Defining the humanities

Defining the humanities

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.