In Defense of the Classics

One of the charges laid at the feet of people like myself who have read and taught the “Great Books” of Western Civilization is that they are “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” What this means, I suppose, is that they were written by and for those few “effete” intellectuals who can explore the hidden treasures that remain opaque to the rest of humankind. I have always had a problem with this charge and as one who has actually taught many of those books to so-called “marginal students” I can attest to the fact that most of the so-called “classics” can be read and understood by anyone who gives them a chance.

I recall going into a liquor store a few years ago (for a friend, of course!) and running into one of my former students who mentioned that she had thoroughly enjoyed reading Boethius in my class and thanked me for assigning it. She was talking about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I required in one of my Humanities courses. We also read a couple of Plato’s Dialogues, several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, and portions of Homer’s Iliad, among other great books. To be honest, we seldom read entire works (except the short ones like Boethius and  More’s Utopia), but it was certainly the case that those students could have read complete works had they chosen to do so. And some have gone on to do just that. My goal was to give them a taste and get their minds stirring.

Then there is the testimony of people like Irving Howe who noted that:

“There were the Labor night schools in England bringing to industrial workers elements of the English cultural past; there was the once-famous Rand School of New York City; there were the reading circles that Jewish workers, in both Eastern Europe and American cities, formed to acquaint themselves with Tolstoy, Heine, and Zola. And in Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine we have the poignant account of an underground cell in Rome during the Mussolini years that read literary works as a way of holding itself together.”

I also read about an experiment in a New York prison involving a dozen inmates who read and discussed “classics” in philosophy and political theory and were excited about the books and thoroughly involved in the discussions. The notion that these books are “elitist” is absurd. I know that and so did James Seaton whose book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism I have referred to previously. In that book Seaton lays to rest, once and for all, the myth that these books are elitist or undemocratic, though he is primarily interested in works or art and literature and the rejection of those standards that would allow us to evaluate great works. I will quote a portion of Seaton’s book at some length because he puts his case very well:

“The notion that the affirmation of standards in art and culture . . . is intrinsically undemocratic depends on the mistaken assumption that the same standards should be applied to both politics and art. The unexceptionable idea that it is possible to arrive at generally acceptable but always debatable criteria for distinguishing between better our worse works of art and literature is confused with the truly undemocratic notion that it is possible to distinguish between those who are fit to command and those who are only fit to obey on the basis of such criteria as race, sex, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinions, or indeed any criteria at all. . . .

It is true that the cultural prestige of the twentieth century avant-garde has lent itself to the notion that those comparatively few capable of appreciating avant-garde art constitute an elite, culturally, spiritually, and even morally superior to the rest of the population. Although this kind of elitism does not have the disastrous consequences associated with elitisms based on race, politics, or religion, for example, it is nevertheless based on false premises. As Henry James demonstrates in discussing Flaubert, it is quire possible to appreciate artistic achievements of modernism without condemning those, the great majority of the population, who are either less appreciative or simply uninterested. On the other hand, the notion that there are a certain number of literary or artistic works whose greatness has been firmly established over many generations is not elitist in any pejorative sense of the word. The so-called ‘canon’ [of Great Books] is established, evaluated, expanded, and re-established in a continuing process by the accumulated judgments of the ‘common reader’ . . .. Ralph Ellison’s thesis that the cultural implications of American democracy include a willingness to recognize artistic excellence wherever and whenever it appears provides a specifically American version of the traditional humanistic literary criticism that art and literature should be judged first of all by artistic standards for which criteria based on class, race, religion, or politics are irrelevant.”

Now it is true that Seaton is primarily concerned about literature and art, but his argument applies to all of those works in the “canon” that are said to be great and which have been swept aside by those who are convinced that they are the root cause of  injustice and human suffering the world over. The works of “dead, white, European, males” are rejected out of hand (by many who have never read them, I strongly suspect) on the grounds that they are elitist despite the fact that they were written or created for ordinary folks and are accessible to all if they are literate and willing to make the effort. The notion that they can be called “great” is rejected out of hand as well because the idea of “greatness” is also said to be determined by an elite group of intellectuals. As Seaton shows, this is false on its face.

The fact of the matter is that there are some works that have stood the “test of time”and remain relevant today. They aid us in understanding the human condition, ourselves and the other members of our human community, in ways that science cannot. In addition, they make it possible for us to appreciate sudden insights and beautifully written prose or poetry and to admire the art that reveals to all of us aspects of our world that would otherwise go unnoticed — especially in an age in which so many of us have our noses buried in our electronic toys.

If you are asking yourself how on earth this is relevant to your world, recall that these deniers are the ones who have brought us “alternative facts” and “political correctness,” among other modern horrors. The rejection of standards of excellence is simply one more sign that most people would prefer not to take the time or the trouble to think and would insist that “it’s all a matter of opinion.” It’s certainly the path of least resistance and we do like to take that.

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11 thoughts on “In Defense of the Classics

  1. Hugh, I love the fact prisoners relished in reading the classics. Talk about enlightenment. Making us think is what it is all about. We are thinking less about the subtleties of issues that go beyond 140 characters. Thanks for teaching us all. Keith

  2. You are an extremely intelligent man, but never in my wildest dreams would I think of you as elitist! But, I, too have been considered so. One (former) friend called me a snob for using a word she did not know. The word was ‘perused’. She said, “well, if you would read something instead of perusing it …”

    I think that when people do not understand something, they fear it, and eventually fear leads to resentment. I still enjoy the classics, though I do not read them as much as I once did. But too many people believe that education ends when one finishes school, whereas at least a few of us believe that education is a never-ending process. Therein, perhaps, lies the difference. A friend approximately my age told me once that the last book she read was in high school. I thought … how terribly sad!

    • Very well said. Fear leads to resentment and people fear what they do not understand. Those who attack the classics from within the academy often have no idea what it is they are attacking. But they sense that they are missing something and it is easier to belittle it than to find out what the fuss is all about. We need to remind ourselves that those who went before us and who founded nations and wrote remarkable Constitutions were well read — “elitist” by contemporary standards.
      You must have had a very good education because in those four years a foundation is supposed to be laid and the rest of your life you build on it — as you have, in fact, done. I am always pleased when my former students write back about the latest things they have learned or the latest book they read. Education takes a lifetime.

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