Canons and classics

The way out of mediocrity is to set standards, to institute competitions, to reward winners and to honor heroes.

The way out of mediocrity in everything is to come up with canons and to believe in classics. This is not to create a museum of the dead (as it is often the case, alas), but to set up benchmarks. Benchmarks and records are always meant to be superseded and broken, otherwise they would become icons of mediocrity themselves.

The reason Homer and Virgil and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, Montaigne and Voltaire are classics had to do with their intrinsic value as authors of exception, but it also had to do with scarcity. There is nothing like Virgil’s Aeneid because there weren’t many Virgils and many Aeneids competing for canonship. There is only one Montaigne because, well, the Montaigne supply at the time was limited.

In literature as in art, music or architecture, classics proliferate when there is a limited stock of competitors. Canons are established when there is not a lot to choose from – or when authoritative voices call the shots, as in how canonical Scriptures become canonical in the first place. In the free marketplace of classics, the few always become the ones.

Our world has less need for canons and classics not because the canons and classics of the past had the last word, but because the competition today is so fierce. The best an author can do is find a voice, follow it and hope it becomes a powerful voice in the agora, for others to follow.

Literacy had strong standards when it was limited and under the control of governing authorities. Books developed canonical structures when they were scarce. The more we create and produce, the lesser the grip of canons and classics becomes. It doesn’t mean we become less mediocre in the process.

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