On the Classics
Owing to unpredictable changes in the original meanings of words down through time, few disciplines are of greater interest than etymology. Given such changes, which in many cases touch on the paradoxical, the root of a word will prove of little or no use in understanding an idea. Knowing, for example, that “calculus,” in Latin, means a small stone, and that followers of Pythagoras used such stones before numbers were invented, may not help us unravel the mysteries of algebra; knowing that “hypocrite” meant actor, and “person” a mask, is hardly a sufficient instrument for the study of psychology or ethics. Similarly, to pin down what we mean today by the word “classic,” it is of little value to know that the word comes to us from the Latin “classis,” a fleet, which was in time to take on the meaning “order.” (Let us remind ourselves, by the way, of the analogous meaning of “shipshape.”)
What, then, do we mean by a classic? I have within reach the definitions of Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Sainte-Beuve—all of them doubtless sensible and illuminating—and although it would be nice to find myself in agreement with such respected writers, I shall not consult them. I am seventy years old; at my age, whether I am in agreement or disagreement with anyone else is of less importance to me than what I believe to be true. I shall therefore limit myself to setting down my own thoughts on this subject.
My first stimulus was Herbert Allen Giles’s History of Chinese Literature (1901). In its second chapter I read that one of the five basic Confucian texts was the I Ching, or Book of Changes, made up of sixty-four hexagrams which exhaust all possible arrangements of six broken or whole lines. One of the diagrams, to give an example, consists of two whole lines, of one broken line, and of three whole lines laid out one above the other. A prehistoric emperor is supposed to have discovered them on the shell of one of the sacred tortoises. Leibniz thought he saw in the hexagrams a binary system of numbers; others, a secret philosophy; others, like Richard Wilhelm, a scheme for looking into the future, since the sixty-four figures correspond to the sixty-four phases of any given enterprise or process; others again, the vocabulary of a certain tribe; still others, a calendar. I remember my friend Xul-Solar, the painter and mystic, laying out the diagrams with toothpicks or matchsticks. To outsiders, the Book of changes runs the risk of seeming a mere piece of chinoiserie, but generations of scholars have read and studied it with reverence for thousands of years, and generations will go on reading and studying it. Confucius told his disciples that if fate were to grant him another hundred years of life, he would devote fifty of them to studying the Book of Changes and its commentaries, or wings.
I have purposely chosen an extreme example, the kind of reading…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.