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What, Then, is Creativity?

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Teaching on January 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Last week a student asked me, “What is creativity?” I was unsure how to respond. I felt like the speaker from Leaves of Grass musing about a child, who, fetching a handful of grass, asks him what the grass is. “How could I answer the child?” the speaker wonders. “I do not know what it is any more than he.”

What is creativity? How could I answer the student? I did not know what it was any more than he. My ignorance on this subject nevertheless inspired me to seek understanding, perhaps even a definition, and then to proffer brief, explanatory remarks. Here they are, principally for his benefit but also for mine—and for that of anyone, I suppose, who cares to consider them.

Every human, I think, is the handiwork of God. If humans are created in God’s image, and God is our creator, then humanity’s creativity is, or might be, a limited, earthly, imperfect glimpse into the ways and workings of God. “We too,” said Paul Elmore More, “as possessors of the word may be called after a fashion children of the Most High and sons of the Father, but as creatures of His will we are not of His substance and nature, however we may be like Him.”[1]

Inherently flawed and sinful, humans cannot create what or as God creates and cannot be divine. Our imagination can be powerfully dark, dangerous, and wicked. The Lord proclaimed in the Noahic covenant that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”[2] Construction of the Tower of Babel demonstrated that the unified power of ambitious men laboring together may engender impious unrestraint.[3]

Humans, however, being more rational and intelligent than animals, are supreme among God’s creation and bear the divine image of God. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” asks the psalmist, adding, “and the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hath crowned him with glory and honour.”[4]

Saint Peter—or the author of Second Peter if that book is pseudographical—called humans potential partakers in the divine nature who have escaped the corruption of the world.[5] Saint Paul implied that followers of Christ enjoy something of Christ’s mind, some special understanding of Christ’s instructions.[6] He also suggested that followers of Christ, the saints, will judge not only the world but the angels,[7]beneath whom, in substance, we consist.[8]

What these passages mean, exactly, is subject to robust academic and theological debate, but surely humanity’s crowning artistic achievements—our paintings, sculptures, philosophies, architecture, poetry, theater, novels, and music—are starting points for exploration. What evidence have we besides these tangible products of our working minds that we who are not divine somehow partake in divinity?

Humans are moral, spiritual, social, creative, and loving, unlike the rest of God’s animate creation, only some of which, the animals, are also sentient. Aristotle and Aquinas, to say nothing of the author of Genesis, rank animals lower than humans in the hierarchy of living beings because, although sentient, they lack a discernable will, conscientiousness, consciousness, and capacity for reason that humans definitively possess. Moreover, animals provide humans with the necessary sustenance to survive, and our survival is indispensable to the advancement of knowledge and intelligence, themselves essential to the enjoyment and preservation of God’s creation.

All human life is sacred because of humanity’s godly nature,[9] which is a privilege with coordinate duties and responsibilities: to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue, or care for, the inferior creatures of the earth.[10] However awesome humanity’s creative faculties are, they are not themselves divine, and cannot be. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,” intones the prophet, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[11]

Russell Kirk titled his autobiography The Sword of Imagination. A sword is a bladed weapon with a sharp, lethal point and sharp, lethal edges. It’s the symbol of medieval warriors and Romantic knights. The imagination, powerful like a sword, can be wielded for the forces of good or evil. It’s unsafe. But it can be channeled for moral and virtuous purposes.

Only God can have created something from nothing. That the cosmos exists at all is proof of an originating, ultimate cause, of some supreme power that is antecedent to all material life and form. Human creativity, by contrast, is iterative and mimetic, not the generation of perceptible substance out of an absolute void.

Human creativity builds on itself, repurposing and reinvigorating old concepts and fields of knowledge for new environments and changed conditions. We learn to be creative even if we are born with creative gifts and faculties. Imitative practice transforms our merely derivative designs and expressions into awesome originality and innovation.

Creativity, then, is the ability of human faculties to connect disparate ideas, designs, and concepts to solve actual problems, inspire awe, heighten the emotions and passions, or illuminate the complex realities of everyday experience through artistic and aesthetic expression. The most creative among us achieve their brilliance through rigorous training and a cultivated association with some master or teacher who imparts exceptional techniques and intuitions to the pupil or apprentice; every great teacher was a student once.

Or so I believe, having thought the matter through. It may be that I know no more about creativity than I do about grass. But I know, deeply and profoundly, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and for that I am infinitely and earnestly grateful.

 

Notes:

[1] Paul Elmore More, The Essential Paul Elmer More (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972), p. 55.

[2] Genesis 8:21.

[3] Genesis 11:5-7.

[4] Psalm 8:4-5.

[5] 2 Peter 1:4.

[6] 1 Corinthians 2:16.

[7] 1 Corinthians 6: 2-3.

[8] Psalm 8:4-5.

[9] Genesis 9:6.

[10] Genesis 28.

[11] Isaiah 55:9.

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Emersonian Individualism

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Epistemology, Essays, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on April 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is politically elusive. He’s so elusive that thinkers from various schools and with various agendas have appropriated his ideas to validate some activity or another. Harold Bloom once wrote, “In the United States, we continue to have Emersonians of the Left (the post-Pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the Right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the Second).”[1] We’ll have to excuse Bloom’s ignorance of political movements and signifiers — libertarians who exalt President Bush, really? — and focus instead on Bloom’s point that Emerson’s influence is evident in a wide array of contemporary thinkers and causes.

