This kind of thing doesn’t sit well with Donna Zuckerberg, who got her doctorate in classics at Princeton and is the founder and editor in chief of Eidolon, an online classics magazine; for one thing, it’s an oversimplified reading of Ovid, and for another, that oversimplified reading of Ovid is being used as inspiration for frequently unethical behavior toward women. As Zuckerberg argues, Ovid’s didactic writings on seduction were likely meant to be read as parodies of the didactic poetry genre, which more often instructed readers on less frivolous topics like agriculture or ethics, and not as actual instruction manuals.
But it’s not just pickup artists who appropriate the great texts of classical literature to justify their own beliefs. Zuckerberg (the younger sister of the Facebook CEO Mark) characterizes the “Red Pill” online community as the corner of the internet dominated by men’s-rights activists, the alt-right, pickup artists, and the sex-eschewing communities known as Men Going Their Own Way. According to Zuckerberg, virtually all these subgroups appropriate classical literature for their own purposes.
Zuckerberg first began spending time in Red Pill communities online when she noticed a 2015 Eidolon article titled “Why Is Stoicism Having a Cultural Moment?” getting unusually heavy traffic after it was posted on Reddit. “As I scrolled down the comment thread, something caught my eye: a comment attributing Stoicism’s resurgent popularity to the Red Pill community,” she wrote in a blog post this week. After that, she spent the next few years getting intensely familiar with the Red Pill community, and her book Not All Dead White Men, an exploration of this appropriation phenomenon and why sometimes these texts don’t quite mean what the appropriators think they mean, is out this week.
I spoke with Zuckerberg about the rise of the Red Pill community, the long-held fear of false rape accusations, and pickup artists’ oversimplified understanding of Ovid. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Ashley Fetters: How did you first stumble across this whole phenomenon—men in the Red Pill sections of the internet appropriating the classics for their own purposes?
Donna Zuckerberg: The first time I discovered it was actually in The Atlantic! It was an interview with Neil Strauss, when his follow-up to The Game came out—The Truth. The interviewer asked him something like, did he still stand by the seduction advice that was in The Game, if not the mind-set behind it? He said he thought the advice that he gave was still essentially sound, and then he said what works has always been the same, from Ovid to the present day.
Read Kathy Gilsinan’s interview with Neil Strauss, 10 years after ‘The Game’ was published.
I had already been thinking about Ovid and pickup artists, but from a comparative perspective: How did these two similar-looking things compare to each other across the ages? And that was my first glimpse into the fact that pickup artists might actually be reading Ovid and thinking about what Ovid meant to them.