Why Study Cultural History?
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.
—CICERO, FIRST CENTURY BCE
Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.
—GOETHE, NINETEENTH CENTURY CE
The underlying premise of this book is that some basic knowledge of the Western cultural heritage is necessary for those who want to become educated human beings in charge of their own destinies. If people are not educated into their place in human history—five thousand years of relatively uninterrupted, though sometimes topsy-turvy, developments—then they are rendered powerless, subject to passing fads and outlandish beliefs. They become vulnerable to the flattery of demagogues who promise heaven on earth, or they fall prey to the misconception that present-day events are unique, without precedent in history, or superior to everything that has gone before.
Perhaps the worst that can happen is to exist in a limbo of ignorance—in Goethe’s words, “living from day to day.” Without knowledge of the past and the perspective it brings, people may come to believe that their contemporary world will last forever, when in reality much of it is doomed to be forgotten. In contrast to the instant obsolescence of popular culture, the study of Western culture offers an alternative that has passed the unforgiving test of time. Long after today’s heroes and celebrities have fallen into oblivion, the achievements of our artistic and literary ancestors— those who have forged the Western tradition—will remain. Their works echo down the ages and seem fresh in every period. The ancient Roman writer Seneca put it well when he wrote, in the first century CE, “Life is short but art is long.”
When people realize that the rich legacy of Western culture is their own, their view of themselves and the times they live in can expand beyond the present moment. They find that they need not be confined by the limits of today but can draw on the creative insights of people who lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago. They discover that their own culture has a history and a context that give it meaning and shape. Studying and experiencing their cultural legacy can help them understand their place in today’s world.