Defining the humanities is no longer as simple as it once was. At one time, the word “humanities,” which grew out of the term “ humanism,” simply meant the study of what the best minds of classical Greece and Rome—the great artists, writers, and
philosophers—had accomplished. During the Renaissance, the huge artistic and political revolution that swept over Western Europe beginning in the fourteenth century, interest revived in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome—cultures that had been left largely unexamined during the thousand-year span following the fall of Rome. The intelligentsia of the Renaissance believed that only through a study of classical art, literature, and philosophy could a person become fully human.
These disciplines became known as the humanities. In time, the term grew beyond the study of Greek and Roman cultures to include those of major Western European countries: first Italy, then France and Spain, then Britain and, finally, Germany. As cultures multiplied, so did the disciplines people needed to study in pursuit of humanness. Music, theater, and dance began to flourish during the Renaissance, and scholars discovered that these disciplines were also part of the ancient world’s legacy.
More recently, this ethnocentric view of the humanities—the study of Western cultures—has expanded again to acknowledge the vast contributions of cultures beyond Europe. The art, music, theater, and literature of China, Japan, and other Asian nations, as well as those of Africa and the Americas, have become important additions to the study of the humanities.
In this book, we define the term humanities as broadly as possible. Yes, we still need to pay attention to extraordinary artistic and intellectual achievements that have been singled out for special praise and that now represent what is sometimes called the “humanistic tradition.” All of us belong to the human race and should want to know as much as possible about the distinguished contributions of those who have gone before. We may also find in our study of the humanities our response to the traditional mandate: Know thyself. By exploring the contributions of others, we begin to see how we ourselves might
contribute—not, perhaps, as great artists or writers or musicians, but as more thoughtful and critical human beings.
We do need to recognize that the “humanistic tradition” was for many centuries limited more or less to the contributions made by men of the classical and then the Western European worlds. Plato and Michelangelo and Shakespeare continue to deserve our admiration and reward our study. But our study should and does include those persons, both male and female, past and present, from around the globe, who may be little known or not known at all, who nevertheless left behind or who now offer a myriad of wonderful songs, poems, and provocative thoughts waiting to be appreciated.
The humanities are also the creative and intellectual expressions of each of us in moments of inspiration, whether they happen in the shower or just walking down the street on a balmy day when our spirits are lifted by the sheer joy of being alive. In these times of global fears and a future of uncertainty, in these times of dizzying technological advances that can be both marvelous and bewildering, when it can be hard to pinpoint our identity in time and space, the humanities offer a safe haven, a quiet harbor where we can moor our vessels and, at least for a time, confirm who we are.
Each of us is more than a gender, an age, an address, an occupation. Each of us embodies thoughts, expressed or not, the capacity to be moved, the need to laugh or cry, longings for things just beyond our reach. The humanities give us stories to inspire our imagination, ideas to stimulate our intellect, musical sounds to excite our passions, and the knowledge that we can respond to the creativity and thoughts of others. Studying the humanities allows us to look inward to see what we think and what creative impulses lie dormant and cry out to be released. A greater knowledge of the humanities helps us confront our true identity. A major aim of this book is to show how a study of the humanities can be the starting point for the journey into self-knowledge.
Economics tells us that the wants of people are insatiable, but resources are limited. Because almost everything is scarcer than we would like, treasured possessions, as well as basics such as food and shelter, come with a price tag. Even water is becoming scarce; it may not be long before we have to pay premium prices just to slake our thirst, let alone water our lawns. Do we have enough money to buy everything we want? The answer is usually NO!
With the humanities the problem is reversed. The resources of the humanities are unlimited, but all too often our wants are meager. In the economic world, we can’t always be rich by choice, but in the world of the humanities, we can be “poor” by choice.
Several decades ago, during a severe recession, banks attracted savings deposits by offering gifts to those who would forego spending and open CD accounts instead. People walked out with new toasters, blenders, steam irons, and luggage; and, of course, bank reserves swelled. Such incentives are cyclical in nature, but the humanities always have gifts that are there for us regardless of what the economy is doing. Here are some of them.
By sharpening our awareness of the present—the issues, the important themes and varied ways of presenting them—and by linking us to the past, the humanities provide a wider view of life. As this book unfolds, you will be learning much more about the humanities and what the various disciplines are and how they can deeply affect your life. Your view of the humanities and the world will continue to expand, and you will be on your way to becoming an infinite person.
Let us consider the very model of humanism, the very essence of the infinite person, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). So broad was the range of his curiosity and creative genius that history has accorded him that rarest of titles: uomo universale, universal man. He is also called a Renaissance man, meaning a man of the broadest possible learning and a widely diverse range of interests and achievements. Since Leonardo’s time, that label has been given to many people, both the famous and the not-so-famous, who refused to be limited to just one field of endeavor, though it is doubtful that many will ever match what Leonardo accomplished: planning early versions of the airplane and the submarine; speculating about the human circulatory system long before William Harvey “officially” discovered the circulation of the blood; building the first hydrometer to measure the displacement of water; inventing the science of meteorology long before the proper instruments to make accurate predictions were available. His Vitruvian Man, a drawing based on the work of the architect Vitruvius, suggests a perfect blend of art and science: an attempt to portray a realistic figure representing ideal proportions (Figure 1.5). And on top of all the scientific and technological contributions, there are his works of art, including the Mona Lisa (Figure 1.1).
Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490
Why do you think this drawing has remained famous for over 500 years?
Credit: © Cameraphoto Arte
The example of Leonardo da Vinci suggests that, while few may hope to approach his genius, all of us can do more with our lives than we are doing at this very moment. There are so many books to read, so much music to hear, so many plays to see, so many great films to view. We may not become Renaissance persons, but infinite choices await us. The more we absorb from the humanities, the more we expand our knowledge, our capacity for understanding both ourselves and others. In a sense we become infinite, intertwining with innumerable lives in myriad combinations.
Here are just three advantages of becoming an infinite person.
First, the infinite person commits no crimes against humanity. He or she is no longer narrowly preoccupied with self and its immediate needs, its sense of having been unfairly used, its desire to avenge wrongs against itself.
Second, the infinite person is free of rigid prejudices and never works consciously to restrict others from exercising their right to assemble, speak their minds openly, practice their own religion, and follow their own preferences, as long as, in being free, they do not themselves limit the freedom of others.
Third, the infinite person does not jump to quick conclusions but looks at all sides of an issue before making a judgment, recognizes that no judgment is final, and is always willing to reconsider in the light of new data. This person is therefore not constrained by family and social traditions and willingly seeks out the source of imposed or inherited beliefs so as to reevaluate them. “That’s how we’ve always done it around here” is not the mark of the infinite person.
The book you are about to read is thus not only a visit to the treasure house of the humanities, the stupendous creative and intellectual achievements of human beings. It has the underlying purpose of convincing you that you cannot fail to want to expand your life, to fill every moment with art and thought, once you realize that all it takes is the willingness to do it.