What makes a classic?

1957 Ford Thunderbird – a classic!

I once flew from Cyprus to Egypt and was stuck in Larnaca airport during a very long delay with a somewhat paranoid guy who does security for missionary organisations. One of the topics that briefly surfaced in our strange conversation was what I studied for undergrad. When I said Classics, I got a variation of one of the annoying answers. This guy said that if I were Chinese, for me Classics would be the Five Classics (I think — it was something like that; definitely Chinese).*

The subtext, clear from his tone, was that I’m closed-minded, and maybe too western, probably a bit imperialist.

But I’m certainly not Chinese. If I were Chinese, I’d likely have studied the Five Classics. But I’m not Chinese, so why imply that studying my own culture’s origins are a problem? Is it closed-minded for a Chinese person to study the Five Classics? Or is it only closed-minded to study Classical Greece and Rome?

And what makes a classic, anyway?

This is a question that drifts through my mind on occasion — like in Larnaca.

It also came up in relation to ancient Mesopotamia vs Mediterranean about a year or so ago. The New Testament students in Edinburgh sagely decided to bone up on their Classical (Greek and Roman) literature to be better able to see the cultural context for the New Testament and all that. So they organised a Classics Reading Group. Some of the Old Testament students thought a similar group for Mesopotamian literature would also be of use to them, which I’m sure is also true. The Old Testament students included the phrase ‘more classic than the classics’ in their e-mail.

Obviously this is a very different case from the China vs. Rome conversation in the airport. But it still raises the question about what on earth a classic is.

The jokey reference to Mesopotamian literature being ‘more classic than the classics’ possibly has behind it the assumption that a classic is old. So, the older, the classicker. That’s probably part of it. But that’s not all, by far.

Etymologically, a classic is something that has (high) class. Here’s some of the entry from the OED:

The word was used in post-classical Latin from 1512 with reference to highly-regarded authors who wrote in Greek or Latin, both pagan and Christian: Gregory of Nyssa (by Beatus Rhenanus, 1512); Plutarch (by Melanchthon, 1519); Porphyry and Aristotle (by Gerardus Listrius, 1520); Cyril of Alexandria (by Andreas Cratander, 1528); Augustine of Hippo (by Alfonso Fonseca, 1528); and so on.

A classic author, in that early sense, then, is someone who enjoys wide esteem, someone with a reputation for good style or penetrating content — often, both.

These authors tend to also have widespread influence upon later literature and thought. Thus, Virgil is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential poet of the Latin world. Plato is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential philosopher of the Greek world. And so forth.

These Greek and Roman authors were read and taught and imitated and analysed throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages — indeed, were part of standard education right into the twentieth century. The result is that they have a very strong, direct impact upon western culture. They are not only good poets and philosophers and historians, they are foundational to our culture’s ways of thinking and writing and producing art.

When we move out from literature, this pervasion of Graeco-Roman ideas of philosophy, politics, beauty, and so forth runs throughout western culture all over the place — architecture, art, so many ideals with which we deal every day, whether in acceptance or rejection. The impact of the Greeks and Romans upon subsequent European history is well-nigh incalculable. And the impact of Europe, thanks to colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, and globalisation, is now worldwide.

Before this becomes apologetic for the discipline of Classical Studies, let us see how this narrow use of classic has spread out since its inception. As early as 1548, classique was used of mediaeval vernacular authors of high esteem. Indeed, we could easily reckon up several mediaeval authors of very wide appeal, esteem, and impact — Dante Alighieri, Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried von Strasbourg, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hildegard von Bingen.

The term spreads out chronologically from there — Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Donne are classic not just because they’re old but because they were and are widely regarded to have good style as well as broad impact upon subsequent literature.

But what about authors and texts who disappear for a while? Can they be counted as classic? Perhaps not immediately. But they can regain that lost status, as has done Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Both of these texts were popular in their own day (well, we can certainly confirm that Gilgamesh — poor Beowulf exists in one manuscript), but then were almost lost to time due to shifts and changes in politics and culture. But modern antiquarians have resurrected them, and they are regarded for all the same reasons as other classics, with a growing influence that is currently making up for their centuries-long disappearance.

Sadly, The Tale of Sinuhe has not had such luck, despite being a classic in ancient Egypt for centuries. Perhaps it’s too different for our culture to assimilate it as with Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Perhaps its press isn’t good enough. I recommend it, though. 😉

With the temporal and geographical widening of classic comes, again, its movement to other media. I am currently listening to classical music — Beethoven, Symphony No 2. I enjoy a piece of classic cinema, such as Vertigo or Forbidden Planet, every once in a while. The Beatles are ‘classic’ rock.

Anyway, here’s what makes a classic, then. It’s not simply age but impact and wide esteem. Something can lose classicness, like poor Sinuhe, or (re)gain it, like Beowulf. That said, if you’re into your own culture, don’t be ashamed to be caught reading Cicero or Dante on the bus while listening to Mozart, Monteverdi, or Beethoven.

*That is: the Classic of Poetry, Classic of History, Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites, and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period. Ancient books have such riveting titles.

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