Should We Abandon the Canon?

12 August 2019

Should we still be venerating works by Plato, Shakespeare, Woolf, and company as “great books”? Should we still be reading them at all? These are the questions we're asking in this week's show.

Critics of the “Western canon” make two very reasonable arguments. First, that canon is heavily dominated by straight white males. Some of the reasons for this may be contingent, but there’s still a very real danger of readers coming to believe that straight white male voices are the only voices that count. Or, even worse, that straight white males are somehow more talented as thinkers and writers than anyone else. That, clearly, would be a terrible result.

Second, the canon stretches back to a distant past with attitudes very different from those of our own. Its texts often make highly troubling assumptions about gender relations, sexual preference, race, and empire—attitudes that generally go uninterrogated. At times, these texts even make arguments defending such prejudices, as when Aristotle infamously claimed that some human beings are born to be slaves. That wasn’t just a weak argument; it was a dangerous argument, one that helped to license a centuries-long history of oppression.

Given how widespread the bad ideas are (Horace on women, Rousseau on “noble savages,” Dante on homosexuality…), it’s understandable that some have started to see the entire cultural history of the West as a history of oppression, and its “great books” as simply a collection of specious justifications for it.

But defenders of the canon might counter—equally reasonably—that Western culture isn’t a monolith, and that the “great books” aren’t either. While Mill celebrated democracy, Plato despised it. While Adam Smith loved capitalism, Jean-Paul Sartre hated it. While Dante saw Hell as something created by eternal love, Nietzsche wittily countered that Heaven was created from eternal hatred. And while some biblical authors wrote against same-sex love, Sappho championed it in beautiful verse. The canonical authors agree about almost nothing.

What’s more, many of these authors were firebrands, at least in their time. Quite a number of them, including Montaigne, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Mill, Sartre, and Beauvoir, ended up on the Vatican’s “index” of banned books. If you’re on the Index, surely you’re doing something right! Some, like Socrates, Jesus, or Giordano Bruno, died for their countercultural beliefs. While people like Dante were busy reinforcing the status quo, these radicals called, at least to some extent, for liberation, whether from priests, tyrants, bosses, chauvinists, imperialists, materialists, or the patriarchy.

It’s also important to remember how influential these texts have been. Many of today’s literary writers draw on earlier texts—think of all the allusions to Homer’s Odyssey in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. And many beliefs and practices we take for granted today have their origin in centuries-old writings. Can we fully understand our present unless we know something about the past? (Consider what a difference it makes to know what the words of the Second Amendment meant at the time.)

And let’s not forget, finally, that some of the books in question are works of great beauty (Sappho’s lyric, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Pride and Prejudice…), works that brought important new aesthetic options into the world. Even when those works are flawed, I’m not sure we should always choose to stop reading them. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example, is perhaps somewhat weak on gender but brilliant on race and identity, and stunning in terms of its formal innovations. That’s a book I’d really want to keep around. In cases like that, I’d hate it if the baby got thrown out with the bathwater.

So what should we do with the canon? My tentative proposal would be threefold. First, we should continue to expand it, by including more writers from historically disadvantaged groups. Second, we should read it critically. And we should teach others to read critically; readers must never assume that the “canonical” authors are right about everything, or even that they are taken to be right about everything. Matthew Arnold was wildly wrong when he depicted the canon as “the best that has been thought and said”: it’s so much less than that, and it’s also so much more than that.  

Finally, we should read the canon for more than just ideas. At its best, the canon isn’t a set of statements: it’s a set of questions. It’s a conversation. It’s an invitation to its readers—all readers—to continue that conversation, finding ever better answers amid changing times. It’s a playground in which we can cultivate important habits of mind. And it’s a set of models for how to write beautiful books.

