“You’re the carpenter’s square ” A proverb instead of a straight-rule [kanôn] and precise weight.”
Γνώμων εἶ: ἀντὶ τοῦ κανὼν καὶ ἀκριβὴς σταθμή. Arsenius, 5.56f
What do we mean when we talk about a canon?
Over the past few years we have seen a return in public discourse to a question of “the canon”. To be honest, calling this a return is a bit dishonest because the issue has been central to discussions about public and university education, the rise and fall of the humanities, and the problematic (re)-construction of “western civilization” since the culture wars of the 1980s. Each iteration is a reactive reassertion in response to justified pressure to question the canon, to open it up, to break it down, and to make space for the majority of people some canons exclude.
One of the most frustrating things about this conversation is that reactions to disassembling or even questioning the canon are basically recycled spasms with different words. Today we hear panic about “cancel culture” and attacks on Aristotle or Homer. Such complaints present the canon as part history, part DNA, but almost always something which unites and forms us. Earlier conversations (e.g. the first period of Bloom) at least debated what belonged in this canon; the recent commentariat is mostly just enraged at the hubris of women and BIPOC students and scholars daring to ask serious questions instead of just imitating and emulating white scholars of old.
This post is already another tired rehearsal, but here’s where we can still do some work. Our discussions rarely ever follow some of the basic tenets of this so-called canon and start with definitions. What is a canon? How long have we had the canon.
In ancient Greek a kanôn is an instrument of measurement. It seems to have non-Greek origins.
As fans of Robert Beekes will undoubtedly report, he often says that unclear roots are non-Greek in origin. The Mycenaean reflex demonstrates that the word—and perhaps the concept—was available in Greece long before the Classical period, so there’s an extent to which the ultimate etymological origins really don’t matter.
From the Archaic period on, we find the kanôn as a tool for measuring, a standard for building, and then, following the broader cultural discourse around the cognitive metaphor of crooked and straight, symbolic uses for right/just behavior and other kinds of rectitude. A clear and potentially ‘canonized version of this appears in Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 1113a 29-1113b):
“The good person judges everything rightly, both how things seem and are in truth. For in each thing in particular there are noble and pleasing aspects and a good person differs most in being able to observe what is true for each thing, as if they are a kanôn and measure of these things. It seems that most people are deceived by pleasure. For even though it is not good, it seems to be so and they choose what is pleasing as good and they avoid what causes pain as an evil.”
ὁ σπουδαῖος γὰρ ἕκαστα κρίνει ὀρθῶς, καὶ ἐν ἑκάστοις τἀληθὲς αὐτῷ φαίνεται· καθ᾿ ἑκάστην γὰρ ἕξιν ἴδιά ἐστι καλὰ καὶ ἡδέα, καὶ διαφέρει πλεῖστον ἴσως ὁ σπουδαῖος τῷ τἀληθὲς ἐν ἑκάστοις ὁρᾶν, ὥσπερ κανὼν καὶ μέτρον αὐτῶν ὤν. τοῖς πολλοῖς δὲ ἡ ἀπάτη διὰ τὴν ἡδονὴν ἔοικε γίνεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ οὖσα ἀγαθὸν φαίνεται·αἱροῦνται οὖν τὸ ἡδὺ ὡς ἀγαθόν, τὴν δὲ λύπην ὡς κακὸν φεύγουσιν.
Here a philosophically informed person demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom—what some today might rephrase as taste or good sense—to judge a thing for its worth and to guide their behavior based on this. Of course, one might make the mistake of imagining that different folks might have different takes on what is pleasing and good. Aristotle addresses this elsewhere (On the Soul 411a):
“If the soul must be made out of the elements, it doesn’t need to be from all of them! It is enough for only one pair of opposites to judge itself and its counterpart. Thus we understand the straight and the crooked by the same method: the kanon is the test for them both—but neither the crooked nor the straight provides its own proof. Some might think that the soul is mixed up in everything, which is perhaps why Thales believed that everything was full of gods.”
