What Are the Classics? Conclusion

For several decades I have plagued teachers and school principals with a few basic questions, without finding anyone of them who could give a reasonable answer.  Until these questions are seriously addressed, there can be no significant improvement in education.  It is not as if they are trick questions.  They are the kind of queries that would be made of any human activity that absorbs to much time, energy, and resources.  

If I invented some new widget that was going to cost the buyer $10,000 a year, most people would want to know what it was for, what good would it do.  If we apply the same reasoning to education, parents and taxpayers should be asking the same question, namely:  What is the purpose of education, that is, what sort of a person do we want to result from 20 years of schooling, and what is the curriculum that will produce such people?  The traditional answer, “the classical curriculum,” is short enough to appear on a standardized test, though only if it is one of multiple choices on the grid of a computerized test form.  But what are the classics and why should we study them?  For many old-fashioned readers, Great Expectations and The Thirty Nine Steps are classics, though readers under the age of 50 would be more likely to mention writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.  Setting aside, for a moment, any normal human being’s distaste for Morrison and Atwood, we might scratch our heads and ask why we should include even good novelists—Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Booth Tarkington in a serious curriculum.  In college, I could not help wondering why there were English classes in modern fiction.  Surely, if someone wanted to read The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises, he could read them on his own.  

In those days, I should have said the same thing of Dickens and Thackeray, Trollope and Hardy.  By all means, a school or university should be encouraged to provide a reading list, perhaps even a list on which students would eventually be examined, but, as I thought then, only Anglo-Saxon and Middle English present such difficulties of language as to justify a class.  Now, when I consider the collapse of American English, I should probably draw the line a good deal later and permit courses in 16th and 17th century literature.  To read the great satirists, in particular—Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, Alexander Pope—requires some degree of historical background, though I wonder if such background might be more easily acquired in required classes on British history.

Suppose one could revive the older idea of the “canon of Modern-English literature, and draw up a list of authors and works from Shakespeare and Jonson to Eliot and Forster.  The first response from literature professors would sound something like:  

All those so-called Great Books you have listed are really just weapons of oppression used by dominant straight white males in their endless campaign to subjugate more scrupulous and honorable minorities.  We have a new canon, a Canon of Liberation.  Specialists will continue to read homophobic bigots like Shakespeare, if only to understand the cultural prison from which we are escaping, but a school has better things to do than take the students on daily trips through a museum of dead cultural artifacts.

In putting together this little speech, I have optimistically assumed that literature professors were capable of such clarity about their aims or could write with any coherence.  Nonetheless, a Marxian analysis of literature as an ideology of the ruling class is not entirely off-base.  The question for parents today, though, is which ruling class do they wish their children to use as a model, the creators of a great classical Christian civilization or the sort of people who put Joe Biden in the White House.

In asking questions like “What is the purpose of education?” and “What are the essential books?” we are walking in the footsteps of predecessors going back to Renaissance scholars like Petrarch, to the Roman rhetorician Quinitilian, to the scholars who drew up the canons of Greek literature at Alexandria, and all the way, at least, to Aristotle in the Poetics.

Critics like Mathew Arnold and T.S. Eliot have tried to define such terms as classics and culture.  For Arnold, the son of a famous headmaster, culture was "the best that has been thought and said.”  Eliot, in his lecture “What is a Classic?” set out to be more precise and more profound than the Romantic Arnold.  For Eliot, maturity is the hallmark of classical literature, maturity of mind, of manners, and of language.  Maturity is a quality difficult to pin down.  Like the Greek sophrosyne, it implies restraint and the absence of extravagance, but maturity of style is the perfection of the best tendencies in a language.  A mature writer is not a child of his own time, but, like Vergil, he possesses a sense of history.  It is Virgil who displays all of these qualities and is the benchmark of classicism.

