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Like many of you, I am sure, my first encounter with the term “the moral imagination” came through reading Russell Kirk. In an attempt to make better sense of what, for me, was a problematic concept, I followed Kirk back to his admitted predecessors on this matter, Irving Babbitt and Edmund Burke. I must confess that, even with the assistance of these additional authorities, the term for a long time remained unclear.

For years I was under the influence of and puzzled by phrases such as these from Kirk:

  1. “decay in moral imagination” (The Roots of American Order, 445)
  2. “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth” (“The Perversity of Recent Fiction,” 71). (Note that Kirk’s language suggests that in the absence of “right order” there is no moral imagination.)
  3. “the moral imagination…[has] been virtually extirpated…” (this is a comment pertaining to a condition described in a piece of fiction that Kirk is analyzing)
  4. “an elite without moral imagination” (“Decadence and Renewal in Education,” 406).
Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

I could go on, but there is no point in doing so.

There is a similar problem in Babbitt. Indeed, Kirk (and not Kirk alone, I might add) draws heavily upon an aspect of Babbitt’s account that troubled me. What I am referring to is Babbitt’s delineation of various forms of imagination, of which the moral imagination is one. For Babbitt (and for Kirk after him) some people have moral imagination and some do not. Those who do not might instead possess the “diabolical” or some other form of imagination. Within such classification Rousseau (allegedly in the grips of “the idyllic imagination”) fares poorly with Babbitt.

At the same time, I found in Kirk and Babbitt references to the moral imagination that seemed to be eminently sensible:

  1. “Mankind is governed by imagination” (“The Wise Men Know…,” 306)
  2. “Not pure reason, but imagination—the high dream or the low dream—is the moving force in private life and public” (ibid., 307)
  3. “By the ‘moral imagination,’ Burke signifies the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events” (“The Moral Imagination,” 207).
  4. “For we cannot attain very well to enduring standards if we rely simply on actual personal experience as a normative mentor” (ibid., 213).

Gentle reader, I realize that you are tiring of quotations, but let me conclude with two of my favorites from Kirk:

  1. “We become what others, in a voice of authority, tell us we are or ought to be” (“The Moral Imagination,” 215); and
  2. It should be our task “to form a normative consciousness” and this “ought to be the joint work of family and school” (ibid.).

So here is my problem. The first set of four references seems incompatible with the second set of six. I was able to embrace the latter but not the former. This is because the first phrases suggest that moral imagination is something that can be lost and that it exists in some persons but not in others. I believe this untrue. Rather, as suggested by the second batch of quotations, I believe that all of us possess moral imagination but that its quality can and does vary considerably. In short, moral imagination refers not to a content but instead to a capacity susceptible to a range of content. This distinction is vitally important because it sets out in bold relief what prove to be the truly significant questions.

Both Kirk and Babbitt cite Burke from Reflections on the Revolution in France where he speaks of “the wardrobe of a moral imagination” (see, for example, “The Perversity of Modern Fiction,” 70). The notion of “wardrobe”—a place where valuable things are kept (and also, I would say, a word standing for those things themselves)—seems to me apt because the role of imagination is to capture or represent the world to an individual in a certain way. The wardrobe is a stock of concepts—that is, ideals, principles, meanings, and possibilities—in terms of which the world is clothed and we thereby understand it. Actions and events, if noticed at all, are seen as an instance, consequence, or harbinger of something. The contents of the wardrobe are what allow us to see in one way or another. In the words of Michael Ward, imagination is “the organ of meaning.” The individual, due to his moral imagination, will be disposed to see in a particular way. If moral imagination is well formed, the individual will see in a salutary way.

Eva Brann

Eva Brann

Eva Brann, the legendary tutor at St. John’s in Annapolis, states that the moral imagination “is the representation to oneself of concretely visualized human conditions and consequences.” She adds that it “is fed by remembered experience, be it worldly or fictive, and that means, in turn, that it is past-nurtured” (ibid.). Ms. Brann is saying that moral imagination, nurtured by that to which we have been exposed, tells us how the world works. This sounds just right. It is also what the side of Kirk I like builds upon.

For Kirk literature is the primary vehicle for formation of moral imagination. He classifies the relevant material into “four levels or bodies of normative knowledge” (“The Moral Imagination,” 216), each with a particular age of audience in mind. These range from fantasy and myth for the youngest readers to narrative history and biography for younger children, reflective prose and poetic fiction for older children, and philosophy and theology for college-aged individuals. Throughout, the objective remains the same: populate the wardrobe. As I describe Kirk’s pedagogical program I do hope that C. S. Lewis comes to mind—as well as what we are attempting to do in the Education department of Hillsdale College and, indeed, at the College as a whole.

