SAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, and Purpose in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #15 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from What I Think and Feel at Twenty-Five (1922) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As a man grows older it stands to reason that his vulnerability increases. Three years ago, for instance, I could be hurt in only one way—through myself. If my best friend’s wife had her hair torn off by an electric washing-machine, I was grieved, of course. I would make my friend a long speech full of “old mans,” and finish up with a paragraph from Washington’s Farewell Address; but when I’d finished I could go to a good restaurant and enjoy my dinner as usual. In fact I was pretty much invulnerable. I put up a conventional wail whenever a ship was sunk or a train got wrecked; but I don’t suppose, if the whole city of Chicago had been wiped out, I’d have lost a night’s sleep over it—unless something led me to believe that St. Paul was the next city on the list. Even then I could have moved my luggage over to Minneapolis and rested pretty comfortably all night.

But that was three years ago when I was still a young man. I was only twenty-two. Now, I’m vulnerable. I’m vulnerable in every way. I used to have about ten square feet of skin vulnerable to chills and fevers. Now I have about twenty. I have not personally enlarged, the twenty feet includes the skin of my family, but I might as well have, because if a chill or fever strikes any bit of that twenty feet of skin I begin to shiver. And so I ooze gently into middle-age; for the true middle-age is not the acquirement of years, but the acquirement of a family. The incomes of the childless have wonderful elasticity. Two people require a room and a bath; a couple with child requires the millionaire’s suite on the sunny side of the hotel. And yet I think that marriage is the most satisfactory institution we have. I’m simply stating my belief that when Life has used us for its purposes it takes away all our attractive qualities and gives us, instead, ponderous but shallow convictions of our own wisdom and “experience.” The older I grow the more I get so I don’t know anything. If I had been asked to do this article about five years ago it might have been worth reading.

From the context of the whole passage, what can be inferred about the author’s opinions on the “wisdom and experience” of middle-age?

Possible Answers:

It cannot replace good humor.

It is illusory.

It is important for raising a family.

It is necessary for individual growth.

It is a distant longing.

Correct answer:

It is illusory.

Explanation:

The author contends that the “wisdom and experience” of middle-age are illusory sensations. Throughout the whole passage the author makes reference to the growing vulnerability that accompanies middle-age.  The author says “I’m simply stating my belief that when Life has used us for its purposes it takes away all our attractive qualities and gives us, instead, ponderous but shallow convictions of our own wisdom and 'experience.' The older I grow the more I get so I don’t know anything.” In addition to admitting his own feelings about growing older the author disparages middle-aged wisdom as “shallow convictions” and even goes to the length of putting experience in quotations.

Example Question #1 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Coddling in Education” by Henry Seidel Canby (1922)

American minds have been coddled in school and college for at least a generation. There are two kinds of mental coddling. The first belongs to the public schools, and is one of the defects of our educational system that we abuse privately and largely keep out of print. It is democratic coddling. I mean, of course, the failure to hold up standards, the willingness to let youth wobble upward, knowing little and that inaccurately, passing nothing well, graduating with an education that hits and misses like an old typewriter with a torn ribbon. America is full of "sloppy thinking," of inaccuracy, of half-baked misinformation, of sentimentalism, especially sentimentalism, as a result of coddling by schools that cater to an easy-going democracy.

A dozen causes are responsible for this condition, and among them, I suspect, one, which if not major, at least deserves careful pondering. The teacher and the taught have somehow drifted apart. His function in the large has been to teach an ideal, a tradition. He is content, he has to be content, with partial results. In the mind of the student a dim conception has entered, that this education--all education--is a garment merely, to be doffed for the struggle with realities. The will is dulled. Interest slackens.

But it is in aristocratic coddling that the effects of our educational attitude gleam out to the least observant understanding. The teaching in the best American preparatory schools and colleges is as careful and as conscientious as any in the world. That one gladly asserts. Indeed, an American boy in a good boarding-school is handled like a rare microbe in a research laboratory. He is ticketed; every instant of his time is planned and scrutinized; he is dieted with brain food, predigested, and weighed before application. I sometimes wonder if a moron could not be made into an Abraham Lincoln by such a system--if the system were sound.

It is not sound. The boys and girls, especially the boys, are coddled for entrance examinations, coddled through freshman year, coddled oftentimes for graduation. And they too frequently go out into the world fireproof against anything but intellectual coddling. Such men and women can read only writing especially prepared for brains that will take only selected ideas. They can think only on simple lines. They can live happily only in a life where no intellectual or esthetic experience lies too far outside the range of their curriculum. A world where one reads the news and skips the editorials; goes to musical comedies, but omits the plays; looks at illustrated magazines, but seldom at books; talks business, sports, and politics, but never economics, social welfare, and statesmanship--that is the world for which we coddle the best of our youth. Many indeed escape the evil effects by their own innate originality; more bear the marks to the grave.

