25 October, 2019

A Non-Western Canon: What Would a List of Humanity's 100 Greatest Writers Look Like?

Harold Bloom is dead. His death has prompted one final, staggered brawl between the exhausted ranks who have spent away their strength with three decades of culture warring. My personal assessment of Bloom is that he was an excellent salesman and a stupendous reader, but an uninspired critic. With the concept of a 'canon' or a 'classic' I have no argument. It seems obvious to me that some works are better than others and more obvious still that if a book is still being read several centuries after it was written it is likely one of those better works–or barring that, a work whose intellectual or artistic legacy makes it a necessary piece of the larger puzzle. The trouble with Bloom was not his elephant love for the canon, but his inability to articulate anything but this passion (and disgust with those who sought to defile it). The truth is that Bloom adds nothing to the great works he champions. This weakness is seen most clearly in his many volumes on Shakespeare; in less exaggerated form it mars the judgments Bloom throws around in The Western Canon or Genius

Bloom declares where he should argue, emotes where he should analyze, and effuses where he should unveil. Bloom deplored young Hal to the center of his bones; his love for Falstaff soaked through his soul down into his toes. You'll discover this within a minute of reading any of Bloom's criticism of the Bard. Upon Falstaff  he bestows the title "the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare."[1] But peer at his pages long enough and you quickly realize the truth: Bloom asserts this title; he does not argue for it, much less prove it. He rarely bothered trying to prove anything. Instead he stacks his pages with one overwrought judgement after another–and the best of these judgements are usually not even his, but some quote lifted from Hazlitt, Johnson, or some other ancient critic.

Bloom read all of the ancient critics. Bloom's erudition was his genius. He was staggeringly, smashingly, outlandishly well read. What could be read, he did read. Harold Bloom, champion avatar of librarians everywhere! This was the source of his cultural authority. He can declare that Moliere is one of the three—and three only!—playwrights of the last six hundred years that deserve canonization because he has read them all, damn't. He should know; you should trust him.

But if Bloom's prodigious reading was his rest and his strength, it was also, I suspect, key to his failures. He analyzes great works of art not through the eyes of a poet or a novelist or a playwright—that is, through the lens of their actual creators—but through the lens of reading. The original theoretical technique of his earlier days (the theory which made him a literary name) was exactly this: categorize authors by their reading habits, build fancy lineages of who read who through whom, and argue that great literature can be reduced to great minds trying to negotiate a space in the shadow of their own favorites. This is all great fun. Sometimes these classification games are even insightful. But peruse his books and you are left with the sense that Bloom cannot really do much else. He can put works into lists and lineages and into buckets of mutual influence. But ask him to bridge these works to the world of living men and women and you will be met with silence. Bloom strikes me as a man who experienced life entirely through the written word. The tangible world outside of literary images lies beyond him. [2] This is a shame; there is nothing essentially wrong with the ideals of folks like Bloom, who would fill those god-shaped holes in our souls with the great books of the ages. But that means demonstrating how a great work confronts the same problems that trouble real people in the dust-stained realms beyond the ivory towers. This task is an inescapable part of that project. Bloom was not capable of that; I doubt he saw the need for even trying.

 Like Walt Whitman (who makes Bloom's canon short list), his greatest virtue was his bounding enthusiasm for what he loved. He cried to the skies "How awe-inspiring! How wonderstruck am I!" Enthusiasm is infectious; for many fans the wonder stuck. Yet no matter how wonder-filled, his prose was never wonderful. He writes no turn of phrase for your copy book. His actual ideas are either too zany ("Shakespeare invented the human") or too banal ("Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's star creations") to take seriously.  Bloom dealt in tautologies. In so many superlatives, he would have you believe that Iago bedazzles because he is the most captivating villain of Western literature, or that Jane Austen is a classic because her novels are immortal. Tautologies all—and tautologies that ultimately come down to Bloom's personal taste. He really likes some things, he really doesn’t like others, and he has read so much that you are supposed to trust him when he divides one from the other. I find this personally difficult: I set out this year to read every play of Shakespeare’s—I finished Lear four nights ago—and I am finding that the more I read the less I trust Bloom's judgements. Harold Bloom was a man that read much, effused more, but discerned little.

(As an aside, this Goodreads review of Bloom's ouvre tracks my feelings pretty well).

But the common criticism of Bloom has nothing to do with any of that. Bloom is disliked because his canon is parochial, Western, and white. Were it offered in good faith, this would be fair criticism. Only a fraction of humanity's greatest works were written by Europeans and Americans between 1500 and 1900 AD. Humanity is larger than one continent; our experience broader than those four centuries. Sadly, this idea is rarely argued in good faith. Bloom's critics want to destroy all notions of canon, not expand it. But what if we did want to expand it? What if we were to include the great classics of Indic, Sinic, and Islamicate civilization in our list of great books? What would a truly global canon look like?

