Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

An Introductory Lecture in The Humanities


My purpose in addressing you this morning is to explain with as much seriousness as I can what the course of study called the “Humanities” is, and, more exactly, what it is about. At the outset I wish to caution you not to presume that anybody—least of all the university, which administers the course—knows what the Humanities is, or what it is about. For the Humanities exists, first of all, as a collection of writings, many of them in verse, which were written, or seem to have been written, sometimes by men and sometimes by gods, at various particular moments in the world’s history, and which belong to the general culture of which the university is the curator and for which it would care even if it did not know why.

In the second place I wish to caution you that I do not intend to tell you what the use of the Humanities is. The use or specific effective intention in view of which the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy were written has long since become meaningless. The Greeks are dead, the Romans are dead, Catholic Italy of the time of Dante is dead. The strange and infrequent writings of the past which delight and persuade us, and which we therefore call great, may have power, like divinity and like science, to save and destroy; but the use to which they are put is entirely dependent on your relation to them, and it is the clarification of that relation to which I must now address myself. I may add, however, that the notion of use suggests that the thing used is an instrument and not an end. The great literary texts regard themselves as ends, and you, the readers, as instruments. To know them properly is to be used by them for ends not yet conceived by you.


Now let me proceed to distinguish the Humanities from some of the other things which we know about, or seem to know about. The term “Humanities” appears at this moment in the world’s history to indicate certain ways of knowing or objects of knowledge which are distinct from those indicated by the term “science”. This distinction, implying a contrast between an impotent culture of value and an efficient culture of force, has to do mostly with how men conceive things to be now and requires some refinement.

Fortunately, the Humanities, as we study them this year, know nothing of things as they are now. The term humanitas may have been coined by Cicero; and we can assume for convenience that the term meant knowledge in the form of ways of behaving as if men were not Gods, and were not aggregates of natural forces, but rather something else called Man, which could be conceived in isolation from alien contexts, and known. As the uniqueness of man consisted in his rationality, and as words were the vehicle of rational discourse, so literary culture or the Humanities (the culture of the artistic form of words) was the field in which man expressed himself and learned to behave in terms of his generic uniqueness as Man. In this sense the notion of humanitas descended to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

At that time, however, the notion of humanitas—and this is very important to us— was not opposed to science so much as to divinity. Today the Humanities still distinguish themselves from that which is wholly other than man, but now the wholly other is not God, who has attained creaturehood and whose study has been assimilated to the humane disciplines, but rather nature, which has lost its creaturehood and become, as God once was, the wholly other.


The Humanities, then, seems historically to be a way for men to avoid extinction, either in the undifferentiated sublimities of godhead or the undifferentiated darkness of force, by meditation on the written word which was and is a quality peculiar to man and different from his environment — whether of Gods or things.

If the Humanities, as a discipline or as a way of knowing or as a subject for study, is a means of becoming human and significantly alive, it must nevertheless be acknowledged and insisted upon that the specific writings which make up the body of the humanities are not themselves, in any sense comprehensible to me, living, and are by no means exclusively or even primarily about human beings. The texts which make up the humane discipline know nothing of the Humanities. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Oresteia, the Aeneid, the Gospels, the Pentateuch, the Divine Comedy are about men and gods environed by a world of force. They exhibit man stricken by the lightning of divinity within the dark right and storm of force without alternative.

Though the concept of the Humanities is expressed by a plural locution (“Humanities”, as if there were many of them whatever they are), the texts are closed and finished worlds in which there is but one crisis and one defeat and one death. In order to become humane and alive in the sense of the Humanities we must pass by way of a dead language, or worse, a dead translation, into a dead world peopled by gods as well as men and all the blind chimaeras of force, a world which insists on its own singularity, which is finished, closed, in which nothing will happen again.

It is very important for you to realize that the Humanities are an inhuman way of becoming human. They require your life before they give you their life. They do not know that they are many and that you must understand them all, but rather each text insists from moment to moment that it is a closed and finished system. They do not exhibit men as accompanied by books as you and I are, but rather as accompanied by gods.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Iliad does not believe in you, the Aeneid does not regard you as real, the Divine Comedy does not understand you — and yet each demands of you that you believe in it, understand it, and regard it as real.


