Tradition, The Canon and Objective Quality

The notion of objective quality is a difficult one. The ‘test of time’ argument mounted by traditionalists – or, as one might more accurately term them, restorationists – has a certain logic and a substantial armoury to back it up. If you have Shakespeare, Dickens and Yeats on your side, you aren’t exactly fielding a second eleven. But objective quality is another straw man argument. Progressives have never argued that Shakespeare is bunk, as that would be merely an advertisement of something you wouldn’t really want to be advertised. Shakespeare is actually very good, and I am not sure you would find anyone who would venture to disagree with this.

There is a further flaw (or cleverness) in the rhetorical line here because what the test of time argument does is automatically disqualify any text written in the last half century or so from any consideration of objective quality, and so one wonders, as the canon is so obviously secure, what conservative thinkers are so afraid of in modern texts and why they might argue (against evolution) that a cultural canon should be relatively static? It will always be subject to some slow adaptation. You could even argue that all culture seeks inclusion in some form of canon, to somehow refashion it, amend it. This is natural, so here again we have a Canute-like figure arguing with the tide. The question is, why do they do this?

If you are at the top of the social structure and your family has been so for generation, it is entirely possible that you will come to see the traditions and structures that have found you there to be just and correct. Equally, if you are educated away from the other social classes, it is plausible that the specific form of education you receive will, at least covertly, inculcate this message, along with the idea that there is no political element to the way your culture’s traditions operate. To state that culture is disinterested and apolitical is to hide the way in which it serves to stratify us. To say that tradition is morally neutral is a redirection technique to hide the way in which it is used to assert the rights of the dominant. Conservatives have a fairly deep awareness that, when you control the past, the present is yours also.

Fascinatingly, Scruton argues that the maintenance of the canon is part of the cycle of life and death. There are transitional moments in life – birth, adulthood, parenthood, divorce, senescence, death – and these can all be a bit much. How are we ever to cope with what at the time can seem to be unmanageable? How on earth do we face up to our own extinction? It’s just too horrible. We can just about handle other people dying, but us? Having vastly talented writers as our forebears, who have faced the same human issues we face, gives us some form of moral guidance as to how to behave and what to feel; what heroism or its opposite might look like when approaching or experiencing these transitions.[1] Scruton’s argument is that, with the relative and increasing irrelevance of religion in modern life, what he calls “spiritual truths” must be located in culture as it is the chief repository for such truths and for the contemplation of ethical responses to difficult times; for him, it is our chief moral resource.[2] There is much to agree with here.

He also makes the interesting point that, in conserving the canon, the work of the dead, we are also respecting our forebears The elevation of the work of those who have gone before us leads to the concept of sacrilege, and the fact that this notion is part of our consciousness is a conserving force. To honour the work of the dead is to honour the dead themselves; to honour a social order whose downfall, according to Scruton, would invite doubt.[3] The study of legitimate culture is therefore an act of protection for the certainties and security of a society.

The conservative argument is that the canon is everyone’s culture and that this shared cultural possession unites us and contributes to social order. What this fails to properly acknowledge is that people who aren’t of the dominating classes possess other cultures which they too wish to retain and celebrate. Deculturising an individual or a large group of children by giving them access to something that is alien to them and telling them it is better than what they already own is a symbolically violent act.

The maintenance of tradition in the literary canon, while it has much going for it, means that we rarely study texts located in our own time, texts that are specific to the social world we inhabit today, and there is little in the way of current political analysis. One wonders how much the enforcement of the stale, male and pale is about the emotional quality of the texts and how much is about blinding young people to present realities. Yes, An Inspector Calls looks at the inequities of the class system; yes, A Christmas Carol looks at the miserly nature of a wealthy central character and its impact on his employee; and, yes, Macbeth is a picture of a psychopathic king gone rogue. But while children may, in time, make their own correlations, there is no real analysis of who they are now, what is being done to them now and where they are in the class system now – and what they might do if, through an accident of birth, they have found themselves at the bottom.

