A few years ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers. I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.
During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area. I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful. Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.
The theory runs something like this. . .
Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.
- Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
- Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
- Greece had the Mediterranean
- Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
- London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
- The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
- In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.
Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds. Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes. Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.
And so on, and so on.
Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water. The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated. Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.
Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water. But I disagree. The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse. The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc. Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations. Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water. I still think there must be something to water itself.
A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.
But I think that this puts the cart before the horse. For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired. It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things. In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.
“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft.
There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed! Yee-ha!”
He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself. It is where we came from.” And with that, he politely excused himself.
Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all. I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense. Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water. Our new creation involves the waters of baptism. 1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood. I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water. The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1. There is the Tradition of the Church which portrays Mary hearing the Annunciation, with the attendant re-creation of all things through the Incarnation, sitting by a well. The creation of the “new Adam” would obviously take us back to Genesis 1, just as St. John does in the opening of his gospel.
In the Odyssey (13.102-112) Homer refers to a cave sacred to nymphs which contains “ever flowing springs of water.” Also in the cave are “jars made of stone,” along with “looms, likewise of stone, in which the nymphs weave sea-purple garments.” The Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry writes,
The “garments of sea-purple” are obviously the flesh, which is woven together from blood; the sea-purple dye is derived from blood, and the wool that it colors is also the vital fluids of animals. All flesh is thus fashioned from blood through blood . . .
To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time. He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal. I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water. Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.