LSAT Reading : Main Idea of Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for LSAT Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #21 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from Mysticism, Logic, and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell (1917)

When we try to ascertain the motives which have led men to the investigation of philosophical questions, we find that, broadly speaking, they can be divided into two groups, often antagonistic, and leading to very divergent systems. These two groups of motives are, on the one hand, those derived from religion and ethics, and, on the other hand, those derived from science. Plato, Spinoza, and Hegel may be taken as typical of the philosophers whose interests are mainly religious and ethical, while Leibniz, Locke, and Hume may be taken as representatives of the scientific wing. In Aristotle, Descartes, Berkeley, and Kant we find both groups of motives strongly present.

Herbert Spencer, in whose honor we are assembled today, would naturally be classed among scientific philosophers; it was mainly from science that he drew his data, his formulation of problems, and his conception of method. But his strong religious sense is obvious in much of his writing, and his ethical preoccupations are what make him value the conception of evolution—that conception in which, as a whole generation has believed, science and morals are to be united in fruitful and indissoluble marriage.

It is my belief that the ethical and religious motives, in spite of the splendidly imaginative systems to which they have given rise, have been, on the whole, a hindrance to the progress of philosophy, and ought now to be consciously thrust aside by those who wish to discover philosophical truth. Science, originally, was entangled in similar motives, and was thereby hindered in its advances. It is, I maintain, from science, rather than from ethics and religion, that philosophy should draw its inspiration.

But there are two different ways in which a philosophy may seek to base itself upon science. It may emphasize the most general results of science, and seek to give even greater generality and unity to these results. Or it may study the methods of science, and seek to apply these methods, with the necessary adaptations, to its own peculiar province. Much philosophy inspired by science has gone astray through preoccupation with the results momentarily supposed to have been achieved. It is not results, but methods that can be transferred with profit from the sphere of the special sciences to the sphere of philosophy. What I wish to bring to your notice is the possibility and importance of applying to philosophical problems certain broad principles of method which have been found successful in the study of scientific questions.

The opposition between a philosophy guided by scientific method and a philosophy dominated by religious and ethical ideas may be illustrated by two notions which are very prevalent in the works of philosophers, namely the notion of the universe, and the notion of good and evil. A philosopher is expected to tell us something about the nature of the universe as a whole, and to give grounds for either optimism or pessimism. Both these expectations seem to me mistaken. I believe the conception of "the universe" to be, as its etymology indicates, a mere relic of pre-Copernican astronomy, and I believe the question of optimism and pessimism to be one which the philosopher will regard as outside his scope, except, possibly, to the extent of maintaining that it is insoluble.

This essay could best be titled __________.

Possible Answers:

"In Defense of Scientific Inquiry and Exploration"

"On Results-Based and Method-Based Scientific Philosophical Inquiry"

"On the Positive Applications of Scientific Method to Philosophy"

"On the Importance of Religious Philosophical Inquiry"

"In Praise of Herbert Spencer"

Correct answer:

"On the Positive Applications of Scientific Method to Philosophy"

Explanation:

When asked to determine the best title for an essay, you are mostly being asked if you understand the primary motivation and thesis of the passage. Many of these answer choices are part of the argument, but only one represents an accurate portrayal of the thesis. The following answer choices are deficient: "On Results-Based and Method-Based Scientific Philosophical Inquiry" is incorrect because it does not convey the author's support of method-based scientific philosophical inquiry whereas another the correct answer does; “In Praise of Herbert Spencer” is incorrect because the author only mentions Spencer in passing, and indeed is as much critical (although in a veiled manner) as he is effusive with praise; “In Defense of Scientific Inquiry and Exploration” is incorrect because it covers only part of the argument and does not transcend the whole of the essay; and “On the Overwhelming Influence of Religion on the Development of Philosophical Thought” is incorrect because this is discussed only in passing to reinforce part of the author’s argument against religious motivations. The best answer choice is “On the Positive Applications of Scientific Method to Philosophy” because it captures the primary motivation of the author, to urge his audience to embrace scientific method in their pursuit of philosophical truth.