I advance this notion as a thought experiment. Perhaps it is a bit of a parlor game, but it is not without precedent. Advocates of 'great books' and 'the Western canon' often speak in terms of a civilization-spanning "great conversation," with philosophers, theologians, poets, and novelists sharing in one dialogue that stretches across the ages. But this conversation was mostly constructed post-hoc in the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. If there was a literary canon before that moment, it consisted mostly of poetry, and all of that poetry was in English. This canon included both long epics like Spencer's Fairy Queen and lyric poems, many of which are little remembered today and never included in great books syllabi. Yes, education in those days was rooted in the "classics," but a classical education in Latin and Greek was nothing like an education in literature or philosophy today. In most centuries preceding the invention of the Western canon the focus of classical studies was composition, rhetoric and grammar; a man educated in the classics spent equal time on Horace, Quintilian, and Terence as they did on Virgil (and more than they spent on Homer). Reading Sophocles was a philological exercise.

In those days, Dante's Inferno (which is universally acknowledged as a central work of the Canon today) was not part of the English-language "conversation." How could it have been? It was not translated into English until the 19th century, and with the exception of a brief moment in the Renaissance when Italian was one of the proper languages of the literary "Renaissance man," Italian was not a focus of upper-class education in the English speaking world. Under the influence of the classical model of education, which did not distinguish literature from language, most American universities that did teach Dante only taught him in Italian to students of that language. Foreign literature in English translation was vulgar. Those translations were to be read in the drawing room, not the school house.

The great books style of education changed this. Americans had never trucked with the classical education model as happily as the English aristocrats did; when the model began to disappear from American life in the late 1800s they began searching for something more democratic. The greatest classics of world literature and philosophy, taught and read in the English vernacular, did the job. But what should be included? So began the job of sorting which titles made the lists and which did not. Dante was in; Spencer was out. A new canon was born. [3]

If Dante, Cervantes, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Kant, Nietzche, and Marx could be canonized in the early 20th century (and a dozen works of English literature thrown out to make room for them), there is no reason we could not do something similar today, adding in other truly great works that only recently entered the Western stream but have been tempering souls for millennia in the currents of other cultures. I divide these currents of culture into four broad categories (though there are overlaps and intersections in the 'conversations' between them): the Western tradition, which my readers will be most familiar with; the East Asian tradition, which began in ancient China but which also properly includes the literature of Vietnam, Korea, and Japan; the Indic tradition, which begins with the Sanskrit and Pali classics of Ancient India and continues through to modern South Asia, Tibet, and Southeast Asia; and the Islamicate tradition, which was written in classical Arabic, Persian, or their successor languages in Central Asia and the Near East.

The list that follows is tentative. It is a thought experiment, an exploration. I have not read every author listed. Selections which I have not yet read are included on the strength of their reputation and the size of their later influence. Readers will notice that my list differs from Bloom's in some key ways. He includes only literature, giving no space to theologians, philosophers, or political theorists. He also restricts his choices to 'modern' world of literature written in vernacular tongues. In contrast, I include the ancients along with the moderns, the philosophers alongside the poets. When I reduce all of Western thought to 30 authors it is truly all of Western thought I am reducing.

Well, not quite. My lists—especially the Western one—are idiosyncratic. That is inevitable: any list like this will reflect the concerns and tastes of it compiler. As I see it, there are three broad reasons a work might end up on a list of "great books." The first is that the work is a vehicle for immense beauty or stunning insight. This is necessarily subjective. My decision to include the Icelandic Sagas instead of the Nibelungenlied was made on these grounds. Both show the West's Germanic heritage; both provide a picture of less-than-heaven-centered Medieval minds at work. But at the end of my day, the emotional journey Njal's Saga and its kin took me on was filled with terrible meaning. The Nibelungenlied I just found terribly interesting.

The second reason an author may be included is that the ideas or the imagery associated with his or her work has been so influential that these writings (or misinterpretations of it) changed everything that came after. To understand the 'after' you must first understand the before. Regardless of whether you agree with their ideas found in Plato's dialogues, the Upanisads, or the Analects, each of these collections must be included in our list of global classics on these grounds. There is nothing subjective about this judgement, though the apparent importance of this sort of thinker may wane as we move further away from him or her in time. It is for this reason I never seriously considered adding Hegel or Freud to the list, though they often appear on many other lists of this type. These thinkers were wrong. Their ideas were appallingly ill thought out. Everybody admits this; few living readers find anything redeeming in their philosophy. When they are studied today it is usually because of the influence they had on their contemporaries. But that influence has ended. We are barely a century away from Freud and already he is obsolete; I cannot imagine he will be anything more than a historical footnote in two more centuries time. In contrast, no matter how much I detest him (and detest him I do), Plato will certainly still be debated two centuries hence. He must stay.

The third reason to include an author is because his or her work is the most brilliant or the most distinctive expression of a certain stand point or ethos. These perspectives simply must be grappled with. I do not believe as Dante, Machiavelli, Rosseau or Nietzche did. I do believe that every thoughtful person must spend time wrestling against the ethos each embodies. I would believe this even if their ideas had waned in influence (as Dante's arguably have). It is rare to find someone who thinks highly of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism, but it is a poor ethicist who has not tussled with them all (in this case, through the works of Aristotle, Kant, and Mill).

