Which Comes First: Thought or Writing Implement?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Friedrich Nietzsche, an influential German philosopher of the 19th century, once wrote: “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”.   He wrote this about 150 years ago, when typewriters were coming into vogue.   What would he say of our “writing equipment” today?  Our mastery of electronic modes of communication is mind-boggling, and is advancing by leaps and bounds on a yearly basis.

We may pay little attention to this, as if it didn’t matter that much, or, if it did, it’s all for the better.  And yet, if we can turn the clock back to the latter half of the 19th century, when Nietzsche wrote the above, that is, to the time of the Civil War in this country, we have memories of the letter-writing achievements of the men in the blue and the gray as they sat in their trenches on the eve of a major battle, one of the score of such that resulted in the greatest number of fatalities in any war involving Americans.  And these letters, penned or penciled in the trenches of both sides, amid the cold, the dampness, the penury of food, drink, and sleep, and coupled with the certainty that their ranks would be notably diminished over the next few hours.  These letters were written to mothers, wives, sweethearts, daughters and sons, and they were kept and treasured over the years as things of beauty, for such they were.  American TV reconstructed some of these often final messages of love and affection in a memorable series a number of years ago, and as we listen to them now, we wonder how men of 8th grade education, and less, could pen such sentiments of beauty under such forbidding circumstances.  “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”.

Our writing equipment, since then, has notably changed.  In matters of correspondence, we no longer need stationery, stamps, pen or pencil.   We can write faster now than then, and in greater volume.  Correspondence has changed from one-on-one to mass production, via facebook or twitter.  Whereas formerly most of us did not have a “public” audience, but expressed ourselves to a limited number of persons, now our thoughts and modes of expression can be shared with many others.  What effect does this have on us?  Do we cease to be a private person, and become a public one?  Must we secure an ID and a password to preserve some measure of privacy.  Does this affect our thoughts, as Nietzsche suggested?  And, in doing so, is it a constraint on us, or an expansion?  Are we forced into silence on certain issues lest we “get in trouble”?  Must we be extra cautious and not express  ourselves in certain ways, lest we suffer consequences?  Is our capacity for doing good expanded, or is writing in a certain way now dangerous?   In short, is great writing now a thing of the past, or has it now become the prerogative of us all?  “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”.

Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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