WHAT IS A CLASSIC?
This talk was given in the Works of the Mind Lecture Series, The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, October 22, 1978. The 1982-1983 reading list of the Basic Program is appended to this talk. Published in George Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Ohio University Press, 1983): 284-300.
The books speak to us in more than one way. In raising the persisting human questions, they lend themselves to different interpretations that reveal a variety of independent and yet complementary meanings. And, while seeking the truth they please us as works of art with a clarity and a beauty that reflects their intrinsic intelligibility
- - Statement of the St. John's College Program, 1974-1975
WE ARE all familiar with the term classic, using it and hearing it used in a wide variety of circumstances. Thus, an automobile can be advertised by its manufacturer as a "contemporary classic"; the exuberant manager of a pennant-winning baseball team can proclaim, "We're in the fall classic, we're right where we belong," in referring to the World Series; and a relieved professional football coach can explain, after a ragged victory, "We found a way to win. Our special team blocked that punt for a touchdown. It wasn't a classic. We needed a few breaks. But we won."
A literary use of the term may be found in a statement by Somerset Maugham in his comment on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "What makes a classic is not that it is praised by critics, expounded by professors and studied in college classes, but that the great mass of readers, generation after generation, have found pleasure and spiritual profit in reading it." Another account of classic, which directs itself more to the thing itself than to its supposed effect, is found in James Russell Lowell: "[A] classic is properly a book which maintains itself by virtue of that happy coalescence of matter and style, that innate and exquisite sympathy between the thought that gives life and the form that consents to every mood of grace and dignity, which can be simple without being vulgar, elevated without being distant, and which is something neither ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of growing old." And thus, I have had occasion to speak of the best teachers as "those few books every century which constitute both the seed and the flowering of our civilization."
There are "classics." And there is something we know as "classical education." This has been described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as"the study of anciently revered authors or of the language (or languages) in which they wrote. In Europe and countries settled by Europeans, the study of Latin and often of Greek authors long formed the core of the traditional school curriculum. In India, classical education has centered on the Vedas and Sanskrit; in China, it has been based on Confucian and other ancient writings."
THE REFERENCE in this last quotation to the study of the ancients reminds us of the origins of the word classic. It has been suggested that the root meaning of the Latin word classic us, "of the first class," "of the highest order," is best captured by our slang expression, "classy."
Thus, the Century Dictionary defined classic, when used as a noun, as "An author of the first rank; a writer whose style is pure and correct, and whose works serve as a standard or model; primarily and specifically, a Greek or Roman author of this character, but also a writer of like character in any nation." And, we are also told by this dictionary, the root term, classicus, relates "to the classes or census divisions into which the Roman people were anciently divided, and in particular pertaining to the first or highest class, who were often spoken of as classici (hence the use of the word to note writers of the first rank)."
Thus, there is among us, traditionally, an emphasis upon Greek and Roman authors of the first rank when we refer to classical. For the English-speaking peoples, those ancient sources are usefully drawn upon in the work of Shakespeare (who is concerned with, among other things, the problems posed by the allegiances in the West to biblical faiths). And, as it has often been said, we are the beneficiaries of the great conversation which has been conducted for centuries, if not even millennia, among "writers of the first rank."
All this bears, of course, on the Basic Program -- and what we purport to do by way of liberal education in our classes and through the Works of the Mind Lecture Series. Indeed, as we shall see, even to speak of "works of the mind" implies that there are classics, works that are superior to the general run of books and that repay repeated attention.
OUR PRIMARY concern on this occasion is not to attempt to identify the classics. The true classics available to us tend to identify themselves.
Rather, our primary question today is whether we should continue to take the classics seriously -- for doubts are expressed from time to time about the supposed attributes and role among us of the classics, doubts suggested even by those who have been themselves decisively shaped by the classics. I respond on this occasion to the instructive challenge laid down last spring by our Basic Program graduation speaker, the dean of the college of this university, who said, in effect, that we take our texts too much for granted and that we should examine what we are doing.
There are, with respect to our reliance upon the classics, a half-dozen objections which can themselves be designated as classic, so enduring and critical are they. Some of these objections can be traced back to antiquity -- as may be seen, for example, in Callicles' assault on Socrates in the Gorgias (in which Socrates is told to "grow up") and in the eristic argument made by Socrates' principal companion in the Meno.
