On the Value of the Classics!

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On the Value of the Classics

Welcome to the new “essays on the classics!” These essays, written once a week, will seek to bring the finest works of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, to life, establishing their relevance to the modern age. Briefly, then, we must address what it means to be a classic—or, in my preferred terminology, a Great Book.

There are at least a thousand Great Books, but what does that mean? The term is itself somewhat ambiguous, and lends itself to several different definitions, some of which are stronger than others. The most notable of these is that a Great Book is one that outlives its own generation. The most thorough, and the one that I lean towards the most, is like a three-pronged Supreme Court opinion, and it is the one given by the 20th Century Great Books scholar Mortimer Adler. Adler says that a book becomes a Great Book if:

1) The book has contemporary relevance;
2) The material in the book is inexhaustible, meaning that through successive readings there is still fresh factual data or methods of interpretation that can be found;
3) The book contains many of the great ideas that have occupied the minds of thinking men from classical antiquity to the present.

Clearly I lean towards the second definition, if I am attempting to “bring [them] to life.” But it is worth noting that it is not always plain what the contemporary relevance of many of these books is—hence one might require a teacher–, especially for some of the archaic scientific texts such as Aristotle’s Physics, and that the second part of this definition is itself not always applicable: while some books approach inexhaustibility, notably The Iliad of Homer, the medieval epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, others can be fully dissected in a matter of only a couple of readings. Be that as it may, a Great Book is one that requires serious thought, often including multiple readings, and discusses human nature or matters of the external world in such a manner as to induce the reader to note the applications of the text to his own time and place.

This said, it goes noted that the Great Books are somewhat out of style. I see students routinely who would not know a Great Book if I smacked them on the head with one, and there has been a general tendency, especially within academic circles, to discard the wonderful ideas contained within them on the grounds that they are either biased or out of date. I have already addressed the latter—nothing could be farther from the truth—but the former needs some consideration.

What’s particularly disturbing is not only that the students have not read the actual books, but that they do not even know about the existence of the books, with a few exceptions, especially Shakespeare’s plays and The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (which is mentioned in every European History class).

Generally speaking, the Great Books come from Europe and North America after the onset of colonization (and, to be sure, after the revolt of England’s thirteen colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard which ended in 1781). There are very few Great Books from Asia, none from Africa, and certainly none from North America prior to Columbus’ expedition in 1492. It is easy, then, for someone looking only at racial or ethnic identity to class these works as the ravings of dead white males.

But how true is this? Sure, many of the works were written by men who clearly favored Europeans and males to other ethnic groupings and to women. There is a patriarchal undertone to many of the works that cannot go unnoticed.
At the same time, claims of misogyny in the classics are in many cases not even relevant, as some works of history and political theory deal with events exclusively in the hands of men; and in many texts, such as The Odyssey of Homer, the women are in fact treated much better than the men. But where women are criticized in many Great Books, men receive much worse treatment, and in fiction and biography, as well as in some forms of classical history, women are rarely presented as being of anything less than critical importance.

More wrongheaded is the claim of bias on the grounds of whiteness. This claim has been so pervasive and so widespread that on my blog one commenter went so far as to say that the writings about North Africans in the works of Roman historians show a clear racist inclination. (This is why some of us need teachers: the North Africans were distinctly white.) University professors have said this so many times that it makes a true scholar nauseous.

Not even all of the authors of the Great Books are white: the Greeks were not white, they were Middle Eastern; the Romans are the first “Western whites”, but they were a society where no distinction was made between whites and other ethnic groups strictly on grounds of ethnicity, so in at least a few cases we don’t know whether a Roman author was white at all. But even were the authors of the Great Books all white, I see no reason why this should imply that their positions are all the same and, therefore, of dubious intellectual merit. This is immediately suspect with Euclid, the great mathematician, about whose codification of geometry I believe we can all agree that it has relevance for every high school student, white, black, blue, green, or brown.

But even amongst the political theorists and humanitarians this is a strictly moronic claim. One could put Hobbes and Augustine of Hippo in a room together and be almost certain that only one would exit alive; both held passionately to belief systems that are nearly diametrically opposed. These two were certain of what they saw; which distinguishes them from the French essayist Montaigne and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were skeptical. Dante was a rabid monarchist, Milton an anarchist, and Lenin a totalitarian. Nor is this only true of authors living in different time periods and from different cultural backgrounds; both Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine spent much time in late 18th Century Britain, yet Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France outraged Paine, who replied (rather vindictively) with The Rights of Man. The racial identity of the author has nothing to do with the greatness of a book or the positions he espouses within it. And even the racial identities of the authors must be questioned: for in what sense is John Stuart Mill, writing in Protestant 19th Century England in the Age of Industrialism, the same kind of white male as Dante, writing at the very beginning of the 14th Century in Catholic Italy? Moreover, how does one discard the political theory in On Liberty and the epic poem in The Divine Comedy for the same reason? These are not even the same kind of book!

Because of the vast range of positions, attitudes, values, and beliefs represented within them, the Great Books present a complete course in the study of human nature, on top of a strong education in mathematics and science, both natural and social. To discard this on the grounds of the supposed ethnic prejudices of the authors, which are not to be found in most of the actual books themselves, is the height of absurdity. If anything, we owe a lot to the dead white males.