The author of this passage is primarily focused on __________.

Possible Answers:

the abilities of the common man

how to prevent school children from failing their exams

how to incorporate the common man into the political arena

the indulgence of school children

the strength of the public school system

Correct answer:

the indulgence of school children

Explanation:

The author of this passage is primarily concerned with the coddling (overindulgence and protection) of school children in education and how the current public school system does not prepare young boys and girls for the realities of adult life. The author states: “They too frequently go out into the world fireproof against anything but intellectual coddling. Such men and women can read only writing especially prepared for brains that will take only selected ideas.” It is clear that the author believes the overindulgence of school children is of grave concern.

Example Question #3 : Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “A Definition of a Gentleman” by John Henry Newman (1852)

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.

Which quality of a “gentleman” does the author of this passage focus on?

Possible Answers:

Magnanimity

Intellect 

Abrasiveness 

Courage

Upbringing

Correct answer:

Magnanimity

Explanation:

The author of this passage describes the qualities of a “gentleman” as being predominantly magnanimous in intention and action. He describes a “gentleman” as being “occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him.” Which is another way of saying that a “gentleman’s” primary concern should be ensuring that other people’s lives are as carefree and satisfactory as possible. To the author kindness and selflessness are central to the make-up of a “gentleman.” The word magnanimous refers to great generosity.

Example Question #1 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from “On Knowing What Gives Us Pleasure” by Samuel Butler (1880)

One can make no greater criticism against a man than to say that he does not set sufficient value upon pleasure, and there is no greater sign of a fool than his thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him. To know this is not easy, and how to extend our knowledge of it is the highest and the most neglected of all arts and branches of education. Indeed, if we could solve the difficulty of knowing what gives us pleasure, we should have discovered the secret of life and development, for the same difficulty has attended the development of every sense from touch onwards, and no new sense was ever developed without pains. A man had better stick to known and proved pleasures, but, if he will venture in quest of new ones, he should not do so with a light heart.

One reason why we find it so hard to know our own likings is because we are so little accustomed to try; we have our likings found for us in respect of by far the greater number of the matters that concern us; thus we have grown all our limbs on the strength of the likings of our ancestors and adopt these without question.

Another reason is that, except in mere matters of eating and drinking, people do not realize the importance of finding out what it is that gives them pleasure if, that is to say, they would make themselves as comfortable here as they reasonably can. Very few, however, seem to care greatly whether they are comfortable or not. There are some men so ignorant and careless of what gives them pleasure that they cannot be said ever to have been really born as living beings at all. They present some of the phenomena of having been born--they reproduce, in fact, so many of the ideas which we associate with having been born that it is hard not to think of them as living beings--but in spite of all appearances the central idea is wanting. At least one half of the misery which meets us daily might be removed or, at any rate, greatly alleviated, if those who suffer by it would think it worth their while to be at any pains to get rid of it. That they do not so think is proof that they neither know, nor care to know, more than in a very languid way, what it is that will relieve them most effectually or, in other words, that the shoe does not really pinch them so hard as we think it does. For when it really pinches, as when a man is being flogged, he will seek relief by any means in his power.

To those, however, who are desirous of knowing what gives them pleasure but do not quite know how to set about it I have no better advice to give than that they must take the same pains about acquiring this difficult art as about any other, and must acquire it in the same way; that is by attending to one thing at a time and not being in too great a hurry. Proficiency is not to be attained here, any more than elsewhere, by short cuts or by getting other people to do work that no other than oneself can do. Above all things it is necessary here, as in all other branches of study, not to think we know a thing before we do know it; to make sure of our ground and be quite certain that we really do like a thing before we say we do. For, after all, the most important first principle in this matter is not lightly thinking you know what you like till you have made sure of your ground. I was nearly forty before I felt how stupid it was to pretend to know things that I did not know and I still often catch myself doing so. Not one of my school-masters taught me this, I had to learn myself.

What is the primary purpose of this passage?

Possible Answers:

To give advice 

To undermine established authority

To refute an argument 

To predict an outcome 

To establish an experiment 

Correct answer:

To give advice 

Explanation:

The primary purpose of this article is to advise the author’s audience on the importance of understanding individual pleasure, and how to go about studying what gives one pleasure in the first place. Evidence for this can be found throughout, but particularly in sentences like the following which are constructed as little snippets of advice: “A man had better stick to known and proved pleasures, but, if he will venture in quest of new ones, he should not do so with a light heart.”

