Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Creativity, particularity, breakthroughs and losses

I've been reading this week in one of the foundational texts in Augustinian studies, Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo. In this 30th anniversary edition, he has a fascinating epilogue in which he traces new directions in the field and, more importantly, tries to assess his own changing views.

In reading the epilogue, I was struck, deeply, by the following section. It follows a discussion of how Augustine failed to retain an appreciation of cosmos (the world) in a way that was decidedly different than his contemporaries (a topic which I'd like to address later). But what moved me was Brown's opinion, as an historian, of the impact of major shifts in paradigm on the way in which ideas are both immortalized and diminished.

"A touch of sadness at Augustine's failure to respond to the quiet vision of the cosmos still shared by many of his contemporaries is an entirely appropriate emotion in an historian of ideas. For sadness does justice to the irreducible particularity of any truly creative intellectual system. The effect of a major breakthrough in the history of ideas is to block all alternative visions of the world. Thoughts that had been thought with dignity and profit for many centuries become unthinkable. The loss of an entire world-view cannot but be accompanied by the 'leaching-out' of many necessary nutrients. They are lost to future ages. And thus each epoch passes on to the next the intellectual and religious vitamin deficiencies created by its own, most distinctive achievements."

How does this strike you?


Dan Lowe said...

Wow! Maria, that is an amazing quote. I think it really gets at what Terry is trying to accomplish in his challenge of dualism with arguing for a wholistic approach to the way in which we see Scripture and live our lives. Thanks for the food for thought! Love you guys!

billy said...

I really do love this thought...I'm not sure, as Brown seems to suggest, that this is a necessary implication of conceptual breakthroughs...but I do think there is a lot of evidence for what he says in history...perhaps it is true in the general Dan has noted via Terry's work, Greek holdovers in Western thought have been a pretty totalizing influence...but I think there's hope....thanks for the thought...

geoff and sherry said...

i had to read this quote a few (many!) times because i'm a bit slow...but it does evoke a question in me about the interrelatedness of ideas, imaginations, and actions. it seems to me that historical scholarship often lacks what Brown expresses here...pathos.

i also agree with billy that Brown seems to miss or at least devalue the continuity (the ideas/values/actions) that bridge world-views.

my thinking about this has been sparked again by the asm conference and over the last few days i have taken great delight in a quote from william gibson that doug pagitt shared..."the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed."

it might also be true that the best bits of the past are also here but not evenly distributed.

thanks for the quote, maria. please keep sharing the nuggets from your study.