On Classicism, Part IV

In Classicism on April 8, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Dean Williams, Kyoto


1797 Godwin: “Ought the study of the classics to form a part of the education of youth?”

The first time I heard the word “classic” might well have been around the summer of 1974, when I was nine. The original black-and-white Godzilla came on as we were watching TV, and my father turned to me with the reassuring words, “You’ll love this one, son. It’s a classic.” It took only ten minutes of watching to teach me me both the meaning of that word and to understand exactly what he had meant about the movie. It was indeed, a “classic.” It was open to enjoyment by all, and loved by all. Later on I was to learn that one of the necessary conditions for a cultural artifact being considered a classic is that it have at least a modicum of popularity. No such thing as a private classic, as Wittgenstein would say. Yet at the same time it possessed a certain finished, self-sufficient quality. “Interpret or critique me as you wish, it’s all the same to me” the irascible monster seemed to grunt as it munched on power lines. This fulfilled another requirement, I later found: self-sustainability. Independence, the sheer capacity to stand out and stand alone in our crowded cultural landscape, is connected to durability, yet another canonical prerequisite. The flickering black-and-white images let me know that this was no here-today, gone-tomorrow production: Godzilla was here to stay.

1737 Pope: “Who lasts a century, can have no flaw: I hold that wit a classic, good in law.”

The funny thing is, although only a highbrow who hates popular entertainment would disagree with the statement, “Yeah, Godzilla is a classic”, they would not be wrong to retort, “Sure, but is it any good?”


1613 R C Table: “classick, chiefe, or approved.”

“Classic” comes from the Latin, classicus, “of the highest class.” This in turn stems from the word Classis, “order, rank”, referring to the 6 caste-like divisions of the Roman people. The OED (a classic in itself!) opines that at some point this etymological stream merged with the related form describing an academic grouping, a class. So over time the print-based meaning of “classic” evolved into something like “a work, usually literary, that is used in school for pedagogical purposes due to its general excellence.” It’s clear that usages such as “That classic Yankee game” or even the vulgarism “An instant classic” are offshoots of this Victorian vine.


Classic: belonging to the standard authors and literature of Greek and Latin antiquity.

1711 Felton: “With them the genius of classick learning dwelleth.”

1725 Sewell: “What then has been done by the really Learned to the dead Languages…we in justice owe to our own great Writers, both in Prose, and Poetry. They are in some degree our Classics; on their foundation we must build, as the Formers and Refiners of our Language.”

It is appropriate to ask why in 2009 writers and thinkers from only two cultures, both of which died out at least 1600 years ago, should be privileged. Shouldn’t we spend more time with writers closer to us in time and space? And is it not culturally chauvinistic, if not outright racist, not to include in our canon creative and philosophical work from figures outside of the traditional European areas of influence? My answer to the second question is an unequivocal “Yes”. Exposing our children and ourselves to the best of world culture can only enrich us. The canon (and I will argue later that there must be some sort of core material our civilization bases itself on, not just a set of agreed-upon principles or values but actual texts.) must be broadened and enhanced by the inclusion of new voices from other lands, both womens’ and mens’.

My answer to the first question, “Why the Romans and the Greeks?” is a bit lengthier, but the shortest possible version, regrettably reducible only to two parts, would be: 1) this particular small group of Mediterranean authors is important because human progress is based on a generational interaction with the actual human progenitors of key ideas, innovations and movements, not just the concepts themselves; and 2) strictly speaking, for several reasons you have no epistemological or even ontological right to ask the question. Look to the next installment of this essay for the long version.

(The italicised quotations in this essay are from the OED, 2nd Edition.)

  1. If a writer is too close to our time and space, have they been able to fulfill your second criteria “self-sustainability”?

    This also gives rise to your second phenomenon, the focus on work from traditional “European areas of influence”. For a long time, this has been where the written word has come from. Written fiction is not a feature of contemporary Arab culture, or Indian culture, or even Chinese culture (for many reasons to do with religious, political or socioeconomic factors). Given the sheer weight of work from this sphere, it’s not surprising that we tend to focus on it.

    Where outstanding work does come from other cultures (think Murasaki Shikibu, or the Koran) I would say it is recognized as classic literature. There just isn’t as much of it.

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