In November 2013 my students and I had the honor of a visit from Annette Kirk, widow of Russell Kirk. Mrs. Kirk led us in a discussion of her husband’s classic essay “The Moral Imagination.” The term moral imagination actually comes from Edmund Burke, the 18th century author of Reflections on the Revolution in France and father of modern conservatism. Burke believed that the French revolutionaries were systematically destroying the critical, civilizing influences that are necessary to preserve valuable culture.
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
Kirk elaborated on the moral imagination brilliantly. “The moral imagination,” he wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” It goes beyond our personal, individual experiences to help us fathom the depths of human dignity in light of God’s creation. It “instructs us that we are more than naked apes.”It has been practiced by a diverse pantheon of great artists, from Virgil and Dante to Eliot and Tolkien. Our lives are all much richer for it.
What Kirk feared, and what we today experience more and more as Unlightenment grips our country, is the eclipse of moral imagination by the idyllic imagination, first spun out by Jean Jacques Rousseau–the “insane Socrates of the National Assembly” as Burke called him. Idyllic imagination “rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.” It breaks down tried and true existing orders for the sake of dangerous and untested new ones. America witnessed an idyllic wave in the 1960s and 70s, but the idyllic imagination has plagued us more or less since the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s.
According to Kirk, “The idyllic imagination ordinarily terminates in disillusion and boredom.” This is because 1) the radical novelties seldom meet expectations and are always accompanied by unintended consequences. And 2) a narrative that is all about breaking down the prevailing order usually has nothing more to offer once the proposed deconstruction has been more or less accomplished.
The idyllic imagination is bad enough, but unfortunately, when disillusion and boredom set in, the idyllic often gives way to the diabolic imagination. The diabolic imagination, says Kirk, “delights in the perverse and subhuman.” He points us to T.S. Eliot who discussed it in his classic work, After Strange Gods:
“The number of people in possession of any criteria for discriminating between good and evil is very small; the number of the half-alive hungry for any form of spiritual experience, or for what offers itself as spiritual experience, high or low, good or bad, is considerable.My own generation has not served them very well. Never has the printing press been so busy, and never have such varieties of buncombe and false doctrine come from it. Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”
Sadly, we are very much in the grip of the diabolic imagination today. Kirk thought so in 1981, and his concerns are even more pressing now. And the consequences are profound. “As literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin.” This is precisely what we mean here by Unlightenment–the sinking into ruin by the very choices we ourselves make. Nobody the perverse and the subhuman upon us. We choose it for ourselves.
But we ought not fall into despair. As Mrs. Kirk reminded me and my students, the best way to counter a bad story is a good story. Russell Kirk did exactly that, and we can look to his example. Let each of us use the art, the wit, the comeliness, and the imagination God gave us to tell stories of redemption rather than corruption. And in so doing, we can roll back the darkness of Unlightenment.
Books on the topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.