These are the positive arguments for including a thinker on the list. To this I add a negative argument, the central reason for which I exclude names from it. This reason will strike some readers as strange, even unforgivable. But I am unapologetic: I refuse to give any space to authors whose central contribution was in metaphysics. I view the entire field as a series of unanswerable pseudo-questions; its debates are of no more interest to the business of human life than hair-splitting arguments in alchemy and astrology. Religious faith may force certain metaphysical commitments upon you: those commitments, and their implications for the wider world of human action, are worth studying. On the opposite side, empiricism, mathematics, and the natural science have revealed many wonderful things to us about the workings of our universe. These things deserve to be studied deeply (though I do not think 'great works' is the ideal way to do so). In between the range of science and revelation lies a vast wasteland of metaphysical "sophistry and illusion." With Hume I cry: "Commit it then to the flames!"[4]

Thus Leibniz and Descartes have no place on my list. I am interested first and foremost in the realms of decision, action, and meaning. Ethicists, who ask "what should man do?" and "what should man value?" deserve their place in the pantheon. So do political theorists, who ask those same questions of human communities. Epistemologists ("how do we know what we know?") are at their strongest when they are at their most practical. The less metaphysics are involved in any of their theories, the better. This is especially true in a project like this, which gladly crashes millennia length traditions into each other to see what will emerge. One reason I find Warring States philosophy so compelling is relative ease with which their ethical and political programs can be decoupled from the metaphysical fancies of ancient China. This is harder with Western and Islamic ethical theory, and harder still with the classics of ancient India. The ethics and epistemology of the ancient Indians is trussed to their metaphysics; these metaphysical commitments become a stumbling block for those who do not share them.

That is the logic of the lists. They were fun to create. However, here I must admit blemish. My acquaintance with each of the great traditions is not equal. The poets and thinkers in the East Asian bucket are the ones I know best. I have read every one of the authors there listed save three. I do not have quite as strong a record on the Western list, but a pretty strong one nonetheless. It is with the Islamicate and Indic traditions I turn weakling. I have explicitly left several spots in both groups blank. The two empty slots early in the Islamicate tradition list is intended for the hadith and the most important names from the world of fiqh. I suspect two spots may not be enough for these things, and cannot pretend to be familiar enough with them to know who the most important names in hadith compilation and Islamic jurisprudence are or how many spots they might need. The empty slots at the end of that list are intended for the last five centuries of Islamicate literature and thought. Works in Urdu and Turkish have just as strong a claim in these centuries as works in Arabic or Persian, though again, I must admit I am not familiar enough with the intellectual or literary course of these centuries to  discern the awesome works of this era from those merely prominent.

A similar concern convinced me to leave open the last few slots on the Indic tradition list. These spots could be given to the ancient Tamil poems, none of which I have read. They also, perhaps, could go to the titans of India's 'vernacular' literature (of which, again, I must admit ignorance).

Yet I am troubled with deeper concerns about the Indic list. I might state them as thus:

 In classical India, human pursuit was said to be divided into four grand categories: moksha, artha, kama, and dharma. The first eleven titles of the Indic list are divided more or less equally between the four pursuits, with kama getting the short end of stick. This balance was not hard to achieve. With the exception of a few of the Upanisads, I have read, either in abridgment or in whole, every one of the authors/texts included (and between the Indian Sourcebook in Philosophy and the Clay Sanskrit Library I have been exposed to many other writers of "classical" India that I judge to have not made the cut). But as we move closer to the second millennium of the common era my knowledge thins. This era—the period from 700-1400 AD—marks the advent of Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnavism, the ascendance of bhakti practices, the death of Buddhist devotion, and the armed introduction of Islam to the subcontinent. Sadly, my knowledge of these events is absurdly superficial. I have not yet read any of the texts I listed for this era, nor even read about most of them except in the most cursory fashion. There is a high probability I have missed someone important or included someone who, for all their merits, does not deserve the honor. In fact, I feel like this must be the case, for the diversity of classical India disappears in these selections. If the first half of the list divides itself among moksha, artha, kama and dharma; the second half (as far as I understand thinkers I know by reputation only) is devoted entirely to moksha. Did Indians stop thinking about power, justice, beauty, and human love in the  Middle Ages? Was there no thought but for release and religious devotion? I cannot believe it. This imbalance probably reflects my ignorance more than it does the tradition I am drawing from.

I encourage readers more knowledgable of these two traditions than myself to provide their own suggestions or lists in the comments.

Below is the list. I chose names, not books, but with each name I have linked to a book you could find in a book store or library if you wished to read through the canon yourself.





11. LI BAI
12. DU FU
24. LU XUN


3. PALI CANON (e.g., selected discourses from the SUTTA PITAKA)
21. [----]
22. [----]
23. [----]
24. [----]


3. [----]
4. [----]
10. RUMI
18. [----]
19. [----]
20. [----] [5]

If you would like to read more about philosophers and historians I especially cherish, consider reading this piece on Ibn Khaldun, this one on Sima Qian, this one on Thucydides, or my 2014 post on Quantum Libraries.  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Harold Bloom, Falstaff: Give Me Life (New York: Scribner, 2017), 50.

