“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the human spirit.” (Albert Schweitzer)
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously noted “There is properly no history; only biography.” This maxim is often taken to mean that the Great Man makes history. Author Ayn Rand popularized this idea in her novels about the uncompromising genius of the Autonomous men like brilliant the young architect Howard Roark and the heroic John Galt who shows the world its folly by withdrawing from the mediocre rabble. But Emerson would scarcely recognize this portrait.
Emerson was a seminal figure in what is often called the Transcendental Group, a diverse amalgamation of creative thinkers that sprung up around Harvard in the decades before the Civil War. This eclectic community included naturalist Henry David Thoreau, abolitionist Charles Sumner, utopian Bronson Alcott, allegorical novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller to name a few. Emerson believed that the unique character and voice of this new land, America, would be found where original thinkers and practitioners gathered – the intersection where hot ideas met and combusted to shed a new light on things. While the personality, skill and imagination of these participants were an essential part of this creative fire, it was their interaction, their constant contact with each other that set the world ablaze.
From the coffee houses of London where members of the Club of the Honest Whigs such as Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestly met to discuss the ideas that would become the foundation of enlightenment science to the modern University town where unbelievable innovations emerge at the edges of disciplines, creative sparks need to fly in numbers and fall on ready fuel. Growing new ideas from thought to action requires crossing numerous boundaries into the forbidden space where they are intermingled and emerge as a tangible asset of meaningful commerce or altruistic endeavor. Creativity does not follow the mandates of intentionality as it burns a path to terra incognita. The places where we encounter the creative are mad with difference. Even in the desiccating presence of homogeneity and apathy there is still good underbrush to burn. Revolution is less a quality of magnitude and more an attribute of the rate at which ideas ignite. Proximately is a friend to combustion.
Our greatness is borne out in essential contradictions such as the can-do self-reliant individualist who prizes and builds a communal culture with quixotic spiritual practices. The barrage and bang of fresh ideas leads to a form of fluency like the development of new language. Arcane journal articles penned in the vernacular are challenged from all fronts before being translated into the vulgar tongue and reapplied again and over until imperceptibly a revelation appears. The media and the money shout “Eureka” but it was the floating embers of small and unassuming bits of data, careless remarks and temporary connections that enlightened the brilliant moment.
The majority of our brain is devoted to producing and interpreting vision. The rest of it is focused on procreating, snickerdoodle feeding frenzies and general bewilderment regarding the whereabouts of estranged car keys. Though the universal language is said to be mathematics, numbers are hard to recall accurately or manipulate into generative concepts save a few unique geniuses. We remember vivid stories, metaphors and experiences. Consider how Cirque du Soleil took a fading art form and added play, energy and fun to formula to create unforgettable events. Dramatize, fantasize and hypnotize with exhibitions that showcase ideas with flair.
- Diversity produces the constructive conflict necessary for growth