John Stuart Mill and C. S. Lewis on Originality

Originality is the opposite of orthodoxy. As such, originality is much more controversial in practice than the ritual praise our culture heaps on originality would suggest. So when face to face with an actual instance of originality, it is worth remembering what John Stuart Mill wrote about originality in On Liberty chapter III, “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 11:

… originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive …

For those who value originality of the world-improving kind John Stuart Mill writes of, C. S. Lewis gives good advice in Emily Sutherland’s poster at the top of this post. (I like the way Emily polishes this gem from the original passage.) What C. S. Lewis says reminds me of something I often say to myself in touchy situations: “If I think hard enough, there has to be some way to get away with telling the truth.”