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Doing Justice to the Classics

Greco-Roman Antiquity in Camus’ “Great Replacement”

No fewer than three recent mass shooters have said they found inspiration in the French intellectual Renaud Camus’ theory of “the Great Replacement,” a xenophobic and racist claim that “European” or “white” culture is being “replaced” through immigration. Camus outlined this theory in a 2011 book entitled Le Grand Remplacement that he later rewrote and translated into English as You Will Not Replace Us! (2018), a title clearly intended to echo the chant of the white supremacists at the 2017 Charlottesville rallyPharos has reported on how this theory appears, often in connection with references to Greco-Roman antiquity, on various hate sites, and ancient historian Sarah Bond has traced the history of this theory, uncovering a long tradition of such thinking well before Camus published his work. But Greco-Roman antiquity is not just a touchstone for those who subscribe to Camus’ theory: his treatise itself takes its starting point from a reading of an ancient Greek philosophical text and is peppered throughout with references to antiquity in support of his claims.

The covers of Camus’ treatise in French (left) and in English

Camus’ focus is on what he calls the “brutal change of population which has been taking place in France (and in Europe) since the beginning of the last quarter of the last century” (p.18) because of “replacers” coming “mostly from Africa.” He is particularly threatened by the fact that these Africans are “very often muslims,” having conceived the concept of “The Great Replacement,” he says, “as I was traveling to write a sort of literary guidebook” and  “discovered that thousand-year-old villages had their population largely transformed, with women wearing the Islamic veil gathering at the 18th century fountain.”

"The central debate in Plato’s Cratylus," according to Camus, "can be immensely enlarged and made to embrace the whole world."

This story does not appear in the French edition of his treatise, and in general the English version has been expanded to include references to immigration to the United States, making its subject not only “the indigenous peoples of Europe” but also “the white population of North-America.” Camus praises U.S. president Donald Trump, who is known for his xenophobic policies, for helping “America beg[in] to realize that it was itself just as menaced by the frightful Great Replacement than [sic] Europe was” (p.174). Both Europe and America, he says, are subject to “genocide by substitution” which “everybody is perfectly happy with…because they have been submitted for years to constant propaganda and mind control, through schools and the media” (p.176). This language, which mirrors white supremacists’ insistence that they are threatened by “white genocide”, allows Camus to say that “the present ‘caravan’ of Hispanics,” that is, the Central American refugees who sought asylum in the U.S. in late 2018, pose a threat of genocide to “Whites” comparable to the “first genocide, that of the Jews” (p.132). Nothing makes more clear how racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism are woven together in Camus’ theory.

This should come as no surprise since Camus’ theory is founded, fundamentally, on a racist essentialism that insists that “what make [sic] countries, continents, cultures and civilisations what they are…are the people and the elites who have fashioned them and continue to embody their man-made essence” (p.16). Immigrants, to Camus, can never become French in any real sense. He finds support for this ethnonationalist view in the Cratylus, a dialogue by Plato in which two philosophers give their views of the meanings of words. Hermogenes argues that words have meaning by convention only, and Cratylus argues that words have “natural,” unchanging meanings. This “central debate in Plato’s Cratyle,” according to Camus, “can be immensely enlarged and made to embrace the whole world” (p.147): “Do words like French or British refer to an administrative stamp on some legal document, or to an ancestry, a long experience, a shared history, blood, race, love, culture, civilisation?” (p.149).

According to Camus, "equality, as soon as it leaves its legal and political bed, destroys everything it touches — vessels, ramparts, cities, men — as Aeschylus said Helen of Troy did."

In the French edition Camus launches this discussion of Plato’s dialogue with a description of a “veiled woman speaking our language badly, ignorant of our culture, and…overflowing with vindictiveness and animosity, not to say hatred, about our history and our civilization” who dares to say “I am as French as you” to “a native Frenchwoman who loves Romanesque churches, the refinement of vocabulary and syntax, Montaigne, Rousseau, Burgundy wine and Proust, whose family has lived for several generations in the same valley” (p.20, translations from French our own). The first woman can only be French, as Camus says in his English edition, in “its Hermogenian meaning, the superficial, administrative, official, legal, scientific, triumphant one with its ID papers always in perfect order” but never in the “Cratylian meaning” which is “real, deep, profound, hard to explain, poetic and literary” (p.149). Camus is an accomplished writer, whose eloquence is evident even in translation, but he uses that eloquence, along with his knowledge of literature and history, to give legitimacy to his hateful views.

Classical antiquity appeals to nationalist and xenophobic thinkers like Camus because their hateful ideology depends on the assumption that the contemporary world is in collapse, is degenerate, and has declined from some past ideal. In the French edition of Le Grand Remplacement he calls the 21st century “the century of junk” (la siècle de la camelote, p. 149), a time when “it is rather strange to note that nine-tenths of what has been thought about nature and especially about culture for twenty or thirty centuries…would be considered today, and indeed is, like inadmissible, revolting or…criminal.” Camus must be referring to the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that characterize so much of European history as these “truths” that are true only because they stood unquestioned for so long, but what he actually names as the representatives of this lost tradition are Aeschylus, “The Greece of Pericles, and that of Thucydides,” along with Tocqueville, Shakespeare, and the 17th century French dramatist Corneille (p.150). He even invokes the French classical scholar Jacqueline de Romilly as someone who he assumes would share his dismay, a strange choice for a hypertraditionalist xenophobe like Camus since de Romilly, as one obituary put it, “broke down the doors of the great male bastions of French culture” and emphasized in her work “what she saw as the tolerance shown by the polytheistic Greeks towards people of different religious beliefs and cultural traditions.” But for Camus the loss of knowledge about these figures poses an existential threat to France: “I don’t have too many occasions to harp on this: a people that knows its classics will not let itself be moved without objection to the trashcans of history” (p.280).

