Professors make their living talking and writing about the worldviews that form the backdrop to the works of a Shakespeare or a Homer. And yet, those writers endure not because of their cosmologies but despite them. Their art is “long” because it is not dependent on ephemeral or ludicrous philosophical or religious systems but on something else, something also more profound than good craftsmanship or poetic talent. What makes art long — when it is long, when it endures beyond its time — is its subject: our human nature. That, when it is portrayed by the hands of a master like Euripides or Cervantes, is what remains reliably constant from age to age. Euripides’s teenagers talk and think like today’s teenagers, and his tragic heroines suffer the same way their real-life sisters do today and have done since the fifth century B.C.E. and before.
The same can be said of great biblical literature. The Song of Songs, despite its strange metaphors, expresses passionate love in a moving way recognizable to anyone alive today. The machinations, jealousies and sudden bursts of sentiment in the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Rachel, are perennial. The rest, the prescriptive and proscriptive codes of behavior and other parochial preoccupations, unless you are a believer, are dead to us.
I realize “human nature” is a very general term. To some it can mean human beings at their worst, or it can mean something immutable in a way different from the sense I understand it. What I’m referring to is the commonality, neither good nor bad, or both if you like, the identity and image of ourselves we recognize in everything we call art, from the musings of Catullus about a stand of trees that will ultimately end up as a ship, to the music of Bach, from those haunting funeral portraits of Roman Egypt, to the novels of Anthony Trollope. They all carry the ideological baggage of their times — Roman deities, 18th-century Pietism, class snobbery and simple prejudice. But we find ourselves and our kind in them nevertheless, and therefore they endure.
Our individual lives are short, or at least seem so in retrospect – vita brevis —but art is long and for that reason, until and if we evolve into something other than what we are, is dependable, not as a religious faith or substitute for one, not as something which can be grounded in mathematical certainty, but as a kind of manual for our species, points of common reference and ultimately of comfort as well, along with, of course, great beauty, binding us together in mutual recognition despite superficial differences, healing us after we have behaved badly as individuals or as a people, reminding us who we are – not the “we” of the short-term, the modern “we” or the European, Asian or African “we,” but the perennial one, as identifiable in the cave paintings of Lescaux as in a Vermeer portrait, in Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Jesus and Jane Austen, Chaucer’s Alice whose breath (like my wife’s) smells like apples, and in Mozart’s Requiem, full of childlike dread and pity.
If we want to know what it is to be human that’s where we turn, not for philosophy or rules of conduct but for a self-portrait, imperfect, full of questions that will never be answered, and perhaps don’t need to be.