Tabula Rasa

Published December 29, 2022

By Lib Campbell

2023 begins with resolutions and revolutions around the world. Yet it is offered to us as a blank slate. What are we prepared to write on it? Is it really blank?

Tabula rasa as a philosophy has existed since the time of Aristotle. Tabula rasa, the blank slate, suggests that human beings are born without built in mental content. We are born with senses through which we learn and know the world. From Aristotle to Avicenna in the 11th century, to Descartes in the 17th, to Freud in the 19th, the blank slate underlies the discussion of nature or nurture in human development.

What is spoken into us, by parents, teachers, news media, and others, imprints our minds with knowledge. The words that fill our ears, what we hear, shapes our lives. What we hear can’t be unheard. The same is true with what we see. When we see a president shot on a grassy knoll in Dallas or see an angry mob tear violently through the U.S. Capital, or when we see a police officer press his knee into George Floyd’s neck, we cannot unsee these things. They are part of the body of knowledge and content of our being.

The same could be said about what we smell. Fragrance of cookies baking, a wood fire, a Christmas tree kindle memories in us. We know because we smell, because we taste, because we touch. In John Locke’s essay, “Concerning Human Understanding,” he argues that “at birth the mind is a blank slate that we fill with ideas as we experience the world through the five senses.”

Good or bad is written in us by what we perceive through our senses.

Thomas Aquinas brought the idea of tabula rasa into Christian thought in the 13th century. It is the promise of new beginnings that are exactly what the start of a new day or new year afford. That is the good news of tabula rasa.

If that which is imprinted in our knowledge and understanding is deep in our psyche and our soul, are we ever again presented with the blank slate on which to write a new thing? I think of the magic pad with the stylus and the black wax underneath a sheet of plastic. You write, then lift the plastic, and the words are gone. Until one day the marks don’t go away. Like an Etch-a-sketch on its last legs little lines don’t go away. White erase boards are the same. The markings remain even after the eraser has done its best.

The lesson of the tabula rasa is the lesson of wax and melting. When the wax on the tablet is warmed and smoothed, all the marks are gone. The tablet is ready to receive a new writing. Being warmed, melting some of the hurt and pain, anger or grievance is interior work. It’s the kind of work we list when we make our New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to lose weight, to clean the house, to be kinder, to write a new page of goodness in our lives. This is the stuff of “melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.”

Those things we live from the content of our understandings can be stubborn to change or evolve, especially if we continue feeding our minds with ugly words and hate-filled visions. Reckoning, reconciliation, and a little re-writing on a blank slate offer hope in a coming new year. We can sing a new song, make a different choice, find our way home, and resolve to be part of the healing of the world. That is the gift of the tabula rasa. What will you write anew? Happy New Year!

Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader, columnist and host of the blogsite She can be contacted at