55: A Classic


Recently, we have been talking about books–great books. I’ve been reprising Ruskin’s argument that, because these were written by the greatest minds, all of whom were focused on helping us find the most salubrious paths through life, such pages never lose their relevance, not even in this digitizing-at-breakneck-speed age (for these earlier discussions, see Post 52 and Post 53). Of course, there is often some disagreement about what constitutes a great book, or a “classic,” a book for, as Sir Thomas More (whom Ruskin revered) was a man for, all seasons. We will take care of this “criteria for great bookness” problem below.

As mentioned in earlier posts, as his career entered its later stages, Ruskin, deeply dispirited by the lack of good effect his writings and lectures–like “Of Kings’ Treasuries” (Post 53)–had had in improving the deteriorating state of the non-digitizing world around him, determined that he would no longer waste his time trying to convince his unconvincable rich contemporaries that it was their God-given duty as human beings to use their vast and excessive resources to help the millions of less fortunate human beings around them. He would do it himself, using his own, considerably less excessive, resources. It would be unconscionable not to.

His published letters to the working people of Britain, Fors Clavigera, was one element in this effort, his founding of The Guild of St. George  in the 1870s, another. A third front focused on great books. If elites would not spend their time with these wonders in print, he would make some of them available to much less well-heeled others, convinced that, like fresh waters flowing into a region long plagued by drought, they would generate new life and spur new impulses which would regenerate the drab, stunted land- and lifescape of industrial Britain.

He would publish great books which, previously, had not been easily available before (some, like the one mentioned momentarily, had been all but unknown). Together, these would become a Bibliotheca Pastorum–a collection of classics which would inspire those who had been living a “pastoral” life. His initial offering would be The Economist of Xenophon translated from the Greek (under his direction) by two of his former Oxford students, William Gershom Collingwood and Alexander Wedderburn (both of whom would play major roles in his life in years to come and after his death).

Ruskin had come to venerate The Economist a decade and a half before, during the early 1860s, a time when he worked assiduously to formalize his theory of humane economic life which he would offer in contradistinction to the destructive, self-centered laissez-faire version championed by the “masters” of that “science” in his day, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill. Unlike these writers, who took it for granted that “everyone knows” what is meant by “wealth”–and for that reason never defined this central term–Ruskin discovered that in his “Economist” (very like Plato’s dialogues in structure and also featuring Socrates as protagonist) Xenophon (430-354 BCE) had provided a “faultless definition of wealth.” Hence the preeminent place of that work in Ruskin’s teaching pantheon. (Here’s a picture of Xenophon. If you’d like to learn more about him, click here.


Ruskin published his translation of The Economist in 1876. But before he brought his readers to Xenophon’s text, he wished to make it clear why it was a book worthy of their limited minutes. To do that, he decided to resolve for good and all the question of what the central criterion is which allows us to place any piece of writing into the highest echelon. And so here, from his “Preface,” is his faultless definition of “a classic”:

The word “classic,” when justly applied to a book, means that it contains an unchanging truth, expressed as clearly as it was possible for any of the men living at the time when the book was written to express it.

“Unchanging” or “eternal” truth is that which relates to constant—or at least in our human experience constant—things; [a thing] which…though foolish men may long lose sight of it, remains the same through all their neglect and, when their fit of folly is past, is again recognized as inevitable and unalterable.

The books which in a beautiful manner, whether enigmatic or direct, contain statements of such fact, are delighted in by all careful and honest readers; and the study of them is a necessary element in the education of wise and good men in every age and country.

Every nation which has produced highly trained Magi, or wise men, has discerned, at the time when it most flourished, some part of the great system of universal truth, which it was then, and only then, in the condition to discern completely. And the books in which it recorded that part of truth remain established forever, and cannot be superseded. So that the knowledge of mankind, though continually increasing, is built, pinnacle after pinnacle, on the foundation of these adamant stones of ancient soul. And it is the law of progressive human life that we shall not build in the air, but on the already high-storied temple of the thoughts of our ancestors, in the crannies and under the eaves of which we are meant, for the most part, to nest ourselves like swallows–though the stronger of us sometimes may bring, for increase of height, some small white stone…which is…done, by those ordered to such masonry, without vainly attempting the review of all that has been known before, [and] never without modest submission to the scheme of the eternal wisdom, nor ever [done] in any great degree, except by persons trained reverently in some large portion of the wisdom of the past.

That I believe Ruskin to have been such a “new mason” in heightening the building of the world’s wisdom is clear from all the posts which have preceded this. But, always, much more important than the messenger is the message. The classics, Ruskin argues, do not merely set out for us truths we have missed, denied, or not thought through thoroughly, they heal us, make us into better versions of ourselves simply as a consequence of reading them, make us, even more significantly, better members of the human community than we were previously. It is a proposition for which we now have increasing, systematically-gathered, evidence, as this New York Times article tells: The Importance of Chekhov and Alice Munro. One of the most importance findings of this research being that the happy effect we are hopeful of comes to be after just a modest amount of time has been invested in these greatest of sentences.

Given this, it is worth a moment’s reflection about whether it might not be a bad idea to get down that long-ignored copy of David Copperfield or Giovanni’s Room or Tennyson’s “Maude,” and set it aside for fifteen minutes’ reading before dinner–such pleasant time being accompanied, of course, by a glass of your favorite wine. (Reading some Ruskin would be alright too)

Until next time.

Be well out there.



This entry was posted in Truths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 55: A Classic

  1. Jack Harris says:

    How wonderfully expressed, Jim! There is recent research (see Sherry Turkel) that makes clear that our digital communication can stunt our intellect and our empathy. The great books stimulate, by the dialogue they provoke within our own imaginations, potential transformations in our thinking and our behavior with others. And it is amplified when we discuss it aloud with our students. Thanks for opening this conversation.

    You have left me hanging here about Xenophon. I admit to busyness and lethargy. How about amplifying for those in either state Xenophon’s ‘faultless definition of wealth’?”

  2. jimspates says:

    Thanks for your thanks, Jack! I was aware when I pushed the “Post” button that I was not attending to the specific reason why Ruskin thought Xenophon’s book a classic–its harboring of a viable theory of how we should live together, a theory which included what he thought to be a “faultless definition of wealth.” Part of the reason I didn’t do so was that I thought such attending would require some commentary to frame Xenophon’s “faultless definition” properly, thus making an already long post longer. The other reason was that I thought such additional comment would detract from the main idea of this post–consideration of Ruskin’s definition of what made a literary classic a classic. But you raise an important point: that we should have a chance to think about that great Greek’s “faultless definition.” So, I promise to post it soon, so that we can have a chat about that. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s