The Western Canon

What is “the West”? Is it even a meaningful concept any more? Is it really “the Free World” as American Republicans like to call it? Is it what we used to call “the First World”? Is it “Liberal Democracy”? Is it “Eurocentric Colonialism”? Can we simply define it against “the East”? But then what exactly is “the East”?

If we look for the roots of “the West” in the past, the usual genealogy involves a small handful of civilizations, each following on from the one before. The starting point is somewhat arbitrary, but it usually begins in Athens with Ancient Greece. From there we progress to the Roman Empire, then to Christendom, and finally to Secular Modernity with the Enlightenment. People who defend the foundational values and traditions of “the West” usually point to the Western philosophical tradition stretching back to Plato or further back to the pre-Socratics. Then they point to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, sometimes conceived as a union of Athens and Jerusalem. Then they point to the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason (and empiricism) people call the Enlightenment. You might call these the three pillars of the West. Or you could reduce them to two pillars: Faith and Reason.

If we look at the world today, however, things look a lot more complicated than that. First of all, if we’re talking about faith, it seems that what best characterizes the West is not any one particular faith such as Christianity, but any or no faith. The West has appropriated Eastern religions and imported Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism and more. So the line between “East” and “West” is not so easy to draw any more, not only geographically, but also spiritually and intellectually. Eastern philosophical and religious traditions have had an enormous impact on Western thinkers and the Western philosophical and religious tradition.

The same is true of more “primitivist” religions, loosely based on shamanic practices. Much of the New Age consists of the importation or re-discovery of indigenous shamanism and paganism. But think also of the spread of jazz and blues in North America and salsa and samba in South America and the post-war explosion of popular music based on African and Latin rhythms. Think of the hippies and ravers of the sixties and nineties. And don’t forget the rastas. Music, dance, drugs, (even ayahuasca ceremonies are now par for the course), are all part and parcel of what we mean by “the West”, even when they are in tension with the mainstream.

The secular West has succeeded in including all sorts of religious traditions and experiences from across the globe. Sometimes they are distorted and twisted beyond recognition and “westernized”, as happens all the time with pop music. This is inevitably what happens when you open traditions, even sacred traditions, to the market. People vote with their feet and with their ignorance. The customer is always right, apparently.

As a result, we find ourselves in a curious predicament in the modern West. We have seemingly limitless choice, but no reliable way to chose. Enter the spiritual marketplace and you are instantly bewildered and overwhelmed. How can you tell the charlatans and false prophets from the real stuff?

The same goes for the intellectual marketplace. All these books and ideas and philosophies. But which are true and which are nonsense? And what about all the art? There’s such an endless stream of stuff clamouring for our attention. How do we know if it’s any good?

The West has opened itself up to the world. It has give ultimate responsibility to individual citizens to decide for themselves what to believe, what to do, what to read and what to listen to. It’s a “free country”.

Does that mean it doesn’t matter? If the world doesn’t care what you believe and what you do, why should you care what you believe or do? If it’s just a question of subjective preference, doesn’t that imply that there is no objective standard of truth, goodness or beauty anyway?

In the West, you are free to be a moral relativist and you are free to be a moral absolutist. There is no ultimate authority to pass judgment on anything. But then it can look as though the West is actually relativistic but tolerant of absolutism because of its relativist principles. So it seems to lean towards relativism.

How do human beings judge things? How do we know if a new idea is true or false, if a new behavior is good or bad or if a new work of art is beautiful or ugly? Well, we compare it to what we already know. We process novelty in the right hemisphere of the brain and then move it over to the left hemisphere once we have familiarized ourselves with it. We seem to intuit truth, goodness and beauty directly, but that’s because we are engaging the right hemisphere, which works with estimates and broad comparisons. Just because it feels intuitive doesn’t mean that we aren’t still making comparisons (mainly subconsciously).

We don’t arbitrarily judge things or ideas as true, good or beautiful randomly or arbitrarily. It’s not just capricious whim. Our judgments are always based on prejudice, because we always encounter novelty with a particular set of pre-judged criteria, even if we’re not aware of them (Edmund Burke understood this very well). So our judgment of the truth-value of a proposition depends on how well it fits with the knowledge we have accumulated over a lifetime. And the more exposure we have had, the more experience of “good ideas”, the more likely we will be to judge well.