We shall consider each of these half-dozen objections in turn. After all, something has led to a depreciation of the classics today, so much so as to have contributed to a marked lowering of the level of serious thought among us. If the classics did serve the purpose they were once thought to serve, and if they should have been repudiated by influential intellectuals among us, a lowering of the level of discourse is not surprising, however regrettable that may be.
The purpose the classics were once believed to serve is suggested by still another passage from James Russell Lowell where he spoke of the education available to young men in this country in the late eighteenth century: "The amount of Latin and Greek imparted to the students of that day was not very great. They were carried through Horace, Sallust, and the De Oratoribus of Cicero, and read portions of Livy, Xenophon, and Homer. Yet the chief end of classical studies was perhaps as often reached then as now, in giving young men a love for something apart from and above the more vulgar associations of life."
In the course of considering our half dozen objections to reliance upon the classics, we will draw upon and develop further what we have already indicated a classic to be. Since, as we shall see, a significant aspect of what a classic is depends upon how it is regarded and used, our consideration of these objections should help remind us of what a classic indeed is.
THE FIRST of the objections to be considered -- and one that has considerable immediate impact today -- is that any extended study of the classics is impractical. It is often said that the classics, emanating as they do from a remote and (some would insist) dead past, cannot help us live.
Is this opinion about the impracticality of the classics, at least for anyone beyond secondary school, a cause of the decline in the importance of the classics? Or is it an effect of the decline? That there has been a decline in the importance attributed to the classics in education is evident in the fact that many good students manage to spend four years in many "good" colleges without being obliged to study any of the writers once considered classics.
This (our first) objection, which is put in terms of everyday usefulness, links the "practical" to a set of authoritative doctrines, such as those found in Sigmund Freud, or in a revealed religion, or in Das Kapital; or it links the "practical to science (and to the technology produced therefrom, such as in medicine and in engineering); or it links the "practical" to the personal, the individual, the spontaneous. We shall consider the objections which further develop each of these notions of what the practical is linked to.
A key question in considering objections based on practicality is, of course, What is practical? It should be noticed that what the practical is, and what is good about it, remain problems for those who link the practical to technology or to the immediately personal. The goodness of the practical is assumed by those who link the practical to an authoritative set of doctrines. But that good tends to be an unexamined good.
In considering what is practical, then, we are obliged to consider what life is, how it should be lived, and what (if anything) is real and enduring. That is, an objection to the classics based only on considerations of practicality may not be truly practical. Practicality makes sense only when seen as instrumental to something else, to an end beyond itself.
THE SECOND objection to the classics -- and one that the practicality objection sometimes draws upon -- is made in the name of science, that is to say, the modern physical sciences. Only science, it is said, can be depended upon to provide what is sought, not the outmoded classics.
What is sought? An apostle of science might answer, "What men seek is a reliable basis for life (the relief of man's estate; a better conduct of their affairs, etc.), or the truth simply, or both. And for these purposes, the sciences, kept up-to-date, are required, not the classics of a bygone age."
A key question in considering any objection to the classics based on modern science is, Does science understand itself? Upon what does science depend for its very being? Upon what does it depend, not just "historically" but even to this day, for its principles and standards? What does science take for granted about the world that science itself cannot establish or even be clear about? What does it assume about the nature of truth?
Of course, there are classics in the physical sciences, but these too are said to be outmoded, having been superseded by many, many discoveries and advances. But it is all too often in those outmoded works, especially those responsible for the foundations of their respective sciences, in which one can see laid bare the presuppositions, methods, and purposes of science.
Even so, modern science (despite its need of the classics for a sound examination of its ends and means) has contributed to further reservations about the classics among us. Marvelous, and hence fascinating, as it is, should not science be kept in its proper place? what is that place?
IT IS due, at least in part, to science (in the form of archaeology, astronomy, economic history, evolutionary biology, and psychology) -- it is due to modern science that the classics can be objected to as essentially derivative. This third objection in our series rests on the discovery that the classics are preceded by many very old works, some of which remain lost or are not even known. The classical writers, it is pointed out, were unaware of the origins of their works in the past, or in the hidden depths of the psyche, or in material circumstances. Nor were they aware, it is argued, how big things are -- on earth and in the universe. In addition, they have provincially ignored the work (classics or otherwise) of other lands and peoples.