[2] Relevant here is Truman G. Madsen's critique of Bloom's claim (made in claim in American Religion) that Mormons had abandoned the ethos and impulse of Joseph Smith for corporate respectability: "With a clipboard and a gifted interview style, Bloom might have consulted a fair sample of recent converts to the LDS Church. If he did not impose his paradoxical indifference to self-awareness, he could glimpse what is stirring and moving in their lives [instead of speculating based off of Church PR reports]. Truman Madsen, "Four LDS Views of Harold Bloom: A Roundtable," BYU Studies 35, iss 1 (1995), 188. 

[3] Some helpful texts here include David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 25-98; Marianne Montgomery, Europe's Languages on England's Stages, 1590-1620 (Ashgate: Burlington, VT: 2012), 6-15; James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Caroline Winterer, Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), esp. 152-179; William Scott Rule, "Seventy Years of Changing Great Books at St. John's College," Dissertation, Georgia State University (2009), 1-123.

[4] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Section IV, Part I.

[5] For the curious, I made a count of which languages are represented in these works. The Bible is divided between classical Hebrew and ancient Greek; Gandhi between Gujarati and English. I considered dividing Milton between Latin and English (which he would have approved of), but decided against it. Milton's works in Latin have left only a threadbare memory. 

19 - Classical Sanskrit
18 - Classical Chinese
6.5 - Ancient Greek
 9 - Arabic
5.5 - English
 5- Persian
 5 - French
 4 - Classical Japanese
 4 - Latin
 3 - German
 2 - Russian
 2 - Italian
 1 - Old Norse
 1 - Chagatai
 1 - Vietnamese
 1 - Modern Mandarin Chinese
 1 - Modern Japanese
 .5 - Gujarati
 .5 - Classical Hebrew


Antoine said...

Great idea, thank you for the list. That’s a hefty program to go through.
I have nothing to contribute on the Arabic and Indic tradition, sadly, but I’m surprised you included Balzac over Zola in the Western one. I have read extensively both (in the original French, my mother tongue), and I find Zola infinitely more powerful and captivating to read than Balzac.
I’m also curious why you detest Plato’s philosophy so much.

Anonymous said...

I think you need another canon, perhaps 'The Modern Canon'? For example 'The Selfish Gene' and 'Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own' and 'On the Origin of Species'.

Anonymous said...

This is great.

WRT the western portion: my uninformed gut feeling is that one of the early theologians of the Reformation---Calvin, for my money---ought to be on the list. He's both a participant in the long dialogue started by Augustine ("the Protestant Reformation was an argument in the mind of Augustine"), and crazy influential on American thought (at least) from before the founding through Marilynne Robinson. (I also bet you could see the influence of Calvin in the culture of, say the Netherlands today, but I don't know enough to say.) Maybe instead of the many enlightenment figures on the list?

Islamic world: what about the poetry of the Mughal court? I know very little about this, but it's one of the reasons I want to learn Persian...

crilk said...

Your Western list includes a lot of good and influential works, but they don't strike me as the most canonical so much as the most celebrated.

I'd have Goethe instead of Nietzsche and Pushkin instead of Dostoyevsky. Maybe a few more Italian poets too, like Petratch or Ariosto or Tasso. The Icelandic sagas aren't canonical by any stretch. Horace on the other hand is canonical whether you like him or not (I don't especially).

Winthrop Wickard said...

I would add the Rigveda to the Indic canon--it's the earliest attestation of Sanskrit and the first major text of Hinduism. Yes, it consists mostly of hymns, but then so does the book of Psalms.

Regarding the West, I cannot help but feel that Western canonists tend to ignore Iberia and Latin America. Of course, if you only have thirty slots, then giving one to Cervantes is reasonably representative--but then we have five entries for the French.

I have no particular complaint with the Western list! I might have chosen differently, though I'm not as well read as you are (I never did like George Eliot much--perhaps to be replaced by T.S.) But in general canonists who wax about Russian and French authors tend to ignore the Hispanophone and Lusophone traditions.

Anonymous said...

On Bloom: The word "prove" in this post seems slippery. I think perhaps, at best, you are looking for a contrast between assertion and argument or persuasion. "Proof" does not exist in art! To use the word "prove" suggests a bit of a subterfuge on the subjectivity inherent in art.

I am not familiar with Bloom, so I shan't further waste too much comment space when some who *is* should respond to this. If I would comment at all on this piece, it seems to be ostensibly be about Bloom but indirectly about your ideas about what criticism in the literary arts should be about; which seems to be that it should be about making forceful and clear arguments for a particular set of work, with the end in mind that these should be *for* the formation of readers as a certain kind of persons, superior to what they were before in some sense and united by profound shared experiences and ideas.

It seems a little like Bloom is irksome to you as he doesn't bother doing much more than conveying his subjective extreme with what is intended to be a style that inspires a sympathy with his sentiments. That is, he doesn't bother with argument that is meant to enlist the intelligent, yet uninitiated reader as a missionary or evangelist in the cause of the Western canon (as almost a secular Bible of sorts, to the idea of which you seem approving?). Not knowing Bloom, it may be that the reason he doesn't argue is simply that he was entirely in such evangelism and persuasion, rather than that he was incapable.

