When I write, I tend to focus on subjects relating to conservatism that are lacking in discourse or recent insight. One particularly misunderstood, or downright unknown topic that I have been meaning to discuss is that of the moral imagination.
The term moral imagination was first coined by Edmund Burke and was later articulated by the likes of Russell Kirk and T. S. Eliot; it is most frequently associated with traditional conservatism. The moral imagination informs us of the norms that dignify us as humans and separates us from our animal instincts. It transcends the laws of man and individual values because “the moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth” as stated by Kirk. This is of great importance, as C. S. Lewis once said: “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.” It is good men that make society good; but first the moral imagination is necessary to instill the virtues in man that make him good.
So why is the moral imagination is so important? Perhaps no one puts it better than professor Vigen Guroian:
“Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character.”
It is too abstract to simply teach moral preferences or guidelines in a classroom; this either ends in ignorance by the learner or indoctrination of the learner. Good fiction, conversely, can arouse the imagination. When moral lessons underpin these stories, the moral imagination goes to work. A child has an impressionable mind, which is why it is so important to share and instill stories that have an important moral meaning to them. It is the moral imagination that allows one to understand the moral of a story; once nurtured, this moral understanding can be applied to situations in real life.
The problem is that our culture is frequently amused and entertained with violence and sexual perversion. We are corrupted by what we read and watch. In other words, as my mother always says, “garbage in, garbage out.” Kirk put it most eloquently: “the person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all may be forever adrift in life.” It is no surprise that our current literature, television, and movies are devoid of meaningful moral lessons, but it is our own fault for indulging in such corrupting amusements. Our writers and entertainers do not aim to instill virtue, but to make their money via entertainment.
Kirk and Eliot categorized our society in the stage of the diabolical imagination: “that kind of imagination which delights in the perverse and subhuman.” Unfortunately, I would go as far as to say our diabolical imagination has grown since the days of Kirk.
Since conservatives are concerned with reforming our educational system, the moral imagination must be understood and striven for by our educators. It is through the genuine liberal arts that the moral imagination is cultivated: our moral understanding cannot come simply from one’s own experience or momentary realizations, but from the the humanities, usually through literary fiction. It is not through Utopian-laced ideological works that we nurture the moral imagination, but rather through the study of great books, fiction, and poetry – what Kirk called “humane letters.”
These humane letters are the best representations of our humane understandings, thoughts, and practices. Works that allow us to grow our moral imagination – such as those by Plato and Dante, the parables of Jesus, and contemporary works by Lewis and Tolkien – are integral to our development as moral creatures.
Although C. S. Lewis never used the specific term moral imagination, his writings greatly utilized the concept. This is most notable in the analogies Lewis uses throughout Mere Christianity. His analogies allow our imaginations to create images of the points he wants us to understand. He is simplifying the complicated, thus allowing us to more easily distinguish right from wrong or good from evil.
Another of Lewis’ works is greatly concerned with the moral imagination: The Abolition of Man. This work concerns the “Laws of Human Nature” and how contemporary education has foregone teaching this in favor of moral relativism, creating “men without chests”. This is where I see a great connection between the moral imagination and natural law: both are innate but need to be nurtured according to Peter J. Schakel. Both have been neglected in our current educational system, and one cannot understand natural law if they do not first have a healthy moral imagination. I would go as far as to say a man starved of the moral imagination is most definitely also the abolition of that man. Perhaps if our schools nurtured our students moral imaginations through humane letters, then natural law would be better understood and accepted.
Conservatives should focus on the lack of moral imagination being cultivated in colleges and universities. It is through the liberal arts – the study of great books, poetry, and other arts – that our moral perceptions are established. If our college educations will not support this, we must take matters into our own hands. As conservatives, we need to understand our moral imaginations and nourish them. We must first restore order to the conservative soul before we restore order to the conservative community and beyond.
Derek Draplin | University of Michigan | @DDraps24