Originality is Overrated

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In this post I want to continue diving into Paul Griffiths’ book The Intellectual Appetite and say one more thing about his discussion of curiosity as a vice in the intellectual life. I’m specifically interested in his notion that curiosity is the desire to possess or own knowledge. This is in contrast to the virtue of studiousness, which is about receiving knowledge rather than taking knowledge.

In his discussion Griffiths links the desire for ownership with the obsession in academic theology for originality. Speaking of his own approach to the topic of originality, Griffiths does not think of his own intellectual contributions in terms of ownership. He thinks more in terms of stewardship. Even in using the curiosity/studiousness paradigm, he acknowledges that he is not saying anything new or original to him. Rather, he says, “The definitions that follow are concordant with those found in the Christian tradition, but are not identical with any of them. I give them not in an exegetical spirit, but rather as a contributor to a tradition of thought whose authority I accept, and that I consider it a privilege to speak out of and thereby to extend” (20).

Notice that the goal is to contribute by extension rather than by novelty. Notice also that there is a strong sense of continuity, but continuity is not the same thing as exact replication. It is a conversation that moves forward, not because every conversant says the same thing in the same way, but because every conversant is committed to having the same conversation.

Sertillanges made a similar point , saying that what we might call originality is the convergence of a unique someone speaking something true in a true way. What is unique is the individual rather than the idea or concept. Now this does not mean that there are not such things as breakthroughs or new ways of thinking about things or paradigm shifts, but first, by and large all such shifts come from speaking within an existing paradigm or tradition.

In a recent email exchange, with a friend of mine, Christopher Benson, I tackled the same topic in a similar way. In that context I said:

Novelty has its place in theology, but it can’t be the driving force. In my mind the theologian is primarily a steward, first of divine revelation, and second of the tradition of the church. Jesus says something similar to the scribes: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Notice that there are new things to bring out, yes, but novelty isn’t the goal. The goal is properly stewarding the house.

The theologian usually doesn’t say new things. The theologian is more a steward of memory and reminds the church what she has forgotten.”

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