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.”

Style and Truth – What Self-Expression Really Means

Some of my doctoral research concerns the question of style, specifically what Hans Urs von Balthasar means by the idea of theological style. So I was stuck by Sertillanges’s thoughts on the subject of style as it relates to the intellectual life and to the quest for truth. (See previous posts on The Intellectual Life here)

As always Sertillanges relates the question of style to the broader themes of the book, namely that style must serve truth and express truth truly. But style also must express the self: “My style, my pen, is the intellectual instrument which I use to express myself and to tell others what I understand of eternal truth. This instrument is a quality of my being, an interior bent, a disposition of the living brain, that is, it is a particular evolution of my style” (201). I find this fascinating because clearly style is more than self expression, but it is for Sertillanges nothing less than self expression either. Style at its best expresses both truth and the self, because within the vocation of the intellectual life the ultimate desire is that the self would conform to truth. So his version of “express yourself” is not the trope that launched a thousand self-help books because he is not saying that if I have expressed myself then I have expressed truth. Self-expression as an end in itself is at best a minimal standard for truth, namely the ideal of “my truth”, and at worst it is an imposter for the kind of truth Sertillanges commends. Rather he is saying that there is a possible harmony and correspondence between self and truth, and style is meant to express this correspondence.

One interesting implication: as long as there are selves seeking to express truth, there will always be interesting, creative, and original things to read and to wrestle with because, one, no self is the same, and, two, no one, not even Thomas Aquinas himself, can comprehensively express truth. In this regard, he says something about originality akin to C.S. Lewis, namely that aiming at originality is a fool’s errand and that originality emerges in the midst of seeking to represent truth truly.

Honestly, the best way to get a sense of what he means by style is to read the book. It is truly a pleasure to read and exemplifies many of the things he commends. For example, reading this description of style made me think of his own book: “Style excludes everything useless; it is strict economy in the midst of riches; it spends whatever is necessary, saves in one place by skillful arrangement, and lavishes its resources elsewhere for the glory of truth. Its role is not to shine, but to set off the matter; it must efface itself, and it is then that its own glory appears.” Style is about what to say and what not say, what to leave in and what to take out. It is about patience. Like music, it is about dynamics, and requires listening. Listening first to the material, listening to that which we desire to express, and listening too at the level of language, to the ways words sound against each other and how they sound in the whole sequence of words.

A couple of other things to note. First, he commends taking up the pen earlier rather than later because it is through writing itself that thoughts are expressed and are sharpened. It is through the practice of writing that one develops certain habits of thinking, and it is in thinking that one pursues truth. There is an iterative circle, thinking produces writing, which in turn produces thinking, which in turn, one hopes, moves one closer and closer to truth. Second, I don’t take this as a prescription for all kinds of writing. Remember he is considering everything under the heading of the intellectual life, which he sees as a particular vocation, so he is discussing writing in these vocational terms. On the other hand though, it is not bad advice for poets, novelists, or even, dare I say, bloggers.

Desire, Satisfaction, and the Supreme Good, Reflections on City of God, pt. 6

“All those schools must be ranked below those philosophers who have found man’s true Good not in the enjoyment of the body or the mind, but in the enjoyment of God. This is not like the mind’s enjoyment of the body, or of itself; nor is it like of friend by friend; it is like the eye’s enjoyment of light–or rather that is the closet analogy…Therefore Plato has no hesitation in asserting that to be a philosopher is to love God, whose nature is immaterial…To be sure, it does not automatically follow that a man is happy, just because he enjoys what he has set his heart on; many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them. But it remains true that no one is happy without the enjoyment of what he loves. Even those who set their heart on the wrong things do not suppose their happiness to consist in the loving, but in the enjoyment. If anyone then enjoys what he loves, and loves the true Supreme Good, only the most miserable would deny his happiness. Now this Sovereign Good, according to Plato, is God. And that is why he will have it that the true philosopher is the lover of God, since the aim of philosophy is happiness, and he who has set his heart on God will be happy in the enjoyment of him.” City of God Book VIII.10

Here Augustine grapples with one of the central questions: what is the supreme good, the Summum Bonum? That is to ask, what is supremely worthy of pursuit? Or to put it another way, what is the aim of life? When the weeds are cleared, what is left? When the dross is burned away, what remains?

As important as that question is, behind that question is another more fundamental question, namely, what are human beings. In this passage, Augustine is arguing that human beings are primarily creatures of desire, driven by enjoyment and pleasure, and that therefore happiness (and by extension the supreme good) comes from enjoying what is loved. That may seem simple enough, but for some, it may seem strange to see Augustine affirming these things in his discussion of the supreme good because he has something of a not entirely undeserved reputation when it comes to things like sex. But as much as the problem may lie with Augustine’s own sexual baggage, a lot of the problem lies with our culture’s tendency to hear words like pleasure, desire, and enjoyment in purely sexual ways.

Which actually speaks to one of his central points in this passage–not all desire is good or beneficial or rightly orientated, not all love leads to happiness. Moreover, perhaps we hear these words in a sexualized way because our sexual desires are disordered. But that seems impossible to many because of the tendency to think of desire and the indulgence of that desire in a purely circular and simplistic way with no thought of what desire itself tells us about the nature of the world and what our desires might be aiming us toward. Even it the thought of disordered desire may not occur to us, it is something to grapple with, especially if  Augustine is right that “many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them.”

While the thought may be simple–that human beings are creatures of desire made to enjoy that which is desired–the application is enormously complex. There are so many things to desire and so many ways that desire can become disordered. This is not to mention where the lines between true enjoyment and overindulgence are. It is hard to argue that we are creatures of desire, creatures of appetite. Love, passion, romance, labors of love are the bright face of desire while greed, gluttony, overindulgence, addiction are its dark twin. When we think of our gut level orientation to the world it’s hard to argue that so much of day to day life is grappling with desire. The push and pull of the everyday is often found in the counterbalance of seeking to satisfy certain desires, while simultaneously suppressing others. But that angst is precisely why the question of the supreme good is so important. If we are creatures of desire, then we must at least attempt to figure out what it is that it is best to desire. Or to put it another way, what is the thing that when it is desired and then enjoyed is most satisfying? For Augustine that is God. As he puts it in Confessions,”God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Even if you answer the question differently than Augustine, it is worth asking why and pondering what it might mean, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that there seem to be desires that nothing in this world fully satisfy.