Now let me recapitulate for a moment. I have defined the Ciceronian or pseudo-Ciceronian term humanitas under the auspices of which this course is presented as a way of knowing by meditation on the written word, which allows man to embrace his own reality as man and to exclude alien definitions of himself.

This is a formal, rather than a substantial way of knowing. It implies consciousness without commitment, leading to a way of life and a culture of manners different from any which actually makes up the subject of the texts which we study in this course. It is this Ciceronian sensibility which has dominated classical studies in the last hundred years. On the other hand, I have pointed out that each of the texts which we study is prophetic of its own reality, that the hero of epic and tragedy is committed to his own singularity and the desperate circumscription of his own environment and mortality — that each of the worlds which we traverse in this course is dead and closed, insisting on its own reality and knowing no other.

There are then these two possibilities for our Humanitas. One is the culture of consciousness; the other the culture of prophecy. They must both be present to us, but the latter is more fully our proper-legacy than the former for several reasons.

The Ciceronian humanitas, the Stoic culture of consciousness, depends on an intact universe of language and linguistic formality which we do not possess. It requires the direct sensual art-feeling for language, and is by and large a generalization therefrom. Never forget that you cannot get this from a translation.

The fact that we read all literature in translation in this course is of overwhelming importance, but curiously difficult to assess. The study of language, the ancient word-vehicles of our books, has the effect of an initiation in the old ritual sense. It prepares, like an initiation, for the change of world which comes with immersion in the new reality of the text; it stabilizes the meaning of words and helps to give them their true historical otherness, assuring us that what we see is not entirely our own breath on the window pane; above all, it interposes a discipline between the mind of the present and the imagination of the past which modifies the encounter with the past. Something of our sense of the orderliness and moral success of the ancient Greek world is derived, I am inclined to think, from the orderliness of mind necessary to come by knowledge of that world in the presence of the philological mystery — the old words. That is how, in part, humane studies came to be a culture of manners — for instance, in British and American Universities in the nineteenth century. We are uninitiated in this sense, and our relation to the text is unmediated.


I have called the new relation to the text which arises in the presence of the modern predicament prophetic; I might better have called it evangelical. The new evangelical humanism (like evangelical religion, not much admired in the university) attempts to leap the abyss of the temporal dimension, or like artificial lightning, to jump the gap as between two electrical poles past and present. The first thing which is lost, the most momentous thing which we cannot teach you, is the autonomous reality of words — which might be said to be the whole substance of literary study. Let me insist, and then be done with the point, that many of you will not even know the shapes of the letters, let alone the sound and rhythmical order of the words, which form the whole existential being of the books which you are asked to admire. Books have the individuality of persons in the sense that one cannot represent the other — especially not in relations of profound intimacy.

Our translations, our ambassadorial versions, are more accurate in the scientific sense than any similar versions in past times; but they are not the thing in itself and never can be. The student (he is, of course, simultaneously many other things) seeks the thing in itself. Each age in history which develops a style sees the classics from the point of view of that style — for a style is, of course, not only a way of writing, but also a highly selective way of thinking. The style of the present is multiple and incoherent — it lacks totality and is not a satisfactory way of viewing any thing in terms of value. It is, to put it in a word, the style of reality, or more candidly, the style of realities—and at that, in so far as it is applied to imaginative subjects, primarily of emotional reality. It presents you with the closed self- insistent prophetic singularity of the texts (the Iliad, the Divine Comedy) as if each were real and important, and then it abandons you, as a style of mind, to struggle with the fact.

What could be less intelligible than the fact? In short, the present does not know what use to make of the classics and therefore attempts, much more consciously than former times (my own language this morning is evidence of it), to see them in themselves. Conversely the classics seem much less than in former times to be about the present, perhaps because so much more is exacted of them in terms of subject matter, and so much more actuality attributed to them. The absence of the autonomous reality of language interposed between our mind and the mind of the Iliad abandons us in the works of the past, as in so many alternative real worlds, and we tend, quite rightly, either to reject them, or to get lost there. Because we have in my experience abandoned, and are not in this course equipped to recover, the elementary delight and distance of the order of speech, each of the ancient texts tends, again quite rightly in my view, to become a prophecy about the world, and less frequently about the mind, in terms of moral action which is true without alternative, but which says nothing in itself about the sense in which it is true. Everybody knows that Horace in his Ars Poetica said that art delights and instructs. The absence of the factor of language deprives us of much of the delight of the literary art-experience, and we are left with great images that must be conceived of as heard and yet soundless, that offer us bizarre alien experiences which must none the less lead to instruction.


