The Importance of the Classics

LOUISE COWAN

The great books speak to us of honor and love and sacrifice; but they do not always speak in familiar phrases. They do not tell us what we already know. Transcending current opinion and fad, through symbol and metaphor they reveal a clear and uncluttered access to the realities that determine our lives.

Plato
detail from The School of Athens
by Raphael

Sometime back, when I was a young instructor teaching Hamlet to a freshman class, a few lines from the play struck me with peculiar force: “Not a whit; we defy augury,” Hamlet proclaims in response to his friend Horatio, who has cautioned him to call off a coming duel. Hamlet refuses and proceeds to make a rather strong profession of faith: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he declares. “If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not owl yet it will come. The readiness is all.”

This mention of providence struck me as being in marked contrast with Hamlet's earlier anguished irony. It took on the aura of something momentous. What did Shakespeare intend his readers to think of so radical a turnabout? Did it not in fact imply that the author himself saw and understood the change wrought in Hamlet by faith? Yet my graduate professors and other scholarly authorities considered Shakespeare a nonbeliever — almost, it would seem, a freethinker. They agreed that he was a practical man, not in any sense an idealist. Hadn't his plays been composed for money, not for art? Certainly he could not have intended by them anything profound. Granted, they allowed, he was a genius: his comedies, though light bits of froth, were charming; his tragedies, though nihilistic, were powerful. And as for his own outlook on life, most of them assumed, it was implied most cogently in King Lear, in the bitter speech of blinded old Gloucester:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.

But in Hamlet I saw a new key to Shakespeare's work. Hamlet's quest for faith roused in me a kindred feeling. I remember going over the young prince's soliloquies, tracing the movement from his despairing “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt” to his meditative “To be or not to be,” and on to his affirmative “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”

At this moment I was standing at a crossroads. The Christian belief in which I had been reared had been seriously damaged during my college years and finally demolished — ironically — by a required course in religion that had brought about my complete capitulation. None of the biblical sources could be considered reliable, the experts of the day argued. And for me, once the seeds of doubt had been sown, the entire gospel was called in question. The account was surely a fable, enlarged and considerably embellished by a few followers-for what motive, it was hard to say. But belief in so strange and mysterious a tale asked for more credulousness than I was willing to grant. By the time I entered graduate school I had put aside the entire question of faith. But then, when reading Hamlet to my class, I saw incontestable evidence that Shakespeare — or his chief protagonist, at least — had come to rely on divine power.

I pored over Hamlet several times during the ensuing months, each time finding further evidence of Shakespeare's spiritual outlook. And gradually it became apparent that his perspective was not simply spiritual, but overtly Christian. Sacrificial love was evident everywhere in his dramas. Grace was one of his key words; evil was its darker counterpart. His comedies in particular were virtual illustrations of themes and passages from Scripture. By today, of course, several scholars have come to acknowledge and even explore Shakespeare's Christian faith; but at that time my discovery seemed monumental. It meant recognizing the secularism of our day and discerning the bias of most scholars. And it started me on the process of reading all serious literature more closely.

It was a year later, in teaching Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, that I rediscovered Christ in his fullness — and came to see the urgency of his teachings. The resulting protracted study of Scripture and theology eventually led to my overt profession of faith.

Before literature came to my aid, I had perused theology in vain. Even the Bible was unconvincing. Not until a literary work of art awakened my imaginative faculties could the possibility of a larger context than reason alone engage my mind. I had been expecting logical proof of something one was intended to recognize. What was needed was a way of seeing. I had to be transformed in the way that literature transforms — by story, image, symbol — before I could see the simple truths of the gospel.

Above all else this seems to me the chief value of what we call the classics: they summon us to belief. They seize our imaginations and make us commit ourselves to the self-evident, which we have forgotten how to recognize. Four centuries of rationalism have led us to expect empirical evidence and logical coherence for any proposition. Even for the things ordinarily considered certain, we moderns require proof. In this state of abstraction, we are cut off from the fullness of reality. Something has to reach into our hearts and impel us toward recognition.

