicero, Epic Poetry, and The Souls of Black Folk,” “The Influence of Plato on the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois,” “Anti-rascist Metamorphoses in Du Bois’s Classical References,” and “The History of the ‘Darker Peoples’ of the World: Afrocentrism and Cosmopolitanism in the Later Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois.” He ends with a helpful summation and conclusion of how the main ideas of each chapter further the development and comprehension of what makes Du Bois classical and cosmopolitan. Withun’s research is both deep and wide, and he never leaves the defined purview of his subject. While each chapter has an overarching main idea, Withun employs subheadings (roughly four to eight per chapter) as a guide through the complexities of Du Bois’s life. Without a guide, one could easily get lost in the classical yet cosmopolitan mind of Du Bois. Each chapter ends with its own conclusion, one that directs the reader toward the retention of what is crucial to seeing the connections drawn by Withun about Du Bois’s education and life.
The book begins with the background behind Du Bois’s own classical education. Withun provides a tapestry of Du Bois’s experience with classical education—one that was, and still often is, perceived as out of reach for people of color. As the book examines more about the life of Du Bois and his experiences, the reader begins to see Withun’s conclusion: that classical education shaped and molded Du Bois as it did countless other intellectuals despite the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status.
The first chapter establishes the foundation of Du Bois’s curiosity and pursuit of the influence and acceptance inherent in the classical world, and by extension, the classical model. Withun is careful to balance this narrative with insights into Du Bois’s own struggles, saying: “This sense of simultaneous participation in and exclusion from both the white and Black worlds had begun to develop in Du Bois from an early age, but became especially prominent after the completion of his formal education.” According to Withun, Du Bois was extremely self-aware, sought truth through Plato, Cicero, William James, and George Santayana, and did not settle for convenient explanations to the matters of his time.
In Withun’s second chapter, he manages to connect Du Bois’s time period with those of Cicero and of epic poetry. Withun strikes a chord of friction in that Du Bois did not lose faith in European high culture and saw value in the great orators and writers of the ancient world. Withun explains the roots that lead to the idea of the Talented Tenth (one that was eventually abandoned due to the fact that Du Bois did not see this tenth fulfill its duty to its weaker brethren). Du Bois felt that a Talented Tenth of the Black population would arise and create an intellectual elite in the same vein as other “aristocratic” societies. This theory put him at odds with some of his contemporaries, particularly Booker T. Washington. While Washington wanted economic freedom for his people, Du Bois was more concerned with free minds, which would eventually lead to similar forms of independence. Withun is careful to examine and create the narrative here, but the reader does not see him taking sides or demonizing those opposed to Du Bois.
The third chapter is focused primarily on Plato’s influence on Du Bois. The reader is now able to see more of what influenced some of his more popular works such as The Souls of Black Folk and essays that promoted the idea of egalitarian elitism. Du Bois saw equality and the possibility for a merit-based advancement for those who were willing to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty. As Du Bois saw it, such endeavors would bring about practical benefits, racial solidarity, and ultimately combat misconceptions towards racial inferiority in the West. Withun carefully explains Du Bois’s vision of what it means to build culture. Financial and intellectual freedom aside, Withun’s chapters magnify the goal of Du Bois—a culture for people of color that is both classical and cosmopolitan.
By far, the most interesting chapter is “Anti-racist Metamorphoses in Du Bois’s Classical References.” Withun’s prose is compelling and informative as it remains committed to historical integrity. It is not polemic, nor does it champion an agenda or cause. It is an honest account of how Du Bois saw people of color in history, how it affected him personally, and what it meant to continue in the wake of such traditions while being cognizant of the need for progress and change. Withun, through his analysis of Du Bois, makes it difficult to continue to see the ancient world as a place where racism originates due to the “whiteness” of Western heritage. He provides numerous examples used by Du Bois to show the relevance of darker peoples throughout history (e.g., Egyptian, Ethiopians). There is no attempt to hide aspects of Du Bois’s philosophy either—in this case his Marxist tendency that most of modern society’s ills derive from class struggle and wealth disparity. Given the vast knowledge of Du Bois and his commitment to classical learning, it would stand that he would seek out the likes of Marx and perhaps even Nietzsche to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of humanity. While Marx’s single cause ideology can be viewed as fallacious, it is important to understand Du Bois fully, and Withun does not shy away from the topic.
Chapter five studies the relationship between cosmopolitanism and afrocentrism in later stages of Du Bois’s thought. It is here that the reader learns about how Du Bois positioned non-Europeans in the development of high culture and civilization. Du Bois, and Withun alike, are not blind to the atrocities and grave injustices perpetrated against darker peoples. Du Bois found solace and camaraderie with non-African American groups who had similar struggles over the course of history. Withun focuses on the shift in Du Bois to not simply emulate other cultures and their achievements or study the regional aspects of a particular group, but rather to begin writing and promoting histories about non-European groups who endeavored, influenced, and built culture that was shared with Europeans and non-Europeans alike, that is, a collective human history.
Given the current trends in historical study, there are those that will claim Withun manipulates Du Bois’s life into one that breaks color barriers, whereas the real truth is Du Bois internalized the racism of his opposition and led a life misguided in thinking that he was set free by his course of study—especially in looking to the ancient world’s perceived caste system for identity. This type of conclusion prevents healthy dialogues that seek progress in the complicated past of Black Americans and their relationship with Western, Asiatic, and Middle Eastern cultures. Withun’s critics will claim that he is blind to the inherent “whiteness” of the Western canon and essentially classical learning as a whole and, therefore, these institutions cannot possibly benefit a man or woman of color in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Withun will have critics on the other side who will question why he does not see Du Bois’s Marxism (later in life) as problematic and possibly even in opposition to a life devoted to the creation of a kingdom of culture. Concerns from both sides prove that Du Bois was, at his core, classical and cosmopolitan, as he was willing to examine different perspectives and ideologies in order to build a culture reflective of truth, goodness, and beauty.
The classical trinity of the true, the good, and the beautiful is still relevant in a variety of circles, but none more so than in the classical model of education. Du Bois’s classical background, demonstrated commitment to the humanities, and his promotion of important qualities (e.g., duty) create an opportunity to showcase and discuss the universality of classical learning and its ability to shape folks from all walks of life. The unique story of Du Bois and his education, writing, and ideological shifts provides evidence of the value of classical education, one that allowed Du Bois to live within a diverse habitat of race, disciplines, and ideas. Withun’s study of Du Bois in this light is not only a welcome addition to the conversation in the reconciliation of ideas, but is a necessary addition to topics in American history. Now, more than ever, the historian is called to comprehend the greater context of ideas in order to properly discuss the past amid the cacophony of ideological and political agendas in the present. This book contributes to the greater understanding of Du Bois’s intellectual journey and commitment to the classics despite the challenges he experienced in his long life.
Chris Butynskyi is the author of The Inklings, the Victorians, and the Moderns: Reconciling Tradition in the Modern Age (2020).
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