The moral imagination is an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.
By Russell Kirk
In the franchise bookshops of the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred eighty-one, the shelves are crowded with the prickly pears and the Dead Sea fruit of literary decadence. Yet no civilization rests forever content with literary boredom and literary violence. Once again, a conscience may speak to a conscience in the pages of books, and the parched rising generation may grope their way toward the springs of moral imagination. The first annual lecture at this new Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature is an endeavor to describe that high power of perception and description which has been called "the moral imagination," and to relate that imagination to what Chateaubriand called “the genius of Christianity.” What once has been, may be again.
What is this “moral imagination”? The phrase is Edmund Burke’s, and it occurs in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke describes the destruction of civilizing manners by the revolutionaries:
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.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows . . .
Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.
By this “moral imagination,” Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events “especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. This moral imagination was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Vergil and Dante. Drawn from centuries of human consciousness, these concepts of the moral imagination—so powerfully if briefly put by Burke—are expressed afresh from age to age. So it is that the men of humane letters in our century whose work seems most likely to endure have not been neoterists, but rather bearers of an old standard, tossed by our modern winds of doctrine: the names of Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats may suffice to suggest the variety of this moral imagination in the twentieth century.
It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes. As Burke suggested in 1790, letters and learning are hollow if deprived of the moral imagination. And, as Burke suggested, the spirit of religion long sustained this moral imagination, along with a whole system of manners. Such imagination lacking, to quote another passage from Burke, we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”
Burke implies that there exist other forms of imagination than the moral imagination. He was well aware of the power of imagination of Jean Jacques Rousseau, “the insane Socrates of the National Assembly.” With Irving Babbitt, we may call the mode of imagination represented by Rousseau “the idyllic imagination”—that is, the imagination which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention. We saw this “idyllic imagination” infatuate a great many young people in America during the sixties and seventies—even though most of those devotees never read Rousseau. The idyllic imagination ordinarily terminates in disillusion and boredom.
When that occurs, too often a third form of imagination obtains ascendancy. In his lectures entitled After Strange Gods (1934), T. S. Eliot touches upon the diabolic imagination: that kind of imagination which delights in the perverse and subhuman. The name of Sade comes to mind at once; but Eliot finds “the fruitful operations of the Evil Spirit” in the writings of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, as well. Anyone interested in the moral imagination and in the anti-moral imagination should read carefully After Strange Gods. “The number of people in possession of any criteria for discriminating between good and evil is very small,” Eliot concludes; “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!”
This “diabolic imagination” dominates most popular fiction today; and on television and in the theaters, too, the diabolic imagination struts and postures. The other night I lodged at a fashionable new hotel; my single room cost about eighty dollars. One could tune the room’s television set to certain movies, for an extra five dollars. After ten o’clock, all the films offered were nastily pornographic. But even the “early” films, before ten, without exception were products of the diabolic imagination, in that they pandered to the lust for violence, destruction, cruelty, and sensational disorder. Apparently it never occurred to the managers of this fashionable hotel that any of their affluent patrons, of whatever age and whichever sex, might desire decent films. Since Eliot spoke at the University of Virginia in 1933, we have come a great way farther down the road to Avernus. And as literature sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
So, having remarked the existence of the moral imagination, the idyllic imagination, and the diabolic imagination, I venture to remind you of the true purpose of humane letters. As C. E. M. Joad points out in his book Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1948), what we call “decadence” amounts to the loss of an end, an object. When literature has lost sight of its real object or purpose, literature is decadent.
What then is the end, object, or purpose of humane letters? Why, the expression of the moral imagination; or, to put this truth in a more familiar phrase, the end of great books is ethical—to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.
Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature. What Eliot calls “the permanent things”—the norms, the standards—have been the concern of the poet ever since the time of Job, or ever since Homer: “the blind man who sees,” sang of the wars of the gods with men. Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. Such was the endeavor of Sophocles and Aristophanes, of Thucydides and Tacitus, of Plato and Cicero, of Hesiod and Vergil, of Dante and Shakespeare, of Dryden and Pope.
The very phrase “humane letters” implies that great literature is meant to teach us what it is to be fully human. As Irving Babbitt observes in his slim book Literature and the American College (1908), humanism (derived from the Latin humanitas) is an ethical discipline, intended to develop the truly human person, the qualities of manliness, through the study of great books. The literature of nihilism, of pornography, and of sensationalism, as Albert Salomon suggests in The Tyranny of Progress (1955), is a recent development, arising in the eighteenth century—though reaching its height in our time—with the decay of the religious view of life and with the decline of what has been called “The Great Tradition” in philosophy.
