Thursday, October 9, 2008

Do We Have a Canon?

The other day I was conducting a certain thought experiment: What if there were an old-fashioned boarding school - let's call it St. Boniface College - with lots of ancient buildings and esoteric old traditions. And let us assume that among those traditions are readings at the beginning of meal times, somewhat like in monastic refectories. To what sort of readings would I have the boys (and girls too, if this is a coed place) listen?

Some countries have a national epic or a pretty short list of canonical works that express who they are, where they have come from and what they stand for. But do I, an Anglophonic American Catholic Christian, a child of the Western Tradition, have a short list of works that I could share with a rising generation at the beginning of each meal? Well, I've endeavored to produce such a list.

Certain works have been excluded because their genre does not fit the context of the thought experiment. (Aquinas' On Being and Essence, no matter how important it may - or may not - be, is never going to make good reading for communal meals.)

Sacred Scripture

Homer, The Iliad
--, Odyssey
Virgil, Aeneid
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Polybius, Histories
Livy, From the Founding of the City
Unknown, Beowulf
Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Willibald, Life of St. Boniface
Various, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
William of Tyre, History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Unknown, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Thomas Mallory, Le Morte D'Arthur
Edmund Spender, The Faerie Queene
John Milton, Paradise Lost

William Shakespeare, Tragedies, Comedies and Histories

In the end I decided that Sacred Scripture and the works of Shakespeare were too large and too important to have to share a rotating schedule with anything else, so they each get their own meal. I'm fairly happy with this list, except that there are no American works. Granted, there are a number of works that we can safely say the American Founders read, so I'm not overly concerned about it, but, still, it would be nice to see something from this side of the Pond.

There were several honorable mentions that almost made the list:

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans
Tacitus, Histories or Annals
Nennius, History of the Britons
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain

Any thoughts from the readership? Suggestions? Things that didn't make the cut, that should have? Or things that I let in that should have been excluded?

Post script: A little while ago on another blog I wrote a post about things that changed my life: books, music, other works of art. There is some overlap, though I think you'll find the scope is somewhat different. Still, if you find one list interesting, you may be intrigued by the other.
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