Example Question #21 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Times of Erasmus and Luther” in Short Studies on Great Subjects by James Anthony Froude (1867)

Every single department of intellectual or practical life was penetrated with the beliefs, or was interwoven with the interests, of the clergy; and thus it was that, when differences of religious opinion arose, they split society to its foundations. The lines of cleavage penetrated everywhere, and there were no subjects whatever in which those who disagreed in theology possessed any common concern. When men quarreled, they quarreled altogether. The disturbers of settled beliefs were regarded as public enemies who had placed themselves beyond the pale of humanity, and were considered fit only to be destroyed like wild beasts, or trampled out like the seed of a contagion.

Three centuries have passed over our heads since the time of which I am speaking, and the world is so changed that we can hardly recognize it as the same. The secrets of nature have been opened out to us on a thousand lines, and men of science of all creeds can pursue side by side their common investigations. Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Calvinists contend with each other in honorable rivalry in arts, and literature, and commerce, and industry. They read the same books. They study at the same academies. They have seats in the same senates. They preside together on the judicial bench, and carry on, without jar or difference, the ordinary business of the country. Those who share the same pursuits are drawn in spite of themselves into sympathy and good-will. When they are in harmony in so large a part of their occupations, the points of remaining difference lose their venom. Those who thought they hated each other unconsciously find themselves friends, and as far as it affects the world at large, the acrimony of controversy has almost disappeared.

Imagine, if you can, a person being now put to death for a speculative theological opinion. You feel at once, that in the most bigoted country in the world such a thing has become impossible, and the impossibility is the measure of the alteration which we have all undergone. The formulas remain as they were on either side—the very same formulas which were once supposed to require these detestable murders. But we have learned to know each other better. The cords which bind together the brotherhood of mankind are woven of a thousand strands. We do not any more fly apart or become enemies, because, here and there, in one strand out of so many, there are still unsound places. If I were asked for a distinct proof that Europe was improving and not retrograding, I should find it in this phenomenon. It has not been brought about by controversy. Men are fighting still over the same questions which they began to fight about at the Reformation. Protestant divines have not driven Catholics out of the field, nor Catholics, Protestants. Each polemic writes for his own partisans, and makes no impression on his adversary.

Controversy has kept alive a certain quantity of bitterness, and that, I suspect, is all that it would accomplish if it continued till the day of judgment. I sometimes, in impatient moments, wish the laity in Europe would treat their controversial divines as two gentlemen once treated their seconds, when they found themselves forced into a duel without knowing what they were quarreling about. As the principals were being led up to their places, one of them whispered to the other, “If you will shoot your second, I will shoot mine."

Which of these best summarizes the thesis of this passage?

Possible Answers:

Science has come closer in a few hundred years to establishing absolute truth and understanding than religion has come in the untold years that came before.

Religion has played a negative role in the promotion of peace in Europe and we would be better off without it.

The waning influence of the laity has allowed the fermentation of ideas and philosophy in Europe and we should encourage the continuance of this trend.

The declining influence of the clergy, and the growing concord between the various faiths has contributed greatly to the betterment of European society.

None of the other answers accurately states the thesis of this passage.

Correct answer:

The declining influence of the clergy, and the growing concord between the various faiths has contributed greatly to the betterment of European society.

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author focuses on developing his primary argument, which is that as the influence of the clergy and polemical religious debate has waned, there has been a growing closeness between the men of various faiths that has assisted the improvement of European society. This is closest to the answer choice that reads “The declining influence of the clergy and the growing concord between the various faiths has contributed greatly to the betterment of European society.” Evidence to support this conclusion can be found in excerpts such as “The secrets of nature have been opened out to us on a thousand lines, and men of science of all creeds can pursue side by side their common investigations" and “But we have learnt to know each other better. The cords which bind together the brotherhood of mankind are woven of a thousand strands. We do not any more fly apart or become enemies, because, here and there, in one strand out of so many, there are still unsound places.” The answer choice that reads “Religion has played a negative role in the promotion of peace in Europe and we would be better off without it” is reasonably close to the author’s opinion, but the author seems to suggest that rather than do without religion, we ought to do without the controversies that accompany religion.

Example Question #23 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Federalist No. 11” by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)

The importance of the Union, in a commercial light, is one of those points about which there is least room to entertain a difference of opinion, and which has commanded the most general assent of men who have any acquaintance with the subject. This applies as well to our intercourse with foreign countries as with each other.

