RWE

My all-time favorite American ‘thinker’ is unquestionably Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I am still working my way through all of his writings, but what I have read strikes a chord. I will refer to some of his well-known ‘truisms’ often; they are short nuggets that seem to capture big, honest assessments of life in simple terms.

Here is one I read that is particularly fitting to start with:

“Our best thoughts come from others.”

This one strikes me today because (1) By using the quote I’m actually fulfilling its message; (2) I sometimes honestly wonder if I have ever had an original thought in my entire life. If I am truthful about it, almost every opinion that I have, observation that I make, or idea that I spout has been taken directly from some other mind that happened to strike me as true when I first heard/read it. Even when I think I come up with a unique insight, I eventually realize that it was just some rephrasing of something else I had gotten from others.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. But I’m learning that it is particularly true. Even Emerson got most of his ideas from things that had been written before (i.e. The Bhagavad Gita).

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4 comments

  1. I often felt unique insight comes by applying what you already know to a new situation to make a stronger or different point. That then may be your best thought, and true it came from others, but it is now your own. Someone else can then take it and use it as their best thought, and the cycle continues.

    The problem is unique insight either comes from something made up (creative writers, fictional stories, battlestar galactica) or is the result of lots of research. If you’re not making something up to invent insight, or researching to create your own, it can be pretty tough.

    Laura Roslin ’08

  2. I often felt unique insight comes by applying what you already know to a new situation to make a stronger or different point. That then may be your best thought, and true it came from others, but it is now your own. Someone else can then take it and use it as their best thought, and the cycle continues.

    The problem is unique insight either comes from something made up (creative writers, fictional stories, battlestar galactica) or is the result of lots of research. If you’re not making something up to invent insight, or researching to create your own, it can be pretty tough.

    Laura Roslin ’08

  3. Thumbing through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations the other day I had a thought similar to this. What’s so great about reading others’ ideas and phrases if we aren’t coming up with our own?
    Even if we don’t create them ourselves, we can be vessels for them. We can carry them and transmit them to others.
    Besides, when’s the last time anybody said something original? As a history professor of mine used to say- frequently- “There’s nothin’ new under the sun, people.”

  4. Fantastic points. Adaptation and Transportation. That must be the purpose of all us are not among the rare geniuses to come up with thoughts that have never actually existed.

    I feel better now.

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