Imitation is an Art – Part I: Originality, History, and “Chronological Snobbery”

Imitation is a fundamental principle to all human activity, with a special place in education, the arts, and moral philosophy. In an age that emphasizes originality, however, imitation is often discouraged. Children and adults alike are urged at every turn to seek individuality, or originality, and to blaze their own trail in distinguishing themselves from everyone else they know. This is admittedly an attractive pitch: who wouldn’t want to stand out from the crowd? Who wouldn’t want to be recognized for being different?

And yet there is a lurking irony here. One need only tweak the emphasis on that rhetorical question to see that in fact one of the things we fear is standing out too much, or standing out in a way we are not comfortable with, or which may be misunderstood. There is risk in being original, therefore. iI the modern world, our originality can’t be too original, lest it be misconstrued and become a source of derision. For it is actually recognition and affirmation that we seek; originality is more often than not a means to this end, but in a way that also enables us to see the unique value (at a surface level) which we supposedly bring, distinguishing ourselves from others in an age obsessed with difference, diversity, and – perhaps more basically – value-added productivity. Are we making our mark in the global marketplace of individuality? In our world of digital news and social media, the paradoxical quest for the perfect balance of individual originality and social acceptance drives many to the heights of anxiety.

And anxiety is precisely the right word to use here; angst, in German. Literary critic Harold Bloom has studied and written about the emergence of this uniquely modern phenomenon of anxiety. He notes how European and American novelists and poets during the late 18th and early 19th c. period of Romanticism suffered from what he called the “anxiety of influence,” that is, the fear of their work being perceived as deriving not from their own original creative genius, but from the influence of earlier works of art or other artists. In these turbulent times of burgeoning emphasis on individual uniqueness – the adolescence of the modern age – to have one’s creative work deemed “derivative” or “unoriginal” was a significant insult.

Bloom’s work illuminates what was a new phenomenon on the landscape of the modern “social imaginary,” to use Charles Taylor’s term for the collective worldview of a cultural period. For what characterizes the mindset of earlier historical periods in the West would be, in fact, precisely the opposite, something we could call “the anxiety of originality.” In the classical and medieval worlds, artistic and intellectual productions were careful to ground themselves in a larger, longstanding tradition or history of expression or thought that would guarantee the worthiness and acceptance of new works and writings. But this was in part because in those earlier periods people placed a high value on the past and its achievements, and on what had been cumulatively tested and enshrined in tradition.

But tradition was not a collection of fossilized artifacts; creative development and a dynamic process of dialogue renews, each generation, the content of tradition, simply by nature of the fact that time marches onward and new challenges have to be met, and problems addressed. But in the premodern age, the scales of value tipped the other way than they do today, toward a valuation of what came before, rather than on the “unending march of the new and improved.” By locating wisdom in the past, rather than the present, there is a humility to the classical and medieval perspective.

On the other hand, the modern approach – for all its technical and scientific progress – in assuming that anything prior to itself is therefore automatically of less value, tends toward the vice of pride, and all its retinue. Would we trade the whole world – material and mundane success and achievement – for our own soul? Past ages knew that wisdom outweighs convenience, and that moral integrity and spiritual purity outlives even death.

Past ages did not see themselves as the height of human glory; in turn, they sought genuinely to imitate ancient heroes. Our age prizes itself above all, guilty of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” and thus tends to consider itself in need of no improvement, politically or otherwise. Hence we are less energetic in seeking out mentors, models, and exemplars of virtue.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in “On the reading of old books”, a preface to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He later says that for the blindness of each age, including our own, to its own errors, “the only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only be reading old books.”

Lewis provides all the reason we need to take seriously the question of whether there might, in an age of originality, still be a place for imitation. He himself stands on the shoulders of giants in insisting that the best place for us – and our children – to start, is to learn from and imitate the best of what has come before us, hopeful that it will, in our particular present time, come to new life. If we don’t remember to bring into the present the wisdom of the past, by modeling our lives after the paradigms of virtue the past provides, we will almost certainly be subject to errors to which we will remain blind, and misconceptions that will remain hidden to us. The present is the future of the past – the least we can do is remember this, and imitate what it has given us that is of enduring value.