On "world canon" (as shorthand, which may be distorting):

The problem with this seems to be that it goes further than a Western canon, but not far enough, and yet there is no further to go.

It is one thing to be a partisan for a uniquely Western civilization, one which can claim to have birthed the Great Enrichment and modern science, certainly unique and vast claims to fame.

But it is harder to argue for a canon that takes in the world of Islam, China, the Hindus, while excluding extinguished civilizations and cultures (the Maya, Austronesians on their expansions, the Bantu and such) without a thriving literate culture, yet who we would be hard pressed to proclaim lesser in our eyes than the small club of literate, Malthusian and rather oppressively dour Asian civilizations mentioned above.

In short, to be a partisan for an extraordinary West is understandable, but to be a partisan for Eurasian sedentary civilization in its entirety does not inspire sympathy.

Anonymous said...

25 certainly doesn't leave too much room and but I'm a little surprised in a list of East Asian canon texts, not a single Korean text was included. Surely, something like Chinul's excerpts on Zen buddhism or the Four-Seven debate that engaged the most influential Neo-Confucians in Korea would have been worth a mention, despite some overlap with the other Zen/Neo-Confucian writers you've already included.

Anonymous said...

It is for this reason I never seriously considered adding Hegel or Freud to the list, though they often appear on many other lists of this type. These thinkers were wrong. Their ideas were appallingly ill thought out. Everybody admits this; few living readers find anything redeeming in their philosophy.

Can this be right? Regardless of your opinion of Freud he seems enormously influential in the present day and will likely continue to be (which doesn't mean his work deserves canonization).

T. Greer said...

Antonine says:

""I find Zola infinitely more powerful and captivating to read than Balzac."

I must admit two things: 1) I have never read a sentence in French; I know French literature entirely though translation. 2) I have never read Zola!

Part of my love for Balzac comes through his attempt to create something like an encyclopedia of his entire society. It is his work as a whole (which I have completely read) that I am amazed, not just one book or another. I think there have been few observers of humanity as keen as he, and fewer still that could observe such a wide cross section of the human species.


The Spaniards added little on the philosophy side of things, while the French have been at the center of that conversation for a very long time. I am comfortable with the assertion that France was the most central nation and French the most central language to the Western tradition after Latin declined.

Bloom includes Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa on his list for what it is worth. I have not read Spanish poetry even in translation; for the Western tradition, so divided among different languages, it is hard to favor lyric poets. I also have a bias against the 20th century (thus no Marquez as well) because I feel like canonical status is still much more up in the air for it. (Interesting to note hat the canon setters in the 1920s did *not* feel that way about the 1800s, and picked from it gladly!)

Anon 3 - "Freud he seems enormously influential in the present day "

With whom? No psychologist takes him remotely seriously; literary theory abandoned him back in the 80s. He 'discovered' the unconscious, something others had already uncovered and someone else would have popularized had he not been around. I just don't see the argument.

Anon 2-

"m a little surprised in a list of East Asian canon texts, not a single Korean text was included. "

This is a fair critique. Who would you take out to put a Korean neoconfucian or who-have-you in?

T. Greer said...

@Anon 1--

"which seems to be that it should be about making forceful and clear arguments for a particular set of work, with the end in mind that these should be *for* the formation of readers as a certain kind of persons, superior to what they were before in some sense and united by profound shared experiences and ideas."

Not necessarily! Often times it is enough for the critic to simply explain something important about a work or provide an interpretation of it--if we do not like "proving"--that the reader likely would not have seen or realized or appreciated had the critic said nothing. Majorie Garber's Shakespeare After All takes this approach and it is one of the more wonderful things I have read on the Bard. AC Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy on the other hand closely weighs evidence found in the text to make a case for reading (or acting, in this case) the texts in a certain way. His analysis of what motivates Iago completely convinced me; moreover, it helped me figure out a person I have met in real life. I was amazed!

Bloom chooses neither of these paths. I really am not kidding you: a large portion of his prose is simply him describing characters with various superlatives. Anybody could do this, and at less length. Were he trying to convince you why these superlatives were deserved that would be one thing--at least he would be making an argument. But he doesn't really do that. He mostly just describes what he likes in the least inspired prose possible. His summaries do not sparkle; his observations add no insight; his arguments do not even try to persuade. Just a very erudite man with lots of opinions and lots of time to write them down.

"hard pressed to proclaim lesser in our eyes than the small club of literate, Malthusian and rather oppressively dour Asian civilizations mentioned above."

Oppressively dour Asian civilizations! My heavens!

Look, Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber is the best novel I have ever read. It is probably the best novel ever written. The early Chinese philosophers have useful things to say about the human condition than all of Plato's works put together. Du Fu is one of the few men on earth who can plausibly be called Shakespeare's equal. I can say these things because I have read these works. That is part of the reason why this project interests me--I am ever saddened that these amazing stories and thinkers and poets are not part of my own tradition. I want my children and their children to have access to them. I do not think you can read them honestly and come away dismissing it all as the work of a "oppressively dour civilization."