There is also some slightly repugnant nationalism evident in such a blinkered offer. The modern world rushes at us increasingly quickly, and there is always the temptation from conservative forces to fall back on old tropes – as the late former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright describes them, “the familiar rhythms of nation, culture and faith”.[4]Patriotism and nationalism,[5] both of which, it is worth reminding ourselves, generally occur as a result of feelings of insecurity, and both of which can be very much inclined to run rampant, are and have always been used by ruling class elites to delude the undereducated into believing that it is a perfectly reasonable, indeed a “noble and honourable thing”,[6] for another social class to insist that you march directly into oncoming gunfire and for you to blithely assent.[7] Of interest here is the root of the word patriotism: think patriarchal, think paternal. It is the love of the fatherland; the worship of a particular defined version of country; it is obedience; it is control. The word is intrinsically authoritarian. The watchful eyes of the ‘caring’ father are always upon us.

The flag and the king or queen have always been used as symbols to drum up the protectionist attitudes that would cause a generally apolitical populous to vote for things, such as Brexit or the Conservative Party, which make their lives worse.[8]Nationalism encourages people to yearn for an older, better time when there were no immigrants (although surely there can be few left who remember such a time) and when ‘order’ reigned. Primo Levi has it that this nostalgia for order, for the days of a mythic security, is a key element in any incremental move towards totalitarianism. Its rise is accompanied by the assertion of a national identity, pride in the native culture, fear of the invading alien who cannot assimilate, and by authoritarian postures and demands for more power to deal with all of the above.

To laud, respect and protect a particular tradition is to uphold its rightness; the justness of history. To uphold the tradition of a country is to assent to the social structures which brought that tradition into being. It is worth noting that tradition and the teaching of it in schools isn’t a dialectic in which the human being transmitted to has any say; theirs is to receive what a stratum of their forebears and current masters have decided is good for them. Freire asserts powerfully that this prescription from above is about imposing the will of one individual on another. The person being prescribed to is transformed into the consciousness of the person doing the prescribing.[9]

In this country, the lauding of a specifically English literary tradition serves a different although similar purpose. If we are insufficiently critically aware, this serves to partially civilise our view of our masters. If the class that rules over you hails from the same tradition that birthed the civilising influence of Elgar and Shakespeare – and are even from the very same shires where they once lived – then they too become civilised and civilising influences. So, the delusion of tradition is that it allows the class with their hands in everyone else’s pockets and their boots on everyone else’s throats to perceive themselves as being somehow more culturally evolved than those they squash. 

These “aesthetes in jackboots”[10] will happily send children into versions of slavery while whistling Tchaikovsky and push families into penury while humming Stravinsky. A devotion to the canon and to the implied life of the mind – and, furthermore, to the alleged morality that devotion to such a canon suggests you possess – goes some way to excusing your moral excesses. The idea that devotion to the classics or to legitimate forms of the arts somehow denotes an individual as being morally impeccable has always ignored the fact that Hitler wanted to be a painter when he was a young man and that he was a borderline-adequate watercolourist. 

Once again, I agree that education needs to be evidence led, but what does the evidence of political history tell us?


[1] Roger Scruton, Modern Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), p. 14.

[2] Scruton, Culture Counts, p. 26.

[3] Scruton, Modern Culturep. 10.

[4] Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning (London: William Collins, 2018), p. 58.

[5] The nationalist troll farms set up by warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin to spread the propaganda of Putin’s kleptocracy and to interfere with foreign elections went under the name Patriot Media.

[6] Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est:

[7] “What are we doing here?”: Wilfred Owen, Exposure: If you aren’t familiar with ‘Exposure’, it is one of the finest poetic works of the last 150 years.

[8] Protectionism, as every economist knows, has always, throughout history, made things vastly worse.

[9] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 29.

[10] Scruton, Culture Counts, p. 42.


Added Tue, 14 May 2024 09:57

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