We can never be complacent about the “canon,” since its dangers will always be with us. But if we work hard, I believe we can inoculate people against those dangers. And if we do so, we’ll open up a whole world to future generations of readers eager to become part of the age-old conversation.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Comments (6)'s picture


Tuesday, August 13, 2019 -- 1:25 PM

Discussion on this topic was

Discussion on this topic was so narrow that I was shocked to find myself accusing the discussants of "political correctness," a phrase I normally abhor. Surely Joseph Conrad's great novella, HEART OF DARKNESS, reflects an incomprehension of the culture and humanity of the Africans depicted in the story, but it is far from being a racist tract, or a tract of any sort. To the extent that it has a political agenda, it is an attack on Belgian colonialism in the Congo, and by extension of ALL colonialism, but it is also, and more urgently, an indictment of European ignorance of non-European cultures, and of the harm such ignorance can do when accompanied by superior economic and military power. Above all, it is a work of art, that enables the reader is to experience, along with the narrator, Marlow, what it was like to visit the Congo in 1899, and to take a steamboat upriver into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness. By the end of the story, we come to see that it is not Africa but colonial England whose heart is darkest.

Shakespeare writes approvingly about kings, the Bible seems to accept slavery, HUCKLEBERRY FINN has a character called "Nigger" Jim. We don't read or teach these writers and books in order to endorse all their values, but to understand our own past, and how we got where we are at present. And we also read them because they are timeless, immortal expressions of the human spirit, because they get many more things right than wrong, and because they are great works of art. We can engage them critically, and disagree with what they got wrong, according to our lights, but we'd be short-sighted to refuse to read them because they saw some things differently from us, just as our children or grandchildren would be wrong to efface all memory of us, simply because we are less enlightened than they believe themselves to be.

scherado's picture


Tuesday, August 13, 2019 -- 3:09 PM

Society can't function with

Society can't function with the numerous triggers we have to endure.

The complainants are mis-using history. There were no non-white, female, persons doing such things. This is a fact.

OliverAllOver's picture


Friday, August 16, 2019 -- 12:12 AM

The liberal arts canon

The liberal arts canon includes implicitly the history of ideas. It opened my mind a lot to learn that the most venerated thinkers of the past could reason their way to such foolish and mutually exclusive views. Besides my Introduction to Philosophy, I remember also my science courses covered their subjects historically, proceeding through such winning nonsense as phlogiston and the luminiferous ether. Surely science owes something to teaching the liability of coming to the wrong conclusion. Even if there's no shortage of contemporary works that conflict with one another, there's an academically cherished lesson in the distinction between one way of thinking and its successor. (Could you even produce a scholar without instilling that?) OK, so I did gloss over the fact that it's only in digest form that I read "the Greats" in science (I did not read Newton's Principia verbatim or cover to cover), and probably mostly my notions of how ideas evolved are from textbooks and the barely legible excerpts of spiral-bound course readers. So never mind, I guess. Whatever you guys said.

MJA's picture


Friday, August 16, 2019 -- 10:07 AM

I started my search for truth

I started my search for truth with Bertrand Russell's "A History Of Western Philosophy" and ended it many books later with the absolute. =

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 16, 2019 -- 11:06 AM

I have not parsed the

I have not parsed the comments on this post carefully, so forgive me if my remarks wax repetitive. Abandonment of previous philosophic; scientific, or cultural thought seems a bit like the 'baby with the bathwater' analogy. Everything we were, are or may become, depends in large part on the first of those conditions. And, as Dennett is quick to point out, mistakes are an integral part of the game. It is pretty naive to think that because some thinking has been found erroneous and/or erased by time and new discoveries, that all which went before is worthless, in light of new evidence. No, thinking changes, as it must. But if our predecessors were wrong about some ways of evaluating things, those errors are only part of our continuing development and evolution. Disposal is for garbage; archival is for the ages...seems to me, anyway...

João Ferreira's picture

João Ferreira

Sunday, October 13, 2019 -- 1:52 AM

I fully agree with the Harold

I fully agree with the Harold G. Neuman comment but there is a turning point with the coming of Quantum Physics. Before, how it was rationally and convincingly possible to think there are things in nature that can be, alternatively or simultaneously, here or everywhere? About an instance of this, scientifically and philosophically, take a look at