- freely available
Humanities 2016, 5(2), 24; doi:10.3390/h5020024
Abstract: The marriage of literature and science might not be possible strictly speaking, but a marriage of humanities with philosophy, psychology, religion, ethics, ecology, and social studies, for instance, might well work, as a close analysis of some medieval narratives will illustrate. This paper intends to demonstrate once again what the humanities could truly mean, insofar as the discussion will not only lay bare textual elements or philological concerns, but it will also indicate how much relevant literature helps us to address crucial questions of religious, ethical, social, moral, and philosophical kinds, building powerful bridges between the past and the present. In order to test this premise even in extreme situations, here a number of medieval texts will be introduced and analyzed as to their timeless message and hence their extremely important function of creating meaning for readers/listeners both from the Middle Ages and today.
1. Introduction: The Relevance of Literature
Die Literaturwissenschaft ist keine reine Wissenschaft. Die Literaturwissenschaft leistet eine reflektierte, methodisch abgesicherte Analyse und Auseinandersetzung mit der kulturellen Text-Tradition der jeweils eigenen oder fremder Sprachgemeinschaften. Diese Auseinandersetzung begreift eine Vermittlung der Traditionsgehalte mit ein und erweitert das historische Wissen zu einem Reflexionsmedium der jeweiligen Gegenwart des Interpreten.
Here I will revisit a number of texts selected from Western literature, primarily from the Middle Ages and the early modern age, in order to illustrate how much a poem, a verse narrative, a romance, or a heroic epic allows us, as human beings, to come to grips with our own existence in a startling but refreshing way, especially since a literary text serves as a kind of epistemological mirror addressing truly fundamental issues. “Literary” can mean many different aspects, but in the pre-modern context we can be certain that there were no strict barriers between fictional and factual texts, between didactic-religious and erotic-spiritual texts. Historical accounts and herbals have been as much integrated into the corpus of relevant texts for medieval and early modern literary scholarship as have been travelogues and sermons. The present selection reflects my own expertise, and is only intended as an illustration of the approach and methodology pursued in this article, so the conclusions should ultimately be applicable to every other area of literary history in East and West, past and present, wherever the same open premises regarding the notion of “literature” are maintained. Once we have been able to agree on the basic principles that I want to develop here, we will have excellent benchmarks to discuss the relevance and meaning of the humanities on a more global level . As to be expected, those in the literary field will probably regard these reflections as self-evident, though the evidence adduced might still be eye-opening. However, since the purpose here consists of addressing fundamental philosophical, ethical, and perhaps even moral issues as formulated in literary texts, leaving aesthetic aspects aside for pragmatic purposes only, this paper is intended as a contribution to the global discussion of the meaning of human values at large as reflected through literature. This is a topic that constantly requires new reviews and evaluations, since our cultural map is shifting and requires regular adjustments, as the ongoing history of reception indicates. After all, every generation, every new group of readers/scholars respond to individual texts differently, and yet, as I will try to illustrate, certain universal messages come through everywhere and all the time. We know also that we can regularly observe the emergence of new literary manifestations, but the concern with meaning in human lives never changes, and the quest to make sense out of our existence continues. Literary history, in this context, might be, by analogy, something like the Amazonas rainforest, an incredible repository of plants/texts from past and present that harbors an infinite amount of information and data of enormous relevance for our future when new challenges will require innovative or truly ancient responses.(Literary scholarship is not a pure science. Literary scholarship carries out a reflective, methodologically sound analysis and engagement with the cultural text tradition of one’s own or a foreign community of speakers respectively. This engagement includes a communication of the traditional values and expands the historical knowledge to a medium of reflection for the respective present time of the interpreter.)
2. Humanities and the Modern-Day University
3. The Meaning of the Past for the Present and the Future
4. The Meaning and Relevance of Literature
5. New Directions
6. Tolerance and Harmony
6.1. Gesta Romanorum
6.2. Giovanni Boccaccio
7. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan der Weise
Love is the key concept determining the authenticity of the ring, and hence of religion. The judge even suspects that the original ring might have been lost and that the father, out of love for all of his sons, simply had copies made so that each one of them should plainly believe to be entitled to his own faith. Moreover, the subsequent message then proves to be timeless and more relevant today than ever before:
- But hold—you tell me that the real ring
- Enjoys the hidden power to make the wearer
- Of God and man beloved; let that decide.
- ’Tis possible the father chose no longer
- To tolerate the one ring’s tyranny;
- And certainly, as he much loved you all,
- And loved you all alike, it could not please him
- By favouring one to be of two the oppressor.
- Let each feel honoured by this free affection.
- Unwarped of prejudice; let each endeavour
- To vie with both his brothers in displaying
- The virtue of his ring; assist its might
- With gentleness, benevolence, forbearance,
- With inward resignation to the godhead,
- And if the virtues of the ring continue
- To show themselves among your children’s children,
- After a thousand thousand years, appear
- Before this judgment-seat—a greater one
- Than I shall sit upon it, and decide.
- So spake the modest judge.
- Nathan, my dearest Nathan, ’tis not yet
- The judge’s thousand thousand years are past,
- His judgment-seat’s not mine. Go, go, but love me.
8. Heinrich Kaufringer
9. Pre-Modern Literature and Post-Modern Concerns
Conflicts of Interest
References and Notes
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