I am less comprehensively familiar with the Islamic and the Indic traditions but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Here is why. These civilizations were not like the bantus or the austronesians or the Maya (though the Maya and the Mesoamericans come closest). These societies built ways of living, ways of ruling, of ordering society and of dealing with the cosmos that lasted. Their examples lasted and spread. They built civilization. And that is what this list is, in a sense: a tribute to human civilization.

The other problem with this take is that under your schema there is no real reason to study the pre-modern West at all. (Bloom doesn't include them on his list, for what it is worth). The Greeks and the Romans never would have had their enlightenment. They did not give birth to the modern world. Neither did Aquineas and Dante. In many ways modernity was only seized by whole sale abandonment of what came before. Virgil really was for the 'oppressively dour' machinery of tyranny. I still include them. They have lasted.

In this world of dust, that means something.

T. Greer said...


"Your Western list includes a lot of good and influential works, but they don't strike me as the most canonical so much as the most celebrated."

The canon changes with the season. Works canonical in the 16th century were neglected in the 19th; works canonical in the 20th were not thought much about in the 17th. The canonical is a construction -- something becomes canonical by having enough people in a generation believe it so.

I have given my criteria for which works are included or excluded.


"my uninformed gut feeling is that one of the early theologians of the Reformation---Calvin, for my money---ought to be on the list. "

I spent a lot of time thinking over this. Were I to turn it into a college course I would have to include a Protestant Reformation Reader type book. But I have trouble fitting the whole reformation into one man's thought, and then had an evern harder time deciding who I would take out to include him.

Anon at the top-

" 'Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own" was published this year. It will not be remembered in ten years. I doubt the Selfish Gene will be remembered in a century. We want things that last. (And I don't think science books are really the best fit for this anyway--in a hundred years people will be reading Bio 101 textbook to find out about evolution, not Darwin.)

Winthrop Wickard said...

Just to tie in my Iberian comment to Anon 1, above--I recommend Eça de Queirós's The Maias (Os Maias) to anybody whose tastes run to 19th-century realism, tales of well-meaning upper-class scions being charmingly useless, or societies in decline; Zola himself considered Queirós greater than Flaubert, but alas it was his fate to write in Portuguese, and so he languishes in obscurity. There is an excellent English translation by Margaret Jull Costa, however.

Of course, this gets into interesting questions about "canon". de Queirós was a great writer, and the literary merits of The Maias easily put it into the top tier of 19th-century prose with the French and Russians. It may not hit the top 30 or even 60 Western works of all time, but I think it is probably in the top 100-150 or so. But was he a canonical author? Not if you think of a canon as a long-running conversation of great literary minds down the centuries--who has really responded to him? Very few outside the Lusosphere, because almost nobody outside the Lusosphere reads him. I do not think we can dismiss the "great conversation" model of the canon so easily out of hand--it is not coincidental that no ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian works are on the list. When the ability to read hieroglyphics and cuneiform was lost in late Antiquity, those works stopped being part of the conversation, because nobody could hear them. Similarly, plenty of outstanding authors may not be canonical despite their greatness because not very many people are listening. Influence matters.

fraxinicus said...

On the apparent narrowing of the Indian tradition - I think it has a lot to do with the Islamic conquest. From that point on, the greatest patrons of high culture in most of India belonged to Islamic civilization, and there would have been an imbalance between the categories of indigenous cultural elites that survived/didn't convert to Islam. Secular-minded elites would be more likely to convert to Islam and reap the advantages, while those personally or communally oriented towards religion would have been the ones to continue writing in the Indian as opposed to Islamic literary tradition.

Existing in an environment of pervasive threat from an alien religious system would also naturally inspire more of a religious focus among Hindus, even if there wasn't a defection of cultural elites.

Antoine said...

Thanks for the reply. Well, Zola built exactly the same kind of encyclopedia of the society he lived in through his novels than Balzac did (which is why they are often discussed together in histories of French litterature) but did it much better in my humble opinion (I think I’m back up by most scholars and by the general popularity of the respective authors, though Balzac also has many fans of course). So I highly recommend you check out his work, I think you would enjoy it greatly.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

1. Qur'an
2. Bukhari's Sahih (hadith)
3. Tahawi's Aqeedah (creed)
4. Shafii's Kitab al-Umm (law)
5. Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah (hadith/āthār/history)

6. Al-Dhahabi Tarikh+Siyar (history)
7. Ibn Kathir's Bidayah (history)
8. Tafsir al-Tabari (encyclopedia)
9. Zamakhshari's Al-Kashshaaf (tafsir)
10. Juwayni (creed/law/governance)

11. Al-Ghazali (creed/governance)
12. Ibn Sina (philosophy)
13. Al-Kindi (maths)
14. Ibn Khaldun (history)
15. Ibn Arabi (Sufism/heresy)

16. Rumi (poetry/Sufism/heresy)
17. Ibn Qudamah (creed/literalism)
18. Musawi's Nahj al-Balaghah (Shiism/heresy)
19. Kulayni's al-Kafi (Shiite hadith)
20. Ibn Taymiyyah (logic/creed/literalism)

I could theoretically add some Hanafi books of law by Ibrahim al-Halabi and Maturidi's theology that influenced both the Ottomans and the Mughals but I can't fit that in and it is less important than the rest.

Kartturi said...

