The Imagined Divine
In 1305, the adjective ‘divine’ in English meant ‘of a god’. By 1470, a weakened sense of the word had evolved, meaning ‘excellent’. In the same period, the etymology of the verb form involved the idea ‘to make out by supernatural insight’. By the early 15th century, another concept emerged in association with the verb ‘divine’: the act of guessing.
What’s most interesting is that this shift parallels a change in the way western culture understood creativity. Prior to the Renaissance, a ‘genius’ was a guardian or spirit that watched over a person from birth. During the Renaissance, this spirit comes to reside within. Before, everyone had a ‘genius’. After, and through the last six centuries, persons of great talent—and only those persons–are said to possess genius.
When genius resides outside of the human mind, it is strong, supernatural, full of god. Once genius is seen to reside within the human, the meaning of ‘divine’ undergoes pejoration, the process by which connotations of a word become less favourable. While the meaning of ‘divine’ is still positive, it’s less so. The human genius may produce something excellent, but it’s something not quite as ‘full of god’ and perhaps created only by guesswork.
This may partly explain why artists and writers are so often disappointed with the final results of their creative work. In the early flush of an idea, all seems possible. We are closer to the earlier connotations of ‘divine’. Our imagination is capable of conceiving something of the gods, full of god; but our human capacity is weaker than our imaginations.
The imagined divine is a distant horizon, receding as we approach.
For an interesting take on the idea of creativity and genius, hear Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, give her inspiring views on TED.com.