Napoleon said that man is ruled by imagination. What should we take from this? Permit me to mention five implications:

  1. One’s moral imagination is the primary factor contributing to his understanding of the world and his sense of purpose in being part of it. In the words of Allan Bloom, “different men see very different things in the world and, although they may partake of a common human nature, they develop very different aspects of that nature; they hardly seem to be of the same species, so little do they agree about what is important in life” (351 in his translation of the Republic; emphasis added).  Due to moral imagination people can be, and are, extraordinarily at odds. The manner in which they differ may well involve the most important things. We should not be surprised, therefore, that as a consequence there may be deep division and even violent conflict.
  2. Precisely because of those possibilities, it is imperative that cultural and political leaders (not to mention parents and teachers) take the steps necessary to establish agreement in moral imagination. It is, no doubt, fanciful to envision universal consensus in regard to fundamentals. But, within any particular regime, agreement on the central contours of moral imagination is the fundamental condition for preservation. Concern for the shaping and maintenance of what political theorists and statesmen call “opinion” is a baseline requirement for health in the body politic.
  3. I said earlier that moral imagination is the name of a store of images—images pertaining to ideals, principles, meanings, and possibilities—in terms of which one grasps the world and, thereby, in light of which one acts. But the way one acts is a synonym for character. Thus, the building of moral imagination is the formation of character, and to the degree that parents and teachers systematically involve themselves in this activity they are engaged in character education.
  4. As noted by Kirk, the stocking and nurture of moral imagination is the responsibility of multiple institutions. Among these are family, school, and church. To the degree that any one of these falters in its responsibility, the burden on the others grows. Should one of the institutions, say the school, build a moral imagination that is at odds with what other formative institutions are attempting to achieve, we face incoherence and conflict in a vital domain, and the regime is in jeopardy. I suggest that this is precisely what we are faced with today, especially in regard to large sections of the public schools and in the case of most colleges and universities.
  5. Finally, I would invite you to return once again to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Nowhere is it better shown that in relation to the shaping of moral imagination the stakes are as high as they can be. That which is ultimate is in question. Full and proper appreciation of the moral imagination reveals that everything could be other than it is. And, in fact, it will be, should we fail in our charge. Losing control of the moral imagination is the very meaning of civilizational decay; it represents the loss of a world. Thus, I would close by reminding you that moral imagination is the name for the most important thing with which we can be concerned. Rightly understood, moral imagination is the indispensable steward for the very meaning of humanity. Embodied in the concept is the perennial challenge that defines our purpose, if only we would see, and that constitutes our destiny, if only we would act.

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Published: Apr 11, 2016
Author
Jon M. Fennell
Jon M. Fennell is Professor of Education and Dean of Social Sciences at Hillsdale College. His teaching and research reflect a deep interest in philosophy, politics and education and is frequently focused on the domain where the three disciplines overlap. In recent years his writing has focused on the work of 20th century chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, on whom Dr. Fennell has published numerous papers, including a study in which Polanyian themes unlock the deepest meaning of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
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5 replies to this post
  1. I would add that the cultural rot we’re witnessing these days comes from a calculated assault on all normative authority. Immediate individual gratification now trumps those confining traditional bonds. Personal liberation, not social harmony, is the ultimate goal.

  2. I must admit, the title caught my eye. I was hoping it was an essay about us imaging the return of morals to our society and some positive speculations about how and when that will occur. Alas, it remains in our imaginations as of yet. I do have hope though that some future generation will look back on our days and feel pity. Nice essay. It is smooth and the subjects flow well, one into the other. Thank you. God bless. Ginnyfree.

  3. Looking at you 4th statement, how does the dynamic change if you have a homeschooling family (that goes to Church)? I am assuming the 3 structures you listed are, or at least should be the most important.

  4. G. K. Chesterton spoke of moral imagination often in his writings before, during and after WWI. Here’s an example from his March 27, 1909 column in the Illustrated London News:


    Everyone is talking just now about machines of death made out of steel or iron. People whisper in a panic-stricken way that Germany is building ironclads of the size of small islands; and one can almost fancy that the sun is darkened at noon with fying ships, like a fight of iron birds. I have my doubts about both the moral
    and the military value of this sort of imagination. Machinery is only armour, and armour is only clothes; and a very superficial study of some suburban dandies will suffice to show that it is no good to have clothes if you do not know how to put them on.

    In that instance, he’s discussing a defective (weak) moral imagination that leads to irrational fear. Weapons are only as good as those who use them. He goes on to explain, “That is the obvious difference between the mediaeval Englishman and the modern. He talked of contending against a German knight, not against a German lance.”

    Those who enjoy Chesterton might want to read a collection of his writings that I published as _Chesterton on War and Peace_. He is as relevant to today as when he wrote a century ago. Indeed, it’s not hard to replace those he criticized then with their counterparts today.

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