Guest Post Written by Michael Toalster
This question (or rather, the question "Can anyone be original?") has been considered by many deep thinkers, ranging back to the Ancient Greeks (and maybe beyond). Even though we admire the results of many people's thinking (Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" or Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), did they really invent new ideas? Or were they just assembling old thoughts and creating their own (admittedly, admirable) works, as a kind of patchwork from existing material?
Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers in ancient times, argued that we humans study the world, learn to understand it, and change it, as we go along. So, in his world, "Moby Dick" is, indeed, a new creation, produced by Melville, and without him it would never have been written.
This seems most logical, and few people would argue that anyone but Melville could have written the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale, but does this novel really capture the whole dilemma of a man in war with the world around him?
Plato (another great philosopher in Ancient Greece, and the teacher of Aristotle) might have said that the basic idea behind "Moby Dick", of a man fighting the world, because he blames his misfortune on it, cannot be invented (by, say, Melville, or Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice"), but that these ideas are all around us, and they exist in a separate "sphere" which we can explore, but neither add to nor subtract from.
According to Plato, all ideas, and all ways of treating them already exist in an ideal "store of thoughts". All mathematical theorems lie there, together with all human problems, those we have already encountered (war, jealousy, hunger) and those we cannot even imagine yet. And all poems already exist in Plato's heavenly sphere, together with all paintings and films, both the ones already made and also the ones that may ever be made. Plus an infinity of works that never will be produced.
Plato's "heavenly sphere of ideals" is a wonderful thought, but his student Aristotle was a more worldly man. In Plato's world, we can only discover what is already present (and in his world, every idea already exists, even if we don't know it). Aristotle, however, said that Plato's "sphere of ideas" was empty at one point, and that just by thinking thoughts we add to it.
So, as I write this, I could be merely discovering something that has always existed in the Platonic collection of all possible writings, or I might be creating something completely new, that no one before me has ever considered, and I'd join Aristotle's point of view.
On the whole, I think I'd prefer to be an Aristotelian.