Endurance and the Canon

I appreciate, and generally agree with the conclusions of, Ben Kleinerman’s recent post on the universal relevance of great books. But I would take issue with one point. Ben writes:

It is insufficiently appreciated that the Western Tradition isn’t simply the preserve of old white men dedicated to the preservation of what’s old merely because it’s what’s old. At its worst, “tradition-preservers” defend it on those grounds. Those grounds, however, are both insufficient as a defense and insufficient even as an explanation for why we should take it seriously.

I am unaware of traditionalists who seek to preserve what is old simply because it is old. The claim, rather, is the long endurance of a work creates at least a rebuttable presumption in favor of its value. A purely contemporaneous and rationalistic evaluation of the Western tradition ignores one of the tradition’s enduring lessons: epistemic humility. I prefer Burke’s wisdom:

[I]f ever we should find ourselves disposed not to admire those writers or artists, Livy and Virgil for instance, Raphael or Michael Angelo, whom all the learned had admired, not to follow our own fancies, but to study them until we know how and what we ought to admire; and if we cannot arrive at this combination of admiration with knowledge, rather to believe that we are dull, than that the rest of the world has been imposed on. It is as good a rule, at least, with regard to this admired constitution. We ought to understand it according to our measure; and to venerate where we are not able presently to comprehend.

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