The boys’ rescue mission would lead to the discovery of over six hundred prehistoric paintings, which line the walls and ceilings of Lascaux, a large network of caves.
The cave paintings of Lascaux reveal how stories are the custodians of our values and cumulative wisdom. They reflect our shared past and fate. They are part and parcel of the human community, and a central part of what it means to be human. We are storytelling animals, and always have been.
Great stories lay bare a culture’s values and expose truth where we might otherwise not wish to see it. As we explore the duality of stories and our human nature, we see the way that stories have been used to nurture what is best in each of us and diminish what is bad—all for the purpose of leading richer, more joyful, and more meaningful lives.
According to narrative paradigm theory, conceptualized by communication scholar Walter Fisher, all meaningful human communication occurs through storytelling. This theory argues that, whether we realize it or not, each of us are storytellers, or listeners of stories, at different times in our lives. This isn’t just true for our own moment—but for people in all times and places. Every civilization and culture has stories that are used to explore the big questions of the human condition, beginning from humanity’s earliest, pre-literate days.
The divergent views of Augustine and Rousseau on guilt stem from their opposite views of human nature. Augustine thinks human beings are inherently bad, corrupt by nature, and in need of divine grace for salvation. Rousseau, by contrast, thinks that human nature is inherently good, but is corrupted, misguided, and misdirected by society.
Around 350 BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle cultivated his theory of drama in a work called Poetics, a Greek word that literally means making, doing, productive or creative. Aristotle sets the stage for all artists—all people engaged in the creative act, as storytellers. Central to Aristotle’s theory of story is mimesis, or imitation.
stories are not just told in written form. They were central to preliterate cultures that depended on the oral—or visual— tradition of storytelling to hold their traditions, history, and values.
We’ve been telling stories perhaps from beyond when we even had written or oral language. They’ve been used to pass down knowledge and culture from generation to generation. In the Middle Ages, where storytelling was formalized through the practice of traveling troubadours and minstrels (latter-day rhapsodes) who traipsed from town to town telling stories and singing songs.
The rise of the printing press during the late Renaissance and early modern era—and soon after, the novel—helped usher Europe into a more peaceful and less violent era. Arguably, novels allowed people windows into the minds and experiences of others, thus fostering empathy and a new sense of the connectedness and unity of the human race.
Sometimes, in failing to think critically about the stories we live by, we miss opportunities to harness the power of storytelling to improve our lives. For example, in re-casting a narrative, we can transform tragedies and traumas into triumphs.
Poet W. H. Auden once said that “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” In engaging in great stories—and works of art—from across history and culture, we are invited to encounter the wisdom of the past and reflect on what these stories tell us about leading better lives today.
Stories are how we define and understand our significance—as a species, but also as individuals. They help us cultivate our sense of self—even, at times, helping us to live on after we’ve shed our mortal coil.
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