The Importance of Learning the Classics
With the overwhelming amount of texts that are available in the modern world, from the local library to massive online vendors, it can often be daunting for people with an interest in writing or literature to know what is and isn’t worth reading. As a result, a debate has loomed as to whether or not it is important to read the “classics” of literature, or if a reader’s focus should be geared towards more contemporary works.
First of all, it is important that we have a solid understanding of what is meant by the term “classics.” The problem is that it is loosely defined, and there are almost as many definitions as there opinionated individuals. Historically, classics have referred to the works of classical civilization, namely the Greeks and the Romans, although the term is now widely used in a different sense.
It is important to distinguish the concept of the classic from the related concept of the literary canon. One way of understanding the difference is that the canon is a category of works currently considered worthy of reading, while the classics are the works that have remained significant to, and affected, subsequent generations. The canon is more strictly defined by a given generation, while the idea of the classics is more open, and allows for a more flexible definition, so long as the works have had an arguably large influence. These definitions are tricks, and they become even more so when we further divide the definition of classics into categories such as “classics of America literature,” “classics of European literature,” and so on.
While many people have argued that the classics are representative of a Eurocentric hegemony that conceals the oppressive nature of certain groups within society, the fact remains that the classic works of literature represent achievements of human thought in their scope, intelligence, and universality. We should also acknowledge that any work widely regarded as a classic has played a foundational role in the cultural and artistic climate of the present. While we should be aware of the exclusionary nature of any artistic tradition, we should also be able to recognize the value of the classics as they relate to all of humanity, and not just the groups that such works are ostensibly a product of. That said, generalizations are always risky, and what each of these books bring to the table, and the specific reasons for why they are considered classics is largely specific to the individual texts themselves.
Take, for example, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. While the work is fiction, it is largely used as a means of exploring the philosophical tensions that were present in Russia, and indeed the world, in that time period. These examinations largely focus on problems of faith as confronted with the existence of evil, as well as the rising conflicts between faith and science. This, coupled with Dostoevsky’s deep sense of the psychological workings of his characters, and of the time period in which they are operating, makes The Brothers Karamazov a work that is simultaneously a well-written and entertaining story, a philosophical exploration into the major intellectual, philosophical, and religious dilemmas of the time (dilemmas that are largely universal to the human experience), as well as an accurate portrayal of Russian society in the 19th century.
All of these aspects of the book remain relevant to us today, for these debates are still ongoing, and the history implicit in the work shows us the development of the philosophical, intellectual, and historical climate we are currently inhabiting. The themes of The Brothers Karamazov, and those of other classic works, deal with human universals, such as how to structure value, how history develops, and how we interact with one another. The quality of such works are such that their contents still speak to us, despite the progression of time that leaves the majority of art seeming anachronistic and irrelevant.
This is merely one example of a book that is widely considered a classic, but it shows the underlying value of works that make it into this category. What constitutes a classic, then, is not a specific set of characteristics, but rather a text’s ability to be continuously relevant, and to provide seemingly unending levels of interpretation, meaning, and an examination of apparent truths that continue to speak to us through time. Classics are books that contain a scope unseen in other works of literature; they are books that remain universally relevant through time. Once we understand this about classics, the question then becomes what is to be gained from examining such works?
In the world today the idea that things progress as they move forward has become highly prevalent. This may be due to the trend of technology to improve as time goes on, but this does not mean that everything evolves in this manner. Such is the case with literature; it’s not always that newer works are better, and there are a massive amount of older texts that are widely thought of as masterpieces, and which have never been bested in their particular niche. These books are considered extremely significant, and often fall into the realm of genius. These are the books that become classics. While there are some who would argue that these labels are merely opinion, there are always specific reasons why they get applied to these books, and anyone who takes the time to really understand what makes such works significant would be hard pressed to say that their quality is merely subjective.
While the classics are monuments of achievement in literature, they also provide grounding in the historical development of writing, thought, and culture that permeate every text as a reflection of the period in which it was written. To read Dostoevsky is not merely to study the writer’s incredible style, storytelling ability, and character development, but also to witness the philosophy, sociology, and culture of an entire civilization as filtered through narrative. These things are some of the most worthwhile subjects to study, as they give us insight into our own cultural lineage, the entire intellectual debate of humanity, and the progression of history.
Therefore anyone who wishes to have a solid grasp on the intellectual history of civilization must read the classics, and this is doubly so for those with an interest in writing. In order to be able to create something even marginally original, it is imperative that one has a solid foundation of what has already been done. This is something like the cant of “learning the rules before you break them,” and although it may be impossible to read everything, any and all exploration into the great works of the past will provide massive amounts of insight into the landscape of style and content that already exists. Not only that, but any writer will benefit massively from encounters with what is possible within literature, and by stretching the mind to be able to understand such feats their own writing will begin to improve as a result.
In the classics we see the intermingling of all these forces, in addition to the revolutions of the technical style and form that such works also bring to the table, and every classic book has in some way changed not only what is being said, but how its being expressed. These two elements come together in classic works in a way that changes the way people think, and not just people in the past, but people living currently, as well. This is the meaning of an education, and literature, especially the classics, is an invaluable aspect of any thorough education.
The classics, then, are not valuable merely for the passive enjoyment of storytelling, but are in fact a doorway into the largest conversations that human beings have ever had; they are unique forms of expression, as well as a means of seeing into alternate realities that, although they are fictional, have something to teach us about ourselves and the nature of the world in which we live. Therefore it is not merely those interested in writing who have much to gain from the classics, but rather anyone who wants to widen their gaze and better understand civilization and what it means to be a human being.
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