Instead of drafting fixed length "you-must-read-these-books canons", wouldn't it be more fruitful to list authors whose works have been seminal in starting a certain kind of genre, or even a new way of seeing the world?

Like e.g., Tolkien for Fantasy. Lewis Carroll for his "Carrollian nonsense".

Jorge Luis Borges for ... what exactly, speculative fiction-essays? In any case, many of his stories have that unmistakable timeless, "almost mathematical" touch, that I'm sure in 500 years he will still be read, although probably not widely, like he is not widely known even now.

Then there are authors whose real value might be really found only much later, like say Sherwood Anderson or Olaf Stapledon. And of course, even for "Western canon", many authors from less known European languages, who haven't been translated at all to the world languages, or translated only poorly (Kazantzakis?), so they are still under the radar from the world perspective.

E.g., in our country we have our own "national canon", and this is true for other small European language areas as well.

T. Greer said...

" wouldn't it be more fruitful to list authors whose works have been seminal in starting a certain kind of genre, or even a new way of seeing the world?"

I would argue that this is exactly what this list is. If an author is on here it is because they pioneered a genre (or exemplified the genre at its strongest) or were the originators of a new way of seeing the world.

Kartturi said...

Regarding the literature (written anywhere) after Marcel Proust (who died in 1922): Which author's works you would consider to have most chances of surviving in the coming centuries?

E.g., I guess Orwell, although his fame fading a bit, like Kipling's is today. Solzhenitsyn for certain, and perhaps some other Russians? For the Middle-East part of (20th century) canon I would add Iranian Ahmad Shamlou, although one cannot really call him "islamicate" by any means.

Also, I think it is the authors who were slightly estranged from their time and milieu (e.g. Borges as a typical example, or say, Fernando Pessoa) fare better in future, than those who were too near the high societies of their time, the mores of which could only interest the future historians.

Also, we cannot know why some books will be read in future. Some might develop even an esoteric reading tradition, like for example Tolkien's stories already have done. Also, what was said about Freud above: certainly there will always be people who will find that Freud's one-eyed reduction describes the world perfectly, like there are people who think the same about Marx's reduction. And I guess Jung with his archetypes and synchronicity will stay for a long time popular among certain circles.

T. Greer said...


If I am restricted myself to English literature, then the answer is something I wrote about here: https://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2019/03/on-tolkienic-hero.html

Of course that is with the five century view. Harder to say on a shorter timescale. And then as you mentioned earlier, translation is a hindrance. Vasily Grossman's work lay behind the iron curtain for many years, and was not translated into English in full until the early 2000s. Yet it is probably the greatest literary achievement of the 2nd world war!

Borges is not a master of English literature, of course. But if I had to have a "20th century canon" he is probably at the front fo the list.

Kartturi said...

As what comes to anonymous commenter's suggestion for Islamicate canon a few comments before, I wonder what kind of madrasas that list is intended for? I'm not expert in the field myself, but I have heard that in Iran, names like "Suhrawardi" and "Mulla Sadra" are important, although a bit metaphysical? Also in modern times, for Pakistan, Muhammad (Allama) Iqbal is considered quite important?

Unknown said...

Thank you for the list of Asian texts. I will put the ones I have not read at the top of my reading list.

The Western list is strangely hit and miss, however. No Presocratics, Augustine, William of Ockham, Goethe, Darwin, Moliere, Spinoza, Smith, Mill, Dostoyevsky, Hobbes, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Voltaire, Federalist Papers, Austen, Joyce, Rawls, Wittgenstein, Mann...

Freud and Hegel are explicitly eliminated for being "wrong". As far as I can see, this simply amounts to not liking them, since there is nobody on the list that is not "wrong" is some important sense. Also, the decision to categorize Descartes under Metaphysics rather than Epistemology or Philosophy of Mathematics, or Theory of Mind, seems perfectly arbitrary, as if Plato or Kant or Aquinas were less metaphysical in some inexplicable way.

Marx is in, however, apparently because he was not "wrong". Is the twentieth century was such an uninterrupted series of triumphant successes for his thought that there is any good reason to regard him as not being less "wrong" than Freud or Hegel or Descartes? Marx gave us an apocalyptic 19th century political theory promising Utopia and delivering the Khmer Rouge, Stalin, the Gulag, the East German Stasi, the liquidation of the kulaks, the Red Guard, the Purges and Show Trials, avoidable mass starvation during the Great Leap Forward, the Katyn Forest Massacres, the current North Korean regime and many similar achievements.

If this does not count as being "wrong" WTF does?
The killing Fields of Cambodia were not staffed with psychoanalytic German Idealists.

I teach the Western Canon and I include Hegel, Marx and Freud because they are historically important. Omitting figures who were as a matter of historical fact influential participants in the development of any intellectual tradition on the grounds that they are "wrong" if applied consistently will result in a blank list, which is why it is a very bad idea.

Unknown said...

If we consider Icelandic sagas, why not stories and legends of indigenous people, such as the Kiowa or Inuit,or from Africa?
The canon remains too "civilized," not to mention too male.

Anonymous said...