A key question here, however, is, What is the quality of the works prior to our classics? We can recognize the classics of Athens and of Jerusalem to be superior to what we know of the many works they were perhaps derived from and superior as well to the even greater number of works derived in turn from them. That is, we recognize differences and gradations, and it is evident that the classical authors did also. Thus, the Greeks of the classical period knew there had been a long past, which they respected; they knew that many cities had risen and fallen. They also knew, from Herodotus and from others, how diverse the peoples of the earth could be. And yet, the classical Greeks could see something special, perhaps even unprecedented, in what they were doing. The same can be said, can it not, of the experience of the Israelites, who were all too aware of the many forms of worship around them? Indeed, one can understand -- upon comparing with the remnants we have of their supposed predecessors the works that come down to us from Athens and from Jerusalem -- why Athens and Jerusalem have not only survived but have for so long prevailed.
As for the classics of other lands -- particularly those of China and of India -- should it not be recognized that they have gone their way, and we have gone ours? Is it possible for one way truly to understand the other? Is it desirable that quite diverse ways be somehow amalgamated? I shall return to these questions.
Notice one set of implications of the objection based on derivation. Is it not assumed that the judgment of superior and inferior requires the learning of more than can ever be learned? Is it not assumed, in effect, that there can never be enough of anything available for us to judge by? Is it not assumed that there is no natural sense of sufficiency, indeed of perfection, which entitles one to judge without being obliged to see "everything"? Does not this approach lead to a radically skeptical relativism -- and leave us suspended over the abyss which lies beneath the denial of nature? To these questions, too, I shall return.
THE NEXT objection to the classics follows closely upon those we have already considered: the designations of classics made by us, among the many things available, are simply arbitrary. It is objected that the classical authors are "special" because they happen to have been chosen, not chosen because they are intrinsically special. Obviously, this is not what we mean when we speak of the classics, as is evident in the recognition of a work as "a much-neglected classic." Even so, what is there to this objection, which is perhaps central to the modern depreciation of the classics?
A key question here, and perhaps with respect to all the objections I collect on this occasion, is, Can one, in any way or to any significant degree, come to know oneself, so much so that such self-knower can be aware of the best? The role of common sense, and hence of a sense of the natural, may be critical here. Is not the role of common sense, if not its very possibility, denied by the objection that any designation of a classic is arbitrary?
Notice that it is assumed by the objection we are now considering that it would be good for critical choices (such as of the classics) not to be arbitrary. Where do notions of order (and hence of the arbitrary) and of the good come from? What standards are being invoked, and how do we come to be aware of them? If there are standards which permit us to recognize and prefer the orderly and the good, and to repudiate arbitrariness, chance, and the bad, why should they not also be available to permit us to recognize certain works as truly superior?
Should we not also recognize that all times are not equal, that there can be for a people a period of exploration, then a period of ripening, and then perhaps a period of maturity when a peak is reached which is evident to all as indeed a peak? We do recognize that certain men have great talents. Some of them do have great opportunities -- and hence are able to see things more clearly than others. We recognize, that is, that there are times when one can see the alternatives clearly -- and one can then establish a way which will be followed for generations, perhaps even for centuries. Thus, we do have an awareness of the better and the worse: indeed, we all know from personal experience that we have done and can do better and worse, that fatigue or physical conditions or training or persistence or even natural talent can affect our work. Some days, we know, we are not at our best. If we can thus judge ourselves, why cannot we judge others as well?
All that I have said about the conditions for the emergence of the best reminds us of the effect of political influences on the highest human endeavours. It is particularly fitting that the Latin word from which classic is derived should draw upon Roman political institutions. But to recognize a role here for the political is to recognize as well that there can be in these matters chance developments. Chance can affect what survives; chance can affect who develops fully. Still, this is not to say that it is a matter of chance what persistently seems to be the very best to mature men who are reasonably well informed. Is not the very best somehow independent of time and place?
I have suggested that the fact that we can, to some degree, come to know ourselves means that we can have (at least in uncorrupted ages) a reliable awareness of the best, that what we settle upon as the very best need not be arbitrary. Such self-knowing -- that is, soul-knowing -- is reflected in how one reads the true classics. One finds oneself trying to understand what the author does; one does not tend to dwell upon the "personality" of the author as author; one looks up to the author, reaching to attain something of what he knows; one does not look down upon him, accounting for his movements. This is, it seems to me, a sensible response in the face of the truth -- and thus one is always open to learn from the greatest works of the mind.
