Overview:

When we scan history we see that all moral and aesthetic innovators may be termed as woke—century by century.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When we use the word “woke,” we’re suggesting a sense of wakefulness, alertness, vigilance, and watchfulness. It’s a metaphor of self-designation for those who possess a certain kind of moral acuity.

Those on the political Right who oppose what they call “The Woke Left” might embrace numerous other metaphors to signify their own ethical perception, for instance: The Somnolent Right, The Languorous Right, The Torpid Right, The Insensate Right, The Anesthetized Right, The Drowsy Right, The Slumberous Right, The Dozing Right, and the ever-popular Numb Right and Numb Alt-Right.

To rehabilitate the term “woke” for these folks, it might be instructive to go back in time and identify just a few of the many ‘woke’ personalities who have garnished our history books.

A very short list of “woke” individuals from history

There was a gentleman called Socrates, an ancient Greek sage who was accused of impiety for leading the youth of Athens astray. In reality, Socrates was only trying to guide his conservative nation into a new line of thinking about morality, politics, the proper use of irony, and how to apply his name-sake Socratic method. Socrates was woke.

There was another gentleman named Moses, a Hebrew lawmaker who had had enough of the institution of human chattel and decided to do something about it. He led a daring escape out of Egypt with a sizable band of slaves and then trekked 250 miles in a pitiless desert for just under 40 years, arriving at a brand new homestead as he was collapsing in death. Moses was woke.

Kong Fuzi (aka Confucius), the great Chinese ethicist, espied the essence of morality in the so-called Golden Rule, a rule that he was the first to articulate, 500 years before Jesus. A student asked Confucius, “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” Confucius replied: “Reciprocity. Never choose for others what you would not choose for yourself.” Confucius was woke.

We know of Cleopatra, the last monarch of ancient Egypt (died 30 BCE) who reigned over every detail of that vast nation for twenty years. She resisted the antique economics of her predecessors and established trade with numerous Arab nations, thereby enriching her own people. Rather than surrender to the indignity of capture by her enemies, she had the courage to take her own life by applying a venomous viper to her breast. Her dying words were unhistorically but beautifully rendered by Shakespeare as, “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, that sucks the nurse asleep?” Cleopatra was woke.

We should add Jesus, a first-century Jew who possessed an uncommon oratorical brilliance and once said, “You cannot serve God and money.” He was deeply opposed to conservative elements in his community and, having irritated their old-fashioned sensibilities one too many times, got himself killed in a very ignoble way. Jesus was woke.

The seventh-century Arab prophet Muhammad must be included for his insistence that a charge of adultery against any woman must have four eyewitnesses in order for the accusation to stick, which, according to some commentators, assures that no woman would ever be ruined by a false accusation. That is, you’ll never find four people to agree to slander a woman in this way. Or, you’ll never find four eye-witnesses to such a sex act. Few people would aggressively ‘cuddle’ the object of their lust at high noon in a public fountain for a hundred eyes to see. Even if performed in close quarters, what couple would invite four other people to witness a tête-à-tête? Muhammad was woke.

There was Murasaki Shikibu, a medieval Japanese noblewoman and author of ‘The Tale of Genji,’ the height of Japanese literature that some term the world’s first novel. ‘Genji’ offers detailed and beautiful and sometimes unvarnished accounts of Japan’s court life a thousand years ago. Murasaki had a deep understanding of how politics and patriarchy affected women, and she conveyed her observations through fiction, making her ideas palatable even to the men. Murasaki Shikibu was woke.

There was the literate, learned, and enlightened Eleanor of Aquitaine, a twelfth-century Queen of France and later Queen of England. She was a force of nature. She was a patron of the arts and eased Europe into new art forms, new architectural movements, and even new dance trends. Her palaces were the scenes of troubadours, chivalry, and courtly love. Eleanor was very woke.

And how about the Renaissance’s renaissance man himself, the (possibly gay) Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452? If he wasn’t woke, no one in the history of the third rock from the sun was. Leonardo was woke.

Ditto for Shakespeare, the poet and playwright born some forty years after Leonardo. It’s not just that Shakespeare’s plots are gripping. It’s that virtually every line of every play is laced in beauty and intellect. There was an ugly way to say a rose smells good. He didn’t opt for that. No matter which of the 1,223 characters Shakespeare invented and wrote lines for, whether king, queen, priest, prisoner, or whore, the Bard put beautiful and often smart words into their mouths, suggesting that even the underclass and under-educated possessed dignity. Shakespeare was woke.

History’s moral and aesthetic innovators have all been ‘woke.’

Need I trot through the scientists who were alert to emerging information, or discovered new information, and who changed the world thereby, notwithstanding opposition? Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Beruni, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, Einstein. Woke, all.

And how about Frederick Douglass and the other abolitionists? And Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other suffragettes? And Gandhi and Dr. King and the others who worked for civil rights? Silvia Rivera and Harvey Milk and others who agitated for gay and trans rights? Cesar Chavez and farm workers’ rights? All faced opposition and all were woke.

See how this works? History’s moral and aesthetic innovators have all been “woke.”

Unless I gravely misunderstand the anti-woke furor on the political Right, it would seem America’s current right-wing would have been the very people in every past era to resist each social, cultural, and moral advance during the whole course of the human story.

Yes, human nature is imitative and naturally conservative. Yes, we like to do what has always been done by our predecessors. And, yes, we resist change. That’s the conservative impulse. But many helpful and benign novelties throughout history were introduced by people who we may label “woke” in their particular epochs. 

And thank goodness the innovations of history’s woke individuals were not thwarted forever by their conservative opponents. Eventually, whole societies and even whole civilizations were dislodged from their natural conservatism, and whole societies and even whole civilizations woke up to better their world. Woke innovators have punctuated human history and have moved humanity forward. It’s no different nowadays.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...