The term Western canon is most often used to refer to a body of literature which is considered to have had the greatest influence on Western culture. It encompasses poetry, fiction and drama, philosophy, essays and autobiographical works. In a broader sense, the canon refers to the greatest works of art and music and represents the belief that the works included in it have shaped and defined Western civilization. The teaching of the canon is a cornerstone of Western universities and the handing down of knowledge and cultural heritage. Works in the canon are those without which scholarship would have no context.
The word canon has ecclesiastical origins and was first used to denote sacred writings. It also means a standard to which all other works are held. The Western canon implies the existence of people qualified to make determinations about what belongs in the canon and why. This has traditionally been the function of universities and their scholars. Academia is a setting in which scholars can devote their time to the study of artistic works and their meanings, and it allows for the canon to be explained and transmitted to succeeding generations.
What the Western canon consists of, at least regarding the older works of Western culture, does not seem to pose any difficulty. There is no serious question as to whether the works of Plato, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dante are a part of it. Why some works are included can have a variety of explanations. One is simply the beauty of the work and its aesthetic value, its effort at perfection of expression. Other works may have such originality that they are a quantum leap in the use of language or a way of perceiving the world.
Examples of these leaps can be found in different writers from different eras. These artists seem to know exactly what they are trying to accomplish in their work and its contribution to their culture. Shakespeare is credited with having for all time changed the nature of expressing dialogue and internal thinking. James Joyce in a sense changed the way people think about the way people think. His reported comment to his brother that his work would “keep the scholars busy for the next 200 years” was accurate.
Another way in which a work may become part of the Western canon has to do with the relationship of the artist to society. Many great writers are considered to be seekers after truth, sometimes to the exclusion of all other values. The writer is not speaking to the reader as a social being, but as a person alone with himself. It is the expression of this truth seeking that may cause the wider culture to reexamine its own values and rethink the nature and purpose of human existence.