Jonathan Sacks is right that we need a common culture, but wrong to think it should be based on a canon. Forcing young people to read the Bible won't foster a sense of belonging. Shared references must evolve more organicallyby Richard Jenkyns / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
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The chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently wrote: “Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse.” This shared inheritance, he argues, is now being destroyed by multiculturalism and technology, satellite television and the internet in particular. But what is a canon? Do we need one? Are we suffering from “canon anxiety”? And if so, why?
The idea of a canon has a religious origin. The early church had to decide which of its texts were sacred scripture and which were not. The decision was a straight yes or no: either a book was in or it was out. There might be debates about particular texts—the Book of Esther and the second Epistle of Peter, for example, were long in doubt—but once the decision was made, it was clear-cut. Books outside the canon might be morally admirable, but only the canon had the necessary salvific power.
This religious notion in due course blended with another drawn from secular culture: the idea of genius. The idea that great poets and musicians are men apart is itself very ancient. At first the thought was that these special people received inspiration from outside themselves, from a god or muse. Later, genius was seen as a quality innate in the artist. Kenneth Clark declared his credo in Civilisation: he believed in God-given genius. Since he appeared not to believe in God, this was not wholly logical, but the belief was emotionally compelling enough to override strict reason. Again, the idea is an absolute one: genius is something very distinct, and a creative artist has either got it or he has not. The same thing seems to be implied by the title of a new survey of classic works from Homer to Goethe, The Great Books (Icon), by the philosopher Anthony O’Hear. One notices the definite article: it is as though the great books form a clearly determinate class.