THE NEXT objection to the classics is one which suggests a different way of reading them from that which I have just argued is appropriate. Some would say that the genuine achievement, that which has made the classics what they are, is the considerable corpus of commentary generated over the centuries by the works which happen to have been designated as classics. This objection sees the commentary tradition as more interesting, important, and decisive than the work commented upon. It is easy to see -- especially when one looks through the mammoth commentary on, say, the Bible -- why this can be said. The work evident there is monumental.
A key question here is, What is the source of the principles used in developing the commentaries which inspire admiration? Do not these impressive commentaries draw upon the principles which pervade the way of life, a way which has been decisively shaped by the very classics being commented upon? These principles may be reflected even in the rules applied in correcting readings of classical texts: a view of the whole is implied. Consider, also, the suggestion sometimes made that there were available for inclusion in the canon of the Bible other books as good as some of those selected. Is not this suggestion itself dependent upon a critical sense, or a sensibility, somehow shaped by the pervasive biblical teaching and attitude? Is there not something which we are all aware of which transcends particular books of the Bible and which guides (and perhaps even inspires) much biblical commentary?
Do not commentators upon a classic assume they have before them something which they are somehow aware of as humanly possible, a work of integrity and intelligence? Or, rather, is not this assumption there at the outset -- and may it not be undermined by certain kinds of commentaries? When commentaries are unduly "informed" by the doings of other "cultures" or of psyches (James Fraser and, again, Sigmund Freud come to mind), they are apt to become more concerned with psychology, with forms, or with the material causes of thought than with what is said and whether what is said is true. This leads, ultimately, to the pronouncement that it is only in our time that we can be liberated by the scholarly disciplines based on various sciences -- liberated to see things as they really are. That is, it is only now that we can see that men do not really think.
And yet, do not the greatest works somehow escape their generally unreflective, even pedantic, commentators? The respectful reader is always reaching for more, reaching beyond the commentary to the text itself, to that which has animated the commentary tradition.
It can even be observed that nature thereby asserts herself. Indeed, there are a few writers who have such a range and depth that they compel us to suspect that nature is speaking through them.
STILL ANOTHER objection to the traditional emphasis upon the classics recognizes that nature points to the brotherhood of man. The classics, it is objected, have been shortsighted; we should have, instead, a world culture, a culture that is properly rooted in the markedly diverse experiences of all peoples and which is self-conscious (in the modern sense). Thus, we can hear expectations voiced, as the dean of our college has done, respecting "our yet to be realized global culture." Such a culture, it would seem, would have as its cardinal principles one or more of those opinions upon which the objections I have already considered are based -- opinions about the need to be practical about the preeminent value of the physical sciences, about the arbitrary or derivative character of various provincial classics and about the importance of the commentary tradition, especially to the extent that commentaries bring together the classics of various cultures .
A key question here is, Is it possible to have a genuine and meaningful community on a world basis? Indeed, we must sometimes wonder, is it possible to have it even in a large city today, to say nothing of continental North America? What kind of a whole is possible in these matters? What, and how much, can people regard as truly their own? No doubt, there is a good deal of the accidental in any determination of one's own. But is there not an obligation to respect one's own and to care for it? Is there not even something enduring to be seen and celebrated in respect for what happens to be one's own? Can any "global culture" be one's own?
I have already suggested that it may be virtually impossible for people in one "civilization" to understand those of another. It is hard enough for us, descendants, so to speak, of the ancient Athenians and Israelites, to understand either the Greeks or the Bible. Can we reliably know what the Chinese or the Indian or the Egyptian classics have said? It does seem that each had some notion of the best, and of order and of community. Do we get (because of profound differences in language) little more than mere glimpses of what they discovered about these things? And do not those glimpses suggest that what they have indeed discovered may be more reliably available to us in our own classics, especially if the very nature of things is there by being drawn upon?
Of course, it can be said that a global culture is not only possible, but that it is already emerging. But is not that which is emerging to be found at a much lower level than the best of what has already been achieved among us (and perhaps among the ancient Chinese and others as well)? Is not this necessarily so, if it is to be something which can transcend limitations of language, of traditions, and of "provincial" influences? We know from our experience in this country the sacrifices that have to be made in subtlety and depth in order to make comprehensible to large audiences what a few have carefully worked out. There is, of course, no limit to how many can share the highest thoughts of mankind, but that "many" is made up of a few here and there, joined together across oceans and centuries in the common enterprise of serious reflection on the nature of things.
