In the introduction to the Great Books series--matching volumes of classic literature published during the 1950s--Robert Hutchins proposed that the books he and his team selected were "offered in no antiquarian spirit." As he continued, "We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples. We have not thought of providing our readers with hours of relaxation or with an escape from the dreadful cares that are the lot of every man." Instead, he believed that reading texts from the Western Canon could improve our lives.
Great literature for Hutchins happened only because of the discourse of great minds communicating with each other across the centuries. And their dialogue with one another was one we could overhear by studying the writings of these outstanding minds. And every time we read a work of classic literature, we are not only eavesdropping but participating in the Great Conversation.
Hutchins is sure his project is not political. "Since the set was conceived of as a great conversation," he writes, "it is obvious that the books could not have been chosen with any dogma or even with any point of view in mind. In a conversation that has gone on for twenty-five centuries, all dogmas and points of view appear." A collection of "great errors as well as the great truths" could be found in his treasured books. "The task of interpretation and conclusion is [the reader]. This is the machinery and life of the Western tradition in the hands of free men."
It is impossible now for us to pretend that any project seeking to define the canon is anything but political. Systems of power and privilege allowed certain authors--white males with education and enough money, usually--to produce more literature than those in society who had less leisure time and often less education. And the fact that their books became the literature studied in the schools of the day set an example to others. Their works merely served to reinforce the traditional hierarchy. As we moderns have searched through the literature of earlier times, we have found an almost surprising number of works by "outsiders." But what is in our canon--and part of that centuries-long conversation Hutchins is talking about--is likely to reinforce conservative ideas about social order.
We can read these books with an eye to exposing all the prejudice and oppression that lies in their pages. That kind of analytical work is valuable--but it is not at all what I want to do in my own reading of these classics. Let me come out right now and acknowledge I am a flaming lefty. Despite the seeming barriers, I am interested in making a new Great Conversation--one that is more inclusive and more critical, perhaps, but also fundamentally concerned with what we can get out of the text the authors put in front of us.
Recognize the flaws--and even point them out when you must--but remember that when our own words are read by the people of the future, they will be shocked by all of our blindnesses.
Despite Hutchin's almost naive belief that the canon is apolitical, his introduction is actually quite liberal. I won't go into all the details here, but I encourage you to read his entire essay (which you can download from the above site for free).
One of the most powerful things Hutchins writes is that "the goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry.... Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities" of the human species.
Let us engage in that dialogue together. Let us start the Great Conversation.