“What is a Classic?” T.S. Eliot

Lecture to the Virgil Society in 1944, in its second year.

Starts long-Eliotly, with lots of Latin-based words and the kind of categorising I always imagine is rife in the German philosophers I haven’t read, but when he gets on to Virgil it makes sense. He’s talking about a particular definition of “classic”, based around the idea of a work or author which encapsulates all of the possibilities available at that particular time to a language or a culture. Most authors, even great ones, of necessity omit aspects of their culture or language in order to say something (else) well; by historical chance some authors achieve classic status by being able to omit this omitting. To find a true classic Europeans must look back to Latin and Greek, as their own languages necessarily omit other linguistic branches of European culture; and as Greek is brought to us through Latin, it is to Latin alone we need to turn our eyes, and in Latin what else is there but Virgil?

Virgil is the one because of his classic comprehensiveness, particularly his vast grasp of history, and the way in which his hero Aeneas symbolises this: a hero who doesn’t understand what he’s doing, who isn’t happy or successful, but who does see himself as part of something much bigger, and does what he can within that. Eliot articulates this breadth of vision in ways which echo Lewis on primary and secondary epic (pp19-20):

In Homer, the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans is hardly larger in scope than a feud between one Greek city-state and a coalition of other city-states: behind the story of Aeneas is the consciousness of a more radical distinction, a distinction, which is at the same time a statement or relatedness, between two great cultures, and, finally, of their reconciliation under an all-embracing destiny.

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