Links to Goethe

Most Revered Lord Privy Counsellor,

      A letter of caution and comfort just arrived from Marcus Tullius Cicero, reminds me that comfort itself is that quality by which he measures classical writers.  I think the term "classic" may actually go back to this same indefatigable educator.  When praising Democritus, for example, Cicero asks:

quis hunc philosophum non anteponit Cleanthi, Chrysippo, reliquisque inferioris aetatis? qui mihi cum illo collati quinctae classis videntur. (Academ. ii,23)
Who wouldn't set this philosopher above Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and the rest in an inferior age? Compared with him these are, as far as I am concerned, fifth class.

As you know, Rome recognizes according to wealth five "classes," and calls the fifth among them (who bring the state nothing beyond their own proliferation) proletarii.  The chief contributers to national wealth are held by Romans, as by economists for nearly two millennia thereafter, to be those who have, and spend.  He in the top "class," is referred to as a classicus.

       A classicus in the realm of letters is the writer who spends most comfort and guidance for his own generation and for generations to come.  I grant you that Cicero's need for comfort may arise from his anguish and indecision of the moment.  His sometime friends and protectors, Pompey and Caesar, were spreading uncertainty and danger in a bitter civil war.  Ego vero quem fugiam habeo, quem sequar non habeo,  "I know whom to avoid, but whom shall I follow?"  He resolves to let himself be guided not by his friends, but by philosophical principle (O vitae philosophia dux!)--or, some might say, to be distracted by it.  When agents sent out by the rulers in Rome overtake him, the senator commands his slaves to set his sedan chair down, so that he can politely extend his neck from the window.  Cicero's head was conveyed back to Rome so that Anthony could display it on the rostra.  Anthony's wife placed a pin through that all too eloquent tongue. 

     But back to the Great Books:  What are the Classics, the Canon?  Like Cicero I know only what to avoid.  The Classics remain as those rare works of art that do not beguile us backwards.  We simians, as Clarence Day points out, have accomplished very little which we can call distinctively human. We continually cant and dance along after our tribe, we anxiously shut out ideas and whatever else is not chanted by the others.  How rarely does chimpanzee or man take pause, and stand aside from all the grunting in cadence?  There is Socrates of course--or I should say Plato, who tells us about such a man, no doubt inventing as he reports.  There is Jesus--or it seems there might have been such a one as Paul tells about.  But there are surely others, probably several others, who stand aside, and who do take thought.  These become our Classics, even when they do not themselves write books.

     And you, Lord Privy Counsellor, are perhaps the most recent of our classics, or so imagines your devoted Servant,

                                                 J. W. Worthy

Please return to:

Professor Worthy's Page

or view the correspondence with Goethe,                                           Home