The apostles of a global culture preach against provincialism. But any global culture which does take hold will tend to be Western, will it not, if only because of the natural attractiveness of modern science and technology for men (including the appeal that science makes to intellectuals as a means of liberating men from local superstitions and prejudices)? This can be seen also in the appeal in many lands of Marxism, which is, after all, Western in its origins. It can be seen as well in the worldwide appeal of the western standard of living (which includes our remarkable array of devices for both curing and killing one another).
I suspect that any global culture which takes hold of mankind will tend to be suicidal (or at least tyrannical) in its effects, if not in its intentions. Certainly, the best in us will have been suppressed if the classics should come to be regarded as mere relics of an unenlightened (and provincial) past.
A PROPERLY constituted global culture, a tenacious critic of the classics might object, would not have to concern itself with the "community" I speak for. Such culture would place greater emphasis than any writer in antiquity does (except, perhaps, in some books of the New Testament) on self, on spontaneity, on each generation "doing its own thing." Each generation, indeed, each person, should be relieved of the grip of the dead hand of the past; even the family is suspect. The classics, it is objected, have tended to deny life, or at least life on this earth, in their dedication to a cold perfection, to a passionless understanding.
Thus, a radical equality among the generations is insisted upon, as is the freedom of each generation, if not of each individual, to act as should happen to be deemed good. This new way is the really practical one, it is said with particular emphasis on such things as caring, sharing, and "experience" (or, as one sometimes hears, "really living"). This is an approach which promotes experimentation, novelty, and revisionism, not self-sacrificing patriotism, "unnatural" restraint, and disciplined understanding.
This new way appeals to us as less "rigid" than that laid down by the classics. It reflects a reluctance to subject each other and our selves to the disciplined learning of what the best ("the old-fashioned") have learned. Rather, it seems now to be fashionable for all too many intellectuals to proclaim that one should not be bound by higher laws, certainly not by divine laws. The classics are particularly suspect, it sometimes seems, because of the attitudes seen among them with respect to the divine: the classical writers either "believe in" the divine or at least regard a general belief in the divine as useful, if not even necessary. Thus, the classical writers can be suspected of being either superstitious or hypocritical.
A key question here, in considering this final objection to the classics -- an objection which does sense that the truly liberated self cares more for the truth than for anything else -- a key question here is, May not the intellectuals making this objection fail to see what the classics saw about the limitations of human communities and of most human beings and in failing to see this, do not modern intellectuals permit a few to indulge themselves at the expense of the many, at the expense of the community and ultimately at the expense of themselves (since they too, as intellectuals, depend upon an enduring, decent community)?
OF COURSE, no single critic of the classics is likely to make all of the half-dozen objections I have gathered together on this occasion. No doubt, also, other objections can be conjured up, or at least variations of those I have surveyed here. But objections such as these, in whatever form they appear, have sufficed to undermine the place of the classics in the West. The traditional liberal education upon which we have depended to produce the best citizens and the most highly developed human beings is thereby lost sight of.
The physical sciences with all their wonders have, I have indicated, been critical to the replacement of the classics in education, a replacement which has led to a faith in global culture, a determined rationalism, a sort of equality, and a "principled" immoderation (or enthusiasm) -- in short, it has led to that modernity which draws to it bright young people. But the physical sciences, we cannot too often be reminded, face serious limitations: they are quite limited in what they describe and in how they look at what they can deal with. For one thing, as I have also indicated, science depends on much that is prescientific, that is itself not subject to science, and that is more important than that which science does deal with. Modern science is "universal but that is partly because it is descriptive of a narrow range of things, and even that range can be surveyed only in a special way which abstracts from "reality" in significant respects. This is not to deny that useful things can be learned from the study of the trivial and the transitory -- even, for example, from the study of comic strips and the sports pages -- but a useful study of trivial things depends on something important, firm, and persistent by which to see and judge. And it is this that the classics and perhaps only the classics, can provide.
The classics of the West permit us to stand back and survey how things are -- things both natural and conventional -- without wrecking what we have. Modern science is itself distinctively Western in that it comes from our great tradition (rooted in the classics) of a recognition of, and concern with, nature. But, then, the objections to the classics that I have examined today are also distinctively Western: the kind of exploration and experimentation that these objections represent and encourage are somehow permitted by what the West has developed. There is in the West, and perhaps only in the West, an openness to, and a systematic pursuit of, the truth, for its own sake. In a sense, then, the West carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Would we have it otherwise?
