The Classics – Good or Bad? (2)

Literature Classified

Literature has been classified in various ways by literary students. General classifications are classicism, Puritanism, neo-classicism, romanticism, and realism. To the student of literature these classifications have meaning and have assumed broader and more inclusive meanings because of his intimate knowledge of the many works that would be grouped under each general classification.

In general it can be stated with a certain measure of exactitude that classicism as understood today is a literature which attempts to explain all things as they are, or as they appear to be, to the one interpreting the things which he perceives with his senses and his understanding. Through the ages from Plato, who lived before Christ, and Aristotle down to Dr. Johnson who lived during the early 1500’s A.D. the classical mind had viewed literature as an imitation of life or reality. It was a literature which was a representation of how each man saw the actions of men. The object was further to picture men not only as they really were but also as they ideally should be. This was an attempt on the part of man to come to truth by his reason.

“Pure reason,” which has no concord with faith, was avoided by the Puritan writers and resulted in a literature which revolted against the past and was an attempt to apply the truths of Scripture to life. Some of those who wrote in this manner were John Bunyan, John Milton, William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather. All of these men, including the Americans, had received a classical education and were thus familiar with the forms for proper expression.

Neo-classicism was a return to the classicism of the past. Men in America who were repulsed by the writings of the Puritans were such men as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The latter composed his own New Testament but left out all passages which refer to Christ as the Son of God. Included in this lot were men such as Thomas Paine, an apostle of the European enlightenment movement, and William Elery Chaning, the leader of Unitarianism in America. In Europe the period of the so-called Enlightenment was descending. Voltaire and the Encyclopedists in Europe were revolting against the established forms of government and were making known their disagreements in their writings. These productions should finally stir the people to the point that the pot would boil over and result in the French Revolution and eventual overthrow of all monarchy in Europe.

The Romanticist changed the concept of literature into expressionism. Romanticists place faith in feeling and imagination. The romantic expression might be an expression of the state of society, or of a national spirit, but characteristically it was assumed to be an expression of self, of the writer’s own personality and experience in the world, as he knew it or chose to make it. Literature became largely confessional—personal, autobiographic, lyrical. The romanticist knew that human life was not like he portrayed it but then with a shrug of the shoulder and wink in his eye said, “Don’t you wish it were!”

William Dean Howells, American author, could not agree with the romanticist. What mattered to him was common sense, fidelity to the ordinary run of facts, calm and reasoned behavior.

In the Rise of Silas Lapham speaking through Mr. Sewell, the minister, he says: “…and the self sacrifice painted in most novels…is nothing but psychical (soul) suicide, and is as wholly immoral as the spectacle of a man falling upon his sword.”

Since 1870 literary productions have tended to be realistic. Faith has been placed in science. Realism is not new in the sense that this is the first time that reality is to be portrayed. All men tried to portray reality as they saw it or wished it would be. Homer and Aeschylus, and the Puritans represented in their literature what they thought was reality but this is not what is meant by “realism” as a literary form. The realistic movement was a turning away from the methods and the standpoint of the romantic writers of the 19th century. It was a movement toward the conception of reality which concurred with actual experience—this area of life modern science was exploring.

Out of the literature of the realistic writer has grown the naturalistic and pornographic prose that has become so prevalent today. Some of the sensationalism of a religious and secular nature can also be classified with the pornography and naturalism as poor literature but we will refer to this more at length in a later part of this speech.

One of the first such writers was Stephen Crane. His naturalism is tame, however, by modern standards. Smut which falls in the class of this modern trash is neither classic nor is it literature. It does not meet the standards for literature in either form or content.

The Task of the School and the Development of the Classical Curriculum

The school has a task and that task is defined for the teacher. He instructs covenant youth. These covenant youth come to the school—a school which is an extension of the Christian home. The school is, however, an institution which has a position which of necessity is born out of the social situation in which we live. Much that must be taught in the school is there because of the complex society in which the child of God finds himself today. Our schools have a calling, however, to be distinctive—but they also have a distinct place in the life of the covenant seed. The school is distinct from the church. Just as the school is not called to give direct training in Christian doctrine so the church does not address itself directly to the task of training children to read and to master the other disciplines necessary for an individual to know in the midst of the world. Basically this is the task that the parent has delegated to the school. In the past a parent might have delegated this task to a master craftsman when he hired out his son as an apprentice, but today the task is the school’s.

In contemporary America the state has assumed this responsibility and has taken from the parent his God-given responsibility. This movement toward mass education was an early attempt to give children an education which conformed with the philosophy of the secular state. The classics would be the medium for such training. These classics were the basic tools in the curriculum. This curriculum had gradually developed since the early days of the Puritan school in which the colony of Massachusetts passed the “Old Deluder Satan Law” of 1647 which stipulated that towns should establish schools so that children might learn to read so that they could read their Bibles. No longer, however, do schools teach children in the secular state principles of reading so that they may be liberalized to know that every man is created equal and that all have equal rights before God. This is even the basic task in the American system’s choice of literature.

Our battle today is much the same as it was in the 17th century. The more conservative intellectual leaders of the colonies developed the religious aspects of life in their literary works. They were in a real sense children of the Protestant Reformation in Europe but they were also proponents of the classical humanism of the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries. In these centuries the study of the classics in the original Greek, Hebrew, and Latin had become important. This was necessary, too, if the Reformer was to be able to battle in the religious controversies of the 16th century. Martin Luther would have been no match for Erasmus had he not been schooled in the classics. Calvin would never have written the scholarly Institutes of the Christian Religion nor would he have been respected had he not been an early student of Latin and Greek. His first treatise was on the Latin Seneca’s De Clementia. This Seneca was a brother of the Gallio spoken of in Acts 18:12. Calvin, who was a student of jurisprudence at one time, was interested in the treatise of Seneca and argued against Seneca.
(to be continued)