Friendship, History, and Tradition: Three Criteria for the Development of the Canon

Friendship, History, and Tradition: Three Criteria for the Development of the Canon

by Dr. Erik Ellis, Senior Boethius Fellow

File:Catherine M. Wood Old books.jpgI was recently asked by friends in South America to help set guidelines for the establishment of a canon of great books. At first glance, this might seem a straightforward or even unnecessary task. Surely, everyone knows which books are the great ones! And certainly, we can almost all agree on Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and a few others, but any student of the history of Great Books programs will know that the details quickly become murky —and show definite biases— once one moves much beyond those universal authors. As a Roman Catholic and medievalist, I have long felt that a great weakness of Adler’s Great Books in the Western World is its deemphasis of Roman authors and the almost complete lack of medieval authors. I also dislike the resulting overemphasis on nineteenth-century and anglophone authors. These faults in Adler’s canon can almost certainly be explained by his peculiar taste, formed as it was in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century. Almost a century later, and with a Great Books movement that is becoming increasingly globalized, we may need to work to form a new canon, and that means developing criteria for selecting those works that are of universal importance.

The first criterion I settled on was friendship. This was based on my experience that each of us has a private canon of favorite books, and we share that canon with our friends and relations, often whether they want us to or not. They then might like a few of the books we recommend, and then share them with their friends or relations, and in a generation or so, a subculture has formed, with its own canon. I imagine that, given a sufficiently long temporal span, this is how all canons came to be, and it is a good place for us to start as we work to form our list of the books that every educated person should read. For my part, I am working to ensure that all of my friends and students read the Tablet of Cebes, and I would trade all of twentieth-century fiction and poetry for The Lord of the Rings.

The next important consideration for canon formation is history. History is intimately tied up with identity, with questions of us and them. My discussions with colleagues in both North and South America have led me to conclude that we can use basically the same list of books until we reach the sixteenth century. Such a list includes the Hebrew Bible, Hellenism, the New Testament and the Fathers, and the common legal, philosophical, theological, and literary inheritance of Latin Christendom. After that, religious difference in North America and ethnic difference (more marked in the past and diminishing rapidly) between the two Americas makes finding undisputed and universally great books more difficult. We ought probably all to read Shakespeare and Cervantes, but must every student in Buenos Aires and Santiago read Huckleberry Finn? Ought every student in Dallas and Detroit read Martín Fierro? We may need to accept different lists for these more recent authors, at least until another century (or two) has passed, and we have the benefit of hindsight.

The last criterion is tradition, which is more abstract than the other two, in that it cannot be reduced to a finite list of texts, and also more concrete, in that tradition is more fundamental and constitutive of the practices that animate our day-to-day experience. Our common traditions include the seven liberal arts, the historical connection to or continuing participation in Latin Christendom, and the controversial legacies of empire, colonialism, and mestizaje that make us Western but not European, and American whether we live north or south of the equator. In our new canon, I hope we will take inspiration from the wise, old ordo disciplinarum, which tells us that we read Aristotle’s Rhetoric more profitably when we have first mastered Cicero’s, we understand the Nicomachean Ethics better when we have already learned the habit of virtue from Seneca, and we may love Wisdom more if we meet her first in Boethius’ cell rather than in Plato’s cave. And of course, our path to philosophy will be straighter and narrower the more we have mastered the arts of language and number.

It takes a generation to destroy a tradition and three to build one. I think we are about halfway through the second generation, and I am full of hope. I look forward to navigating the next cycle of cultural renewal with friends in Europe and in both halves of America as we chart a path forward.

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