There are appearances to authorize a supposition that the adventurous spirit, which distinguishes the commercial character of America, has already excited uneasy sensations in several of the maritime powers of Europe. They seem to be apprehensive of our too great interference in that carrying trade, which is the support of their navigation and the foundation of their naval strength. Those of them which have colonies foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine. Impressions of this kind will naturally indicate the policy of fostering divisions among us and of depriving us of an active commerce in our own bottoms. This would answer the threefold purpose of preventing our interference in their navigation, of monopolizing the profits of our trade, and of clipping the wings by which we might soar to a dangerous greatness.

If we continue united, we may counteract a policy so unfriendly to our prosperity in a variety of ways. By prohibitory regulations extending throughout the States, we may oblige foreign countries to bid against each other for the privileges of our markets. This assertion will not appear chimerical to those who are able to appreciate the importance of the markets of three millions of people to any manufacturing nation, and the immense difference there would be to the trade and navigation of such a nation between a direct communication in its own ships and an indirect conveyance of its products and returns to and from America in the ships of another country. Suppose, for instance, we had a government in America capable of excluding Great Britain from all our ports; what would be the probable operation of this step upon her politics? Would it not enable us to negotiate, with the fairest prospect of success, for commercial privileges of the most valuable and extensive kind in the dominions of that kingdom? When these questions have been asked, upon other occasions, they have received a plausible, but not a solid or satisfactory answer. It has been said that prohibitions on our part would produce no change in the system of Britain, because she could prosecute her trade with us through the medium of the Dutch, who would be her immediate customers and paymasters for those articles which were wanted for the supply of our markets. But would not her navigation be materially injured by the loss of the important advantage of being her own carrier in that trade? Would not the principal part of its profits be intercepted by the Dutch, as a compensation for their agency and risk?

A mature consideration of the objects suggested by these questions will justify a belief that in such a state of things, our trade would derive the most substantial benefits. Such a point gained from the British government, and which could not be expected without an equivalent in exemptions and immunities in our markets, would be likely to have a correspondent effect on the conduct of other nations, who would not be inclined to see themselves altogether supplanted in our trade.

A further resource for influencing the conduct of European nations toward us, in this respect, would arise from the establishment of a federal navy. There can be no doubt that the continuance of the Union under an efficient government would soon put it in our power to create a navy which, if it could not vie with those of the great maritime powers, would at least be of respectable weight if thrown into the scale of either of two contending parties. This would be more peculiarly the case in relation to operations in the West Indies. Our position is, in this respect, a most commanding one. And if to this consideration we add that of the usefulness of supplies from this country in the prosecution of military operations in the West Indies, it will readily be perceived that a situation so favorable would enable us to bargain with great advantage for commercial privileges. A price would be set not only upon our friendship, but upon our neutrality. By a steady adherence to the Union we may hope, erelong, to become the arbiter of Europe in America, and to be able to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interest may dictate.

Of which of the following does the author most want to convince his reader in this passage?

Possible Answers:

The necessity of establishing a modern maritime force

The ease with which the United States will soon gain the economic friendship of the British Empire

The inevitability of American conflict with the European powers

The commercial viability and strength of an independent and undivided United States

The pointlessness of pursuing friendship with the British Empire

Correct answer:

The commercial viability and strength of an independent and undivided United States

Explanation:

This passage is written to persuade the audience of the viability of an independent, centrally organized, and unified United States of America. It is part of The Federalist Papers, which was a series of essays each arguing for this primary point by emphasizing a different aspect of the argument. This passage focuses on the commercial viability, strength, and potential of the newly independent nation if it chose to remain united. Evidence for this can be found in the way the author states “The importance of the Union, in a commercial light, is one of those points about which there is least room to entertain a difference of opinion" in the opening paragraph, as well as a consideration of the overall thesis of the essay. Although the author does argue that the United States will likely gain the economic cooperation of the British Empire and that there is a need for establishing a strong naval force, these are points used to support the primary argument.

Example Question #24 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume (1777)

We may observe that, in displaying the praises of any humane, beneficent man, there is one circumstance that never fails to be amply insisted on, namely, the happiness and satisfaction derived to society from his intercourse and good offices. To his parents, we are apt to say, he endears himself by his pious attachment and duteous care still more than by the connections of nature. His children never feel his authority but when employed for their advantage. With him, the ties of love are consolidated by beneficence and friendship. The ties of friendship approach, in a fond observance of each obliging office, to those of love and inclination. His domestics and dependents have in him a sure resource and no longer dread the power of fortune but so far as she exercises it over him. From him the hungry receive food, the naked clothing, the ignorant and slothful skill and industry. Like the sun, an inferior minister of providence he cheers, invigorates, and sustains the surrounding world.