Bloom is right that what “matters most about Emerson is that he is the theologian of the American religion of Self-Reliance.”[2] Indeed, the essay “Self-Reliance” remains the most cited of Emerson’s works, and American politicians and intellectuals selectively recycle ideas of self-reliance in the service of often disparate goals.

Emerson doesn’t use the term “individualism” in “Self-Reliance,” which was published in 1841, when the term “individualism” was just beginning to gain traction. Tocqueville unintentionally popularized the signifier “individualism” with the publication of Democracy in America. He used a French term that had no counterpart in English. Translators of Tocqueville labored over this French term because its signification wasn’t part of the English lexicon. Emerson’s first mention of “individualism” was not until 1843.

It is clear, though, that Emerson’s notion of self-reliance was tied to what later would be called “individualism.” Emerson’s individualism was so radical that it bordered on self-deification. Only through personal will could one realize the majesty of God. Nature for Emerson was like the handwriting of God, and individuals with a poetical sense — those who had the desire and capability to “read” nature — could understand nature’s universal, divine teachings.

Lakes, streams, meadows, forests — these and other phenomena were, according to Emerson, sources of mental and spiritual pleasure or unity. They were what allowed one to become “part and parcel with God,” if only one had or could become a “transparent eyeball.” “Nothing at last is sacred,” Emerson said, “but the integrity of your own mind.” That’s because a person’s intellect translates shapes and forms into spiritual insights.

We cannot judge Emerson exclusively on the basis of his actions. Emerson didn’t always seem self-reliant or individualistic. His politics, to the extent that they are knowable, could not be called libertarian. We’re better off judging Emerson on the basis of his words, which could be called libertarian, even if they endow individualism with a religiosity that would make some people uncomfortable.

Emerson suggests in “Self-Reliance” that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties, than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. Emerson’s individualism or self-reliance exalted human intuition, which precedes reflection, and it privileged the will over the intellect. Feeling and sensation are antecedent to reason, and Emerson believed that they registered moral truths more important than anything cognition could summon forth.

Emerson’s transcendentalism was, as George Santayana pointed out in 1911, a method conducive to the 19-century American mindset.[3] As a relatively new nation seeking to define itself, America was split between two mentalities, or two sources of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition”: Calvinism and transcendentalism.

The American philosophical tradition somehow managed to reconcile these seeming dualities. On the one hand, Calvinism taught that the self was bad, that man was depraved by nature and saved only by the grace of God. On the other hand, transcendentalism taught that the self was good, that man was equipped with creative faculties that could divine the presence of God in the world. The Calvinist distrusted impulses and urges as sprung from an inner evil. The transcendentalist trusted impulses and urges as moral intuition preceding society’s baseless judgments and prevailing conventions.

What these two philosophies had in common was an abiding awareness of sensation and perception: a belief that the human mind registers external data in meaningful and potentially spiritual ways. The Calvinist notion of limited disclosure — that God reveals his glory through the natural world — played into the transcendentalists’ conviction that the natural world supplied instruments for piecing together divinity.

The problem for Santayana is that transcendentalism was just a method, a way of tapping into one’s poetical sense. What one did after that was unclear. Santayana thought that transcendentalism was the right method, but he felt that Emerson didn’t use that method to instruct us in practical living. Transcendentalism was a means to an end, but not an end itself.

According to Santayana, Emerson “had no system” because he merely “opened his eyes on the world every morning with a fresh sincerity, marking how things seemed to him then, or what they suggested to his spontaneous fancy.”[4] Emerson did not seek to group all senses and impressions into a synthetic whole. Nor did he suggest a politics toward which senses and impressions ought to lead. Santayana stops short of accusing Emerson of advancing an “anything-goes” metaphysics. But Santayana does suggest that Emerson failed to advance a set of principles; instead, Emerson gave us a technique for arriving at a set of principles. Emerson provided transportation, but gave no direction. This shortcoming — if it is a shortcoming — might explain why Bloom speaks of the “paradox of Emerson’s influence,” namely, that “Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.”[5]

For Emerson, human will is paramount. It moves the intellect to create. It is immediate, not mediate. In other words, it is the sense or subjectivity that is not yet processed by the human mind. We ought to trust the integrity of will and intuition and avoid the dictates and decorum of society.

“Society,” Emerson says, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Society corrupts the purity of the will by forcing individuals to second-guess their impulses and to look to others for moral guidance. Against this socialization, Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

Emerson’s nonconformist ethic opposed habits of thinking, which society influenced but did not determine. Emerson famously stated that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What he meant, I think, is that humans ought to improve themselves by tapping into intuitive truths. Nature, with her figures, forms, and outlines, provides images that the individual can harness to create beauty and energize the self. Beauty therefore does not exist in the world; rather, the human mind makes beauty out of the externalities it has internalized. Beauty, accordingly, resides within us, but only after we create it.

Here we see something similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism stripped of its appeals to divinity. Rand believed that reality existed apart from the thinking subject, that the thinking subject employs reason and logic to make sense of experience and perception, and that the self or will is instrumental in generating meaning from the phenomenal world. Read the rest of this entry »

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