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Why a Classic is a Classic" in Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennet (1909)

The large majority of our fellow-citizens care as much about literature as they care about airplanes or the policies of the Legislature. They do not ignore it; they are not quite indifferent to it. But their interest in it is faint and perfunctory; or, if their interest happens to be violent, it is spasmodic. Ask the two hundred thousand persons whose enthusiasm made the vogue of a popular novel ten years ago what they think of that novel now, and you will gather that they have utterly forgotten it, and that they would no more dream of reading it again than of reading Bishop Stubbs's Select Charters. Probably if they did read it again they would not enjoy it—not because the said novel is worse now than it was ten years ago; not because their taste has improved—but because they have not had sufficient practice to be able to rely on their taste as a means of permanent pleasure. They simply don't know from one day to the next what will please them.

In the face of this one may ask: Why does the great and universal fame of classical authors continue? The answer is that the fame of classical authors is entirely independent of the majority. Do you suppose that if the fame of Shakespeare depended on the man in the street it would survive a fortnight? The fame of classical authors is originally made, and it is maintained, by a passionate few. Even when a first-class author has enjoyed immense success during his lifetime, the majority have never appreciated him as sincerely as they have appreciated second-rate men. He has always been reinforced by the ardor of the passionate few. And in the case of an author who has emerged into glory after his death the happy sequel has been due solely to the obstinate perseverance of the few. They could not leave him alone; they would not. They kept on savoring him, and talking about him, and buying him, and they generally behaved with such eager zeal, and they were so authoritative and sure of themselves, that at last the majority grew accustomed to the sound of his name and placidly agreed to the proposition that he was a genius; the majority really did not care very much either way.

And it is by the passionate few that the renown of genius is kept alive from one generation to another. These few are always at work. They are always rediscovering genius. Their curiosity and enthusiasm are exhaustless, so that there is little chance of genius being ignored. And, moreover, they are always working either for or against the verdicts of the majority. The majority can make a reputation, but it is too careless to maintain it. If, by accident, the passionate few agree with the majority in a particular instance, they will frequently remind the majority that such and such a reputation has been made, and the majority will idly concur: "Ah, yes. By the way, we must not forget that such and such a reputation exists." Without that persistent memory-jogging the reputation would quickly fall into the oblivion which is death. The passionate few only have their way by reason of the fact that they are genuinely interested in literature, that literature matters to them. They conquer by their obstinacy alone, by their eternal repetition of the same statements. Do you suppose they could prove to the man in the street that Shakespeare was a great artist? The said man would not even understand the terms they employed. But when he is told ten thousand times, and generation after generation, that Shakespeare was a great artist, the said man believes--not by reason, but by faith. And he too repeats that Shakespeare was a great artist, and he buys the complete works of Shakespeare and puts them on his shelves, and he goes to see the marvelous stage-effects which accompany King Lear or Hamlet, and comes back religiously convinced that Shakespeare was a great artist. All because the passionate few could not keep their admiration of Shakespeare to themselves. This is not cynicism; but truth. And it is important that those who wish to form their literary taste should grasp it.

Why does the author believe the majority can be convinced of Shakespeare’s genius?

Possible Answers:

Shakespeare is easily accessible.

They faithfully accept the reasoning of the minority.

Genius will always inevitably be appreciated.

All men have the capability for understanding.

Greater literacy rates have increased the capacity of the majority.

Correct answer:

They faithfully accept the reasoning of the minority.

Explanation:

The author of this passage seems to have little faith in the ability of the majority to come to the “right” conclusion without the influence of the minority. It is therefore easy to rule out the majority of answer choices on the grounds that they reflect a faith in the capabilities of most people. The author explicitly states his feelings in lines 34–36 when he claims: “But when he is told ten thousand times, and generation after generation, that Shakespeare was a great artist, the said man believes—not by reason, but by faith. And he too repeats that Shakespeare was a great artist.”

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1882)

Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice. Very well. I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgently-- Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any, also to strangers, and sometimes to others. If a person offends you and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. That will be sufficient. If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to. 

Go to bed early, get up early--this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time--it’s no trick at all.

Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training. Some authorities hold that the young ought not to lie at all. That of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still while I cannot go quite so far as that, I do maintain, and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable. Patience, diligence, painstaking attention to detail--these are requirements; these in time, will make the student perfect; upon these only, may he rely as the sure foundation for future eminence. 