Excellent ideas with one objection. The Western canon would greatly benefit from the insights contained in the Introduction section of “Europe - A History” by historian Norman Davies. It is still too much like Swiss cheese.

T. Greer said...

@January 12 Unknown--

Instead of listing all of the texts not included that "must" be, tell me which ones you would remove from the list to make room for yours. You get 25 picks.

Re Marx vs. Hegel--The answer is fairly obvious. Marx is still relevant. The whole country of China rams him down the throats of the officials and the school children, and of course he remains extremely influential in a very direct way to several academic fields, as sad as that influence may be.

Another way of putting the question: in five hundred years, will Freud be remembered? I cannot imagine it. I suspect that he--and Hegel--will be reduced to about the position reserved for Richard Hooker today. In year 1720 he would have been considered a 'must have'..... today he is forgotten by all but specialists.

T. Greer said...

P.S. Mill, Dostoyevsky, and Augustine are included. Read again!

Parmenides said...

I'm sorry but if you don't have Descartes Geometry then I don't know how you have a canon. And it may just be me but the development of mathematics in the western world from the elements and conic sections to Descartes Geometry is probably one of the more fascinating developments. I'm not saying everyone needs to read Newtons Principia but at least knowing the two lemma's and comparing them to Leibniz's differing basis for calculus.

And thus I've put both writers you say only did metaphysics back in. Its unfortunate that Liebniz's really interesting work, his mathematization of logic wasn't discovered until later. Of course the reason you put in some of the metaphysics is because a lot of real world debates make less sense unless you understand some of how these people understood the world.

Also no music? I know your keeping yourself to a small smattering.

Anyway, just from personal taste I'd get rid of Dostoevsky and put in either Melville or Twain and then somehow sneak in Faulkner.

Lim WT said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of ​​being more universal, I think the problem is that there are too many philosophers, critics and essayists, I would ask for more space for narrators, poets and playwrights. The philosophers after the Greeks better we leave them to the philosophical classroom, Nietzsche for example can because he wrote novels and without a doubt Machiavelli was a great but we better leave it for the political classroom. on the other hand, the absence of Camoes, Pessoa, Sor Juana and Machado de Asis in the western part is notorious to me.

Alex Jameson said...

(Sorry to comment at such length on an old post, but you linked to it recently and I'm surprised that no-one has made the following objection, though it seems rather obvious.)

To me, the whole project seems too large for any one person to carry out more than superficially while also living a productive life of their own, and in any case it lacks a clear purpose.

Simply to read once through the major works of these authors in one's own tongue would take a long time even for a voracious reader. If the worthwhile reading material produced by the average name on this list takes two weeks* to mechanically pass your eyeballs over, that is already four years' exclusive reading.

It would be absurd to read everything back-to-back, of course. There's modern history, science, literature and thought, your own national canon, personal interests and hobbies, and a healthy admixture of books which are not serious at all ("Really, to appreciate archdeacons, you need to know some barmaids - and vice versa.") Say this project is given one-quarter of your book-reading time: that's sixteen years.

You'd hope that some proportion of these works will prove so interesting and provoking that you want to spend extra time with them. Perhaps that proportion is as little as an eighth, on which four times the ordinary time are spent (re-reading, annotating, digesting, imitating/adapting). Twenty-two years.

Probably many of these works are so unfamiliar or difficult as to be pretty indigestible without supplementary material, and many will benefit from some such. Twenty-five to thirty years. (Eastern philosophy is not easy for us Westerners!)

Realistically, few people in the modern world are going to have made significant progress in this list before their middle twenties, and many of the works are (I guess!) better read with the accumulated experience of middle age anyway. So you are 50-60 years old by the time you are done, by which time you have likely lost the creativity and energy needed to do anything with this vast store of understanding. What have you to show for it?

I can't know without doing it myself, but I'm inclined to predict - a great mass of undigested material which even a strong mind would find impossible to synthesise. You'd need the mental equivalent of a cow's digestive apparatus to break all this down, with a shovelful of those grinding-stones that crocodiles swallow for good measure. The West seems to have had enough trouble marrying ancient Greek thought with Christianity. I am far from the first ranks of intelligence, but I am not in the bottom leagues either, and frankly I find it a necessity - and a great relief - to ignore innumerable schools of human thought not because they are unworthy of attention at all but because they are not worth my marginal unit of attention, and because the effort would drive me mad.

A list like this makes the past feel like a huge millstone around my neck, rather than a source of wisdom and beauty. Wouldn't most Europeans be better off going out dancing, or doing almost anything else, than unravelling centuries of early Hindu spiritualism? And wouldn't the same be true for Hindus regarding Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas & Milton?

To me, the important thing is that if you decide in your twenties that you more-or-less believe X, Y and Z, you then continue to engage with some schools of thought of non-XYZers. You don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of every way that an intelligent person has ever been a non-XYZer.

So if you, 21st century Anglophone reader, do decide to spend your evenings with Hindu spirituality, I hereby absolve you from ever having to worry about Buddhist essay-diaries or 19th century Russian novels. You've done your part.

*From a rough calculation for the European list, eg 8 weeks for the Bible @ 20 chapters/day, 8 days for the Iliad @ 3 books/day etc.