It is one of the inescapable characteristics of the literary culture of the university that it is oriented to the adornment of inwardness and has no means within the definition of the university of rising above the threshold of action which for ancients and moderns alike is the beginning of the experience of art.

In the university we are caught within the context of the nineteenth century Ciceronian humanitas even though the object of our meditation has what I have defined as a prophetic rather than a literary character. The result of this translation from action to thought and from passion to emotion is an irony. You and I, men of this world of the present, become commoners dreaming about kings (for only kings are allowed to have morally significant feelings in the ancient world of tragedy); we are paralyzed men dreaming about combat; we are godless men dreaming about a community of the god-accompanied; we are speechless men dreaming about divine transforming utterance.

It often seems to me that the ability to profit from the study of the Humanities is the ability to sustain and exploit this irony. There is an old saying that the king is no longer a king in the eyes of his valet — to which Hegel commented in his Philosophy of History that this is not because the king has ceased to be a king in his bedroom, but because the valet is always and irreducibly a valet. We live in a valet culture. The general tendency (to which both you and I submit from habit) of applying psychoanalytic and reductive terms to a world of kings who have no character in the Freudian sense is the habit of mind of the valet — the man who has no life and conceives of no life but that of the bed chamber. In order to sustain and profit from the unending meditation on images of alien life which the books of this course will throw up to you, it will be necessary for you to summon all the certitude about your own identity that you possess, in order that you may suffer the onslaught of the alien without abandoning your clarity about yourself (which would be a kind of cultural psychosis) or about the texts before you (which is cultural blindness).

It does seem that all literature at this time, whatever its origin, is now concerned, or can only be understood to be concerned with the inward life. What is crucial is that the inwardness submit to invasion by alien worlds of physical and moral action which it does not understand and cannot assimilate. It is better to entertain images which you do not understand, as a host, than to understand prematurely and in a familiar sense what is really too strange to be intelligible.

I will add at this point one other warning about the valet culture in which we live. There is a tendency to regard the Humanities as a kind of cultural history — a way of looking into the mind of the past in terms of its images of man and the world in order to be informed. This is another aspect of the characteristic modern thought-style of reality. I have no final objection to this theory of the humanities except to point out that there is always a moral component in the study of ancient literary texts which surpasses the nature of the reality available to curiosity. Further, one does not respond with joy and exultation to information. The Iliad, etc. are not about the world in general, they are about their worlds in particular, and must be studied as such. They are, at least at first, not so much an explanation of the present as an accusation of it.


I have attempted to make it clear that the blessing and the terror of the art of the past is its strangeness — the sense in which it is unlike. This is the great justification of classical studies of Hegel and Matthew Arnold. Such studies are in one sense the antithesis of the present, by which the present is transformed. They come like grace from beyond the mind to release us from the more-than-Babylonian captivity of the present. The mind of Achilles was guided by Athena, the mind of Aeneas by Aphrodite, the mind of Dante by Beatrice, your mind and mine not by gods, but by the gods’ secular ambassador, the book — and, as we read in Homer, the mind of the God is always stronger than the mind of man.

We do not, however, study the book only; but also, in a way extremely difficult to locate, the book and the factor of time attendant upon it. The idea of time is one way of speaking of the distance between ourselves and the books. In the absence of the discipline of the ancient language we must put great emphasis on the discipline of time. We speak, quite properly, of our awareness of time in relation to culture as “the sense of history” — as if it were one of our senses like taste or touch or hearing. For example, you have no idea how old the Iliad is. It is older than the recent great wars which have so troubled our sense of identity; it is older than Marx and Darwin and all modern sense of order and disorder in the world; it is older than the romantic movement and the Industrial Revolution; older than America and the Renaissance; older than the Middle Ages and the very concept of the distinction between body and soul; it is older than Greece itself as we understand it; older perhaps than the art of writing. The sense of history is one of the senses with which you must feel your way into this course.