This does not mean, however, that we should not be prudent in using the considerable freedom we are privileged to have. We should recognize, for example, that communities are fragile, that they are grounded in something other than open-mindedness, even when they make much of it. We can afford to experiment with such things as relativism, positivism, and historicism, but only after, and only so long as, our foundations, those foundations provided us by the classics, are secure. Thus, no other civilization, so far as we know, has been able to question as we have the ultimate worth of its own. Thus also, the series of objections I have surveyed on this occasion—a series of objections to our classics, and hence to our way of life -- comes only out of the West, directly or indirectly.
I have suggested that only the Western way of life is apt, even though in a somewhat degraded form, to serve as a global culture. In this form, man has become the measure of all things and a much diminished man at that. I say "much diminished," speaking again from the perspective of the Western classics.
Even so, there is that in the classics which makes plausible the desire for, and the possibility of, globalness: there is in the West, that is, that profound concern with, and dedication to, nature which embraces all men, without regard to boundaries, and calls out to all men who think. Even the West's decisive revelation has tended to be universal, proclaiming the oneness of God.
I HAVE also suggested that the West carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, that a critical divisiveness may be at its heart, but that we have learned to live with (perhaps even to profit from) this tension. Is not all this due in part to the obligation we have had to balance (for millennia now) the somewhat contending claims of Jerusalem and Athens? I say "somewhat contending since it is evident that each has very much influenced the other among us, each pressing the other to examine itself and to determine what each truly means. Whatever the differences between these two approaches to understanding, to community, and to human action -- differences that are profound, but which should be left for another occasion -- whatever the differences between Athens and Jerusalem, it is evident that they share much in confrontation with the modernity for which they are, in some ways, jointly responsible.
We can see here the familiar contest of ancients versus moderns. Timing can be important. There is an advantage to a certain kind of firstness. If the reason is mature and somewhat unencumbered, it should be able to work out early what is. It should also come fairly early to an awareness of what cannot be known -- just as, for example, Euclid sensed what could and could not be demonstrated about parallel lines. Timing can mean that one is obliged, as well as able, to see what is there. This is why Plato and Aristotle, on one hand, and the most inspired poets and prophets, on the other, give us an impression of comprehensiveness and authority, almost as if reason or wisdom are therein enshrined. We are consistently challenged by them to unfold what is there and what is thereby in us.
Not all our great texts, even those from antiquity, come directly from Jerusalem or Athens. But they are intimately related, one way or another, to Athens and Jerusalem, if only in how they have become available to us. It is not accidental, I suggest, that we can conveniently refer to the Greek and the biblical as "Athens and Jerusalem." In both cases, a way of life is presupposed, a way of life dependent upon, and decisively shaped by, the political. Does not a viable political regime tend to be intimately related to a "religion" -- to a somewhat parochial view of the whole and of the eternal? Once again we can see how and why the classics can be seen to be in opposition to a science-based global culture, perhaps to any culture which denies the inevitability and power of local passions and allegiances.
THE WESTERN classics, I have suggested, make possible an education (what we know as liberal education) that permits one to grasp the best in such a way as to provide one as well with a reliable grasp of the mundane things of this world. Thus, classical poetry takes the variety of human passions and deals with them authoritatively in one form or another. Thus, also, the classics inform and arrange, and make sense of, much that we "experience." There is seen in them an abiding respect for common sense, as well as an awareness of its limitations.
It can be said, therefore, that Mind may be seen at work in our classics, Mind investigating what is. That is to say, there is to be seen in the classics a constant inquiry into nature, but with appropriate adaptations to circumstances and with due appreciation of elevated opinions concerning the divine. When we talk of the classics, then, are we not talking to a significant degree of that most human yearning and most human pleasure which philosophy represents in its most disciplined and productive form?
We cannot help but be grateful to iconoclastic critics of the classics, since they do challenge us to recognize and thereby to reaffirm the best in ourselves. Thus, we have been obliged, in our responses to a variety of objections to the traditional reliance upon the classics, to develop our awareness of what a classic must be -- and an awareness, as well, of enduring questions to be pursued on other occasions.
We reaffirm the classics on the basis of what the classics have taught us: they equip us to make and to appreciate appropriate defenses of them. And they warn us against the obstacles placed in the way of true understanding and genuine morality, including that most formidable obstacle evident in the pampered Meno's attitude. "Let us not bother to think!"