This normative purpose of letters is especially powerful in English literature, which never succumbed to the egoism that came to dominate French letters at the end of the eighteenth century. The names of Milton, Bunyan, and Johnson—or, in America, of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville—may be sufficient illustrations of the point. The great popular novelists of the nineteenth century—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope—all assumed that the writer is under a moral obligation to normality—that is, explicitly or implicitly, to certain enduring standards of private and public conduct.
Now I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies. With Ben Jonson, he may “scourge the naked follies of the time,” but he does not often murmur, “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever.” Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence through allegory, analogy, and holding up the mirror to nature. The writer may, like William Faulkner, write much more of what is evil than of what is good; and yet, exhibiting the depravity of human nature, he establishes in his reader’s mind the awareness that there exist enduring standards from which we fall away; and that fallen human nature is an ugly sight.
Or the writer may deal, as did J. P. Marquand, chiefly with the triviality and emptiness of a society that has forgotten standards. Often, in his appeal of a conscience to a conscience, he may row with muffled oars; sometimes he may be aware only dimly of his normative function. The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, commonly is the method of the literary champion of norms.
It is worth remarking that the most influential poet of our age, Eliot, endeavored to restore to modern poetry, drama, and criticism their traditional normative functions. In this he saw himself as the heir of Vergil and Dante. The poet ought not to force his ego upon the public; rather, the poet’s mission is to transcend the personal and the particular. As Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the very first essay found in Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (1932):
It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.
So pure poetry, and the other forms of great literature, search the human heart to find in it the laws of moral existence, distinguishing man from beast. Or so it was until almost the end of the eighteenth century. Since then, the egoism of one school of the Romantics has obscured the primary purpose of humane letters. And many of the Realists have written of man as if he were brutal only—or brutalized by institutions, at best. (So arose Ambrose Bierce’s definition in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906): “Realism, n. An accurate representation of human nature, as seen by toads.”) In our time, and particularly in America, we have seen the rise to popularity of a school of writers more nihilistic than ever were the Russian nihilists: the literature of disgust and denunciation, sufficiently described in Edmund Fuller’s Man in Modern Fiction (1958). To members of this school, the writer is no defender or expositor of standards, for there are no values to explain or defend; a writer merely registers, unreservedly, his disgust with humanity and himself. (This is a world away from Dean Swift—who, despite his loathing of most human beings, detested them only because they fell short of what they were meant to be.)
Yet the names of our twentieth-century nihilistic authors will be forgotten in less than a generation, I suspect, while there will endure from our age the works of a few men of letters whose appeal is to the enduring things, and therefore to posterity. I think, for instance of Gironella’s novel The Cypresses Believe in God (1951). The gentle novice who trims the hair and washes the bodies of the poorest of the poor in old Gerona, though he dies by Communist bullets, will live a great span in the realm of letters; while the scantily-disguised personalities of our nihilistic authors, swaggering nastily as characters in best sellers, will be extinguished the moment when the public’s fancy veers to some newer sensation. For as the normative consciousness breathes life into the soul and the social order, so the normative understanding gives an author lasting fame.
Malcolm Cowley, writing a few years ago in Horizon of the recent crop of first novelists, observed that the several writers he discussed scarcely had heard of the Seven Cardinal Virtues or of the Seven Deadly Sins. Crimes and sins are only mischances to these young novelists; real love and real hatred are absent from their books. To this rising generation of writers, the world seems purposeless, and human actions meaningless. They seek to express nothing but a vagrant ego. (Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect , has some shrewd things to say about the unjustified pride of the decade’s array of aspiring writers.) And Mr. Cowley suggests that these young men and women, introduced to no norms in childhood and youth except the vague attitude that one is entitled to do as one likes, so long as it doesn’t injure someone else, are devoid of spiritual and intellectual discipline empty, indeed, of real desire for anything.
This sort of aimless and unhappy writer is the product of a time in which the normative function of letters has been greatly neglected. Ignorant of his own mission, such a writer tends to think of his occupation as a mere skill, possibly lucrative, sometimes satisfying to one’s sanity, but dedicated to no end. Even the “proletarian” writing of the twenties and thirties acknowledged some end; but that has died of disillusion and inanition. If writers are in this plight, in consequence of the prevailing “permissive” climate of opinion, what of their readers? Comparatively few book-readers nowadays, I suspect, seek normative knowledge. They are after amusement, sometimes of a vicariously gross character, or else pursue a vague “awareness” of current affairs and intellectual currents, suitable for cocktail-party conversation.