Though there are other media for this impulsion, one of the most effective is what the ancients called poetry, meaning literature in general. Poetry is language used primarily to express universals; as Aristotle wrote, poetry is truer than history. Cut loose from the sagas of personality and the prescriptions of factuality, poetry can witness to the timeless and immortal. It elevates our consciousness so that we learn how to exercise discernment. And, as Hamlet declared, “the readiness is all.” If we are restored to ourselves and made ready, then we can begin to establish the kingdom of Christ in our own lives and in those we touch.

HOW DO WE VALUE THE MASTERWORKS?

We don't often wish to make so grand a claim for the power of the great books, however, being more likely to defend them as desirable rather than necessary. We let ourselves be persuaded that their chief value lies in their capacity to enculturate. Admittedly, the ability to “read” the society we live in — to interpret the web o meanings in which we all find ourselves enmeshed — is not a minor advantage.

Over the centuries, the books known as the classics have formed intricate bonds among men and women who have grown up within the radius of a civilization that began to flower nearly three thousand years ago. Young people have understood the ideals of their society through the classics and have come to love something intangible: the quest for wisdom and insight, generated in ancient Greece and Rome. What Plato called the eros of the beautiful and Virgil considered an amor for humane virtues were changed in their encounter with the caritas of the gospel and spread outward through Europe and the New World, transforming human imaginations.

There is more to it, however, than feeling at ease with one's fellows. It is not simply a matter of understanding the society in which we live, even though such comprehension is a distinct benefit. More importantly, from these great books society has gained its ideas of justice and freedom; from them it has shaped its concept of honor and beauty. And although the content of this body of writings alters almost imperceptibly as epochs come and go, its core remains surprisingly constant. For centuries the Greco-Roman classics have been taught in Europe and the New World on an equal basis with Shakespeare and the Bible. Fully as much as the Book of Exodus and Pilgrim's Progress, the Iliad and the Aeneid have stood in Western minds as model accounts of heroism. These and other masterworks have been so intricately woven into the fabric of daily life as to provide a kind of second nature not only for political and intellectual leaders but for ordinary citizens who by their sense and virtue determine the character of social order.

Even so, for all their cultural value, the classics function not simply as great books but as something closer to spiritual exercises. It is not enough for them to be known about; they need to be truly known in the fullness of their intimacy. Taken in and savored, they become a way of understanding oneself in relation to larger powers of the human soul. But as William Butler Yeats has written: “because the divine life wars upon our outer life, and must needs change its weapons and its movements as we change ours, inspiration has come to them [the poets] in beautiful startling shapes.” The great books speak to us of honor and love and sacrifice; but they do not always speak in familiar phrases. They do not tell us what we already know. Transcending current opinion and fad, through symbol and metaphor they reveal a clear and uncluttered access to the realities that determine our lives.

But too often in our day, the very term classics is suspect. The classics tend to be regarded as symbols of elitist culture rather than as the vital and broadly democratic forces that they are. Surrounded by an aura of adulation on one hand and apathy if not frank disapproval on the other, they are likely to repel rather than attract the intelligent reader. Surely we ought not approach them as a “canon” of prescribed writings, as sacred and unchangeable as Holy Scripture. Neither should they be thought of as antiques, to be carefully guarded in locked shelves.

The classics are no canon, designated by either divine edict or human experts, nor are they fragile untouchables. They are the formed thought and imagination of humanity, tested over time, altering their perspective and sometimes their entire meaning with every new work that challenges their stature and every new reader courageous enough to wrestle with their inexhaustible vitality. They occupy their position because of the persistence and fidelity of readers. They have no life except in their readers; in them, they are living presences that come to be known from the inside — with the heart as well as the head.

WHAT IS A CLASSIC?

How do we recognize a classic? Tradition has held that classics are works of a very high order that touch on matters of immense importance. They are not mere skilled works of whatever category; they establish a category of their own. In fact, when we examine those works that readers have agreed upon as classics, we find a surprisingly constant set of characteristics:

  1. The classics not only exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.
  2. They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues.
  3. They have a transforming effect on the reader's self-understanding.
  4. They invite and survive frequent rereadings.
  5. They adapt themselves to various times and places and provide a sense of the shared life of humanity.
  6. They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number of people, establishing themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.
  7. And, finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of time.