As valuable as they are, both of these essays in definition were on one point misguided in beginning at the wrong end.  Do we value Vergil because he is mature or maturity because it is Vergilian?  Before answering too quickly, we should consider that civilized men of the West have been Vergilians for two millennia.  From one perspective, it does not matter if Homer and Plato, Vergil and Augustine are the best writers, so long as they are ours, the writers who define our civilization. The body of classical literature is not a set of museum exhibits, catalogued, arranged, and dead; it is a living tradition, something handed down from one generation of intelligent readers to the next.  The Latin for “hand down” is tradere, from which we derive our word tradition.  Naturally, the canon must be open to the new writers—Dante and Racine, Shakespeare and Goethe—who make themselves indispensable, but never to the exclusion of their literary progenitors. 

In recent centuries we have grown used to the idea that tradition is in always in conflict with “objective truth,” and academic intellectuals (unless they are either reactionary or postmodernist) would tell us that the only way to strive for truth is by being objective, that is, by eliminating all the prejudices that come from our personal experience, our ethnic and national identity, and our religion.  They might as well ask us to flap our arms and fly across the Grand Canyon.  No ordinary mortal can entirely escape the blinders of subjectivity, and those who claim to have done so, e.g., modern university teachers, have simply put on another more constrictive pair of blinders that prevent them from seeing any good either in patriotism or religion. 

The studies that make up humane learning are called the liberal arts, not because they “liberate” students from inherited prejudices (as I have heard claimed by educators) and not even because they are arts practiced almost exclusively by liberals.  The artes liberales of the Romans (translating a much older Greek phrase) were the studies appropriate to a free man.  While servile or banausic arts were aimed at practical results (making a sword, for example) and gaining money, liberal arts form the character of a citizen in a republic or, in an aristocracy, a gentleman.  Plato and Aristotle went further, teaching students to aim at the highest goal, which is the contemplation of the good 

The free man practices and values the virtues of honesty, courage, reverence, justice, and self-restraint not so much because they are good in the abstract as because he shares a general taste for them.  It is only within such an ethical and civic context that it makes any sense to speak of pursuing or loving truth.  Philosophy, as Aristotle points out, is a dangerous pursuit for people who have not been properly brought up by family and friends, because they will only learn how to justify their vices.

Ayn Rand and her disciples were not great readers, and the paltry bits of philosophy studied by Ayn Rand and her chief apostles hardened them in their selfishness, arrogance, and lewdness.  Even if Rand or the Brandens had read a few good books, they would probably have turned them to evil purposes.  We need only look at the example of Straussians who spend entire careers twisting and distorting every great political thinker from Plato to Jefferson. What is the result of all their lying?  The kind of mad arrogance that overtook Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa.

I am not arguing for illiteracy—though a glance at the best seller lists might persuade us that Americans would be better off illiterate. Books, great and good, are the necessary tools of any educational method. It is also true that an American who has not read Hamlet or Henry Esmond, I promessi sposi or Huckleberry Finn, while he may possess many serious intellectual and cultural interests, will be, in a society of educated readers, like the long line of ill-dressed gawkers who watch the beautiful people entering the club from which their lack of beauty and the right clothes have barred them.  Schools must needs have a reading list of indispensable fiction, poetry, and drama, but teaching, say, Conan Doyle or Kafka in the classroom would require some justification, such as a desperate need for remediation.

We are so used to the idea of reading fiction and poetry in school, that few of us stop to ask why we should spend time on what might otherwise be regarded as entertainment.  If you have the patience and stomach for reading read literary theory, you will discover a great many mystical statements about literature that no one in his right mind has ever believed.  To take only the most banal example, you will hear that students should read modern novels, especially very dirty novels, to learn something important about life. Practical men--businessmen and engineers—with some justification make fun of the whole idea of studying literature in school.  Reading stories is all very well for people who have the time, but why can they not pursue their hobby at home instead of watching TV?  What possible use could it be to write essays on imagery in the poetry of Dylan Thomas or character development in the novels of Thomas Hardy?

Ancient writers on rhetoric would have no problem in answering the businessman's objections.  Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian would tell him that the object of education is to turn out a good man who can be useful to his neighbors and to his community.  There is, they would add, a certain set of books that can be used effectively to teach both sound moral and civic principles and the art of effective writing and speaking, Civilization itself, they would conclude, depends on the process of inculcating these values and techniques, year after year, and generation after generation, into the human beastlings who need to be domesticated.  Education, then, occupys a space somewhere between theology and toilet-training.