But I have said enough. I hope you will treasure up the instructions which I have given you, and make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding. Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

mock youthfulness

give unconventional advice

establish a counterargument

establish a precedent

compile a list

Correct answer:

give unconventional advice

Explanation:

The author establishes the purpose of this passage in the first paragraph. The first two sentences reveal that the author intends to use this passage to give advice. He says: “Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice.” From there you are required to understand the author’s tone to gather that the author feels this advice is in some way different from the advice that would more commonly be given to young people.

Example Question #2 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Luxuries by George Ade (1922)

Right here, and nowhere else, except in two or three other new countries, poor people get in on the luxuries. Do you know of any one past the age of eight who never rode in a motor car? Countless millions in Europe regard the automobile as a rich man's luxury. It is a symbol of splendor which chases them off the roadways. They never dream of becoming acquainted with anything so huge and important. 

The farmer in France or Italy or Germany has no telephone in his house. Meat on the table means a family feast. The movie to him is a holiday treat and ice cream is a semi-annual jamboree. The daughter has never rocked around on high heels or hit herself in the nose with a powder rag. The son has never worn a snappy suit with the belt surrounding the lungs instead of the digestive organs.

Most of the human beings outside of this hemisphere line up as paupers. Invoice their holdings and you will find that the assets, per person, run up to about $8.75. The ordinary man we pass in the street carries probably $75 worth of merchandise. The guess is low rather than high, because we have to take into account a suit of clothes, a hat, a pair of shoes, various undergarments, buttons made of a precious metal, and possibly some expensive fillings in the teeth. If he had been born in Egypt or Ceylon or Burma or China or Japan or Africa he would be wearing clothes worth $1.80 and be thankful for them.

About sixty-five per cent of all the people in the world think they are getting along great when they are not starving to death. In these days of recession, when so many of us are curled up in mental anguish because we cannot frivolously spend money as we did in 1919, it may help if we reflect that, at least, each of us has a mattress at night, meals as usual, books to read, and some sort of entertainment in the next block.

What is the primary purpose of this passage?

Possible Answers:

To refute an argument

To establish an experiment

To celebrate a stituation 

To give perspective

To predict an outcome

Correct answer:

To give perspective

Explanation:

The primary purpose of this passage is to impart perspective upon the author’s audience. This is made clear throughout the passage, as the author compares the skewed understanding of luxury among contemporary Americans, with the more realistic perspective of most of the rest of the world. It is also evident in the conclusion where the author urges his readership to be more thoughtful about the privileges and luxuries that exist in their life.

Example Question #4 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Self-Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work. A man is relieved and overjoyed when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

From the whole of this passage what can we infer the author believes can advance the cause against “Chaos and the Dark?”

Possible Answers:

Individuality 

Tolerance

Kindness

Education

Revolution 

Correct answer:

Individuality 

Explanation:

The primary focus of this passage is the importance of original work and individuality on the advancement of the individual and society. The author states on numerous occasions the importance of original ideas and the negative effect of imitation. Although the author does make reference to “cowards fleeing before a revolution” this is simply a description of people who lack the required individuality to contribute.

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from “Utopia” by Thomas More (1516) in Ideal CommonwealthsComprising More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Campanella's City of the Sun, and Harrington's Oceans (1901)

Thus have I described to you, as particularly as I could, the constitution of that commonwealth, which I do not only think the best in the world, but indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name. In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public, and, indeed, it is no wonder to see men act so differently, for in other commonwealths every man knows that unless he provides for himself, how flourishing soever the commonwealth may be, he must die of hunger, so that he sees the necessity of preferring his own concerns to the public; but in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full no private man can want anything, for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties, neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? He is not afraid of the misery of his children, nor is he contriving how to raise a portion for his daughters, but is secure in this, that both he and his wife, his children and grandchildren, to as many generations as he can fancy, will all live both plentifully and happily, since, among them, there is no less care taken of those who were once engaged in labor, but grow afterwards unable to follow it, than there is, elsewhere, of these that continue still employed. I would gladly hear any man compare the justice that is among them with that of all other nations; among whom may I perish if I see anything that looks either like justice or equity; for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, who either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendor upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a plowman, who works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labors so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.

What is the passage’s main idea?

Possible Answers:

Other countries should beware of adopting the policies that Utopia has, despite the positive effects that they have caused in Utopia.

Everyone should move to Utopia because it is a much more pleasant place to live than any other country.

Economic policies play a large role in the happiness of a country's citizens.

The country of Utopia will likely collapse as its population eventually divides into a ruling class and a working class.

Organized around the common good instead of personal wealth, the country of Utopia is much fairer to its citizens than other nations are to theirs.

