On Being Original

Capitola, July 2009

I’m posting the following quote here as a reminder, so that I have it where I can find it online and not just on a piece of paper that I might lose.

It is indisputably evident that a great part of every man’s life must be employed in collecting materials for the exercise of Genius. Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory; nothing can come of nothing: he who has laid up no materials can produce no combinations.

A Student unacquainted with the attempts of former adventurers is always apt to over-rate his own abilities; to mistake the most trifling excursions for discoveries of moment, and every coast new to him for a new-found country. If by chance he passes beyond his usual limits, he congratulates his own arrival at those regions which they who have steer’d a letter course have long left behind them.

The productions of such minds are seldom distinguished by an air of originality: they are anticipated in their happiest efforts; and if they are found to differ in any thing from their predecessors, it is only in irregular sallies and trifling conceits. The more extensive therefore your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention; and–what may appear still more like a paradox, the more original will be your conceptions.

Sir Joshua Reynolds
(President of the English Royal Academy

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