Classics as Canon

Books as Cultural Vectors

The so-called list of canonized books changes according to context, though some, without a doubt, are consistently represented across multiple milieus. There is, for example, a lot of overlap between the notional ‘Western canon’ and the ‘Classical canon;’ classical here being the smaller notion of Greek and Latin classics as opposed to the notion of “Great books” as classics. Certainly any list of classics cum canon would include the works of Julius Caesar, Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle for example as would most lists of works designated as Great Books or Western Classics.

Just take Caesar as an example of why this is so. This is due to influence and tradition. Caesar has been used as an introductory Latin reader for generations. His work also had stylistic influence on historians and geographers for centuries. Here is an example of a Latin translation exercise from a 19th century Latin textbook, adapted from one of Caesar’s most famous passages, a geographical description of Gaul.

An inductive Latin primer
by William Rainey Harper

Caesar was influential in antiquity and the Middle Ages as well. Just compare Tacitus’ description of Germany with the opening of Caesar’s de Bellum Gallico.

Caesar’s Gallic War.
C. Julius Caesar. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.
Tacitus’ Germanica.
Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.
1. All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine , with whom they are continually waging warGermany is separated from the Galli, the Rhæti, and Pannonii, by the rivers Rhine and Danube; mountain ranges, or the fear which each feels for the other, divide it from the Sarmatæ and Daci. Elsewhere ocean girds it, embracing broad peninsulas and islands of unexplored extent, where certain tribes and kingdoms are newly known to us, revealed by war. The Rhine springs from a precipitous and inaccessible height of the Rhætian Alps, bends slightly westward, and mingles with the Northern Ocean. The Danube pours down from the gradual and gently rising slope of Mount Abnoba, and visits many nations, to force its way at last through six channels into the Pontus; a seventh mouth is lost in marshes.
Excerpts via Perseus Project:

Similar examples could be given for the handful of other authors mentioned above. Alfred North Whitehead, the eminent British philosopher, is often noted as having called all of western philosophy mere footnotes to Plato. Examples proliferate (Columbia College).

Plato. via Goodreads.

The advantages of having a canon, even if it is potentially exclusionary, should be obvious. It gives students and scholars a base from which to build their knowledge as well as a common basket of references. But who decides what is canon? This is an argument beyond the scope of this little post, but I would like to offer one example of a canonical list, that of the Great Books program from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, one of the oldest colleges in America. This school has been teaching a great books curriculum for decades and if it is on their required reading list it is almost certainly a widely respected and influential work. Here is their freshman year reading list for Fall 2020:

August 27 Homer: Iliad, I–VI
August 31 Homer: Iliad, VII–XII
September 3 Homer: Iliad, XIII–XVIII
September 7 Homer: Iliad, XIX–XXIV
September 10 Homer: Odyssey, I–VIII
September 14 Homer: Odyssey, IX–XVI
September 17 Homer: Odyssey, XVII–XXIV
September 21 Plato: Meno
September 24 Aeschylus: Agamemnon
September 28 Aeschylus: Libation Bearers; Eumenides
October 1 Plato: Gorgias, 447A–481B
October 5 Plato: Gorgias, 481B–to end
October 8 Plutarch: Lives, Lycurgus; Solon
October 12 Herodotus: History, I; II 50–53, 112–120; III 37–38, 66-87
October 15 Herodotus: History, V, 105; VI, 48–120; VII (entire)
October 19 Herodotus: History, VIII; IX
October 22 Plato: Republic, I–II 367E
October 26 Plato: Republic, II 367E–IV 427C
October 29 Plato: Republic, IV 427D–VI 502C
November 2 Plato: Republic, VI 502D–VII
November 5 Plato: Republic, VIII–IX
November 9 Plato: Republic, X
November 12 Aristophanes: Clouds
November 16 Plato: Apology and Crito
November 19 Plato: Phaedo, 57A–84B
November 23 Plato: Phaedo, 84B–118B
November 30 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, I; II, 1-54
December 3 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, II, 55-78; III 1-87; IV, 1-74
December 7 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, IV, 75–end; V 1-26, 84–116; VI (complete)
December 10 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, VII; VIII 1–6, 45–end
December 14 Plato: Symposium, Beginning–198A
December 17 Plato: Symposium, 198–end

Caesar, C. J. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.

Columbia College. (n.d.) A.N Whitehead on Plato. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

Harper, William Rainey. (1891) An Inductive Latin primer. American Book Company: New York.

St. John’s College. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

Tacitus. Complete Works of Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.

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