What is inspiration? The word comes from the Latin ‘to breathe in.’ I’m taking that to mean breathing in one’s surroundings to get something from it. The question remains: What are we taking, where are we taking it from, why can we take it from there and why does it make us do things?
I’d like to start by saying I have no idea. I’ve read around and had some thoughts on the subject but I’m not writing to educate people on what inspires me: that does not matter.
Inspiration causes people to do amazing things. It could be argued that it is the thing that has driven all of human history from the fire and the wheel to the symphony and the Space Station. It gives people ideas and passion that fester and grow inside people until it becomes impossible for it to not manifest itself somehow into the world. Inspiration is found in the glimmer on the needle’s end, on the broad-back of a sparrow’s wing, on the reflection in the mirror-like pond and in the face of a loved one. It literally can be found anywhere, so does that mean that we made it up, beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that? Not necessarily. This idea comes from the notion started by Descartes and Kant: That the world is subjective. Art and beauty specifically is subjective. It should be noted that they are among the first to think this idea that has become so common-place today. My opinion that Beethoven’s 5th is better than Justin Bieber’s new single is both pompous and silly as all art always is equal regardless of content. Needless to say, I disagree with this very much.
Plato described the idea of a world of Forms where everything in this world is just an imperfect copy of the epitome of that thing in another world that makes us know what it should look like. For example a chair is a chair because we know it looks like the Perfect Chair of which we have a sort of ancestral memory of. Something is beautiful because is somewhat resembles the Form of beauty. Now what of inspiration? Does it take it shape from a Perfect Inspiration or is it merely the expression of the feeling of great beauty?
The 18th century poet, William Blake, had his own philosophy on the matter: He described what he called the Poetic Inspiration. Blake reasoned that if mankind was biological, he was destined to repeat himself endlessly generation to generation, and is somewhat seen throughout history. The important thing to note is that it doesn’t. New art, music and literature is created, new ideas are had. But why? He reasoned that as a biological creature, there must be some kind of Poetic/Divine Inspiration that caused new ideas to be had in people. I think there might be something in it.
The alternative perspective is that inspiration is made-up to describe the biological processes in the brain that happen when we see something we find interesting. This changes person to person because of the make-up of the brain. I think there’s something that causes that to happen. I see no reason why this can’t be the mechanism for this to happen, but I’d like to think there is more than just chemicals driving the magic of history.
From a Jewish perspective, we believe that all things come from Hashem. All insight, wisdom and beauty comes from Him. To me, this seems very similar if not the same to what Blake described as the Divine Inspiration. At the end of the day, does it really matter? It works, so let it.