The Wisdom of Borrowed Wisdom

A pie chart depicting Original Ideas and a multitude of its variants (a.k.a: copycats, plagiarism, borrowed wisdom) would predominantly show one colour, with a tiny slice marked ‘Originals’.

Yes, Adams (and Eves, equally, of course) have evolved from make-shift undergarment adornments to sophisticated forms of camouflaging reproductive essentials. Yes, Einstein broke new ground – and many hearts, particularly, the long-dead Newton’s – with his Relativity Theory. Yes, the Wright brothers gave bored humans an interesting pastime of craning their disobedient necks up to the skies. Yes, my hat doffs itself to the fellow(s) who invented wheels. And the lamp. And the telephone. And corruption. And…

The writer in me often experiences epiphanies and the associated bursts of delusional happiness triggered by the serendipitous discovery of an ‘original’ thought. It is an exhilarating feeling…that lasts till realization dawns that the original thought is a concoction-of-a-choice-mix-of-interesting ideas, which, in turn, are concoctions-of-a-choice-mix-of-interesting ideas; originally developed by lethargic human beings experimenting with novel ways of befriending weekends. The illuminating discovery of one’s ignorance is a profoundly humbling experience for the discoverer.

The paucity of original ideas is the norm rather than the exception. A patient search through history almost always culminates in a heart-breaking discovery. That most seemingly ‘original’ things had already been discovered by a forgotten someone in some forgotten century. Particularly in the BC era, one may learn that the original discoverers lacked the means to tap the ever-ready-to-please-and-be-pleased media (which were sadly non-existent), or, were generally inept at advertising/propaganda, or, were busy procreating in an effort to save humanity from the devil of extinction, or, plainly, couldn’t care less.

Newton and Leibniz were locked in a long war over ownership of Calculus. Before reluctantly foraying into the World of Dangerous Symbols, I preferred focusing on the battle between the heavyweight math jocks. Apart from taking apple hits to his intelligent head, Newton was a top salesman, a master at the art of propaganda and Machiavellian politics. (But he still lost money speculating in the Tulip mania, giving birth to the adage: You did a Newton. But, I digress).

Centuries have passed since the invention of Calculus. And the majority of successive generations of students have, at various points and with varying intensity, detested Newton for his ‘original’ idea. Of what use is an original idea when it only manages to leave mentally damaging effects on a large section of humanity? (Yes, there are calculus lovers. But they inhabit the tiny slice of a pie depicting lovers and non-lovers). It is safe to posit that the sum of benefits derived by humanity from original ideas have not justified the labours of the inventor(s). At best, the return has been negligible, with benefits accruing to a small set of humanity; and at worst, it has been collectively deflating.

Can you imagine a scenario where a group is forced to discuss truly original ideas every single time they meet? Borrowed wisdom serves multiple purposes. Apart from freeing up vital brain-time to indulge in idle endeavours, it confers on the ‘discoverer’, an appearance of rare intellectual endowments. Plagiarism/borrowed wisdom greatly aids social interaction by enabling adherents to tout their intellectual wares in a refined manner. This is particularly pleasing to a large section of humanity that delights in assuming credit for ideas painstakingly discovered after a few quick Google Searches, auto-corrected for typos. Of course, they accept praises with equanimity and an admirable sense of monkish detachment.

Borrowed wisdom often sets off a self-perpetuating cycle that ends with the Original Plagiariser. The idea, subjected to several creative iterations, arrives at the Original Plagiariser in an unrecognisable form. This serves to elevate the stature of the Penultimate Messenger in the eyes of the Original Plagiariser. The process continues till a critical mass is reached when the group grows bored at the collective level of originality.

Well, the innovative plagiarists are quick to remind me that the very act of re-bottling old wine is itself an ‘original’. Philosophical, indeed. Admittedly, many in the plagiarists’ camp are truly ignorant folk without an inkling of the existence of vast amounts of findings in the past. And ignorant folk cannot be accused of plagiarism on moral grounds. Ignorance and its sibling – delusion – provide some unforgettable moments of amusement.

The pursuit of a path-breaking idea, with its massive investments of time, mind and papers of value; for an uncertain return and a likely position in the annals of the Hated and Ignored, just does not seem appealing to me. Borrowed wisdom, on the other hand, is a very lucrative proposition, flush with monetary and non-monetary payoffs. So whenever I feel the urge to dream up something original, a quick rehash of the past and (dubious) mental accounting of the costs and benefits, lead me to seek refuge in the large slice of the Originals and Non-originals Pie.

PS: I honestly disclose that I have no idea if the theme behind the above is an original or a case of repackaged wisdom. I’d be delighted if it’s the former. And in case it’s the latter, I hope the post succeeds in conveying an appearance of originality.