The word "classical" has perhaps seven meanings. It is natural for a word to undergo certain kinds of shifts in meaning, each one an extension of the earlier one, but it is important to state exactly which meaning is operative in a particular discussion.
1) Upper class. Classical seems originally to have meant upper class, as opposed to proletarian, which is low class.
2) Greek and Roman. And what do the upper classes do that the proletarians do not? They go to school and are able to study the foundations of Western culture, the writings of the Greeks and Romans. So Classical means the study of Greek and Roman writings, only the best of course (see def 1). And the "Classical languages" are Greek and Latin. Protestant classicists are more likely to study Greek; Catholics, Latin. Families engaged in classical education often teach the Greek and Roman myths at an early age (see below).
3) The foundation and model of Western culture. Having studied the Greeks and Romans, other ancient authors produced wonderful works. Even aside from these, from a Christian perspective, the Bible (though originally Hebrew) and the Church Fathers are classical, not only because these documents come to us in Greek and Latin, but even more because they are the substantial foundation of Western culture. St. Augustine's Confessions is a classic work. And St. Thomas Aquinas himself, at the height of scholasticism, which means the Schools (see definition one) was a Latin writer whose works are foundational in Catholic theology.
3 a) Foundation and model. For that matter, we may consider that there are other cultures. The great Hindu "classic" is the Baghavad Gita. It was originally Sanskrit, and is the foundation of Hinduism. Sanskrit, like Latin, is a language no longer spoken. It is the classical language of India. Similarly, the writings of Confucius are Chinese classics. Cultures without writing cannot have classical authors, of course.
4) Characterized by clarity, reason, balance, harmony, and symmetry; free of overwhelming emotion. The Greek ideal of beauty has nothing wild in it, though in fact there were highly unbalanced, Dionysian elements in Greek culture. Still, any work of art that has these characteristics of reason and harmony may be called classical. Especially when we speak of music, we never mean Greek music. We mean Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart and whoever fits with their measured ideals. We do not mean Wagner, in whose works intensity of feeling is the overwhelms characteristic.
Note: families with a classical curriculum often teach the Greek and Roman myths. Some of these myths are pretty violent and wild. Are they appropriate to small children? They fit definition 2, but not this definition of classical; yet many other classical works refer to them, so that at some point you need the information as a point of reference. Milo Winter's classic presentation (old, back in print; see definitions #5 and #6 below) is fairly charming and may encourage children to think about meanings and values without too much wildness or despair.
5) Old, having withstood the test of time. Of course the foundations of any culture will be old, compared to the general culture. The Greek and Roman writings are old. And it often happens that what is old becomes lost unless somebody thinks it worthwhile, year after year. So classical comes to mean old, and having withstood the test of time. Still, every generation has its share of fools, and this definition of classical may include things that are arguably not very valuable. It is the weakest definition. By this definition, Wagner's work is a musical classic. The I Ching is a very old Chinese work which many people value. It is, however, Gnostic, compared to Confucius. It refers, not to reason and balance, but to unverifiable interiorities with a flavor of snobbery for those who attend to them. Is it a classic? What is your definition? It is old and lots of people have read it and been influenced by it. It doesn't fit definitions #1 to 4.
6) Model, standard. This use of the word classic will appear in clothing catalogs. Certain styles have been accepted so long and so fully that they are the standard by which others are naturally judged. Classic Coke follows this definition. It is the standard against which all other soft drinks are implicitly compared, even 7-Up, the "uncola". Again, Greek and Roman works are the standard of literature - but so is Shakespeare, who has handily survived his contemporaries' criticism that he was uneducated (in the university approach to Greek and Roman classics.) Classical education sometimes refers to an education that is careful to look beyond fads to what has endured.
7) Excellent, the best, of perennial value. What is the use of limiting one's education to what is old? Surely if one is educated, one should be able to recognize what is the best right now, even if it is new. Would you not be ashamed to think you might have lived in the time of Shakespeare and refused to let your students attend the Globe theater merely because it was contemporary? If we have understood the earlier definitions, we will be alert to the modern classics, recognizing or at least trying to recognize what is excellent and what is of lasting value in our culture right now. I would assert that Tolkein is a classic in this sense. Being an English work, less than 60 years on the open market, he cannot fit any of the above definitions except #5, but he is excellent by all the standards that make it worthwhile to study the Greeks, the Romans, and the Bible, long after the (human) authors of those works have died. His work is rich in wisdom and culture, linguistically beautiful, thoughtful. It will outlive everything else on the open market today.
What should be considered by Catholic homeschoolers? I think we should have an eye on the entire progression, which is a natural linguistic development, and on all the materials which are foundational or excellent -- or both -- within the culture which developed from Greece, Rome, and Israel right up to 21st century Catholicism.
April 26, 2001