If confined to private life, the sphere of his activity is narrower, but his influence is all benign and gentle. If exalted into a higher station, mankind and posterity reap the fruit of his labors.

As these topics of praise never fail to be employed, and with success, where we would inspire esteem for any one, may it not thence be concluded that the utility resulting from the social virtues forms at least a PART of their merit, and is one source of that approbation and regard so universally paid to them?

When we recommend even an animal or a plant as USEFUL and BENEFICIAL, we give it an applause and recommendation suited to its nature. As, on the other hand, reflection on the baneful influence of any of these inferior beings always inspires us with the sentiment of aversion. The eye is pleased with the prospect of corn fields and loaded vineyards, horses grazing, and flocks pasturing, but flies the view of briars and brambles, affording shelter to wolves and serpents.

A machine, a piece of furniture, a vestment, a house well contrived for use and convenience, is so far beautiful, and is contemplated with pleasure and approbation. An experienced eye is here sensible to many excellencies, which escape persons ignorant and uninstructed.

Can anything stronger be said in praise of a profession, such as merchandize or manufacture, than to observe the advantages which it procures to society? And is not a monk and inquisitor enraged when we treat his order as useless or pernicious to mankind?

The historian exults in displaying the benefit arising from his labors. The writer of romance alleviates or denies the bad consequences ascribed to his manner of composition.

In general, what praise is implied in the simple epithet USEFUL! What reproach in the contrary!

Your Gods, says Cicero [De Nat. Deor. lib. i.], in opposition to the Epicureans, cannot justly claim any worship or adoration, with whatever imaginary perfections you may suppose them endowed. They are totally useless and inactive. Even the Egyptians, whom you so much ridicule, never consecrated any animal but on account of its utility.

The skeptics assert [Sext. Emp. adrersus Math. lib. viii.], though absurdly, that the origin of all religious worship was derived from the utility of inanimate objects, as the sun and moon, to the support the well-being of mankind. This is also the common reason assigned by historians, for the deification of eminent heroes and legislators [Diod. Sic. passim.].

To plant a tree, to cultivate a field, to beget children—meritorious acts, according to the religion of Zoroaster.

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view; and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind. If any false opinion, embraced from appearances, has been found to prevail, as soon as farther experience and sounder reasoning have given us more just notions of human affairs, we retract our first sentiment, and adjust anew the boundaries of moral good and evil.

Giving alms to common beggars is naturally praised because it seems to carry relief to the distressed and indigent, but when we observe the encouragement thence arising to idleness and debauchery, we regard that species of charity rather as a weakness than a virtue.

Which one of the following most accurately states the main point of the passage?

Possible Answers:

Our morals are based on natural things.

Morality is somewhat based in utility.

Our understanding of God is based on things people used to find useful.

A good man is a kind man.

Trade is better than religion in terms of usefulness.

Correct answer:

Morality is somewhat based in utility.

Explanation:

The author states that “the utility resulting from the social virtues forms at least a PART of their merit, and is one source of that approbation and regard so universally paid to them” and “In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view.” From these statements and the argument presented as a whole, we can say the main point of the passage is that morality and social utility are good: something which is useful is usually linked or attributed to a sense of moral worth.

Example Question #25 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume (1777)

We may observe that, in displaying the praises of any humane, beneficent man, there is one circumstance that never fails to be amply insisted on, namely, the happiness and satisfaction derived to society from his intercourse and good offices. To his parents, we are apt to say, he endears himself by his pious attachment and duteous care still more than by the connections of nature. His children never feel his authority but when employed for their advantage. With him, the ties of love are consolidated by beneficence and friendship. The ties of friendship approach, in a fond observance of each obliging office, to those of love and inclination. His domestics and dependents have in him a sure resource and no longer dread the power of fortune but so far as she exercises it over him. From him the hungry receive food, the naked clothing, the ignorant and slothful skill and industry. Like the sun, an inferior minister of providence he cheers, invigorates, and sustains the surrounding world.

If confined to private life, the sphere of his activity is narrower, but his influence is all benign and gentle. If exalted into a higher station, mankind and posterity reap the fruit of his labors.

As these topics of praise never fail to be employed, and with success, where we would inspire esteem for any one, may it not thence be concluded that the utility resulting from the social virtues forms at least a PART of their merit, and is one source of that approbation and regard so universally paid to them?

