Moral Education, the Canon, and the Good Life
I tend to feel about people who say that the Western Canon “teaches us how to live the good life” more or less the way that music critic Alex Ross feels about a certain kind of classical music fan:
I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, “Ah, civilization.” That wasn’t what Beethoven wanted: his intention was to shake the European mind. I don’t listen to music to be civilized; sometimes, I listen precisely to escape the ordered world. What I love about the “Eroica” is the way it manages to have it all, uniting Romanticism and Enlightenment, civilization and revolution, brain and body, order and chaos.
There may be an education in human flourishing to be found in the Western Canon, but it’s not the only meaning that can be found therein, or even necessarily the right meaning. I’d venture to say that most of the Canon’s constituent works were not written to edify. That doesn’t mean they’re incapable of teaching us; it just means we should be wary of destroying them as complex texts by reducing them to sources of homilies. You’ll sometimes hear people say “This above all, to thine own self be true.” and attribute the quotation to Shakespeare. They’ll typically neglect to mention that he places that saying in the mouth of the buffoon Polonius.
Moreover, if we really want to receive a moral education from the Western Canon, we’re probably better off not looking for one. Moral insights tend to sneak up on us. What we find when explicitly looking for a “moral education” often looks suspiciously like a defense of what we already believe bolstered by copious literary and philosophical name-dropping.
I do think that experience with the humanities contributes to human flourishing, but not because I see the Western Canon as a source of easy moral pedagogy. Rather, the experience of having my mind shaken and disordered, and the experience of the new order into which it settles after the seismic activity has ceased, has been, for me, the Western Canon’s—and Beethoven’s, and mathematics’s, and cultural studies’s—contribution to the goodness of my life.
Reading the Western Canon hasn’t made me much more confident that I know what the Good Life is or how to live it, but it has been a good experience in my life.