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Our world drowns in information, facts, bites, noise, opinions, and other particulars. Yet, even the best of our students have the most difficult time connecting one thing to another. It is myth that allows us to transcend the immediate and the ephemeral…

About ten years ago, I proposed a course of study for first-year college students in a liberal arts honors program. Some folks play fantasy baseball, but I like to play fantasy academia. No doubt, I thought, my proposal will go nowhere, and, true to form, it went nowhere. Still, I toy with it in my head from time to time. Ideally, I would spend a freshman year carefully reading four authors: Homer, Virgil, Dante, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Through the poetry and mythopoetry of each author, the student would encounter at a cultural and intellectual level the classical worlds of Greece and Rome, the medieval world of Europe, and the modern and post-modern world of the last several centuries. I would not limit the study purely to these authors. With Homer, one could meet, say, Herodotus and Leonidas. Through Virgil, Cato and Cicero. Through Dante, Thomas Aquinas and Francesco Petrarch. Through Tolkien, Paul Elmer More and Edmund Burke. In other words, myth would be the cornerstone of a liberal education at the collegiate level.

Let me take this in a somewhat circuitous route. When Winston Elliott and I founded The Imaginative Conservative (yes, the journal you’re reading right now, gentle reader), we toyed with different names for several months. We did not want our journal to be seen as reflecting only traditional conservatism, or crunchy conservatism, or bohemian conservatism, much less, say, neo-conservatism. We wanted the journal to be ecumenical, but in the good sense, not in the wishy-washy sense. As much as I would like to claim the name we ultimately chose, The Imaginative Conservative, I can’t. Winston came up with it, and he would have to tell the story of exactly how it came to be. If I remember correctly, it came from a passage in Russell Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives. Yet, whatever its exact source, it was fortuitous. Not only did it force me to rethink the nature of conservatism, but I can’t help but see the virtue of imagination manifested in all the thinkers we so cherish here.

Even a cursory examination of the lineage of great thinkers over the past century reveals this rather clearly. Though he despised all things romantic, Irving Babbitt—arguably America’s first true conservative—frequently wrote about the necessity of the faculty of imagination. For Babbitt, as he expressed in his many books, imagination should be cultivated and not allowed to run rampant through one’s emotions. It should, along with one’s intellect and passions, have a proportionality bridging all the faculties.

His closest friend, Paul Elmer More, also wrote frequently about how critical the imagination was to any form of conservatism. Indeed, for More, imagination was the crucial element in defining conservatism. What distinguishes it from liberalism and radicalism, he asked rhetorically? “Its trust in the controlling power of the imagination. These, as I analyze the matter—the instinctive distrust of uncontrolled human nature and the instinctive reliance on the imagination—are the very roots of the conservative temper, the lack of imagination, if any distinction is to be made, being the chief factor of liberalism and confidence in human nature being the main impulse of radicalism.”

One could readily find similar arguments in the novels and essays of Willa Cather, the essays and books of Christopher Dawson, and in the poetry and critical approaches of T.S. Eliot and David Jones. From the standpoint of each of these thinkers, liberals think of human beings in mechanistic and material ways, and radicals think of them in animalistic ways. That is, for the liberal, man is defined by his rationality, and for the radical, man is defined by his lusts. For the conservative, man is best represented by his imagination, that which bridges the intellect and the stomach.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s larger mythology—what he sometimes called his legendarium—the angelic power, Gandalf, possesses many names during his various lifetimes and existences. In The Silmarillion proper, he only appears once, as a servant of the “gods,” the Valar. His name in the First Age of the world was Olórin. “But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in the form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.” While this is a gorgeous use of mythology, Tolkien took Olórin’s role to even greater depths in the wizard’s mention in The Silmarillion. “In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar [God the Father], and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.” If only we could shout this in every classroom in Western civilization. If only.

Tolkien’s closet friend, C.S. Lewis, not atypically, put Tolkien’s thoughts in much plainer language. In his finest non-fiction work, The Abolition of Man, he wrote that the problem with modern society was exactly that we had produced “men without chests,” humans incapable of bridging their rationality with their passions. The chest, for Lewis, represented the soul and the imagination, the most aristocratic part of ourselves. Modifying Plato’s understanding of the three faculties of the soul, Lewis envisioned the three faculties of man as follows:

Faculty

Body Part Political Equivalent
Intellect Head

Executive

Imagination Soul

Aristocratic

Passions Stomach

Democratic

“The head rules the belly through the chest,” Lewis explained. The chest, he continued, “is the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral and visceral man.” Further, Lewis claims, much in the manner of Babbitt and More, it is the chest that defines man as a man. “For by his intellect he is mere spirt and by his appetite mere animal.”

This takes me back to my outrageous proposal that freshman study—in grand and great depth—the writings of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Tolkien. Our world drowns in information, facts, bites, noise, opinions, and other particulars. Yet, even the best of our students have the most difficult time connecting one thing to another. It is myth that allows us to transcend the immediate and the ephemeral. Just as the chest connects the head and the heart, myth connects the immediate fact with the eternal. Myth gives the eternal immediacy and the immediate context.

It is worth quoting here the greatest of Imaginative Conservatives, Russell Amos Kirk. “All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendancy over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided. We live by myth. ‘Myth’ is not falsehood; on the contrary, the great and ancient myths are profoundly true.”

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

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5 replies to this post
  1. I’ve never understood the conservative effort to elevate Tolkien to the status of one of the “greats.” He simply does not belong in the same sentence as Homer, Virgil, and Dante (to say nothing of modern greats such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mann, etc), and no literary critic takes him seriously as an author of highest rank (much like Ayn Rand, despite her enduring popularity). Why read his warmed-over, pseudo-mediaevel pastiches, when one could just read the real things – such as the Nibelungenlied, Parzival, etc. – instead?

    • I think the point here is that Tolkien is a modern writer who dealt with the theme of modernity, and that he wrote in the genre of myth. There is really no one like him.

  2. Story telling is an art. Many believe the greatest story-telling artist is Jesus Christ, who quite frequently used parables to make His point. We are all blessed with varying degrees of comprehending myths and metaphors and, obviously, parables, all of which lift us higher than the present. Rereading always adds fuel to the launching of our rocket aimed beyond the stars.

  3. I think Tolkien is certainly a “Great” of moderninity. Would Maximilian Kolbe have been a great saint if there were no Nazis to martyr him? Tolkien has brought a ray of light and spiritual nourishment into the hearts of many modern people who would never have found such things elsewhere. His work is not a mere knockoff of the Nieblungiad; it elevates it and christianizes it. Also, Tolkien was not a professional author, he was a linguist. For a man who wrote as a sideline, his accomplishments were pretty great.

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