On another blog, there was a conversation that broke out on the meaning of the word “classic”. I gave my initial response, but decided eventually to look in the dictionary. The editors of dictionaries put a lot of work into them, so it’s only fair that we make use of them. I started, however, with my Latin dictionary, where “classicus” meant “belonging to the first class, of the highest class”, usually in reference to some segment of the Roman people. If this is where the English word “classic” originates, then it gives us some idea of what it will mean. Moving on to the Oxford Dictionary, I think every definition stated on that blog post is contained here in one way or another.
“Classic” as an adjective has two definitions. First, “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind”. This definition combines the time criterion that showed up in many comments with the criterion of being the best of its kind, again where the fact it has lasted a long time seems more an indication of the worth, which is the more important factor. The second definition of the adjective is similar but distinct, “very typical of its kind”. Typical in the sense of “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing” (Oxford). In this sense, the Iliad and the Odyssey are classic epics, Moby Dick is a classic American novel, and Hamlet is a classic tragedy. This definition accounts for why certain books are called classics of a genre or region, but are not unqualified literary classics.
“Classic” as a noun has two relevant definitions. The first is related to the adjective just described, “a work of art of recognized and established value”. The second is limited but related, “a subject at school or university which involves the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and history”. I think there’s a way in which the Greek and Latin cultures laid the groundwork for Western notions of excellence in art, so there’s a reason why the name “classic” is attributed to them in a special sense.
The third sense of the noun does not apply to this conversation, but is worth reporting for the sake of completion: “a major sports tournament or competition, especially in golf or tennis”. This name probably comes from the event being regular and traditional in its own fashion.
As for the word “classical“, this adjective primarily means “relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture”, and secondarily “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style”, such as classical music and classical dance.
Now while all the respondents on the original post recognized some aspect of one of the definitions above, there were also questions about how to determine if a work is a classic. One response said, “the question is unanswerable, unless we are willing to elect some governing body the supreme keeper of literature”, indicating the difficulty of knowing who can determine the excellence of a work. Another response placed this responsibility in the reader: “I’d say we as humans determine individually what is classic to US. That’s sort of what we’re doing here in the club, I think — hunting down our own classics.”
This reader is, nevertheless, guided by others. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s Topics, where he talks about how to attain knowledge by dialectical reasoning (rather than certain demonstrative reasoning), and he says you must start with opinions held “by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them” (Topics, I.1). For this reason, we who read classics often look at lists of books put together by either a wide survey of readers, or by a group of notable intellectuals, or perhaps by one individual in particular who we believe to be particularly insightful.
As I was considering the role of the reader in determining which works to consider classics, I was reminded of a few quotes from W.H. Auden (that I once read on another literary blog) on the intersection of judgment and taste. These reflections indicate how a work could be a classic without necessarily being a book one enjoys.
“My taste tells me what, in fact, I enjoy reading; my judgement tells me what I must admire. There are always a number of poems that one must admire but that, by reasons of one’s temperament, one cannot enjoy. The converse is not necessarily true. I don’t think I like any poem that I do not also admire, but I have to remind myself that in some other fields–tear-jerking movies, for example–I revel in what my judgment tells me is trash.” (W.H. Auden, 19th Century British Minor Poets)
“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.” (W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book)