εἴ τε δεῖ τὴν ψυχὴν ἐκ τῶν στοιχείων ποιεῖν, οὐθὲν δεῖ ἐξ ἁπάντων· ἱκανὸν γὰρ θάτερον μέρος τῆς ἐναντιώσεως ἑαυτό τε κρίνειν καὶ τὸ ἀντικείμενον. καὶ γὰρ τῷ εὐθεῖ καὶ αὐτὸ καὶ τὸ καμπύλον γινώσκομεν· κριτὴς γὰρ ἀμφοῖν ὁ κανών, τὸ δὲ καμπύλον οὔθ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ οὔτε τοῦ εὐθέος. καὶ ἐν τῷ ὅλῳ δέ τινες αὐτὴν μεμῖχθαί φασιν, ὅθεν ἴσως καὶ Θαλῆς ᾠήθη πάντα πλήρη θεῶν εἶναι. τοῦτο δ᾿ ἔχει τινὰς ἀπορίας
Here, he uses kanôn as a metaphor. As any amateur carpenter knows, just because something looks straight or level, does not mean that it is. This passage seems to imply that our soul or mind has the ability to judge things outside of it. But Aristotle makes how these kinds of judgments might work more interesting in a different passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1138a26-35):
“This is the nature of equity itself: it is a correction of the law where it is deficient because it is too general. This is the reason that not all things exist according to law: there are some cases in which it is impossible to establish a law so that we need some kind of vote. For the kanôn of the undefined can only be undefined itself. This is how it is with the lead kanôn used by builders in Lesbos. Just as that kanôn does not stay the same but is reshaped to the curve of a stone, so too a vote/ordinance is made to fit the affairs at hand. This makes it clear what equitable is, that it is just, and that it is better than certain kinds of justice.”
καὶ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ φύσις ἡ τοῦ ἐπιεικοῦς, ἐπανόρθωμα νόμου ᾗ ἐλλείπει διὰ τὸ καθόλου. τοῦτο γὰρ αἴτιον καὶ τοῦ μὴ πάντα κατὰ νόμον εἶναι, ὅτι περὶ ἐνίων ἀδύνατον θέσθαι νόμον, ὥστε ψηφίσματος δεῖ. τοῦ γὰρ ἀορίστου ἀόριστος καὶ ὁ κανών ἐστιν, ὥσπερ καὶ τῆς Λεσβίας οἰκοδομῆς ὁ μολίβδινος κανών· πρὸς γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ λίθου μετακινεῖται καὶ οὐ μένει ὁ κανών, καὶ τὸ ψήφισμα πρὸς τὰ πράγματα. τί μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ τὸ ἐπιεικές, καὶ ὅτι δίκαιον, καὶ τινὸς βέλτιον δικαίου, δῆλον.
In a passage one could argue is potentially revolutionary, Aristotle notes the slippage between descriptive measures and prescriptive measures and that standards of judgment will need to be changed for different circumstances, especially in search of what is equitable.
During the Roman imperial period, Dio Chrystosom calls law “a straight-edge [kanôn] for affairs, against which we must each align our own manner. Otherwise, we will be crooked and wrong.” (Ἔστι δὲ ὁ νόμος τοῦ βίου μὲν ἡγεμών, τῶν πόλεων δὲ ἐπιστάτης κοινός, τῶν δὲ πραγμάτων κανὼν δίκαιος, πρὸς ὃν ἕκαστον ἀπευθύνειν δεῖ τὸν αὑτοῦ τρόπον· εἰ δὲ μή, σκολιὸς ἔσται καὶ πονηρός, Discourse 75: On Law). Longinus echoes a similar use when he quotes Demosthenes’ On the Crown as complaining that those who betrayed their countries to Philip and then Alexander transgressed “the boundaries and measures [kanones] of all that the Greeks used to hold as good” (, ἃ τοῖς πρότερον Ἕλλησιν ὅροι τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἦσαν καὶ κανόνες, ἀνατετροφότες, Longinus, On the Sublime 1 32, quoting De Corona 96).
