Classics - History of The Western Classics

History of The Western Classics

The word “classics” is derived from the Latin adjective classicus: “belonging to the highest class of citizens”, connoting superiority, authority, and perfection. The first “Classic” writer was Aulus Gellius, a 2nd-century Roman writer who, in the miscellany Noctes Atticae (19, 8, 15), refers to a writer as a Classicus scriptor, non proletarius(“A distinguished, not a commonplace writer”). Such classification began with the Greeks’ ranking their cultural works, with the word canon (“carpenter’s rule”). Moreover, early Christian Church Fathers used canon to rank the authoritative texts of the New Testament, preserving them, given the expense of vellum and papyrus and mechanical book reproduction, thus, being comprehended in a canon ensured a book’s preservation as the best way to retain information about a civilization. Contemporarily, the Western canon defines the best of Western culture. In the ancient world, at the Alexandrian Library, scholars coined the Greek term Hoi enkrithentes (“the admitted”, “the included”) to identify the writers in the canon.

The method of study in the Classical World was “Philo’s Rule”: (lit.: "strike the divine coin anew")—the law of strict continuity in preserving words and ideas. Although the definitions of words and ideas might broaden, continuity (preservation) requires retention of their original arete (excellence, virtue, goodness). “Philo’s Rule” imparts intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of “the best, which has been thought and said in the world”. Oxford classicist Edward Copleston said that classical education “communicates to the mind…a high sense of honor, a disdain of death in a good cause, a passionate devotion to the welfare of one’s country”, thus concurring with Cicero that: “All literature, all philosophical treatises, all the voices of antiquity are full of examples for imitation, which would all lie unseen in darkness without the light of literature”.

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