Humanistic Tradition Book 2
“It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!” exclaimed Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as she watched the Cheshire Cat slowly disappear, leaving only the outline of a broad smile. “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat ! ” A student who encounters an ancient Greek epic, a Yoruba mask, or a iMozart opera – lacking any context for these works – might be equally baffled. It may be helpful, therefore, to begin by explaining how the artifacts (the “grin”) of the humanistic tradition relate to the larger and more elusive phenomenon (the “cat”) of human culture.
The Humanistic Tradition and the Humanities In its broadest sense, the term humanistic tradition refers to humankind’s cultural legacy – the sum total of the significant ideas and achievements handed down from generation to generation. This tradition is the product of responses to conditions that have confronted all people throughout history. Since the beginnings of life on earth, human beings have tried to ensure their own survival by controlling nature. They have attempted to come to terms with the inevitable realities of disease and death. They have endeavored to establish ways of living collectively and communally. And they have persisted in the desire to understand themselves and their place in the universe. In response to these ever-present and universal challenges – survival, communality, and self-knowledge — human beings have created and transmitted the tools of science and technology, social and cultural institutions, religious and philosophic systems, and various forms of personal expression, the sum total of which we call culture.
Even the most ambitious survey cannot assess all manifestations of the humanistic tradition. This book therefore focuses on the creative legacy referred to collectively as the humanities: literature, philosophy, history (in its literary dimension), architecture, the visual arts (including photography and film), music, and dance.
Selected examples from each of these disciplines constitute our primary sources. Primary sources (that is, works original to the age that produced them) provide first-hand evidence of human inventiveness and ingenuity. The primary sources in this text have been chosen on the basis of their authority, their beauty, and their enduring value. They are. simply stated, the masterpieces of their time and. in some cases, of all time. Because of their universal appeal, they have been imitated and transmitted from generation to generation. Such works are. as well, the landmark examples of a specific time and place: they offer insight into the ideas and values of the society in which they were produced. The Humanistic Tradition surveys these landmark works, but joins “the grin” to “the cat” by examining them within their political, economic, and social contexts.
The Humanistic Tradition explores a living legacy. History confirms that the humanities are not frivolous social ornaments, but rather, integral forms of a given culture’s values, ambitions, and beliefs. Poetry, painting, philosophy, and music are not, generally speaking, products of unstructured leisure or indulgent individuality: rather, they are tangible expressions of the human quest for the good (one might even say the “complete”) life. Throughout history, the arts have served the domains of the sacred, the ceremonial, and the communal. And even in modern times, as these domains have come under assault and as artists have openly challenged timehonored traditions, the reciprocal relationship between artist and community prevails. Unquestionably, the creative minds of every age both reflect and shape their culture. In these pages, then, we find works made by individuals with special sensitivities and unique talents for interpreting the conditions and values of their day. The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, reveal a passionate determination to understand the operations and functions of nature. And while Leonardo’s talent far exceeded that of the average individual of his time, his achievements may be viewed as a mirror of the robust curiosity that characterized his time and place – the Age of the Renaissance in Italy”.
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