Given the rigor of such standards, to call a recent work a classic would seem something of a prediction and a wager. The prediction is that the book so designated is of sufficient weight to take its place in the dialogue with other classics. The wager is that a large number of readers will find it important enough to keep alive. Strictly speaking, as we have indicated, there is no canon of great works, no set number of privileged texts. People themselves authorize the classics. And yet it is not by mere popular taste — by the best-seller list — that they are established. True, books are kept alive by readers — discriminating, thoughtful readers who will not let a chosen book die but manage to keep it in the public eye. They recommend it to their friends, bring it into the educational curriculum, install it in institutional libraries, order it in bookstores, display it on their own shelves, read it to their children. But something more mysterious makes a work an integral part of the body of classics, however well-loved it may be. It must fit into the preexisting body of works, effecting what T. S. Eliot has described as an alteration of “the whole existing order.” The past, he maintains, is “altered by the present as much as the present [is] directed by the past.”

The body of these masterworks thus shifts and changes constantly in the course of time. Plato, who was passed over in the late medieval world in favor of his disciple Aristotle, became a dominant philosopher in the Renaissance; Thomas Aquinas, the learned founder of Scholasticism, has been in modern times largely relegated to seminaries; Francis Bacon has declined to the role of a minor eccentric. Even Shakespeare, now often described as the world's greatest poet, has not always been considered a classic author; the eighteenth century decried his lack of taste and rewrote several of his plays. John Donne's lyrics lay neglected for two centuries before the twentieth century found in him a kindred troubled soul. John Milton's Paradise Lost was almost dethroned in the 1930s and 1940s, but its author's position is more secure now than before. Alexander Pope, whose greatness as poet was unchallenged in the eighteenth century, has been in the twentieth virtually deposed. Herman Melville's Moby Dick encountered several generations of readers who dismissed the novel entirely; not until the 1920s did it suddenly attain its full status in the curriculum. Virgil's Aeneid seems, regrettably, to be losing some of its position in recent times. But the Iliad and the Odyssey hold their foremost place as firmly as when Plato cited Homer nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, or when, at the turn of the last century, most college students read them in the Greek.

To place a contemporary writing among the classics, then, is to make a bold conjecture. That conjecture is based on the judgment of a sufficiently large body of readers in current society who consider the work a masterpiece. But the book in question has to be worth their endorsement. All the popular acclaim in the world will not make a classic of a mediocre text.

The masterpieces are not confined to their own peoples or to their own epochs. The organic order of literature that makes up the Western tradition exists essentially in a timeless realm, by which we mean a kind of communal memory. We could argue that, since the real existence of masterpieces is beyond time, we should not have to wait for time to make its judgment on newcomers. A recently published work might be seen by perceptive readers to take its place among its predecessors and to converse amicably with them. The sensitive reader should be able to judge. And remarkably enough, a surprising degree of agreement exists among literary people about twentieth-century classics. The editorial consultants for this volume all expressed a strong agreement about the inclusion of such writers as Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Joyce, Faulkner, Solzhenitsyn, and numerous other recent authors whose ideas and images have already entered into that communally shared web we call culture.

WHY READ THE GREAT BOOKS?

Why is it necessary for everyone to read the classics? Shouldn't only specialists spend their time on these texts, with other people devoting their efforts to particular interests of their own? Actually, it is precisely because these works are intended for all that they have become classics. They have been tried and tested and deemed valuable for the general culture — the way in which people live their lives. They have been found to enhance and elevate the consciousness of all sorts and conditions of people who study them, to lift their readers out of narrowness or provincialism into a wider vision of humanity. Further, they guard the truths of the human heart from the faddish half-truths of the day by straightening the mind and imagination and enabling their readers to judge for themselves. In a word, they lead those who will follow into a perception of the fullness and complexity of reality.

But why in particular should followers of Christ be interested in the classics? Is Scripture not sufficient in itself for all occasions? What interest do Christians have in the propagation of the masterworks? The answer is as I indicated at the beginning of this essay: Many of us in the contemporary world have been misled by the secularism of our epoch; we expect proof if we are to believe in the existence of a spiritual order. Our dry, reductionist reason leads us astray, so that we harden our hearts against the presence of the holy. Something apart from family or church must act as mediator, to restore our full humanity, to endow us with the imagination and the heart to believe. My serious encounter with Shakespeare and then with all the riches of the classics enabled me to see the splendor of him who is at the center of the gospels. In a time when our current culture is increasingly secular in its aims, one of the most important resources Christians possess is this large treasure trove of works that have already been assimilated by readers and commentators in the nearly two thousand years of Western Christendom.

