Inspiration is a Gift from the Gods. Right. Let’s start our historical review with the Big 3: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I will shortly mention the first, focus on the second and end with the third. and the words inspiration, madness, demons or demonic possession. The first word sounds positive to us, the other words not really. For the Greeks, they were all the same.
Socrates (470 BCE – 399 BCE), you know the guy that asked questions that people found too difficult so they killed him (and that is the start of civilization, how civilized). He talked about ‘the demon as a divine gift granted to a few individuals’ (Becker, 2011: p.70).
This possession by the Gods Plato referred to as divine inspiration or divine madness.
And Aristotle doesn’t have a different name for inspiration. But he is important because he is the founder of association theory, and if you know anything about creativity, you know about association. Also, read article CQ4
for more on associating as idea generation.
This article is not only on Plato’s ‘divine inspiration’ but also on Aristotle’s association theory, free extra.
You might have heard of Zeus. In Greek mythology, he was the supreme God. The one God that ruled them all. Zeus had nine daughters. (Hm, I think I found Tolkien’s inspiration, I’ll get back to him later). And if you created a poem in Ancient Greece, those nine daughters had something to do with it.
Zeus’ nine daughters were called the Muses. Muse is a word that is still used as a person that inspires an artist. The verb ‘to inspire’ means ‘to breathe into’ in Latin. So, sniff on nine girls and get creative. In the 1960s we started sniffing on other stuff to get ideas… To get an idea was to be inspired by the Muses (Dacey, 2011).
‘Poetry is the highest form of creation’
It was Plato (427-327 BCE) who was credited for explaining this possession by the Muses as ‘divine inspiration’. He argued that the Muses possessed the mind of a poet that brought him to the creation of poems.
Plato only discusses the work of poets as a result of divine inspiration. According to Plato, the work of a painter was not divine. Because the painter was only trying to capture the beauty of nature. And because nature was already an imitation of the idea of nature, a painter was producing an imitation of an imitation (Sawyer 2012, p19).
Plato’s entire theory was based on ideas. He argues that there is an ‘idea world’ and that everything we see is an imitation of that world. Check out his works to find out more, I’m not a trained Plato philosophist.
If we transform his argument into current language: a poet is creative and an artist like a painter is an imitator and ‘just a craftsman’ or worse, a Chinese copyist.
Even though the focus of creativity was on poems. Divine inspiration was not only possible for poetry but also for other art forms that were not imitations of the idea world.
According to Dacey 2011, the nine Muses all had their own specialty: ‘Calliope for epic and heroic poetry; Clio of history; Erato for love poetry; Euterpe for music and lyric poetry; Melpomene for tragedy; Polyhymnia for songs or hymns to the gods; Terpsichore for dance; Thalia for comedy; and Urania for astronomy.’ Zeus must have been proud of his daughters’ diverse competences.
There is more, and this is great stuff.
The Bicameral Mind
In Ancient Greece, it was believed that the brain had two chambers. (Read writings on Homer for more on those two chambers). In the first chamber, you are able to breathe in the girls, in other words, divine inspiration enters the first chamber. And the second chamber was for ‘ordinary mechanism such as speech and writing’ (Dacey, 2011: p.609). If you had written a great poem, you were complimented for producing the poem but not for inventing or creating it. It was one of the Muses that gave you inspiration, and you should feel honored about it.
Divine inspiration = divine madness.
Let’s see some of the writings attributed to Plato.
The creative poet needs divine madness:
the madness of those who are possessed by the Muses: which taking hold of a delicate and virgin soul, and their inspiring frenzy, awakens lyrical and all other numbers; with these adorning the myriad actions of ancient heroes for the instructions of posterity. But he who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art – he, I say, and his poetry are not admitted; the sane man disappears and is nowhere when he enters into rivalry with the madman.”
(Blackburn, 2014, in: Paul and Kaufman, 2014, p.147).
And/or in Ion:
“The poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and unable to utter his oracles.”(Blackburn, 2014: p.147).
As you see from these quotations Plato uses both words to say the same thing. And in Latin, there is no difference between the words inspiration and madness (Eysenck, 1995).
And from Plato, we move to Aristotle. Now, for Plato, there is no credit for the person himself in the creative process. If you came to an ‘act of creation’, you were simply lucky because the Gods chose you. The fact that you had to translate the inspiration into a poem or so, was of no importance for him. This is where Aristotle differs in opinion. Aristotle gives credit to the person that created the poem where Plato did not (Dacey, 2011; Weiner, 2000).
Aristotle and associating
OK, I promised an association theory, but it is not really a theory. It is more that Aristotle laid the foundations for this theory.
According to Aristotle, thinking started with the person’s own thoughts. And this is what we still believe of course. I hope you see that is radically different from Plato’s idea, that thinking starts with inspiration. And thinking is a process of jumping from idea to idea: to associate. Ideas were connected based on time and space and they were either similar or opposite from the remembered events.
Aristotle didn’t put the effort into pursuing this part of his theory and the idea of the Bicameral mind remained the main idea for centuries (Dacey, 2011).
Conclusions: Back to the present
>We might laugh at the idea of the two chambers and the Muses, but the idea of inspiration in relation to creativity is very much alive. The idea that there is a relationship between creativity and insanity was founded by the Ancient Greeks. To be ‘out of his senses’ as quoted in Ion, or to be ‘possessed’. History explains how madness became insanity. It all started in the Romantic Age, which will return next week.
And also, Aristotle is not only the founding father of how we see science but also of the association theory.
Something to think about…
I promised to get back to Tolkien. For ‘non-Lord of the Rings fans’, Tolkien is the author of this book (yes there was a book before the film). I find it remarkable how easy it is to skip from Plato to Aristotle without really noticing it, and through a small sentence between brackets.
I write ‘I think I found Tolkien’s inspiration.’ Why did Zeus and his Muses make me think of Lord of the Rings? It was my association with something similar in a different time and space* (Aristotle). But I call it inspiration (Plato). Maybe what we call inspiration today is actually an association as Aristotle meant it to be. Like I said, something to think about.
* In Lord of the Rings there is a bad ‘guy’ who is supremely bad. He has nine slaves. So we have one supreme, nine side-kicks: Supreme Zeus and his nine daughters. See the link…
Next week we will find out where the idea of the genius comes from. And below you also find the cards for weeks ten and eleven.
Thanks for reading and I wish you a pleasant continuation of your day.
The creativity quartet combines my knowledge of and experience with creativity. Just like any other person I have experience with creativity as long as I live, but more deliberate when I started studying Industrial Design Engineering in 2001. I have over fifteen experience in facilitating and training creativity. My interest in creativity theory started in 2015. And I’m currently looking into doing promotional research on creating an overview of creativity theories. What you read in the articles are my interpretations of the truth. If you have something to add to that, please do so. Ending with my favorite quote on creativity by Maya Angelou:
“You can never use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
- Becker, G. (2011). “Mad Genius Controversy”, Encyclopedia of Creativity: Second Edition, eds. Runco, M. A. and Pritzker S.R., London, UK: Academic Press, 2011, Vol 2. pp. 69-74.
- Blackburn, S. (2014). “Creativity Not-So-Dumb Luck”, in: The Philosophy of Creativity, eds. Paul, E. S. and Kaufman S. B. New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 147-156.
- Dacey, J. (2011). “Historical Conceptions of Creativity”, in Encyclopedia of Creativity: Second Edition, eds. Runco, M. A. and Pritzker S.R., London, UK: Academic Press, 2011, Vol 1. pp. 608-616.
- Eysenck, H. J. (1995). Genius: The natural history of creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press. Digital print 2003.
- Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.