The Western canon as typically presented is increasingly unable to rally the enthusiasm even of devoted admirers of Western civilization, who recognize the commonly proffered canons as, at best, an impoverished rendition of Western culture and, at worst, a perpetuation of the very same cultural forces that are at the source of its decay. The problem with the canon runs deeper than usually supposed.
I recently read Michael Poliakoff’s essay, “A Childish Fear of Western Civilization.” No one whose eyes are open to the age in which we live can doubt that such a fear exists in America and in substantial parts of Western Europe, nor that it has reached a pitch of fevered paranoia amidst certain circles on the left, who, inveighing in slogans against “dead white men,” seem resolved to put Christopher Columbus and Bartolomé de las Casas to the same swift-canceling sword, forgetting that revolutions, unlike God, do not know their own (rather, like the titanic gods of a bygone age, they eat them).
I do not assay, therefore, to challenge Dr. Poliakoff’s analysis of the problem as far as he has taken it. I propose, instead, to suggest that the problem runs deeper than he seems to suppose. Dr. Poliakoff writes that:
On some campuses, the campaign to eliminate Western Civilization seems more like a ‘canceling’ rather than an attempt to add new texts to the discussion. In 2017–18, Reed College overhauled its signature freshman seminar, a storied course focused on the classics, due to student complaints of Eurocentrism. “Reedies Against Racism,” a student group at the college, made the ludicrous demand that the Humanities 110 course jettison all European texts as “reparations for Humanities 110’s history of erasing the histories of people of color, especially black people.” They have not (so far) gotten all they want, but ancient Greece is now only one of four modules, sharing the stage with three others: Egyptians, Israelites, and Achaemenids; Tenochtitlan; and Harlem.
The demand to remove all European texts from the course was, clearly, ludicrous, and one does have to wonder why an exploration of Axum, Ghana, Zimbabwe, or another classical African civilization wouldn’t have been more in keeping with the theme than Harlem. Nonetheless, the compromise solution would seem to be precisely an “add[ing of] new texts to the discussion.” A distinguished classicist who has devoted his life to the heritage of Greece and Rome may be forgiven a certain hyperbole upon seeing the footprint of Greek culture shrunk in any context, but what I find most remarkable, given Dr. Poliakoff’s evident concern, is that part of the displacement was to make room for cultures that are, themselves, vital to an understanding of ancient Greece—namely, Egypt and Persia—alongside a culture that has (at the very least) an altogether equal claim to being the true origin of Western civilization—Israel.
Confronted by one of his students with a question on the applicability of a certain Greek philosopher’s opinion, the third-century Christian scholar, Tertullian, replied simply, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens, of course, ended up having a great deal to do with Jerusalem over the course of Christendom’s development, but the question of whether or not it should and, if it should, the proper limits of its influence, has remained a live one throughout European history. The causes of the present curricular crisis in “Western Civ” are therefore, I think, somewhat broader than Dr. Poliakoff appears to recognize.
On the one hand, while the headlines are grabbed by vocal curriculum boycotts mounted by occidentophobic iconoclasts, there is a quieter, but more momentous, more measured, and more appropriate divestment movement underway by large numbers of Westerners of non-European ancestry who do not see their heritage (and thus a significant part of the heritage of the West) reflected in the curriculum as it stands. I had the privilege of teaching at a K-12 classical academy that, to its credit, responded to the large number of students (all Americans) of Indian immigrant backgrounds by incorporating the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as “classics” alongside the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Such measures are increasingly necessary not simply to recognize the equal merit of non-European classical canons, but also to acknowledge the extent of the European canon’s debt to other cultures. There would be no chivalric romances without the medieval infusion of Arabic literature, nor would a great many of the finest flowers of Victorian writing have been possible without the vital cultural influences coming from the Raj, just as much of the best contemporary storytelling and design in the United States is standing on the shoulders of giants in Japan. Dr. Poliakoff’s comments indicate that he clearly recognizes the value and justice of an expansion of the canon, yet passages such as the one quoted above demonstrate how easy it is for that recognition to be overshadowed by the rhetoric of the Western canon’s defense.
