The Question of a Canon

Every society, every culture, assigns power and privilege differentially to its members.  If social upheaval is to be avoided, the cultural assumptions that justify those inequalities must be widely shared and effectively disseminated. Those assumptions will constitute the world view of that culture or society.  Fashion and esthetics are carriers of such assumptions as is the designation of the cultural “worth” of literary and artistic productions (the distinction between high and low culture).  The icons of a culture, its canon, thus serve a political purpose, that of rationalizing the unequal distribution of power and privilege within that culture.  For example, the absence of women’s voices in the “Great Conversation” is related to and an expression of the political circumstance of seeing masculinity as more valuable than femininity.  Concretely, it is related to the political and economic circumstance of women being seen as chattel (given in marriage by their fathers) and of being unenfranchized politically…having finally been given the vote, but not practically eligible to be elected to the presidency.  The absence of Black and native American voices should also be remarked.  The Western Canon is a monument sanctifying “dead white guys.”  Hence to the argument for supplementing the Western Canon with alternative voices, or for calling into question the whole concept of “greatness” in art, literature and philosophy.


No one can stand outside their society or be value free.  In addition, some values persist;  freedom, choice, mercy, trustworthiness and rationality are intrinsic to any definition of humaneness . The passage of time is an effective filter.  Those works of art and literature that continue to speak to us over the centuries endure as a manifestation of their worth and continued relevance. While the canon is an open one in the sense that any new work of art is a candidate for inclusion and absolute unanimity about which works are to be included does not exist, a canon does exist; it includes those works that, over time, have helped  explore most deeply the implications of what it means to be a human being.  It would not be too much to say that to be civilized is precisely to be engaged in that exploration.

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Last updated: Thu Aug 26 12:16:04 EDT 1999