That sense perceives the dimensionality of time, beginning with your association of your own name with this moment in the history of the post-Christian era, late September, nineteen hundred and sixty-two years since the birth of Jesus, in the midst of a great conflict between east and west, which recalls, perhaps, that other conflict between east and west symbolized by the rape of Helen and the wars before Troy. The historical time-sense is one of the ways of controlling the chancy and invaluable otherness of the old worlds, and the problem of time is inherent in our relation to the Humanities. On the other hand, inherent in the nature of the literary fact itself is another of the gross elements which differentiates the experience of these books from the experience of our own minds, and that element is structure or significant order.

Structure in the most general sense is any system by which a work of art may be organized. The structure discernable in great works of art has very general cultural application. Aeschylus, the first of the Greek tragedians, who survives to us, thought about the past of the characters in his plays in terms of what were to him ancient and semi-divine events, seeming to be mythology to us, and seeming to be history of biography to Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, the people of his tragedies. Mythology is a kind of structure — a system of dynamic and mostly passionate relationships and events by which unknown areas of history and the mind are given order and, in presentational terms, explained.

Mythology provided Aeschylus with a structure by which to explain the origin of the present. Mythology was for Aeschylus a primary phenomenon, which he confronted far more directly than we do the history, for instance, of the time of Shakespeare. For us, mythology is a secondary phenomenon which we know about, but which is not an inescapable part of our own past. What the Trojan wars were to Aeschylus, the book of the Iliad is to us. Literature serves us in a diminished sense as mythology did the ancients, and the structure of literature contributes a large part of the discernible order of our lives and our culture.

The books which we study in this course form a mythology of the origin of the present state of things. Just as you must develop a sense of history, so also you must develop a sensitivity to structure. The sensitivity to structural meaning is quite alien to the American of the present. In the time of Dante, as you will discover, the whole world has the nature and order of mind — God’s mind.

In Russia, the whole world has or had the nature and order of mind — Lenin’s mind. But in the secular west, there is a tendency to dissociate mind and world, except in the very local structures of science. The Humanities, as I pointed out earlier, tends to restore the factor of mind to history and nature, through the great examples of meaningful worlds offered in the old books.

Phantasy is, after all, more humane than fact, and, as Aristotle commented, more philosophical than history.


I have spoken of the sense of the other, or the strangeness of the past. l have spoken of the time-sense necessary for the approach to it; I have spoken, also, of the sense of meaningful structure. From this point of view of the Humanities, you see, you must have, not five senses like men or six senses like women, but ten or eleven senses like Gods.

Following from the awareness of structure in the literary text, and, indeed, part of the sensibility to order, is the experience of delight which is, in my feeling, the most compendious way of speaking about the humanities from the subjective point of view. Delight, as we have seen from Horace, is at least one half of the art experience. As we have also seen, delight in the order of language (which is how you tell that you are in the presence of a poem rather than any other linguistic structure) is denied by us. But you must not forget that each of the works which you will study has been called, and is, beautiful. If the sense of delight escapes, you will find it meaningless to attempt to learn from the literary phenomenon, because nothing that you learn will be relevant to it.

On account of the absence of the language experience some of our normal capacity for delight cannot be exercised in this course; but let me speak of one avenue of joy which even our curious brand of prophetic humanism allows, and that is the joy of endless meditation. Meditation, in the old sense, includes the freedom which comes from the submission of the mind to a progressive structure of symbols other than its own. It is the defining characteristic of the great literary texts that they afford a series of meditations which has not yet proven finite.

That is not to say—as some of you, I think, are too ready to conclude— that the great literary text means more than one thing, but rather to say that it means what it means in an apparently infinite number of ways. The liberation which comes from addressing the mind to a meaningful universe is delight; and this delight is available only if one has no preconceived designs upon that universe.

