What Causes the Canon to Endure

While I’m somewhat sympathetic to Greg Weiner’s point in “Endurance and the Canon,” I need to emphasize a point he overlooks, namely what causes “the canon” to endure. Some ideas endure on account of their intellectual merit–i.e., because they have intellectual staying power. Ben’s examples of Thucydides and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are examples of this phenomenon; because these works tackle problems inherent to humanity, people are likely to seek them out as resources for understanding these problems as long as they’re in print.

But some ideas stay around, not because they have any ideational value whatsoever, but because historically they benefit a certain part of society at the expense of another. Slavery and gender equality are obvious examples of these. Ideas in defense of slavery have persisted (think George Fitzhugh and John Calhoun) not because of their intellectual heft but because they have justified the narrow self-interest of parts of society who would exploit the life and labor of another. The same goes for gender inequality: it persisted because it was both easier for men not to have to consult the needs and interests of women, and more convenient for men not to have to compete with women in the workplace and elsewhere. 

Greg says: “the long endurance of a work creates at least a rebuttable presumption in favor of its value.” Is he willing to apply this principle to ideas that have endured for generations at the direct expense of countless oppressed peoples? If not–and given that there have been rather a lot of these ideas historically–then why should we presume in favor of any work that has been around a long time, instead of using our rational faculties to evaluate that idea on its own terms?

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