The young novelists described by Mr. Cowley are of the number of Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” Nature abhors a vacuum; into minds that are vacant of norms must come some new force; and often that new force has a diabolical character.
A perceptive critic, Mr. Albert Fowler, writing in Modern Age, asks the question, “Can Literature Corrupt?”—and answers in the affirmative. So literature can; and alsoit is possible to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all maybe forever adrift in life unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls “moral habits” and by oral tradition. And absolute abstinence from printed matter has become rare. If a small boy does not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), the odds are that he will read Mad Ghoul Comics.
So I think it is worthwhile to suggest the outlines of the literary discipline which induces some understanding of enduring values. For centuries, such a program of reading though never called a program—existed in Western nations. It powerfully influenced the minds and actions of the leaders of the infant American Republic, for instance. If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Constitution and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, something of Cicero, something of Vergil. This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of the Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the noble Greeks and Romans of Plutarch. Cato’s stubborn virtue, Demosthenes’ eloquent vaticinations, Cleomenes’ rash reforming impulse—these were in their minds’ eyes; and they tempered their conduct accordingly. “But nowadays,” as Chateaubriand wrote more than a century ago, “statesmen understand only the stock market—and that badly.”
Of course it was not by books alone that the normative understanding of the framers of the Constitution, for instance, was formed. Their apprehension of norms was acquired also in family, church, and school, and in the business of ordinary life. But that portion of their normative understanding which was got from books did loom large. For we cannot attain very well to enduring standards if we rely simply on actual personal experience as a normative mentor. Sheer experience, as Franklin suggested, is the teacher of born fools. Our lives are too brief and confused for most men to develop any normative pattern from their private experience; and as Newman wrote, “Life is for action.” Therefore we turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience, if we seek guidance in morals, taste, and politics. Ever since the invention of printing, this normative understanding has been expressed, increasingly in books, so that nowadays most people form their opinions, in considerable part, from the printed page. This may be regrettable sometimes; it may be what D. H. Lawrence called “chewing the newspapers”; but it is a fact. Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master.
Another fact is that for some thirty years we have been failing, here in America, to develop a normative consciousness in young people through a careful program of reading great literature. We have talked about “education for life” and “training for life adjustment”; but many of us seem to have forgotten that literary disciplines are a principal means for learning to adjust to the necessities of life. Moreover, unless the life to which we are urged to adjust ourselves is governed by norms, it may be a very bad life for everyone.
One of the faults of the typical “life adjustment” or “permissive” curriculum in the schools—paralleled, commonly, by similarly indulgent attitudes in the family—has been the substitution of “real life situations” reading for the study of truly imaginative literature. This tendency has been especially noticeable in the lower grades of school, but it extends upward in some degree through high school. The “Dick and Jane” and “run, Spot, run” school of letters does not stir the imagination; and it imparts small apprehension of norms. Apologists for this aspect of life-adjustment schooling believe that they are inculcating respect for values by prescribing simple readings that commend tolerant, kindly, co-operative behavior. Yet this is no effective way to impart a knowledge of norms: direct moral didacticism, whether of the Victorian or the twentieth century variety, usually awakens resistance in the recipient, particularly if he has some natural intellectual power.
The fulsome praise of goodness can alienate; it can whet the appetite for the cookie-jar on the top shelf. In Saki’s “The Story-Teller,” a mischievous bachelor tells three children on a train the tale of a wondrously good little girl, awarded medals for her propriety. But she met a wolf in the park; and though she ran, the jangling of her medals led the wolf straight to her, so that she was devoured utterly. Though the children were delighted with this unconventional narrative, their aunt protests, “A most improper story to tell to young children!” “Unhappy woman!” the departing bachelor murmurs. “For the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!”
Well, Greek and Norse myths, for instance, sometimes are not very proper; yet, stirring the imagination, they do more to bring about an early apprehension of norms than do any number of the dull and interminable doings of Dick and Jane. The story of Pandora, or of Thor’s adventure with the old woman and her cat, gives any child an insight into the conditions of existence—dimly grasped at the moment, perhaps, but gaining in power as the years pass—that no utilitarian “real-life situation” fiction can match. Because they are eternally valid, Hesiod and the saga-singers are modern. And versions of Hawthorne or of Andrew Lang are far better prose than the quasi-basic English thrust upon young people in many recent textbooks.