As readers, you must listen to the ancient texts (for they will not listen to you), and out of your alert attentiveness will grow a sense of inner order and unanticipated abundance. The meditative posture is unfamiliar in modern times. It leads to that peace which comes to the mind from submission to other meanings than its own.

The mind, for example, does not feel its own experience as completed; but the work of art is finished, and will never again change. The work of art is, by definition, a consummated whole, and until you have participated in it as a consummated whole, you will lack one of the joys not otherwise possible to you until death. There is a profound, and perhaps fearful, impersonality about the experience of delight which I am now commending to you.


I have already pointed out that the Humanities is a means of coming to life by way of the dead. Following from this, I would commend to your already expanded repertory of senses still another sense, appropriate and perhaps necessary to the study of ancient books, and that is the sense of the immortal.

To begin with, ancient literature comes to us over the signature, as it were, of the scribal god. Mortal man is traditionally not capable of immortal speech. Poetry which is immortal speech is never quite the product merely of men. The ancient attribution of divinity to artistic language is one of the signs of the sense of immortality as it attaches to the artistic form of words in ancient culture. Until the time of the Renaissance, exemplified in this course by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, man is not conceived of except as god-accompanied. The controlling metaphor in western culture is that annunciated in the first chapter of Genesis, namely, that man is made in the image of god and is therefore god-like. In order to understand the ancient texts, you must come to terms, first of all, with the concept of divinity inherent in the ancient definition of poetry itself, and secondly, with the fact that man never exists or is understood in the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, in Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides or Dante as existing in himself without his attendant divine or impersonal aspect.

Indeed, in terms of the works which we study in this course, the human and the divine are not separable modes of being. The gods (Aphrodite, the goddess of love included) are almost never kind; and literature, in its divine aspect, is intolerant of mere life. It has, after all, outlived many generations of men more vigorous than you or I. Both divinity and poetry are free from death, are more passionate than men, are closer to the causes of things. In order to draw near to this freedom, this passion and this centrality, you must begin to think about the gods — you must begin to cultivate the sense of the immortal. The gods, like the Freudian unconscious, which is by definition as alien from the ego as divinity or the external world, are difficult and dangerous to approach; they are, again like the unconscious of the Freudian mythology, creatures more of power than of knowledge.

Poetry is like them. The divinity, both of poetry and of man, is a part of the ancient world which you must take with the utmost seriousness, if you are to understand either.


The last sense which I wish to commend to you is the sense of wisdom. Wisdom is a word that everybody admires. Nobody would say anything against it. There is, however, more than one kind of wisdom, and the one to which I wish to point — I doubt there is any other way of indicating it — is the one likely to be least familiar to you — one about which you may never hear again.

The kinds of wisdom correspond roughly to the ways of knowing. There is knowing about, which is scientific knowing and leads to the kind of wisdom of which the normal description is prudence. It is a way of knowing to which you must give great attention in your conduct of this course, for it is essential that the texts become for you objects of scientific scrutiny. Until they are known to you in this way, there is no possibility of knowing anything else about them, or of knowing them in any other way. The special genius for the humanities consists in the capacity to discriminate among experiences. The power of the symbol lies in its specificity — in the minute particulars of it — and its specificity is recoverable by you only in an act of knowing in the scientific meaning of the word.

But there is another way of knowing which is not “knowing about” and which is at war traditionally with prudential knowledge. Prudential knowledge is the wisdom which knows how to avoid suffering, it is the wisdom of life and of a finite world — it is the wisdom which leads to knowledge. But there is another wisdom, inherent in the infinite meditation of the artistic word, which is less akin to knowledge than to force. You will come to it after you have mastered the literary fact as an object in terms of scientific scrutiny and have begun to know it in another sense.

Characteristics of this wisdom are inherent in the Strangeness, the order, the joy and the dangerous immortality which I have already described. I have suggested that the great books are self-insistent and have as their subject themselves; but beyond that, I would suggest that they are not about the world in general (though they, in common with many other kinds of discourse in culture, are in some sense about the world in general) but rather stand as instances and models of a perfected identity which human life does not include, but only (as the word is) imagines. The great books are not real, and for that reason they are more perfect. This is the wisdom, as you will discover, of the early career of Achilles, the wisdom espoused by Oedipus when he married his mother, the wisdom, not of the Odyssey of Homer in the traditional interpretation, but of the second voyage of Odysseus as you will find it described in Dante.