The idea of the kanôn as a thing we measure ourselves against overlaps with the philosophical notion of a kanôn as presenting rudimentary basics necessary for a discipline: Epicurus is said to have composed a Kanôn where he “says that our perceptions, preconceptions and feelings provide the criteria for truth. So, Epicureans also make perceptions of imagined ideas function in the same way” (ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας, Diogenes Laertius, Life of Epicurus 30). Such definitions are questioned by Sextus Empiricus as the “Kanon of the verifiable truth” (κανόνος τῆς κατ᾿ ἀλήθειαν τῶν πραγμάτων ὑπάρξεως,) which underlies the positions of Dogmatists and the subtraction of would undermine their belief system (Against the Logicians 1 27).
In philosophy, canonical principles of a discipline can also be extended to principles of canonical behavior, satirized by Lucian (Hermotimus 76):
“If you ever met the kind of Stoic who is at the peak, that kind who neither feels pain nor is attracted by pleasure and never feels anger, but is stronger than envy, looks down on wealth and is completely happy, we need some straight-edge and square for a life of virtue from this sort of person. If this stoic is imperfect in even the smallest way, even though possessing more of everything else, well then they’re not yet happy.”
εἴ τινι ἐντετύχηκας τοιούτῳ Στωϊκῷ τῶν ἄκρων, οἵῳ μήτε λυπεῖσθαι μήθ᾿ ὑφ᾿ ἡδονῆς κατασπᾶσθαι μήτε ὀργίζεσθαι, φθόνου δὲ κρείττονι καὶ πλούτου καταφρονοῦντι καὶ συνόλως εὐδαίμονι. ὁποῖον χρὴ τὸν κανόνα εἶναι καὶ γνώμονα τοῦ κατὰ τὴν ἀρετὴν βίου—ὁ γὰρ καὶ κατὰ μικρότατον ἐνδέων ἀτελής, κἂν πάντα πλείω ἔχῃ—εἰ δὲ τοῦτο οὐχί, οὐδέπω εὐδαίμων.
The applications of canonical standards move easily from description to prescription and are not merely philosophical and ethical, but they also move into the aesthetic. Do just a little searching and you will find reference to the kanôn of Polyclitus, a description about the “proper” proportions of a human body described by Lucian (The Dance, 75)
“I am planning to show the body which is aligned with the kanon of Polycltius. Let it be neither too tall and long now short and dwarfish in shape, but a precisely correct proportion, not being fat, which makes the dance unbelievable, or too thin, which would be skeletal or corpse-like.”
τὸ δὲ σῶμα κατὰ τὸν Πολυκλείτου κανόνα ἤδη ἐπιδείξειν μοι δοκῶ· μήτε γὰρ ὑψηλὸς ἄγαν ἔστω καὶ πέρα τοῦ μετρίου ἐπιμήκης μήτε ταπεινὸς καὶ νανώδης τὴν φύσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἔμμετρος ἀκριβῶς, οὔτε πολύσαρκος, ἀπίθανον γάρ, οὔτε λεπτὸς ἐς ὑπερβολήν· σκελετῶδες τοῦτο καὶ νεκρικόν.
A tool for measuring, metaphorically or literally, can function to describe the qualities of a thing but can also prescribe the boundaries of a thing itself. A measuring tape can be used to find the length of a thing but a measuring rod can also be used to indicate that something fails to adhere to some externally imposed model. In the example of Polyclitus’ kanôn the ‘ideal’ body is used to mark other bodies as deformed. In the Greek tradition of Aristotle we could say that the male body functions as a kanôn against which the female body is judged monstrous or sub-standard. In the same way, an aesthetic and intellectual canon demarcates space around it outside of which other forms, contents, and peoples are found lacking.
An additional problem comes from the dangers of exemplification: learning from representative models must be done with care. If they are haphazardly offered as “great” and admirable, audiences can be led astray. Plutarch notes this in his How to Study Poetry (25e):
“And so, the young should understand when we urge them to read poems not to have such high beliefs about them and their impressive names because they believe that they are wise and just men, the best kinds and models [kanones] of virtue and rightness.”
Οὕτως οὖν τούτων ἐχόντων ἐπάγωμεν τοῖς Eποιήμασι τὸν νέον μὴ τοιαύτας ἔχοντα δόξας περὶ τῶν καλῶν ἐκείνων καὶ μεγάλων ὀνομάτων, ὡς ἄρα σοφοὶ καὶ δίκαιοι οἱ ἄνδρες ἦσαν, ἄκροι τε βασιλεῖς καὶ κανόνες ἀρετῆς ἁπάσης καὶ ὀρθότητος
Oftentimes, the process of canonization tends to level with an upgrade: people who do big things (in fiction or real life) are never simply one thing or another.