Correct answer:

Organized around the common good instead of personal wealth, the country of Utopia is much fairer to its citizens than other nations are to theirs.

Explanation:

The answer choices "The country of Utopia will likely collapse as its population eventually divides into a ruling class and a working class" is not supported by the passage at all. The answer "Other countries should beware of adopting the policies that Utopia has, despite the positive effects that they have caused in Utopia" isn't supported either, as the narrator takes a wholly positive view of Utopia's policies in the passage. "Everyone should move to Utopia because it is a much more pleasant place to live than any other country" is too strong of a statement to be true, as the narrator never urges his readers to move to Utopia, merely discusses how it is better than other countries in certain respects. "Economic policies play a large role in the happiness of a country's citizens" may look like a potentially correct answer, but it is too broad to be the correct answer when another choice is more specific to the passage's content: "Organized around the common good instead of personal wealth, the country of Utopia is much fairer to its citizens than other nations are to theirs."

Example Question #5 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Mr. Coleridge" from The Spirit of the Age by William Hazlitt (1825)

The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers, and the reason is, that the world is growing old. We are so far advanced in the Arts and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and dote on past achievements. The accumulation of knowledge has been so great that we are lost in wonder at the height it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it, while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on. What niche remains unoccupied? What path untried? What is the use of doing anything, unless we could do better than all those who have gone before us? What hope is there of this? We are like those who have been to see some noble monument of art, who are content to admire without thinking of rivaling it; or like guests after a feast, who praise the hospitality of the donor "and thank the bounteous Pan"—perhaps carrying away some trifling fragments; or like the spectators of a mighty battle, who still hear its sound afar off, and the clashing of armor and the neighing of the war-horse and the shout of victory is in their ears, like the rushing of innumerable waters!

Mr. Coleridge has "a mind reflecting ages past”; his voice is like the echo of the congregated roar of the "dark rearward and abyss" of thought. He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a crystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye; he who has marked the evening clouds up rolled (a world of vapors), has seen the picture of his mind: unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous tints and ever-varying forms.

Our author's mind is (as he himself might express it) tangential. There is no subject on which he has not touched, none on which he has rested. With an understanding fertile, subtle, expansive, "quick, forgetive, apprehensive," beyond all living precedent, few traces of it will perhaps remain. He lends himself to all impressions alike; he gives up his mind and liberty of thought to none. He is a general lover of art and science, and wedded to no one in particular. He pursues knowledge as a mistress, with outstretched hands and winged speed; but as he is about to embrace her, his Daphne turns—alas! not to a laurel! Hardly a speculation has been left on record from the earliest time, but it is loosely folded up in Mr. Coleridge's memory, like a rich, but somewhat tattered piece of tapestry; we might add (with more seeming than real extravagance), that scarce a thought can pass through the mind of man, but its sound has at some time or other passed over his head with rustling pinions. On whatever question or author you speak, he is prepared to take up the theme with advantage—from Peter Abelard down to Thomas Moore, from the subtlest metaphysics to the politics of the Courier. There is no man of genius, in whose praise he descants, but the critic seems to stand above the author, and "what in him is weak, to strengthen, what is low, to raise and support”; nor is there any work of genius that does not come out of his hands like an illuminated missal, sparkling even in its defects. If Mr. Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer; but he lays down his pen to make sure of an auditor, and mortgages the admiration of posterity for the stare of an idler. If he had not been a poet, he would have been a powerful logician; if he had not dipped his wing in the Unitarian controversy, he might have soared to the very summit of fancy. But in writing verse, he is trying to subject the Muse to transcendental theories; in his abstract reasoning, he misses his way by strewing it with flowers. All that he has done of moment, he had done twenty years ago; since then, he may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice. Mr. Coleridge is too rich in intellectual wealth to need to task himself to any drudgery; he has only to draw the sliders of his imagination, and a thousand subjects expand before him, startling him with their brilliancy, or losing themselves in endless obscurity.

What is the main idea of the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

People act like they are witnessing a great battle.

Artists and scientists are becoming lazy and are lacking motivation.

People are more likely to be grateful to the mythical rather than to the charitable.

The answers to contentious questions in art and science are being sought in past studies.

People, in the writer's time, are less likely to act and more likely to reminisce. 

Correct answer:

People, in the writer's time, are less likely to act and more likely to reminisce. 

Explanation:

The paragraph is leading into the passage, and its argument is that people are so preoccupied with the wonders of past achievements that they are not pushed to progress further, but instead are caught up with talking about the past. This becomes a central argument of the passage.

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