When we recommend even an animal or a plant as USEFUL and BENEFICIAL, we give it an applause and recommendation suited to its nature. As, on the other hand, reflection on the baneful influence of any of these inferior beings always inspires us with the sentiment of aversion. The eye is pleased with the prospect of corn fields and loaded vineyards, horses grazing, and flocks pasturing, but flies the view of briars and brambles, affording shelter to wolves and serpents.

A machine, a piece of furniture, a vestment, a house well contrived for use and convenience, is so far beautiful, and is contemplated with pleasure and approbation. An experienced eye is here sensible to many excellencies, which escape persons ignorant and uninstructed.

Can anything stronger be said in praise of a profession, such as merchandize or manufacture, than to observe the advantages which it procures to society? And is not a monk and inquisitor enraged when we treat his order as useless or pernicious to mankind?

The historian exults in displaying the benefit arising from his labors. The writer of romance alleviates or denies the bad consequences ascribed to his manner of composition.

In general, what praise is implied in the simple epithet USEFUL! What reproach in the contrary!

Your Gods, says Cicero [De Nat. Deor. lib. i.], in opposition to the Epicureans, cannot justly claim any worship or adoration, with whatever imaginary perfections you may suppose them endowed. They are totally useless and inactive. Even the Egyptians, whom you so much ridicule, never consecrated any animal but on account of its utility.

The skeptics assert [Sext. Emp. adrersus Math. lib. viii.], though absurdly, that the origin of all religious worship was derived from the utility of inanimate objects, as the sun and moon, to the support the well-being of mankind. This is also the common reason assigned by historians, for the deification of eminent heroes and legislators [Diod. Sic. passim.].

To plant a tree, to cultivate a field, to beget children—meritorious acts, according to the religion of Zoroaster.

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view; and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind. If any false opinion, embraced from appearances, has been found to prevail, as soon as farther experience and sounder reasoning have given us more just notions of human affairs, we retract our first sentiment, and adjust anew the boundaries of moral good and evil.

Giving alms to common beggars is naturally praised because it seems to carry relief to the distressed and indigent, but when we observe the encouragement thence arising to idleness and debauchery, we regard that species of charity rather as a weakness than a virtue.

Which of the following is central to the passage?

Possible Answers:

An assessment of the duplicity of encouraging people to be “good."

An argument about usefulness. 

The denial of morals as being good behavior.

The criticism of priests, artists, and historians.

A discussion about being influential.

Correct answer:

An argument about usefulness. 

Explanation:

It is quite obvious that, in relation to the obvious main argument about morals, the author intends this passage to present an argument about usefulness. The other answers either present or misrepresent small arguments treated in the text. As for the answer “the criticism of priests, artists and historians,” the author only says, “is not a monk and inquisitor enraged when we treat his order as useless or pernicious to mankind?” and “The historian exults in displaying the benefit arising from his labors. The writer of romance alleviates or denies the bad consequences ascribed to his manner of composition." Thus, he only derives examples from these occupations and does not criticize them himself, and his discussion of them is a relatively minor part of the passage as a whole.

Example Question #26 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle (1843)

How true, for example, is that other old Fable of the Sphinx, who sat by the wayside, propounding her riddle to the passengers, which if they could not answer she destroyed them! Such a Sphinx is this Life of ours, to all men and societies of men. Nature, like the Sphinx, is of womanly celestial loveliness and tenderness; the face and bosom of a goddess, but ending in claws and the body of a lioness. There is in her a celestial beauty,— which means celestial order, pliancy to wisdom; but there is also a darkness, a ferocity, fatality, which are infernal. And does she not propound her riddles to us? Of each man she asks daily, in mild voice, yet with a terrible significance, “Do you know the meaning of this Day? What can you do Today, or wisely attempt to do?” Nature, Universe, Destiny, Existence, howsoever we name this grand unnameable Fact in the midst of which we live and struggle, is as a heavenly bride to the wise and brave, to them who can discern her behests and do them; a destroying fiend to them who cannot.

With Nations it is as with individuals: Can they rede the riddle of Destiny? This English Nation, will it get to know the meaning of its strange new Today? Is there sense enough extant, discoverable anywhere or anyhow, in our united twenty-seven million heads to discern the same; valor enough in our twenty-seven million hearts to dare and do the bidding thereof? It will be seen!

