C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

One of my favorite Frenchmen.

I’ll admit, I suffer from creative constipation from time to time. You know what I’m talking about: feeling like you want to write, you have to write, but you simply can’t. I had a severe bout of it for a few years between my last blog, back in the Myspace days, and starting this one. I had a lot of fun with my old blog until I started reading good writers and deep thinkers. At that point I realized most of what I had to say had already been said by someone smarter, funnier, wiser, and generally in every way better than I ever could. (90% of the time it was C.S. Lewis.) With that, I kind of lost my will to write. It’s not so much that I didn’t like writing, but that I had trouble seeing the point–I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who’s been troubled by that thought.

Two of my intellectual and literary heroes have some wisdom for those of us struggling with the problem of “being original”:

Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better. –Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Pascal was writing an apologetic for the Christian faith. He readily acknowledged that the content, the point, the truth of what he was speaking was nothing new. In fact, that was the point–he was trying to convince his skeptical, intellectual friends to re-engage, to accept the very old truth of Christianity. At the same time his apologetic method, his style, the questions he asked, were different, and “original” in that sense. He had produced a new “arrangement” of the material.

Lewis makes the same point with even less of an emphasis on being consciously original. He simply advises that we ought to “try and tell the truth” as best we know how and the odds are, given our unique wiring and design, it will end up being original. In fact, that’s one of the interesting things I’ve come to see about Lewis himself.

The first time I read Mere Christianity I thought it was amazing simply because it was so new–Lewis was pointing me to insights and truths I had never encountered, in ways I couldn’t have imagined for myself. As the years past, though, the more theology I read I came to recognize a great deal of other authors, thinkers, theologians, and presentations peeking through the edges of what Lewis was doing. Lewis’ originality lay not so much in the newness of his ideas–he would have denied any originality for himself at that point–but, like Pascal, in his peculiar talent at making the old seem new and the difficult, accessible to the men and women of his own day. He didn’t do it by changing anything for them, but rather by both listening and speaking to them.

If you’re having trouble “being original”, take a lesson from Pascal and Lewis: find something you believe in, a truth you’re passionate about and strive to communicate it as best you can to those around you. If you do that, originality will take care of itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and Pascal on the Problem of “Being Original”

  1. Thanks for this post. I read it at the perfect time. Many times, I feel the pain of intellectual constipation as well (probably going to steal that from you and use it as my own…. 🙂 Good post. Very encouraging. Blessings, Brother.

    LB

  2. Pingback: Vanhoozer’s 10 Theses On “Remythologizing” in Plain(er) English | Reformedish
  3. Pingback: Originality and Neophilia: Lewis, Pascal and the Preacher’s Dilemma | Leaven on Earth

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