Ancient Greek colonization, Camus argues, "involve[d] demographic change, and...proceed[ed] by massive transfers of population whose aim [was] to settle down in the target continent" whereas "in that classical sense of the word, France hardly ever colonised or settled any territories."

The English edition has fewer Classical references than the French — the discussion of Plato’s Cratylus begins on page 22 in the French edition but is postponed until page 148 in the English one. Perhaps Camus believed that Americans would not understand the references. Still, this does not prevent him in the English edition from quoting a line from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to help prove that “in France and in Europe, equality between Christian and Islam spells death for French culture and European civilisation” because “equality, as soon as it leaves its legal and political bed, destroys everything it touches — vessels, ramparts, cities, men — as Aeschylus said Helen of Troy did” (p.114). The comparison between “equality” and Helen of Troy, at first glance bizarre, allows Camus to draw on familiar misogynist rhetoric to represent multiculturalism as a seductive but ultimately destructive force.

One irony of Camus’ demonization of immigrants is that France, like so many European nations and the United States, has its own history of colonization, one much more violent, one could say, than the arrival of Muslim refugees in Europe. Camus knows this history, but argues that “African colonisation of Europe is worse and more severe than European colonisation of Africa” (p.43 in the English edition). This kind of false equivalency between state sponsored imperialism and the arrival of refugees provides a sanction for the kind of violence that Camus’ treatise has in fact inspired. And he justifies this perverse reading of history by finding a parallel between the expansion of Greek colonies into the western Mediterranean in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE and “the African colonisation of Europe.” Ancient Greek colonization, he argues, “involve[d] demographic change, and…proceed[ed] by massive transfers of population whose aim [was] to settle down in the target continent” whereas “in that classical sense of the word, France hardly ever colonised or settled any territories.” That he acknowledges French colonization of Algieria and Canada as exceptions to his view of French imperialism signals only that he should know better than to promote his self-serving and nationalist version of history. In the case of America’s legacy of colonialism, his argument is merely that, “as far as replacement goes, America is at least as much a victim than it is a culprit” (p. 175).

French political history provides plenty of precedents for Camus in using antiquity to justify xenophobic nationalism. He even refers to some, such as French president Charles De Gaulle saying that “it is all very good that there are French people who are yellow,…black,…brown…but this is only as long as they remain a small minority” because “when all is said and done, we are a European people of white race, Greek and Latin culture, and Christian religion” (p. 66–7). Camus also cites Georges Pompidou as the “last French president to have matter-of-factly used the word ‘race’ in the traditional…that is, profound, meaning of the term.” He quotes a speech in which Pomipdou argued that the “very character of our race” is “that versatility that Caesar had noticed in the Gauls and used against them,” making a classical text both the proof of a unique French racial nature while simultaneously painting France as the victim, not the perpetrator, of imperial violence (p.76).

Antiquity may not really be on Camus’ side: Plato’s Socrates does not side with Cratylus in claiming that words like "French" have a profound, unchanging meaning.

So much of Camus’ rhetoric is recognizable from that documented by Pharos elsewhere: the assumption of worldwide cultural decline, the pseudo-scientific ascription of violent crime to supposed racial differences and not to poverty and inequality (Camus complains that “great capitals, metropolises such as Babylon, Rome, Paris or London have been for millenia the home of refinement, delicacy of manners, intellectual life and culture…but today…’multicultural’ metropolises seem to be the centers from which hyperviolence spreads” (p.160)), and fear-mongering about the erasure or disappearance of “white” culture (Camus has taken on the cause of “the indigenous population, whose very existence is frequently denied, even in retrospect: not only do they not exist, but they have also never existed.” (p.20 in the French ed.)). What may be different with Camus is his immense skill at weaving together what could be legitimate complaints about global capitalism and environmental degredation with racist hatred. His list of modern “replacements” currently underway in the contemporary world includes the “replacement” of “earth by tar, seaside by seaside resorts,” “nature by land-use planning in expectation of economic spin-offs” “news by fake news,” “timber by PVC,” “town and countryside by the universal suburb,” “men and women by robots,” and “business by corruption,” but also that of “natives by non-natives, Europeans by Africans, White Anglo-Saxons by Afro-Americans and Latinos, mothers by surrogate mothers, men by women, women by inflatable dolls.” Anyone uneasy with any of the changes underway in the modern world is thus invited to become uneasy about immigration and to view it as a catastrophe on par with, for example, the climate crisis, even as xenophobic rhetoric like Camus’ hinders our ability to respond productively to that crisis.

Unlike some of the figures Pharos documents, antiquity may not really be on Camus’ side. Plato’s Socrates does not side with Cratylus in claiming that words like “French” have a profound, unchanging meaning. He doesn’t side with Hermogenes either but rejects the terms of the whole debate as missing the point, focusing on names and terminology to the exclusion of reality. The linguistic arguments, on which Camus bases his representation of “Frenchness,” however philosophical they appear and however distinguished their pedigree, will always, Socrates seems to say, be political, arbitrary, and biased.

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