The secret of gold Midas, which he with his long ears never could discover, was that he had offended the Supreme Powers—that he had parted company with the eternal inner Facts of this Universe, and followed the transient outer Appearances thereof. Properly it is the secret of all unhappy men and unhappy nations. Had they known Nature's right truth, Nature's right truth would have made them free; but they have forgotten the right Inner True, and taken up with the Outer Sham-true. They answer the Sphinx's question wrong.

Foolish men imagine that because judgment for an evil thing is delayed, there is no justice, but an accidental one, here below. Judgment for an evil thing is many times delayed some day or two, some century or two, but it is sure as life, it is sure as death! In the center of the world-whirlwind, verily now as in the oldest days, dwells and speaks a god. The great soul of the world is just. O brother, can it be needful now at this late epoch of experience to remind thee of such a fact; which all manner of old Pagan Romans, Scythians, and heathen Greeks, and indeed more or less all men, have managed at one time to see into; nay which thou thyself, till redtape philosophy strangled the inner life of thee, hadst once some inkling of: that there is justice here below, and even, at bottom, that there is nothing else but justice! Forget that, thou hast forgotten all. Success will never more attend thee: how can it now? Thou hast the whole Universe against thee.

Which one of the following most accurately states the main point of the passage?

Possible Answers:

The retention of morals is key to any civilization at any time.

Even noble civilizations given to foolishness will end in destruction.

Civilizations that are unable to answer riddles will often fail.

Judging the past is difficult because advancements in technology have distanced us from our ancestors.

The nature of all individuals and civilizations is essentially the same and relies on their ability to comprehend destiny.

Correct answer:

The nature of all individuals and civilizations is essentially the same and relies on their ability to comprehend destiny.

Explanation:

The main point of the passage should occur partially in the first paragraph and continue on through the rest of the passage. If we take this into consideration, we can eliminate the answer “Even noble civilizations given to foolishness will end in destruction,” as this is only a point made by the fourth paragraph. The answer "Civilizations that are unable to answer riddles will often fail" is simply unfounded and mistakes the message of the passage entirely. The author does not mention technology to any extent in the passage, so we can eliminate the answer "Judging the past is difficult because advancements in technology have distanced us from our ancestors."

At this point, we are left with the answer choices "The retention of morals is key to any civilization at any time" and "The nature of all individuals and civilizations is essentially the same and relies on their ability to comprehend destiny." What makes the latter option the correct answer is that it discusses a point made in the first paragraph, “all men and societies of men" and "Nature, Universe, Destiny, Existence, howsoever we name this grand unnameable Fact in the midst of which we live and struggle"; each of these is inherent to the rest of the argument made in the passage. The “comprehension of destiny” is key to the passage in that “destiny” is more than just the end result of the author's argument; he sees it as being linked to nature and the divine.

Example Question #21 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from How to Tell a Story and Other Essays by Mark Twain (1897)

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home. The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard. And sometimes he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the "nub" of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote that has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen hundred years:

In the course of a certain battle, a soldier whose leg had been shot off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear, informing him at the same time of his injury; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded to carry out the other’s desire. Bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man's head off—without, however, his deliverer being aware of it. Soon he was hailed by an officer, who said:

"Where are you going with that carcass?"

"To the rear, sir—he's lost his leg!"

"His leg, forsooth?" responded the astonished officer; "you mean his head, you booby."

Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:

"It is true, sir, just as you have said." Then after a pause he added, "But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG—"

Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time. It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form; and isn't worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to—as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.

He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can't remember it; so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in tedious details that don't belong in the tale and only retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others that are just as useless; stopping his narrative a good while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt, and finally remembering that the soldier's name was not mentioned, and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway—better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after all—and so on, and so on, and so on.

The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself, and has to stop occasionally to keep from laughing outright, but his body quakes in a jelly-like way with interior chuckles; and at the end of the ten minutes the audience have laughed until they are exhausted, and the tears are running down their faces. The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.

Which of these sentences best captures the thesis of this essay?

Possible Answers:

“The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.” 

“The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.”

"Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to—as James Whitcomb Riley tells it."

“The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular.”

“This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.”

Correct answer:

“The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.” 