Yet the deeper trouble, in my view, is that the Western canon as typically presented, and as implied by the names Dr. Poliakoff invokes in his piece, is increasingly unable to rally the enthusiasm even of devoted admirers of Western civilization, who increasingly recognize the commonly proffered canons as, at best, an impoverished rendition of Western culture and, at worst, a perpetuation of the very same cultural forces that are at the source of its decay, insofar as most of the (admittedly variable) “Great Books” lists in the United States and Western Europe showcase the intellectual genealogy of liberal democratic capitalism, while largely ignoring (or actively deprecating) alternative dimensions of Western civilization. A vivid illustration of this in the broader culture was the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics in 2004. Amidst a parade of floats celebrating Greek history, over a dozen featured Periclean Athens and the reign of Alexander, and nearly as many were deployed for the Greek War of Independence and the showcasing of contemporary Greece. A single float—one—represented the thousand years of the Byzantine Empire. Scan the reading lists of St. John’s College or any of the other great “Western canon” institutions that remain and one will be fortunate to find even a single Byzantine author. Why? Because to the contemporary celebrants of “the West,” the monarchism and mysticism of Byzantium has come to seem as distant as Achaemenid Persia (while we note in passing that the many glories of Byzantine culture owed a great deal to the arts of civilization that the Greeks learned from the Persians).
The same effect can be observed elsewhere. The only churchmen to appear among the luminaries listed by Dr. Poliakoff are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson (and the latter not as a luminary). Thomas Aquinas’ name does appear in the name of a college held up as curricular model, and Aquinas is a frequent staple on rhetorical roll calls of Western “greats,” owing largely to his efforts at synthesizing Aristotle with Christian thought in the Summa Theologiae. The Church received this work enthusiastically but Aquinas himself, after having an experience of inner spiritual realization, declared that all his efforts were “straw” and asked his friends to burn the manuscript (a request they did not honour). It is not recorded whether he quoted Tertullian at the time. I find this incident emblematic of the common treatment accorded to Christian figures in the celebration of “Western Civ.” Those that trace an arc toward the post-Christian humanism of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the present day (the Scholastics, the Reformers, etc.) have a place in the canon, while others, whose work was less congenial to the creation of what Bruno Latour called the “crossed-out God” of modernity, are consigned to the shadows. A figure like Hadewijch of Brabant, the 13th-century Flemish mystic whose poetry ranks among the most beautiful and moving descriptions of inner union with the Divine that has ever been penned, is as inscrutable and “alien” a figure to most of the West’s self-declared conservators as Mirabai (the 16th-century Vaishnava mystic who scandalized her family by taking her ceremonial marriage to an icon of Krishna seriously, and whom all of our children in the West should also read).
In this way, the heritage of the West is consistently betrayed by the “Western canon,” which systematically marginalizes those aspects of European culture that cannot be used to shore up and celebrate the (classically liberal) victors writing history in the present. Dr. Poliakoff laments that few (junior) faculty volunteered to teach Stanford’s “multiculturalist substitute for Western civ.” There are a lot of factors involved in that, from contingency issues to the failure to consider alternative teaching models that might be required for a course of that scope, but one notes also that, even as calls go out for shoring up the ramparts of “traditional” education by teaching Jean-Jacques Rousseau, few self-described “conservatives” are volunteering to teach Joseph de Maistre.
The French metaphysician René Guénon called the tendency of modern institutions to treat Greece and Rome as though they were the origin of all human civilization “the classical prejudice,” and his analysis is to be recommended for showing how this is more than simple cultural chauvinism on the part of the West, but is rather a form of modernist chauvinism vis-à-vis the past in general. In Greece and Rome, the modern age finds hoary ancestors to justify its own atomized individualism, its philosophical and ethical materialism, and its thoroughgoing synthesis of oligarchic corruption and mob rule. As Guénon fair-mindedly observed in The Crisis of the Modern World (another work that, by all rights, should be in the Western canon and yet never appears in the calls to the educational barricades), it does so only by a very selective appropriation, but genuine seeds of the uniqueness—and dysfunction—of modernity can nevertheless be found in Greco-Roman culture.
