In Defense of Original Thought

I take great delight in perusing (if not flat-out reading) the books and essays written by scholarly gentlemen over a century ago. They appear blissfully ignorant of the paragraph, that fairly modern invention; they use a varied, rhetorical sentence structure, in the assumption that the reader knew his grammar; and they produced a wealth of original material. That is, their writings were not stocked with block quotations to support their assertions.

Perhaps my readers have noticed that I rarely quote any sources in my posts. To put it bluntly, sources are overrated. I have no problem with the occasional quote or example from a book, but let these aids not become crutches for the writer. When one is first instructed in the rudiments of essay composition, or when the aspiring speaker is taught the elements of a good speech, he will be advised to pack his rhetorical delivery with extraneous material to boost his credibility. This is all well and good, and I have found it to be very true at times, depending on the subject. However, there is more to the great speech or the great essay than the use of lengthy quotations to establish authority. 

In other words, I am a firm believer in original thought. Let me first point out what this does not mean. “Original thought” does not mean crafting a special idea which has never before occurred to any mortal. “Original thought” does not exclude illustrations, anecdotes, or examples from mutual perceptions of the real world. “Original thought” is not in conflict with the contemplation of a given source and a subsequent reflection on its application. 

To consider an inclusive inverse of each of these qualifications, “original thought” entails a principled explanation of the author’s beliefs as deduced or attained by thorough contemplation of a given subject. 

I suppose this whole thought process has ensued after reading various books in which the author quotes pages and pages of other thinkers in order to support his point. Some of these books have actually been quite interesting and helpful, but it was due more to the strength of logical argumentation than the abundance of quoted material. I should like to see more works in which the sheer weight of the author’s original thought establishes legitimacy and trust from the reader. 

I have recently taken great enjoyment in reading a collection of G.K. Chesterton essays published as The Defendant. Within this slim volume are packed dozens of short musings on the most unusual topics: “A Defense of Skeletons.” “A Defense of Nonsense.” “A Defense of Baby-Worship.” “A Defense of Rash Vows.” “A Defense of Planets.” What is most delightful about these essays is the manner in which Chesterton takes the most mundane subjects, inverts the reader’s perspective, and exposes the faulty presuppositions popularly entertained by society. Particularly fascinating is Chesterton’s appeal to common knowledge, ideas that, due to mutual understanding with the reader, need no further explanation or defense to hinder his line of argumentation. He makes bold assertions and feels no obligation to back these up with a whole book of another author’s ideas. He presents his thoughts, makes his case, and leaves the reader to judge.

Why this shift in writing style? Why do we not find ideas as vigorously defended by original thought? I have a few theories. To establish credibility nowadays, one must quote until his work looks like a mere technicality (see the picture above). This could reflect a multitude of ideas. Could it be that, in the postmodern era, one must vigorously appeal to concrete evidence lest his convictions be dismissed by the premise of epistemological relativism? Could it be that, in an unprecedented age flooded by millions of publications, one must fight to separate himself from the literary rabble? Could it be that common ground is so scarce, and personal experience so varied, that the author and reader may no longer enjoy mutual understanding of things that might have once been common knowledge? Could it be that our individualistic culture has eroded any real sense of “common knowledge”? Could it be that readers are more gullible, quicker to fall for anything that claims authority and backs its position with city blocks of quotation? Could it be that they are more skeptical, slower to fall for anything that does not seem to offer substantial extraneous proof? Could it be that once upon a time, the author stated his case, defended his position with original thought, and trusted the reader to be intelligent enough to decide?

Assertions are glorious things. Let us make statements and defend them to the best of our ability. Let us be thorough and build solid arguments, leaving no stones unturned. I do not wish to be a slave to the postmodern presuppositions which have infiltrated society so deeply as to disrupt that pivotal communication between the author and his reader. 

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