When Stanford replaced its freshman course on Western civilization, it touched off a major national debate on the value of the “Western literary canon.” Here Leland Ryken, professor of literature at Wheaton College, explains the importance of studying these classic works.

Every major culture has its classics: works that provide depth and comprehensiveness of vision, insight into human experience, profundity of issues raised, superior artistry, and influence upon a culture. Thus classics are not limited to the familiar Western tradition that has been central to the English-speaking world.

But it has been the Western classics—precisely those works that have been central to the history and development of our culture and its educational system—that have come under attack recently. The leaders of this attack, I have found, surprisingly misunderstand and do not appreciate the nature of the classics—or the function of the past, or the way in which the classics achieve their beneficial effects.

Christians have a special stake in the current debate about the value of past traditions. Christians are more self-consciously indebted to traditions than our culture generally is. The Christian faith is rooted in events and in a Book that belong to the past. The chronological bias that regards everything latest as best is preeminently a fallacy for Christians. Thus to defend the reading of Homer or Shakespeare is also to defend reading Luther and Calvin or listening to Bach.

So why should we read the classics? For one thing, they are acknowledged touchstones of artistic excellence. If we are in a quest for “the best that is known and thought in the world” (as the Victorian enthusiast for the classics Matthew Arnold put it), then we will value contact with the classics. Annie Dillard recalls an incident that occurred when she was touring China with a group of American literati. When asked what works of contemporary fiction might be worthy of translation into Chinese, the Americans could think of no towering works that ranked with the masterpieces of the past.

The classics matter because art and excellence matter. They have value, not because their ideas are always correct, but because they were composed by superior imaginations capable of producing great art. Artistic greatness is not the only quality we should value in a work, but it is one of the things we should value.

Another reason we need the classics is that they put us in touch with the past. Contact with the past liberates us from bondage to the contemporary. C. S. Lewis stated the case in his famous sermon “Learning in War-Time”:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we … need something to set against the present.… A person who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the [person who knows the past] has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

T. S. Eliot said that a historical sense of the past is what makes a person “most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.” The moment we read Shakespeare or Milton, for example, we become aware of how egalitarian our assumptions are.

Classics have been part of an ongoing dialogue across the centuries. They bring with them the traces of earlier readings and their influence on the cultures of the past. The story of the classics is the story of how we got where we are today. We cannot afford the naïvete of beginning anew with each generation. Flannery O’Connor lamented the degree to which today’s young people “go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday.”

The classics, moreover, are universal in the issues they portray. In contrast to the more local issues that flood our daily lives, the classics deal with the fears and longings that have bound the human race together over the centuries, in all places and times. For this reason the male authorship of most of the classics is largely a nonissue. The classics do not address specifically male concerns but universal human ones. (At the same time, the classics are certainly not devoid of female writers: Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, the Brönte sisters, George Eliot, Marianne Morre, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin. Also, the experiences of women are sympathetically addressed by male authors; witness the great American classic The Scarlet Letter.)

The classics are also inexhaustible, meeting us at whatever level we are prepared to experience them. A classic never finishes saying what it has to say. Because of their inexhaustibility, the classics are always in a process of being reinterpreted by successive generations. No classic can be reduced to a single viewpoint, as the history of its reinterpretations proves. Part of the usefulness of the classics is this very dialogue between them and successive cultures. The classics are always a catalyst to thinking, even if (and sometimes because) we do not agree with their viewpoint and customs.

Article continues below

The classics are subversive books that continually challenge common assumptions. They assault our complacency by highlighting the ways in which the human race conspires to make a mess of things. They call us to moral ideals that we quickly realize we fail to live up to and that our own culture increasingly rejects to its own detriment. The classics give us visions of the good life that are far more noble than what we generally see around us. Their very diversity challenges our tendency to settle for our own viewpoint of the moment.

Of course, the classics have their limitations. They omit some things that are important to our own moment in history, including the minority experience and women’s experience. Those scholars who urge us to read more than the classics and to add new works to the “canon” of classics are correct.

The classics are not above criticism, but the tragedy of the moment is that people in our culture are increasingly in the situation of Nicodemus in the New Testament: they are strangers to what is best in their own tradition.

By Leland Ryken, author of Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective (Harold Shaw).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.