The ancient system had its shortcomings, and nothing could be more foolish than to design a school around Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, much less to pretend to revive an imaginary Trivium and Quadrivium that more often existed on paper (or rather parchment) than in practice.  However, the fundamental objectives of education remain, and not just the objectives but the methods that have proved useful and indispensable: the teaching of Latin and mathematics, the study of grammar and rhetoric (which includes logic and composition), and a systematic reading of the books that make us who we are, particularly poetry, drama, and history—and not the pseudo-scientific history written by professors but the history of historians who can write and think: Thucydides and Livy, David Hume and Shelby Foote.  This is a far cry from four years spent on the Five Foot Shelf.

The of study languages, live and dead, is essential.  The Greeks were mostly content to know their own language, but educated Romans, by the end of the Punic Wars, had to learn Greek.  In the Middle Age West Europeans, whatever language they spoke at home, had to study Latin, and a 17th Englishmen had to make a stab at Greek, speak at least a traveler’s French, and, if he wished to set up for a literary gentleman, make shift to read the language of Dante, Petrarch, and Tasso.

Foreign languages are not everything, and each of us has limited time.  But some disciplined study of ancient and modern tongues and the literatures written in them is an absolute necessity: first, because it improves our mental acuity, and second, because it is the only way of gaining an acquaintance with the highest standards of Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said.”  Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Eliot were trained in the classics, and Milton learned Hebrew, French, Italian, and Old English.  

Most poets today do not even know correct English, much less Italian.  As one Italian poet told me ruefully, after entertaining a group of American poets, he had no use for American writers: They could speak no language he knew, took no interest in art, philosophy, history, or literature.  All they wanted to do, he said, was to scribble postcards in a bar.  Today, unable even to scribble with a pen, our poets—once the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”—would drink their coffee in an internet cafe, text-messaging each other the inanities that no one, thank God, will ever read.

Whether we wish to be a poet or merely a president, there are no secrets or shortcuts and no new method of counting people that can tell us anything useful about humane learning. There are only the old methods that taught the men who made our civilization and framed our Constitution.  Begin, as they did, with Vergil and Homer. As Mr. Jefferson said, they are the poets “as we advance in life… we are left at last with.”   G.K.Chesterton agreed: “Those who count in any generation will always be talking of Troy.”  If few people today talk of Troy, in Greek or in English, it is not because Chesterton has been proved wrong.  We barbarians of the New Atlantis can either bemoan our ignorance or decide to join the conversation.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming: In addition to the Canterbury Tales, we were assigned the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas. I don’t think it was all of it but it was difficult for an average brain person. I may purchase it and give it another whirl.

  2. theAlabamian says:

    Its only recently that I understood that education was suppose to preserve your culture, its not merely a means of acquiring skills to make money or engineering feats. I say it that way because I don’t think most people today think of the goal of education as preserving a culture. People literally overlook progressive influences destroying our culture, and continue to support universities, musicians, and sports programs no matter how anti-western, anti-white, or anti-Southern they are, and have been for some time.
    The combination of Dr. Fleming’s lecture on Southern Cultural Genocide, and even his lecture on Southern Kith and Kin helps one to understand the break down of culture, if nothing else simply by comparison to what it once was. Also Dr. James Kibler’s lecture on Reconstruction of the Southern Mind helped me understand the dumbing down of education and change of direction from Reconstruction forward.
    With all of that being said in trying to communicate our heritage to certain members of my family, unfortunately one response was “but it was so long ago” in reference to the War for Southern Independence and Reconstruction. Some of my family has been enthusiastic, some resistant, one cousin seems hostile. My point is people do not even see the connection (or willfully ignorant) between their present situation culturally and the Lincolnian Revolution in the 19th century. They do not value works of art and literature from 100 years ago, so the idea of English writers 100+ years ago, the Greek mind, Cicero, etc, from 2,000 years ago having any meaning or relevance today evades them.

  3. Vince Cornell says:

    Things have deteriorated so much that today Charles Dickens is as difficult for a public high school student to comprehend as Shakespeare would have been two decades ago. I’m just waiting for Barnes & Noble to release their series of “The Classics” updated with Emojis.