Odious and Peculiar

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Saturday, July 31, 2004
 
Let's take it to the next level--Thomas Aquinas style!

It would appear that original thought is something to be lauded. For all the world seeks originality in all things. Books are praised for it or denigrated for its lack; dramatic works rise or fall by its presence. Even science and philosophy are judged primarily by the quality of originality or uniqueness.

Moreover, since each man is an individual, he ought not to seek to be like or think as other men. For to each is suited a way of being, and to assume the way of another is to deny one's self and one's rightful unique position in the world.

Moreover, it would appear that without original thought we are but automata. For every action ought to have a reason in a rational creature. But if the sayings of the ancients are followed blindly, we are no better than ingenous devices for fulfilling maxims. Therefore we must think for ourselves without consideration for such maxims as have preceded us; or, better still, we ought to reach the conclusions for ourselves without that tyranny of the dead, tradition, to guide us.

Moreover, without original thought we would have none of the labor-saving devices we currently employ. We would have no plays, books, or poetry; very little music; and indeed no philosophy or science.

I reply: on the contrary, the great majority of original thought, is simply the re-invention of the wheel as a variety of inefficient polygons; what little is truly original is mostly wrong; and what remains which is neither unoriginal nor wrong is as rare as it is useful.

For the great men who are our ancestors were neither credulous nor simple. They were men of talent and often of genius, and such works of theirs as have survived are worthy to be studied for the theories they contain and the suppleness of mind to be gained by following their movements. Their beliefs, even when overthrown by modern thought, have endured such changes of Fortune's wheel before this, and will endure them again afterwards without being crushed beneath it. Nothing is sillier than the livings' assurance that they are cleverer than the dead, simply because they are living.

The number and variety of systems overthrown and returned to is legion; and each life is marked by these same revolutions in individual thought. The temporary downfall of a thinker or his thought is no reason to mark it as unworthy of study, since in the next season it will likely be the most favored. Even if its degradation is eternal, if it has endured for any length of time it either holds some seed of truth, or is a pitfall into which even the most cautious may descend. If it holds some seed of truth, it must be sought; if it is a tempting wrong turn it must be studied to be avoided in other areas.

Replies to objections: it is true that each man is an individual, with his own means of being-in-the-world. However, each man is also a member of the class {men}, which share certain common characteristics. It is these characteristics that concern all thought and discourse. For if the unique qualities were those which concerned thought, how might that thought be communicated? Qualities which are truly unique cannot be possessed by another. Therefore the concern of art, science, and philosophy is those qualities which are common. Thus, desires to express oneself are in fact desires to express precisely those qualities which are shared by another. Uniqueness of expression is indeed desirable, but only when old expressions of the same idea have grown stale and powerless. A new expression is but a means of reaching an old idea.

Moreover, that we cannot truly be reasoning creatures without reasoning entirely by ourselves is false. It is indeed true that blindly to follow maxims is the act of an unthinking creature. But this is not an argument against tradition; it is an argument for thought. Those who think through the teachings of the ancients have thought as far, and often further, than those who ignore them in the name of originality. Just as there is such a thing as Unoriginal Thought, there is Original Thoughtlessness. The ancients lead us down fruitful paths of thought, if we do the work to follow them. By our own weak powers, unaided by a guide, we cannot travel as far. To praise originality above all else means to ignore the noun to which its adjectival form ought to apply. It is Thought that we seek, the hard work which may come from studying the ancients, challenging them, and engaging with them. It is also hard work to begin from one's own first principles and create a system without reference to the thoughts of those who have come before--but it is hard work with an uncertain reward.

That we would have little art, science, and philosophy without original thought is true beyond a doubt. However, as has been said before, to deem a work's virtue to be its originality is to ignore the true factors of worth. A work may be entirely original and entirely devoid of thought. There have been instances. Men may be better served by a work which does not "challenge their pre-conceptions" if those pre-conceptions are in fact true. To be constantly challenging the common wisdom is never to be advancing it. Where common ideas are wrong they may well need changing; but to change them because they are common is to act thoughtlessly.

Nothing is more useful than a true idea. But such an idea, although it may be original, is so only accidentally. The essential aspect of it is that it is true, and it is this aspect which gives the idea its worth. That we cannot swallow an idea without the spice of novelty is a sign of weakness of digestion, not delicacy of taste.


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