I insist upon this deathly and perfected kind of wisdom for the reason that it is unfamiliar to you and perhaps even abhorrent. It is this inhuman quest and inhuman perfection which is, paradoxically, the sustaining core of the human fact of the Humanities.


Now I wish to turn to a subject resembling the prudential wisdom which I have just described, and make a somewhat more practical comment on the role or the posture of the reader in relation to the books which form the matter of this course of reading. I think you will find your job as readers simplified somewhat if you do not conceive of it as creativity, but as something more akin to the exercise of identity.

God created the world, and Satan became jealous of that performance and tried in effect to do it over again; but Satan never quite made his point. Similarly the poet, whom mystic writers identify with Satan, made the book; and it is not our business as readers, though we may in other contexts be the Satanic poet too, to make the book over again. Our contribution is our presumptively unique identity, constituted of our irreproducible past, our selectively achieved learning, and our natural inheritance of individual mind, brought to bear with ocular clarity on the book as it really is. At any given moment of the day, the light, though its source be the sun, lies differently in every chamber. It is your identity which is precious to these books — which is in some sense more real than they are.

If the collection of old books which make up the humanities do, as it is possible to say, constitute a history of the world in terms of successive conceptions of reality and the human image, it is a private history of the world. Philosophia differs from humanitas at least in this, that the philosopher labors to write from a point of view in which deception is the least possible. The point of view of the literary text is man encumbered, or perhaps one might better say adorned, by his deceptions — surrounded by his ghosts and phantasms — clothed in the unassailable dignity of his self-importance which requires and is accessible to no further verification than his own persuasion. The mother of the muses, themselves the mothers of poetry, is traditionally memory — man’s unassailable and unverifiable conviction of having existed.

You will observe that certain of the texts in this course are not on the face of it, what I have referred to throughout as “artistic literature.” Plato was a philosopher, and we read his Republic; the author of the gospel according to Saint Matthew was a sacred historian. These texts have drifted quite casually into the Humanities, and the Humanities in this university has marked them as part of its private history of human existence, and thereby deprived them (implicitly, I think, but nonetheless surely) of their authority as prophetic and philosophic documents. They have become part of the rich but unverifiable domain of Mnemosyne.

Now I have said that the humanities needs your identity, and it is not only in terms of your living passion and your unique station in time that the great books need you, it is fundamentally in terms of your capacity for the acknowledgement of authority. The great poems are above all else objects of value, and while they are loved and reverenced, to put it simply, the habit of love and reverence for man and his works will not have passed from the human community.

But without ceasing to be stable objects of value, the great works are continually specializing, within themselves, secondary systems of value which are not all alike. One touch of nature or art does not make the whole world kin. I have said that the world of Homer and of the other authors whom we study are closed and self-insistent. They are persuaded not only of their own reality, but also of their own truth. Dante condemns Homer to Hell, though to a very comfortable suburb thereof. Euripides and Aeschylus, as Aristophanes points out, do not inhabit the same universe of value. Don Quixote adored the epic style of Virgil, but Cervantes could not affirm it. The mind which understands all these authors in the same sense is decadent and does not comprehend the final demand made by the text, namely, the choice of worlds.


The final sense which the texts demand of you is the sense of what is commonly called engagement. Without this, sense, [art], without alternative, forsakes life; and even comedy, which is dependent on the recovery of commitment to a fixed reality, becomes attenuated.
The sense of engagement lies definitely beyond the scope of what I have called the Ciceronian humanism. It is a demand made upon you by the texts which is not explicitly sanctioned by the culture of the university in which you confront them. It is a part, I think, of prophetic humanism, but it has taken us, appropriately at the end, out beyond the precincts of the course of reading to which I intended to introduce you.

It is your progressively discovered sense of identity which will answer the demand of the text for acknowledgement of its authority; and the capital meeting between yourself and your master will take place outside of the university as it defines itself.

September 1962