But that begs the question. How do we know if what we have in our “knowledge store” is good or bad, right or wrong? Maybe we have spent a lifetime collecting bad ideas. Each new bad idea is confirmed as a good idea by our existing store of bad ideas. Who’s to say? We might be completely deluded.

This is where society comes in. Of course, on my own I can’t ever know what is true or even what is real. But, luckily for me, I have never been on my own. I have been socialized and educated by society since I burst into the world. As a child I had to defer to the judgment of my parents about what was worth reading and what wasn’t. At school, I had to defer to my teachers. At university, I had to defer to the course and the reading list (I studied English literature).

At one point in my studies at uni, I became very interested in the idea of a literary canon. I wrote my first year dissertation on a minor decadent poet called Ernest Dowson, a contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde. Part of the motivation was an attempt to “discover” a neglected or undervalued poet. Just like I wanted to discover a cool new indie band before anyone else did. Another motivation was to do with the shift as I saw it from the musicality and lyricism of the late Romantics to the more prosaic nature of the modernist poets that succeeded them.

Why am I telling you this? Well, in my view at the time, this was an example of how the canon can go wrong. Dowson was considered a minor poet because he was unfashionable. I’m not saying he wasn’t a minor poet (if he hadn’t died so young things might have turned out differently). But I noticed that the change from the musical, auditory element in poetry to a more visual, imagistic conception was not necessarily an objective improvement.

Recent research bears out the theory that music actually preceded speech in early homo sapiens, that song and poetry preceded speech and prose. Music is processed predominantly in the right hemisphere of the brain (see Iain McGilchrist), and the preference for left hemispheric dominance in our culture might determine the poetic canon in a biased and ultimately detrimental way.

Harold Bloom wrote an interesting book on the subject of the Western canon (called “The Western Canon” funnily enough). What is included and excluded in any canon, whether literary or artistic, philosophical or scientific, depends on certain intrinsic criteria, some of which Steiner attempted to define. But a canon is basically self-defining. There is a network of influence and admiration within and across any tradition. For example, I traced a line of influence and admiration from Ernest Dowson to W.B. Yeats to William Blake (who I tried and failed to write my second dissertation on).

It was clear that early twentieth century Anglo-American poetic sensibility was strongly influenced if not defined by T.S Eliot, through his personal connections (with Ezra Pound for example) and his literary criticism. The Romantics defined the prevailing poetic sensibility of their day. They also had a much wider effect on literary taste more generally, also through their essays and literary criticism. They loved Shakespeare, for example, and were largely responsible for renewed interest in his plays and in his elevation to demi-god genius status. And so it goes. The canon is basically a community of minds, a kind of mutual admiration society.

We all carry a canon around with us in our brains. Anything new we come across is judged with reference to the standards and values of our existing canon of knowledge. Is it true? Is it good? Is it beautiful? We let our inner canon decide. But what is our inner canon based on if not an outer canon? Not a replica or facsimile of course, but intricately connected nonetheless.

This brings me back to my opening remarks about what might constitute “the West”. If the cultural heritage of the West really is something like the three pillars of Classics, Christianity and the Enlightenment and the various literary and artistic traditions that weave through and across them, what does that mean in practice? From the outside, it’s purely descriptive. But what if the books stay on the shelf, the paintings in the museum and the music in the concert hall or in somebody else’s record collection?

Plato started the whole “Good, True and Beautiful” thing. What if the whole Western tradition is one massive conversation about what is good, what is true and what is beautiful? Can we honestly say that someone who knows nothing about Plato or Aristotle or the Bible is standing in the “Western tradition”? Or are they just standing in “the West”?

Of course a classical education is not a prerequisite for living in liberal Western societies. But if we’re talking about our capacity to engage with ideas and experiences beyond those of the mundane everyday, isn’t engaging with the “outer canon” the best way to build an inner one? And isn’t the Western canon the best in the West (by definition)?