In his inaugural lecture from the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge in 1954, C.S. Lewis told his audience that he had “come to regard as the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West that which divides the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott,” citing examples from politics, art, and etiquette to justify the claim. There was, in his view, less distance culturally between Caedmon and Jane Austen than between Austen and the occupants of a 1950s lecture hall. Guénon placed the disjuncture a little bit earlier, seeing the Renaissance as the key point where the authentic growth of Western civilization in the Middle Ages was snuffed out and supplanted by an incomplete and artificial revival of the decadence of a culture that had already died its natural death of a rather peculiar disease—namely, the set of individualistic and materialistic presuppositions on which Hellenistic philosophy was raised and on which modernity also functions. That so many “great books” lists seem to skip abruptly from the sixth to the sixteenth century with, at best, only a passing nod to one or two “forerunners” of the “Age of Reason,” is no more surprising than the fact that the pre-Christian literature of the Celts and the Slavs so rarely appears beside the works of Ovid and Virgil. These are all dissenting voices, with very different conceptions to offer of the nature of God, man, and the cosmos—conceptions that liberal democratic capitalism has no wish to platform. Dr. Poliakoff asserts that “Western Civilization is the culture of dialectic, not the culture of conformity,” yet the most non-conformist name in his article is Hobbes—a philosophical materialist and social contract theorist whose work is as much a part of the foundations of the modern political order as any other name in the article.
This is not an accusation against Dr. Poliakoff; one only has so many words in a single essay. Perusing the author bank of the Classical Learning Test, with which Dr. Poliakoff notes he is closely connected, one finds an admirably expanded range of figures, including Catherine of Siena, G.K. Chesterton, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn—none of whom appear on the undergraduate reading lists of the colleges Dr. Poliakoff’s essay recommends.[*] The CLT list thus appears as an exception that proves the rule, though even there one has to wonder why Avicenna and Averroes (laudably) appear, but Al-Ghazali, whose devastating critique of Avicenna and other Greek-influenced thinkers is generally viewed as having more lasting influence on Islamic philosophy than either of those figures, does not.
Again, the point is not to take issue with the particulars of either the CLT list or Dr. Poliakoff’s article. There will always be names that, arguably, should take a place in the pantheon of Western thought that do not make it to one list or another. The greater range and diversity of the CLT list as against the listed “great books”-focused college’s required reading lists does, however, illustrate a bias that is widespread in definitions and defenses of the Western canon today, and one which takes on a new salience in the face of challenges from the left when one considers that the often-omitted elements of Western tradition often have more affinity with the non-European world than do the “staple” inclusions. This was remarked by Guénon also, who suggested that all the great civilizational centers of the world bore marked enough affinities to one other in their central metaphysical principles, as well as the forms of social organization that flowed naturally from those principles, that one could identify a common axis of understanding he termed the sophia perennis, or “perennial wisdom.” Essentially, he contended that an Aztec priest, a Ming dynasty peasant, and a medieval French noblewoman would, given good interpreters and time enough for deep conversation, understand each other far better than any of them would understand, or be understood by, a modern (Western) person, whose basic conceptions of the nature of humanity, the natural world, and of God would be far more alien to her historical interlocutors than any of their various religions and cultures would be to each other.
And yet, all too often, the currents of thought held up as the centerpieces of the Western canon are not those aligned with the “perennial wisdom,” which reflect counterparts across the great traditions of the world, but those that are idiosyncratic to Europe and North America and form the intellectual roots of precisely those political, social, (anti-)religious, and economic ideologies that engendered the great revolutions—American, French, Russian, and Chinese Cultural. The irony is that a broader and deeper engagement with the ancient roots of Western civilization outside Greece and Rome, with the medieval legacy, and with the various currents of the counter-Enlightenment would quite naturally find more common ground with the traditional heritage of many of the cultures we are now (rightly) being asked to acknowledge, in addition to being more relevant to the present moment. As the principles of the Enlightenment increasingly manifest catastrophes both environmental and social, the lopsided lists of so many proposed “canons” make the rallying cry to uphold “Western Civ” appear, even to many of the Western tradition’s staunchest proponents, no more than a plea to prune the withering bush of modernity back to its stalks in the vain hope that, this time, the fruit of the same plant will prove not to be poisonous.
As Dr. Poliakoff observes, the Western canon should be a site of dialectic, and there are alternatives, on both the left and the right, to the anodyne introductions to classical liberalism that too often pretend to be courses on “Western Civ.” We could have a Western canon that studies Kropotkin as we now study Darwin, just as we could have one that reads De Maistre just as we now read Rousseau. Ideally, we could have both, but that is an argument for another day. In this moment, it suffices to observe that too many of our proffered reading lists are just prologues to capstone courses on Francis Fukuyama that are as useless to the champions of Western heritage as they are to its critics. Until that changes, the defense of “Western Civ” will, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, neither be guaranteed victory, nor deserve it.
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[*] See the “CLT Author Bank” here.
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