The Secular Canon

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When Christians talk about the “canon,” they are referring to the books that comprise the Bible. But non-theological scholars too are debating the “canon.” Not the canon of the Bible, but the canon of the “great books” that comprise our civilization.

The question of what books and authors belong in our secular canon is, in fact, one of the biggest academic controversies of our day. What authors and ideas should be taught in schools? What writings should be in our anthologies and textbooks? What books should we still read and what should we allow to fall into oblivion?

The answer to these questions will be momentous. What is our intellectual and cultural heritage? Do we have a secular canon that is worth preserving and handing down from generation to generation? Or can we change our heritage by changing the books that we pass down?

Most people can name a number of the books that are in our current canon of great books, even though they might have never read them. Shakespeare is up there, as is Homer.

A more systematic account would break the canon into its categories. In literature, we would have the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, along with authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the like. In philosophy we would have Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and on through Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and more recent thinkers. There are similar lists of canonical texts in science, economics, politics, and the various professions.

But there is a problem with these lists, according to many people today. They consist mostly of “dead white males.”

Why doesn’t the canon include more women? More racial minorities? Why are most of them Europeans or Americans instead of people from other cultures? This isn’t fair. The canon needs to be more inclusive. 

To make room, of course, some of the dead white males have to get dropped. The first targets are the ones who can be dismissed as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Thus, Dante, one of the greatest poets in any language, has dropped off of many reading lists because Muhammad is a denizen of his Inferno, as are homosexuals and other popular sinners.

This approach to the canon, however, has its contradictions. Many women, for example, are in the traditional canon. The novel, in particular, has been a genre that women have mastered. Jane Austen is one of the greatest novelists. Not to mention Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, to name just a few.

Jane Austen, though a woman, doesn’t necessarily count, according to some postmodernists. She too reinforces the power structure because her novels lead to marriage. Though she is a woman, she shows “false consciousness” by supporting the cultural constructs that oppress women. For this, the patriarchal system rewards her by giving her a place in the canon.

This mindset, of course, undermines, intentionally, traditional ideas and values. And yet, the effort to include women and minorities in the canon has unintended consequences. Many of those women admitted into the canon (Dame Julian of Norwich, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Flannery O’Connor — who belongs in any canon of modern literature but who has a new prominence as a major female author) wrote about Christianity! The same is true of many minority authors (Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass). So we have the spectacle of liberal, feminist, politically-correct college classrooms having to wrestle with O’Connor’s depictions of sin and grace, and Wheatley’s evangelical fervor as a freed slave.

The notion that a list of secular writings can constitute a “canon” in the biblical sense probably derives from the nineteenth-century humanist Matthew Arnold’s insistence that literature can replace religion as a guide for life and meaning. It can’t.

The postmodernist critiques of the literary canon make some points. The “Great Books” set from the Encyclopædia Britannica people, edited and chosen by Mortimer Adler, show a strain of thought that has led to constitutional democracy. That is an invaluable tradition, though, that postmodernists are wrong to minimize. But it is true that there can be other “canons” for other strains of Western thought, such as those that gave us conservatism or empirical science. A collection of the Great Christian Books would be worth assembling.

Nevertheless, contrary to the postmodernists, there are objective standards — those that belong to the absolutes of truth, goodness, and beauty — by which books can be measured and which allow some to ace the test of time. Put Shakespeare, Milton, and Austen in a reading list with angry feminist correspondence, political tracts, and multi-cultural mythology and the greatness of the Greats becomes immediately obvious.

Furthermore, the truly great authors of the secular canon resist the attempts to turn their writings into a sacred canon. It may be a mark of their greatness that our culture’s greatest writers often draw on, quote, allude to, and are inspired by the canon of Holy Scripture.

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