If we starve young people for imagination, adventure, and some sort of heroism—to turn now to a later level of learning—they are not likely to embrace Good Approved Real-Life Tales for Good Approved Real-Life Boys and Girls; on the contrary, they may resort to the dregs of letters, rather than be bored altogether. If they are not introduced to Stevenson and Conrad, say—and that fairly early—they will find the nearest and newest Grub Street pornographers. And the consequences will be felt not merely in their failure of taste, but in their misapprehension of human nature, lifelong; and eventually, in the whole tone of a nation. “On this scheme of things ... a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.” The Naked Ape theory of human nature, the “reductionist” notion of man as a breathing automaton, is reinforced by ignorance of literature’s moral imagination.
In one of his Causeries, Sainte-Beuve tells of a playwright standing at a friend’s window to watch a frantic Parisian mob pouring through the street: “See my pageant passing!” the author complacently murmurs. Art is man’s nature; and it is true enough, as Oscar Wilde said whimsically, that nature imitates art. Our private and public actions, in mature years, have been determined by the opinions and tastes we acquired in youth. Great books do influence societies for the better; and bad books do drag down the general level of personal and social conduct. Having seen the pageant, the mob pro ceeds to behave as a playwright thinks it should. I suppose that a public which goes often enough to the plays of Tennessee Williams may begin to behave as Mr. Williams thinks Americans behave already. We become what others, in a voice of authority, tell us we are or ought to be.
So I think that in the teaching of literature, some of the theories of the life-adjustment education and permissive schools have done considerable mischief. Nowadays the advocates of life-adjustment education are giving ground, sullenly, before their critics. The intellectual ancestor of their doctrines is Rousseau. Though I am no warm admirer of the ideas of Rousseau, I like still less the doctrines of Gradgrind, in Hard Times (1845); so I hope that life-adjustment methods of teaching literature will not be supplanted by something yet worse conceived. After all, real adjustment to the conditions of human existence is adjustment to norms. Even an ineffectual endeavor to teach norms is better than to ignore or deny all standards. A mistaken zeal for utilitarian, vocational training in place of normative instruction; an emphasis upon the physical and biological sciences that would push literature into a dusty corner of the curriculum; an attempt to secure spoken competency in foreign languages at the expense of the great works of our language—these might be changes in education as hostile to the imparting of norms through literature as anything which the life-adjustment and permissive people have done.
So I venture to suggest here, in scanty outline, how it is possible to form a normative consciousness through the study of humane letters. What I have to say ought to be commonplace; but these ideas seem to have been forgotten in many quarters. This normative endeavor ought to be the joint work of family and school. As the art of reading often is better taught by parents than it can be taught in a large class in school, so a knowledge of good books comes at least as frequently from the home as from the school. My own taste for books grew from both sources: my grandfather’s and my mother’s bookshelves, and from a very good little grade-school library. And if a school is failing to impart a taste for good books, this often can he remedied by interested attention in the family.
Tentatively, I distinguished four levels of literature by which a normative consciousness is developed. The upper levels do not supplant the earlier, but rather supplement and blend with them; and the process of becoming familiar with these four levels or bodies of normative knowledge extends from the age of three or four to the studies of college and university. We may call these levels fantasy; narrative history and biography; reflective prose and poetic fiction; and philosophy and theology.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man.
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
It is not from vegetal nature that one acquires some knowledge of human passions and longings. There exist, rather in Emerson’s phrase, law for man and law for thing. The law for man we learn from Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius; from the Hebrew prophets, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and so many other Christian writers. Our petty private rationality is founded upon the wisdom of the men of dead ages; and if we endeavor to guide our selves solely by our limited private insights, we tumble down into the ditch of unreason.
“Scientific” truth, or what is popularly taken to be scientific truth, alters from year to year with accelerating speed in our day. But poetic and moral truth changes little with the lapse of the centuries. To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.
What I have been trying to describe in the preceding summary analysis is that body of literature which helps to form the normative consciousness of the rising generation: that is, to enliven the moral imagination. Here I have been historian and diagnostician; I have not endeavored to offer you facile remedies for our present bent condition.
If a public will not have the moral imagination, I have been saying, then it will fall first to the idyllic imagination; and presently into the diabolic imagination—this last becoming a state of narcosis, figuratively and literally. For we are created moral beings; and when we deny our nature, in letters as in action, the gods of the copybook headings with fire and slaughter return. I attest the moral vision of men like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; some have begun to make a stand, in the republic of letters, against the diabolic imagination and the diabolic regime. A human body that cannot react is a corpse; and a body of letters that cannot react against narcotic illusions might better be buried. The theological virtues may find hardy champions in these closing years of the twentieth century: men and women who remember that in the beginning was the Word.