It’s a mistake to associate the Western canon with strictly conservative principles

It’s a mistake to associate the Western canon with strictly conservative principles
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DePaul University philosophy professor Jason D. Hill recently warned about the ominous effects of the erosion of canonical texts and reason in the college classroom. While my colleague covers much ground in this provocative piece, I want to address one of his specific concerns — that universities ought to recommit themselves to the Western canon to combat Marxism, socialism and anything else that obstructs or challenges the conservative principles of individualism, capitalism and the morality of wealth creation.

Hill appears to argue that the canon stands for these values associated with market economies. He concludes the best way to reassert this canonical wisdom, as he understands it, is to tear down universities as they exist and rebuild them according to what the market can support — namely, values supportive of the market economy itself.  


I confess that I share some of Professor Hill’s concerns. I, too, have been teaching the canon in university classrooms for over two decades and increasingly have had to defend this practice to students, faculty, legislators and administrators who have grown dubious about the value of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau and Mill, among others. But I remain committed to teaching them as part of what I take to be a core mission of American universities.  


Where I depart from Professor Hill is his presumption that the wisdom of the canon resides in its embrace of market capitalism. First, one must simply note that Marx himself is universally recognized to be part of the canon that Hill rightly celebrates.

Second, the life of canonical texts far predates the values associated with the free market. The philosophy of commercial economies is generally associated with Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithInfrastructure should include the right investment in people Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill F-35 cockpit upgrade has 4 million cost overrun MORE’s “Wealth of Nations” (1776). The canon extends back at least to Plato in the 4th century BCE. While there undoubtedly was commerce and money in Plato’s time, there was hardly anything that we might comfortably associate with free-market capitalism.

In fact, Plato often condemned the evils he associated with greed, excessive individualism and economic inequality. For this reason he laments, “It is impossible that those who become very rich also become good” (Laws, 742e).  The ultimate solution, necessary to establish enduring civil harmony, he reasons, is to ensure that the richest citizens have no more than four times the wealth of the poorest.

Insofar as one places biblical texts in the canon, one finds powerful rejections of the values associated with “the morality of wealth creation.” Jesus unambiguously stated “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew, 19:23-24).

This warning appears in three of the four Gospels, and is accompanied by myriad other passages confirming this assessment of those who would place mammon above God, such as in Jesus’s telling of the story of Lazarus and the rich man, where the poor Lazarus enjoys heavenly bliss in the hereafter, while the rich man is destined to suffer in a “place of torment” (Luke 16: 28). It is perhaps for this reason that Jesus evokes (Luke, 4:18-19) the ancient Jewish Sabbatical and Jubilee laws that call for the remittance of all debts and redistribution of property (Deuteronomy, 15.1, Leviticus, 25:10).

Far closer to the present, a figure Hill rightly celebrates as core to the Western canon, is the 19th century philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). To be sure, Mill differs from Plato and Jesus in his embrace of free-market capitalism. But even he is wary of its effects, which he is keen to control through policies that would deeply offend many conservatives today.

Mill’s concerns about the injustices associated with commercial economies are remarkably sympathetic to the Marxists and socialists of his day. “[T]he great majority” of participants in modern economies,” he writes in “Chapters on Socialism,” “are so [enslaved] by force of poverty; they are chained to a place, to an occupation, and to conformity with the will of an employer… . That this is an evil equal to almost any of those against which mankind have hitherto struggled, the poor are not wrong in believing.”  

His solution, outlined in his “Principles of Political Economy,” includes imposing an estate tax on the wealthy approaching 99 percent. With such measures, he hopes, “Wealth which could no longer be employed in over-enriching a few, would either be devoted to objects of public usefulness, or if bestowed on individuals, would be distributed among a large number.”  

These are three modest examples of challenges to the suggestion that the Western canon simply affirms what people today might characterize as orthodox conservative economic policy. Indeed, these texts were written not only to challenge the injustices and misguided assumptions of their own times, they stand as a rebuke to readers in any generation tempted to repeat their ancestors’ mistakes.  

This is where the true power of canonical texts resides, and an important reason to defend their continued centrality to a college education, as Hill correctly desires. In the end, the canon today challenges both the political left and the political right. Were the political left to dismiss its wisdom, as Hill charges, it would be casting off a potentially powerful ally in identifying and condemning the problems it often identifies as central to its mission. But much of the political right equally errs in its own approach to the canon in assuming it merely confirms its own prejudices.    

David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University. He is the author and editor of several books, including “Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction” (2014) and “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Fundamental Political Writings” (2018)  He is presently writing a book on economic inequality in the history of political thought.