HOW TO READ A CLASSIC

Classics are not always easy to read. Some may not be immediately entertaining; yet when properly read they all offer deeply enjoyable experiences. To find this joy, one must persist in the reading process, not stopping inordinately to look up words, but assuming meaning from context. Aristotle tells us that the artist “imitates an action” in his making of a work; and by the word action he means not plot but an interior movement of the soul. Hence it is not so much facts and information that one derives from reading a great book as it is an underlying and sustaining insight — which is always a new and profound interpretation of life.

Classics reach out to involve the reader in the process of interpretation, so that the experience becomes authentic. We have to “listen as a three-year child,” to use Coleridge's line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Otherwise, if we attempt from the beginning to impose our own opinions on what we read, we miss the wisdom it has to offer. Interpretation and evaluation should come after a full reading of the work — after we too have learned enough from the journey to interpret the landscape.

One should read a classic with pencil in hand. Such a work is so dense and complex as to require its readers to participate in the unfolding of its thought. The very act of underlining and annotating serves to engage the reader in a conversation with the text. And afterwards, when the linear experience of reading is complete, one can easily scan back over the marked pages — and thereby fix their pertinent ideas firmly in the mind. This retrospection, in fact, is a necessity if one is to grasp these writings in any depth. The act of putting the parts together leads to contemplation and hence to a deeper experience of the work.

When reading, one needs to remember that poets and philosophers are not prescribing courses of action but exploring aspects of existence. To the extent that they are significant writers, they are letting us know that certain inexorable laws exist in the human makeup — and in the universe — and that we'd better be aware of them. A classic does not dispute or sermonize; Tolstoy, for instance, neither exculpates or condemns his heroine in Anna Karenina; instead he shows his readers the tragic effects of a life lived entirely for self-fulfillment.

One should come to such works, then, with what Coleridge has called a “willing suspension of disbelief,” a susceptibility to being led into a mental experience that will prove, in the end, enlightening. A classic beckons to thought, not action. Hence readers are free from the pressures of manipulation or propaganda in their approach to the great books; they are introduced to a realm above the ordinary hurly-burly of life, where they can reflect on their own insights and come to some sense of the powers of the mind and heart.

The classics constitute an almost infallible process for awakening the soul to its full stature. In coming to know a classic, one has made a friend for life. It can be recalled to the mind and “read” all over again in the imagination. And actually perusing the text anew provides a joy that increases with time. These marvelous works stand many rereadings without losing their force. In fact, they almost demand rereading, as a Beethoven symphony demands replaying. We never say of a musical masterpiece, “Oh I've heard that!” Instead, we hunger to hear it again to take in once more, with new feeling and insight, its long-familiar strains.

And, as I found with Hamlet on that blessed day some forty years ago, I couldn't really say I'd read it before in quite that light I've read it every year since, as I've read the Iliad and Oedipus Rex, the Divine Comedy, and other classics. And in the fresh encounter with old acquaintances, with each reading I find a clearer revelation of him whom St. Augustine addressed when he asked, “As You fill all things, do You fill them with Your whole self, or, since all things cannot contain You wholly, do they contain part of You? . . or are You wholly everywhere while nothing altogether contains You?”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Cowan, Louise. “The Importance of the Classics.” In Invitation to the Classics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1998), 19-24.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Order Invitation to the Classics by clicking on the picture of the book.

THE AUTHOR

Louise Cowan is former chairman of the English Department and dean of the Graduate School at the University of Dallas and a founding fellow of the Dallas Institute. She is the author of two books on the Southern literary renaissance and of numerous essays on literary and educational topics. Currently, she is the general editor of a series entitled Studies in Genre, which includes The Terrain of Comedy and The Epic Cosmos. In 1991 she received the Charles Frankel Award for her contribution to education in the humanities.

Copyright © 1998 Baker Book House Company


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