"A Sea Of Literature, Must It Be
A Measureless and Pathless Chaos?"
The classics, traditionally, is the epithetical designation of the works of the Greeks and Romans as written in the Greek and Latin languages. It was thought that these ancient languages were intrinsically excellent, in comparison with the modern languages. The study of the classics means the study of the authors and literature of Greek and Latin antiquity; also, of the art and culture of the same age. Up to the first part of the 20th century great stock was placed in a classical education. William Hazlitt:
The meaning of the term, classics, these days, has been extended to the writers and their work which by general opinion is of the first rank and of acknowledged excellence. A classic is a book that has survived the age in which it was written; that its words of advice and direction are applicable to all ages; it is a book that has surfaced from an older age to a newer age, kept afloat, so to speak, by the readers of all ages.2
"The study of the classics ... teaches us to believe that there is something really great and excellent in the world, surviving all the shocks of accident and fluctuations of opinion, and raises us above that low and servile fear which bows only to present power and upstart authority ... we feel the presence of that power which gives immortality to human thoughts and actions, and catch the flame of enthusiasm from all nations and ages.
It is hard to find in minds otherwise formed, either a real love of excellence, or a belief that any excellence exists superior to their own."1
The classics, in its extended meaning, are sprinkled in the same number over a given span of time: the longer the span, the longer the list. Thus, while a list of the best books will contain ones written from all ages, the majority, naturally enough, will come from that long span of time which precedes the current age.3 When one compiles a list of books that have come to that person's attention as being those that might be read; well, a person will have a very long list of books to read and will soon come to the understanding that all of them will not get read, and, some picking and choosing will be necessary. "How in this mountain of literature am I to find the really useful book?" I have done it, it comes through study. Before settling in with a book one should really get to know it first. Have at hand a good biographical dictionary (e.g., Chambers); read up on the author; see what he stood for; what kind of a life he led. You should always look up the classics in a guide to literature (e.g., Benet's or Cambridge's) and find out what the work is about. Do not bother with a book unless your interest has been raised, and put it down if it starts to bore you, rarely, however, will you be bored with the book if you follow the process of getting to know the author and his book, first, before you start to read the book in earnest.
It was Sir Isaac Newton who summed up his brilliant life by stating that he seemed to have been all his life gathering a few shells on a sea shore, while a boundless ocean of truth still lay beyond and unknown to him. When we appreciate that there exists a sea of literature, we will come to this understanding: that there exists "a pathless immensity beyond our powers of vision or of reach - an immensity in which industry itself is useless without judgement, method and discipline."4 If a person desires to come to an intellectual grip with life and that of the universe he or she sees about him or her, then, the first order of business is "to order and make serviceable the vast realm of printed material which four centuries have swept across our path. To organize our knowledge, to systematize our reading, to save, out of the relentless cataract of ink, the immortal thoughts of the greatest - this is a necessity, unless the productive ingenuity of man is to lead us at last to a measureless and pathless chaos."5
1 "On Classical Education," as found in The Round Table (1815-17).
2 See my essay, "On Books."
3 Personally, few books written earlier then 1750 are on my list; not because they might not qualify as a classic, in the extended meaning of that word, but rather because I am unable to stick with them: the language is so antiquated it becomes a chore to read them.
4 Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), The Choice of Books; (New York: MacMillan, 1893) pp. 4-5.
5 Ibid., p. 31.
[To Blupete's Essays]
[Thoughts & Quotes of blupete]
October, 2000 (2011)