Last May, some students asked the English Department to require its majors to read a group of writers more diverse than the canonical roster now assigned in the major English poets sequence.
Canons, supposed to consist of the great, central authors of a genre or field, are unfashionable. Their critics argue that “greatness” and “centrality” are usually just masks for the politics of those with power. They’d cite the numerical dominance in the canon of writers from Old Europe’s imperial nations.
Also, they ask, why care what another philosopher or novelist wrote? Philosophy should be correct and novels should be beautiful. Correctness and beauty lack their own content if they just refer to past interpretations. Maybe the dead philosophers were bad philosophers. And even if they were brilliant philosophers, the canon’s adversaries continue, we should do our own thinking, not imitate. The only way to cure the anxiety of the influence of the past is to ignore the past and begin anew. If millennials can derive Kantianism themselves, good for them and for Kantianism, and neither better nor worse for Kant.
Given enough time and intellect, I think ignoring canons might be not only harmless but also enriching. Proposing an idea on the basis of one’s own reasoning requires one to have done good thinking. We have to earn the conclusion if it is our conclusion, rather than the compelling final line in someone else’s syllogism. But life is brief, and we are ignorant. So shortcuts are permissible, especially at the start of education, when we are so simple that we do not even know how to ask. The canon can begin for us, the way good friends and teachers begin for us: in restricting the range of inquiry, thereby focusing our thoughts. Again, if we thought for a very long time and were very wise, we might justly dispense with aids. But who has the time, and who is so wise?
The canon’s critic may respond that she objects not to canons but to the rather white and male one we have now. She wants more diversity, not fewer reading assignments. It is a terrible injustice that the education and leisure necessary for thinking and writing have been unequally distributed for hundreds of years. The West forewent innumerable valuable intellectual contributions by subjugating women and people of color with imperial hegemony.
But the canon should be, foremost, diverse in amazing ideas. No one’s thoughts should be privileged because he himself is underprivileged. Perhaps there are ideas that, for instance, only a woman would think to propose. Fine. The point is, ideas aren’t more or less valuable for having been proposed by white men or anyone else. When a new work is composed, it is a candidate for canonship just like every other work in its genre – no matter the race and sex of its author.
So how do we choose? I propose four criteria: originality, influence, coherence and complexity.
The primary text is more impressive than its commentators. The original thinker has given the world something that the world did not give him, except perhaps in some inchoate form. His contribution is especially valuable if it is not just a new answer to a question, but indicates that our methods for answering all questions are inadequate. A good example is Thomas Hobbes, the first philosopher to use post-Aristotelian natural science and a pre-political “state of nature” to understand political life.
As notable as the originality of Hobbes’ ideas has been their influence on Hobbes’ successors. Influence is important not because it indicates that someone is right — astrology was admittedly influential but is undiluted nonsense. Influence indicates, rather, the appeal of a text to others asking the same questions. Understanding how certain authors were themselves students also alerts us to nuances we would otherwise miss. Using influence as a point in one’s favor has the further benefit of introducing new students of a subject to a lengthy conversation. It is hard to start (though it is crucial for further study) if you have to, yourself, construct the lyceum of ages. Reading connected texts saves time.
The last two criteria, coherence and complexity, together measure the “richness” of a work. Arguing for coherence seems rather unnecessary. But proposing an idea and its opposite is nonsense. A work is complex if it proposes many related ideas, or if its core idea has power beyond itself. It is interesting but not very helpful simply to state that there are pre-political rights, for instance. To show how a whole society may be constructed on the basis of pre-political rights is quite an achievement.
There is another sense in which influential texts end up in the canon – they are the works that survived. Combine this with the fact that we tend to read works native to the cultures closest to ours. Now our canon, the Western canon, seems like a bad joke: a parochial list of the lucky or strong pretending to universality.
I cannot argue that just because a canon is my canon it is worth having. I don’t think our canon consists in the best or most diverse works that could have been written. But it is a long conversation with ingenious members about many things of first importance. It can use more participants, and those who refuse to recognize greatness when it is foreign to their own civilization are justly chastised as chauvinists.
Yet the canon itself, as a project and a corpus, remains a singular jewel. It is arrogant folly to neglect it, especially when it lacks an equal.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .