Saturday, July 12, 2008

Where did he get his ideas?

I notice that, when it comes to big ideas, the writers who get read a lot are rarely the first to think of these big ideas. For example, C S Lewis is super popular, he says a lot of good things, but he has very few original ideas. This is a good thing! He effectively expresses a lot of important ideas, bringing together the thought of some of the most important thinkers. Anyone would have floundered if he was relying only on his own thought, even Lewis.

It is funny how often people that I've talked to think that Lewis came up with, say, the Trilemma, when he didn't.

This is unhealthy: it's easy for our culture to lose sight of the notion that thinking is an ancient tradition. If we see Lewis' thought as basically modern, we're actually doing injustice to what he says, because, while he has a modern worldview, he is so deeply influenced by premodern thinkers, who have timeless things to say. This is dangerous! We are so inclined to regard modernity as qualitatively better than the past, and use this as an excuse to dismiss antiquity.

I would like to see someone write a blog that lists the big influences on individual books.

9 comments:

  1. I think a lot of ideas that we toss around nowadays go back to the biggies of Greek philosophy (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, etc.); I wouldn't know which book to start at but I would assume that reading the biggies and some commentary on their ideas might be useful. But a philosophy or history major could probably tell you more. I just took this one class once.

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  2. I'm going to speculate - based on his writings - that Lewis had some familiarity with various church fathers. A lot of ideas that psychology has 'discovered' were discovered by the desert fathers ages ago, but expressed in different terms.

    In this sense, Anglicans and Roman Catholics - of the Westerners - have a great advantage since they owe homage to a thousand great minds. All it is for them (as well as the Orthodox) to tap into them.

    I would guess that you're taking note of the fact the Lewis basically elaborated the old ideas in a new way - a way that those of his time could appreciate anew.

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  3. Noooooo! Before Lewis, God as we know Him didn't exist! Also, without Lewis, how would God have known how to design heaven and hell? Now, of course, he knows that all that's really necessary is a bus stop, a flying bus to service it, and blades of grass as sharp as knives.

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  4. What I've been finding interesting in the past year is how much of Lewis' thought comes from medieval cosmology - mostly based off of Dante. Lewis' academic work was based largely on medieval literature, which ironically was heavily focused on astrology and astronomy of the planets. I'm currently reading a book by Michael Ward which details the undercurrent of medieval cosmology in Lewis' work, particularly as regards Narnia.

    Matthew is largely right, I think. Most of philosophy (Western) has its roots somewhere in the ancient Greeks. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the major players if one is considering the roots of modern thought. It is interesting that most individuals seem to be reinterpreters of the past: Freud found a new interpretation underlying Sophocles' Oedipus. Augustine and Aquinas relied heavily on the Greek philosophers. What defines genius is not whether the thought is self-originating, but whether the adaptation stands on its own. That is my opinion at least. One should also realize that the predecessors of Socrates were brilliant in their own right. Pythagorus and the Atomists...I tend to think that educated thought spirals back and forth between extremes - which are embodied largely in Platonism and Aristotelianism...the problem is that not as much data is available for the earlier thinkers. So, I would argue that not even Plato or Aristotle were truly original in their thoughts, but they were different enough to be remembered and they argued for their views in a way which is worthy of remembrance. I might not put Lewis in the same category with these two, or even with Augustine or Aquinas, but he is no less genius because his thoughts are adaptations from a stream of thought. Hope this is constructive

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  5. Yes, we agree that all thinkers of importance have been influenced by someone else. Originality isn't the most important thing, saying something worth saying is how thinkers ought to be evaluated. I'd like to see the history of ideas represented in an accessible form.

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  6. That accessible form, in my very humble opinion, would absolutely, positively need to be a Venn diagram.

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  7. I was thinking more a wiki. Or a huge diagram on a markerboard with lots of boxes and arrows.

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  8. How about we compromise (not really) on something like this?
    http://www.austinkleon.com/2008/07/15/mind-maps-pictures-and-words-in-space/

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  9. YES MIND MAPS ARE CANONICAL

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