Understanding Man and Society

Thomas Burke, Jr.
Dean of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy and Religion

Thomas Burke, Jr.Thomas J. Burke, Jr. is the Dean of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy and Religion.

The following is adapted from Mr. Snow's speech at a Hillsdale College seminar on October 15, 2001, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The humanities division of Hillsdale College is comprised of seven departments: English, classics, modern languages, philosophy and religion, music, art, and theatre and speech. Each of these departments provides knowledge and skills central to a sound liberal arts education. We offer students an education predicated on the assumption of man’s intrinsic and unique capacity for good and evil, nobility and baseness. The ancients saw mankind as just beneath the gods in ability and power, possessing a nature exalted above all other creatures; a rational being capable of discerning his place within the universe and creating a society of just and honorable citizens.

No single factor in ancient culture displays this more poignantly than Greek tragedy, in which the fall of the exalted is so injurious that it shatters any remnant of pride. In like manner, the Hebrews saw man “a little lower than the angels,” crowned with glory and honor and having dominion over the works of God’s hands (Psalm 8). The Hebrew counterpart to Greek tragedy—man’s fall into sin—is, therefore, all the more tragic, cataclysmic, and wicked. This common, if not identical, vision of humanity as the flawed pinnacle of creation has driven art, literature, religion, and philosophy for the past three millennia, inspiring, provoking, disturbing, and directing the development of culture.

The great literature of Western civilization is clearly fundamental to an adequate understanding of who we are and what we should and can be, and Hillsdale College has recognized this fact by establishing a year-long “Rhetoric and Great Books” course as part of students’ inauguration into the liberal arts. Learning to read and understand their literary heritage creates the proper foundation for all later learning. Further enrichment is provided through linguistic and cultural studies of ancient and modern languages and civilizations. To study Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, and other languages and cultures is to gain not only new skills but also open new windows on new worlds.

Art, music, theatre and speech do the same. It is on the stage, in the concert hall, and through creations of clay, wood, metal, marble, stone, and paint that some of society’s most sensitive and insightful members have given emotional as well as intellectual expression to the ideals that motivate and inspire Western civilization. It is through the fine arts that the ideals and values a people hold precious come to life. The artist gives living form to beliefs and thereby holds a mirror up to the community, enabling it to see what appears when those beliefs become incarnate through the deeds of flesh and blood human beings—or what emerges when they are disdained or disregarded. Beauty gives form to body, and body gives life to form as the fine arts explore both the grandeur and the tragedy of life.

It is in the areas of philosophy and religion that the ideas expressed in literature, languages, and the fine arts find their formal expression and undergo logical analysis. Hillsdale’s department of philosophy and religion provides a curriculum which enables students to learn about, think through, analyze, criticize, and develop the great systems of theology and philosophy that have dominated Western societies and driven culture and politics alike. Students are compelled to come to grips with questions concerning truth, aesthetics, and the moral imagination.

The humanities division, then, is that place where Hillsdale students study and learn about their world and themselves through the examination and contemplation of art, literature, theatre, and the great religious and philosophical traditions of the West.