Explanation:

None of these answer choices are quite perfect. If one wanted to try and capture the best possible statement of the thesis in the essay, it would be “The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it.” This captures the difference between the humorous story and the comic story that the author so wishes to reinforce and includes the author’s belief that the telling of a humorous story is a form of art; however, this sentence is not an option. It is best to look for the answer choice that most closely resembles this sentence. The best option is “The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.” This sentence captures the main difference between the humorous story and the comic and witty stories and hints at the author’s belief in the artistry of telling humorous stories. The answer choice that reads “This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story” may seem a viable option, but as a stand-alone sentence it does not actually impart much meaning. We need to determine which one of these sentences, as it stands alone, is the best possible statement of the thesis.

Example Question #28 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from How to Tell a Story and Other Essays by Mark Twain (1897)

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home. The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard. And sometimes he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the "nub" of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote that has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen hundred years:

In the course of a certain battle, a soldier whose leg had been shot off appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear, informing him at the same time of his injury; whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded to carry out the other’s desire. Bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man's head off—without, however, his deliverer being aware of it. Soon he was hailed by an officer, who said:

"Where are you going with that carcass?"

"To the rear, sir—he's lost his leg!"

"His leg, forsooth?" responded the astonished officer; "you mean his head, you booby."

Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:

"It is true, sir, just as you have said." Then after a pause he added, "But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG—"

Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time. It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form; and isn't worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened to—as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.

He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can't remember it; so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in tedious details that don't belong in the tale and only retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others that are just as useless; stopping his narrative a good while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt, and finally remembering that the soldier's name was not mentioned, and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway—better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after all—and so on, and so on, and so on.

The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself, and has to stop occasionally to keep from laughing outright, but his body quakes in a jelly-like way with interior chuckles; and at the end of the ten minutes the audience have laughed until they are exhausted, and the tears are running down their faces. The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.

Which of these is the best title for this essay?

Possible Answers:

"The Problems with Comic Storytellers"

"The Trouble with Contemporary Comedy"

"The Art of the Humorous Story"

"The Differences Between American and European Humor"

"The Difficulty of Telling a Humorous Story"

Correct answer:

"The Art of the Humorous Story"

Explanation:

When you are asked to give the title of a passage, you are primarily being asked if you understand the thesis and the author’s purpose in writing the passage. In this instance, the author is writing an essay about how to write and tell a humorous story. So, the answer choices “The Differences Between American and European Humor” and “The Problems with Comic Storytellers” can be eliminated because they only capture a small part of the essay’s overall message. The answer choice “The Trouble with Contemporary Comedy” can be eliminated because it is completely irrelevant to the author’s primary argument. All that remains is for you to determine whether the better title would include a focus on the “Difficulty” or “Art” of humorous storytelling. Admittedly, the author does say in the introduction “There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” After that point, however, the rest of the essay is primarily focused on the artistry that the author believes is necessary to successfully master humorous storytelling. It seems he is more determined to convince his audience of the requirement of artistry than the difficulty.

Example Question #21 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in The Oxford Book of American Essays (1914)

It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it would not surprise us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of the Gautama, the first men ate the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.

Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society, and actually or ideally we manage to live with superiors. We call our children and our lands by their names. Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.

The search after the great is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of manhood. We travel into foreign parts to find his works—if possible, to get a glimpse of him. But we are put off with fortune instead. You say the English are practical; the Germans are hospitable; in Valencia the climate is delicious; and in the hills of the Sacramento there is gold for the gathering. Yes, but I do not travel to find comfortable, rich, and hospitable people, or clear sky, or ingots that cost too much. But if there were any magnet that would point to the countries and houses where are the persons who are intrinsically rich and powerful, I would sell all, and buy it, and put myself on the road today.

The people go with us on their credit. The knowledge that in the city is a man who invented the railroad raises the credit of all the citizens. But enormous populations, if they be beggars, are disgusting, like moving cheese, like hills of ants or of fleas—the more, the worse.

Our religion is the love and cherishing of these patrons. The gods of fable are the shining moments of great men. We run all our vessels into one mould. Our colossal theologies of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, are the necessary and structural action of the human mind. The student of history is like a man going into a warehouse to buy clothes or carpets. He fancies he has a new article. If he goes to the factory, he shall find that his new stuff still repeats the scrolls and rosettes which are found on the interior walls of the pyramids of Thebes. Our theism is the purification of the human mind. Man can paint, or make, or think nothing but man. He believes that the great material elements had their origin from his thought. And our philosophy finds one essence collected or distributed.

Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light, and in large relations, whilst they must make painful corrections and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error. His service to us is of like sort. It costs a beautiful person no exertion to paint his or her image on our eyes; yet how splendid is that benefit! It costs no more for a wise soul to convey his quality to other men. And everyone can do his best thing easiest. He is great who is what he is from nature, and who never reminds us of others.

Which one of the following questions is central to the passage?

Possible Answers:

In what ways do we use greatness?

Is nature the answer to greatness?

Is it better to repeat a simple task all your life or to do many tasks?

Why is it that the majority of us choose lives of mediocrity?

Are the young too easily enchanted by greatness?

Correct answer:

In what ways do we use greatness?

Explanation:

In this passage, the author is mainly talking about the ways in which we utilize greatness or the greatness of great men. He talks about how greatness is something that we naturally believe and lists areas in which we raise aspects of greatness in others to high points in our society, e.g. “Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.” The other questions fail to fit the argument fully as they either embrace a small portion of the passage or overstep the passage altogether.

Example Question #30 : Main Idea Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)

The monks having attended their abbot to the door of his cell, he dismissed them with an air of conscious superiority in which humility's semblance combated with the reality of pride. He was no sooner alone, than he gave free loose to the indulgence of his vanity. When he remembered the enthusiasm that his discourse had excited, pride told him loudly that he was superior to the rest of his fellow-creatures.

“Who,” thought he; “Who but myself has passed the ordeal of youth, yet sees no single stain upon his conscience? Who else has subdued the violence of strong passions and an impetuous temperament, and submitted even from the dawn of life to voluntary retirement? I seek for such a man in vain. I see no one but myself possessed of such resolution. Religion cannot boast Ambrosio's equal! How powerful an effect did my discourse produce upon its auditors! How they loaded me with benedictions, and pronounced me the sole uncorrupted stalwart of the church! What then now is left for me to do? Nothing, but to watch as carefully over the conduct of my brothers as I have hitherto watched over my own. Yet hold! May I not be tempted from those paths which till now I have pursued without one moment's wandering? I must now abandon the solitude of my retreat; the fairest and noblest dames of Madrid continually present themselves at the abbey, and will use no other confessor. Should I meet some lovely female in that world that I am constrained to enter, lovely . . . as you, Madonna . . . !”

As he said this, he fixed his eyes upon a picture of the Virgin, which was suspended opposite to him. This for two years had been the object of his increasing wonder and adoration. He paused, and gazed upon it with delight.

“What beauty in that countenance!” He continued after a silence of some minutes. “Oh! If such a creature existed, and existed but for me! Gracious God, should I then resist the temptation? Should I not barter for a single embrace the reward of my sufferings for thirty years? Should I not abandon . . . Fool that I am! Whither do I suffer my admiration of this picture to hurry me? Away, impure ideas! Let me remember that woman is forever lost to me. Never was mortal formed so perfect as this picture. But even did such exist, the trial might be too mighty for a common virtue, but Ambrosio's is proof against temptation. Temptation, did I say? To me it would be none. It is not the woman's beauty that fills me with such enthusiasm; it is the painter's skill that I admire, it is the divinity that I adore! Are not the passions dead in my bosom? Have I not freed myself from the frailty of mankind? Fear not, Ambrosio! Take confidence in the strength of your virtue.”

Here his reverie was interrupted by three soft knocks at the door of his cell. With difficulty did the abbot awake from his delirium. The knocking was repeated.

“Who is there?” said Ambrosio at length.

“It is only Rosario,” replied a gentle voice.

“Enter! Enter, my son!”

The door was immediately opened, and Rosario appeared with a small basket in his hand.

Rosario was a young novice belonging to the monastery, who in three months intended to make his profession. A sort of mystery enveloped this youth, which rendered him at once an object of interest and curiosity.

Which of the following most accurately states the main point of the passage?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers is correct.

All religious leaders are prone to weakness.

The Abbot is ill-suited for his job.

The abbot is weaker than his fellow monks.

Rosario is an important character.

Correct answer:

None of the other answers is correct.

Explanation:

We cannot safely say that any of the statements reflect the primary point of the passage, which is mainly that the abbot is flawed. Granted, this may make him ill-suited for his job, but we cannot say this definitively from the information given. Rosario, too, is most probably an important character, but this is not the main point of the passage. Likewise, we cannot use blanket statements such as “all religious leaders are prone to weakness” because there is not enough evidence to make this assumption based on the author's thoughts.

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