Implicit then in the metaphorical use of the canon is the meaning we have in the modern world, but before we get to these meanings, it is worth considering some more recent history. Following the rise of Christianity, canon came to mean that which was authorized as legitimate by the Church (which Biblical books were divinely inspired; and these are some of the first definitions in the OED) and, eventually, laws and judgments issues by Ecclesiastical authorities. Our first use of the term canon to denote a group of authors seems to be by David Ruhnken in 1768 (Historia Critica Oratorum Graecorum see Montanari in Brill’s New Pauly, s.v. Canon and Easterling in the OCD3 and this blogpost).
Ruhnken uses the term to refer to the groups of lyric poets, orators, and tragedians who were handed down from antiquity. His use seems to have been prescriptive: if we follow his career in Sandys or Rudolph Pfeiffer, he seemed to have been dedicated to working with texts that were not in these groups. As Pat Easterling notes, however, the prescriptive meaning was long latent in scholarly circles: Photios uses it to denote the earlier model on which a later author based his work. As an authoritative, evenly divinely inspired model, the use of canon which emerges in the 19th century probably has more to do with Biblical studies than Aristotelian ethics.
How does any of this matter today? If you search google books or other sources there are very few uses of the term Canon to refer to a collection of ‘Western Great Books’ prior to the 1980s. So let’s be clear about what a canon is and what it does in this post-Biblical tradition: it provides a model with the hope of directing behavior, including ethics and aesthetics. This canon works by excluding one thing from another, by de-authorizing some traditions and burying them, and by rendering the selected object as sacred.
This, I suspect, is central to Harold Bloom’s use of the word canon in 1994’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages which functions almost entirely to exclude certain kinds of things from the halls of good taste (most often meaning any works not by European men). Regular mentions of the Western Canon at All prior to the culture wars of the 1980s/90s are further evidence of a very reactionary stance: in 1870, the Western Canon is used to refer to the imposition of the selection of New Testament Books on African Bishops. And it seems that century’s use of the phrase focused on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church to the exclusion of others. (Although, to be honest, I would really prefer a church historian to confirm some of these assertions.)
If we can, we need to think about the other phrases people seem to use to mean something similar: in the early 20th century there was an effort to great curricula based on Great Books motivated by the overall concern that education had become too specialized and that students were missing out on the broader interdisciplinary tradition of the liberal arts and “western civilization”.
Both this movement and the subsequent culture wars of the humanities in the 1980s are reactions to higher education being opened up to new audiences: the middle classes of growing universities in the west before and after WW2 and the increasingly class, gender, and race diverse classrooms of the 1960s-1980s. Great books, Western Civilization, and The Western Canon are reactive creations, attempts to impose strict measures and rules on a world in flux.
The problem with the prescriptive canon is it obscures, I think, the aesthetic rule, responsibility of judgment, and any acknowledgment that both aesthetics and judgment are subject to experience and context.
The bigger problem is that our public discussions about canons do not acknowledge the religious and authoritative history of the term and that earlier debates about the canon—even the attempt to establish a singular one—are intentional attempts to create an authoritative culture that privileges a 19th century, Eurocentric, white supremacist, colonialist world view
A few weeks ago, I started asking myself how a canon is like a statue. Both are purportedly erected to honor something which has been lost. But both are much more about the present than they are about the past: they are raised to project a certain view of the world. And while some memorials of this kind are certainly aspirational, even these can be constrictive: those who don’t fit into that view are excluded. The implicit and explicit aesthetic and normative rules of a canon of literature of art has the same impact on expression, belief, and belonging.
A canon is unlike a statue because it cannot be brought down easily and parts of it are so thoroughly knit into our culture that it would be impossible. But we can talk about what it is, we can acknowledge the disproportionate impact canons can have, and we can broaden them understanding, following Aristotle, that to achieve equity, sometimes you need to change the measures you use.