The classics, we are told, exhibit a "happy coalescence of matter and style." Critical to style is the sense of when one has said enough for the occasion.*
*Still another way of suggesting what a classic may be is to display a number of them. The faculty of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, has developed over the years a list of classics and near-classics for the four-year course of study in the program (which was founded in 1946). (See Appendix E, below.) This list is reviewed thoroughly every spring by the Basic Program faculty of some dozen members. (There are about two hundred active students each term.)
Basic Program classes meet eleven times each quarter, three hours each time. Half of the time at each of these weekly meetings is devoted to the "seminar" and the other half to the "tutorial" (which has one or two works studied intensively, or for about seventeen hours, throughout the eleven weeks of the quarter) .
The 1982-1983 reading list for the four years of the Basic Program is set forth below, with the numbers in parentheses indicating the weeks of the term during which each work is to be discussed. Three-fourths of the fifty or so works studied in the program are read in their entirety. Some of these works could no doubt be replaced by other works of at least comparable worth and "teachability." In the art of refining an effective reading list, trial and error can be important. The Basic Program reading list follows:
(2-3) Sophocles, ANTIGONE;
(4-6) Plato, APOLOGY, CRITO;
(7-8) Tolstoy, THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH;
(9-11) Dostoevsky, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
(1-11) Plato, MENO.
(1-3) BIBLE: GENESIS, JOB, MATTHEW;
(4-7) Plato, REPUBLIC, I-IV;
(8-11) Freud, INTRODUCTORY LECTURES ON PSYCHOANALYSIS.
(1-11) Shakespeare, KING LEAR (or HAMLET or MACBETH or OTHELLO).
(1-3) Machiavelli, THE PRINCE;
(4-6) Hobbes, LEVIATHAN, 1-11;
(7-8) Rousseau, DISCOURSE ON THE ORIGIN AND FOUNDATIONS OF INEQUALITY;
(9-11) Stendhal, THE RED AND THE BLACK.
(1-11) Aristotle, NICOMACHEAN ETHICS.
(1-7) Plato, REPUBLIC;
(8-9) Joyce, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN;
(10-11) Shakespeare, THE TEMPEST,
(1-11) Homer, THE ILIAD
(1-2) Thomas Aquinas, TREATISE ON LAW;
(3-5) Locke, SECOND TREATISE OF GOVERNMENT;
(6-8) Hume, AN INQUIRY CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS;
(9-11) Kant, THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS (selections).
(1-11) LYRIC POETRY
(1-7) Sophocles, OEDIPUS THE TYRANT and Aristotle, POETICS;
(8-10) Mark Twain, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN;
(11) Conrad, HEART OF DARKNESS
(1-11) Euclid, GEOMETRY, and Newton, PRlNCIPIA (selections) .
(1-4) Homer, ODYSSEY;
(5-7) Aristotle, RHETORIC;
(8-9) Plutarch, LYCURGUS, NUMA POMPILIUS, ALCIBIADES, ALEXANDER, CAESAR;
(10-11) Shakespeare, JULIUS CAESAR.
(1-11) Thucydides, THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR.
(1-3) Gibbon, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, I, i-v, xv-xvi;
(4-6) St. Augustine, CONFESSIONS;
(7-9) Dante, INFERNO;
(10-11) Chaucer, THE CANTERBURY TALES (selections).
(1-11) Aeschylus, ORESTEIA.
(1-4) Plato, SYMPOSIUM;
(5-6) Tacitus, HISTORY;
(7-8) Pascal, PENSEES;
(9-11) Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL.
(1-11) Melville, MOBY DICK
(1-3) Herodotus, THE PERSIAN WARS, I, VII;
(4-5) Montaigne, ESSAYS, I;
(6-8) Swift, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS;
(9-11) Austen, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE .
(1-11) Descartes, DISCOURSE ON METHOD.
(4-7)Smith,THE WEALTH OF NATIONS (selections);
(8-11) Marx, COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and CAPITAL (selections) .
(1-11) Lucretius, ON THE NATURE OF THINGS.
(1-4) THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, THE FEDERALIST (selections);
(5-6) Burke, REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE (selections);
(7-9) Tocqueville, THE OLD REGIME AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION;
(10) Dostoevsky, NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND;
(11) Xenophon, HIERO
(1-11) Plato, PHAEDO.