It’s easy to just say “no”. I don’t need a tradition or a canon, whether outer or inner, to tell me what’s what. I will be the judge of what’s true, good and beautiful. I am a “secret, sacred self”. But that viewpoint almost immediately dissolves into relativism and solipsism. If I am the arbiter of what’s true for me, then so is everyone else the arbiter of what’s true for them. In which case, there is no such thing as objective truth, and there’s no point trying to get better at seeing it.

It also leads inexorably to the thought that the whole canon idea is just the arbitrary imposition of power hungry “dead white males”. If truth is subjective, then it’s simply the ones with the most power that decide what’s true. If you are awake to that basic fact (if you’re “woke”) then the natural response is to resist that imposed “truth”. It’s the mirror opposite of the traditional view, which assumes that something is true or good or beautiful if everyone says it is. If you are a relativist however, if you want to be free of “patriarchal power structures”, whatever the canonical consensus happens to be, you’d be better off doing the opposite.

I would argue (as I just have) that our ability to intuit truth is dependent on an “inner canon” of truth. This inner canon establishes as “umwelt” or worldview. It is the frame with which we experience reality, or the lens through which we see it. No lens is perfect, of course, but some are better than others. If our “basic vocabulary”, as Richard Rorty calls it, if the grammar and syntax of our inner representations, is faulty, then we inevitably pile falsehood onto falsehood as our corrupted view of the world deteriorates. And that way madness lies.

That’s why I worry about all these developments in “identity politics” or “applied postmodernism” or whatever you want to call it. I see a double negative: a distorted view of reality and a self-imposed exile from the Western tradition. It’s setting people up for epistemic failure and psychological breakdown. Where is the Good, the True and the Beautiful in such a negative and self-referential worldview?

But that’s not the only danger confronting us in the modern West. I have identified four key umwelts that distort our view of reality and deepen our delusional consciousness. These are the underlying worldviews of four archetypal ego structures called muggles, muppets, addicts and victims. If any of these delusional structures deteriorate too far, their human hosts may well find themselves playing out their delusional fantasies in a psychiatric institution.

I have just been discussing the muppet worldview. This can be reduced to one of two philosophical positions: relativism or absolutism. Both positions (according to the canonical consensus as I understand it) are objectively wrong. You will end up skewing reality out of shape and causing havoc in both your inner and outer worlds.

Aristotle observed that most virtues are found in the golden mean between two opposed vices. Courage, for example is found midway between cowardice and foolhardiness. Similarly, I would argue, the proper way to view the world is neither through a relativistic lens nor an absolutist one, but through something like Nietzsche’s “perspectivism”. It all depends on your perspective, but some perspectives are wider or higher than others. We can approach the truth, but never fully realize it. In this, he is in accord with Plato (for once).

The victim worldview suffers from another basic delusion, or pair of delusions: nihilism on the one hand and an inferiority or persecution complex on the other. The pendulum swings between “nothing really matters” and “everything is stacked against me”.

The addict worldview suffers from the push and pull of hedonism and masochism. It is predicated on the insatiable logic of the “happiness trap”. Chasing the dragon at the end of the rainbow, the whole dopaminergic reward system gets skewed so you can end up not only chasing pleasure but pain as well.

Finally, the muggle worldview suffers from the twin errors of atheism and nominalism. Whether you believe in God or not, you think that what is at stake is just your declarative opinion. Either way, the world is simply the way it is, which is basically the way it seems to you, which is basically materialistic or dualistic (ie. materialistic but with minds in it). There is no conception of “God” as an actual world transforming reality. There is no conception of a greater reality than the one you currently inhabit.

When the underlying paradigm is wrong, everything is wrong. I have come to the conclusion (provisionally and falsifiably I suppose) that the atheism-nominalism muggle paradigm is wrong, that the relativism-absolutism muppet paradigm is wrong, that the nihilism-persecution victim paradigm is wrong and that the hedonism-masochism addict paradigm is wrong. I have also come to the conclusion that the sooner we get rid of these false foundations, the sooner we will stand on the solid ground of our noble cultural heritage and rebuild a reliable canon of the Good, the True and the Beautiful for our collective future.