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 bestseller 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 a 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. Vergil’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. There is 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 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 this: 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.

Louise Cowan served for many years as the graduate dean and chairman of the English Department at the University of Dallas, and director of its Institute of Philosophic Studies, and was the recipient of numerous awards, grants, and professorships. This essay is an excerpt from the forward to Invitation to the Classics, and is reprinted here with permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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