One of the worst consequences of the supposed archaism of the Great Books is the belief that all Great Books are fictional. One friend of mine went so far as to say that I should target my courses and my subscriptions to those who like the pages of great fictional works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, only to reply when I told him of the great nonfiction ones that “they’re all the same to me.” In one case I told a parent how much her son would benefit from a course in the classics—to which she replied that he was “fine with the English”, as though English and classics are synonymous. If they are not just “English”, they are considered only as “fine arts” or “humanities”—which is little better. In fact, while fiction in the form of long poems, epic poems, novels, satires, and plays comprises a solid portion of the Great Books, there is far more nonfiction, across several different genres.

The nonfiction genres include history and political theory, mathematics and the various sciences (as all mentioned above), as well as philosophy and theology, economics and sociology, biography and memoir, speeches and letters, and mixtures of all of the above. Nor are the Great Books of anywhere near universal length: while a classic essay or an ancient Greek play may be no more than ten pages, a 19th Century novel may run anywhere between 150 (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) and 1000 pages (War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy), and a work of classical history might be either 35 pages (as in Catiline’s War by Sallust) or 4000 of them (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Ditto for political theory: Milton’s Areopagitica, the passionate defense of free speech, is barely 30 pages, whereas Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws is close to 600.

Because of the great range of nonfiction material in the Great Books, readers of them are forced to confront the world as it really exists, not as they wish it would be. Works of fiction can sometimes be constructed in fantasyland and remain intriguing, but a book about the history of a well-known revolution, or on the theory behind civil laws and legality, must be realistic in order to survive—or on the alternative, it must appear to some people to be realistic, which, if it is not, says a lot about how crazy people can be.

What do I mean by this last statement? Take the following quote from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution—generally considered a Great Book and written within the last century:

“How did the Compromisers explain their conduct? One explanation had a doctrinaire character: Since the revolution is bourgeois, the socialists must not compromise themselves with the power–let the bourgeoisie answer for itself. This sounded very implacable.”

By looking at the language we can dissect the precision of Trotsky’s ideas, or the lack thereof. A revolution cannot itself be bourgeois. The leaders of a revolution can be, but the thing itself refers to a sequence of events, and I have never seen a middle-class event or an event that holds property. And it was not twenty pages before that this same author claimed that the revolution was brought about by ideas fed into the minds of the masses by the Bolsheviks, the Communist group that sought to do away with property. Beyond that, how does an explanation sound implacable? Does this writer even know what that word means? A person can be implacable; my fat cat can be implacable. But a statement cannot be implacable.

To be educated in the classics means to confront this quote head-on by virtue of having seen more direct quotes in better works of history; it means that you can recognize that someone with these kinds of ideas is in fact dangerous, and that if he is persuasive (and Trotsky surely was) then followers of him will be equally removed from the real world. It means that you understand what the consequences are when this happens, and it means that you can see that such a thing can happen anywhere and at any time. It means that you will confront the historical consequences of words like these—the rise of totalitarian governments built on flimsy ideas and rooted in systems such as fascism and communism—and that you will be honest about how those are or are not relevant to the world in which you live. The words in the quote meant enough to Trotsky that he was willing to publish them, so they must be considered carefully. Because of that they are almost enough to give an entire history of practical, Soviet communism at one glance. But do they really have any meaning at all to one with an unclouded mind? To someone with a Great Books education—one effect of which is that it gives meaning to a man’s life—this is the essential question.

If the critiques of the classics say that they are biased and unrealistic, and mostly only fictional, that is because those who are making the critiques are not engaging honestly with the books. They are credulous, not critical, in their approach. And this is only three sentences in a work of well over 450 pages—in an abridged version.

And therein lies the value of the classics: when you begin to consider them and to study them on their own terms, your reasoning sharpens to a degree that is unmatched by any other so-called “academic discipline.” You can dissect each of these texts from hundreds of different angles, and each text and each way of approaching it sharpens your reasoning another notch. You begin to see everything in context, as parts of a whole picture, and not as isolated pieces of statistical data with no consistency.

The classics demand such careful examination because they deal with large things, not small ones. Because of this they expand your mind to a point where it cannot go back to what it was prior to your engagement with them. You find yourself with more flexibility and better ability to adapt to circumstances that are not what you expected because you can see things more fully. Knowledge is power. So one classic says!

Sharp reasoning, large-mindedness, the ability to adapt: surely these are practical things. If you knew one course of study brought you these things, and another didn’t—why would you forgo it? It is no accident that a Great Books education has for centuries led to success in careers in film and theater, journalism (both broadcast and written), government (both domestic and foreign affairs), politics, law, writing, teaching, and business. No doubt for a student in school it would drastically improve his reading and writing work and his ability to thrive in English and History courses, as well as on standardized tests where two of the three major categories tested are reading comprehension and writing. Especially in an age where writing is one of the skills that distinguishes an educated professional from an uneducated one, and thus boosts income, this would seem even more compelling. It is certainly no radical idea, despite what modern educators might try to tell you.

I am here to write for you on these fine works of literature and not to criticize the world in which we live for whatever failings it might have. But you can judge for yourself, I think, what the consequences might be in an age where there is no widespread appreciation for the Great Books.


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