The Moral Imagination, Part 3: Competing Desires

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A society which rejects a moral imagination (the artistic aspiration toward right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth) will not necessarily abandon imagination altogether (though the way modernism has treated the fairy tale, that has sadly happened to some extent in our culture).  Instead, we will turn toward what Russell Kirk called “the idyllic imagination” – “the imagination which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.”  It’s the false freedom that rejects the very need for “right order” in the soul and commonwealth.  It’s the liberty we sinners think we have when we try to live free of God’s loving law.

But we quickly get bored and disillusioned with the idyllic imagination, Kirk says.  This makes sense: we weren’t made for that kind of freedom, which is no freedom at all; so its promises are false.  “You will be happy apart from right order in your soul.  You will be miserable having to obey God.  You are your own, and you will be happier as the captain of  your own destiny.”  All lies; all false promises.

But having been convinced and then disillusioned, we’re more likely to turn to an even darker form of imagination – what T.S. Eliot called “the diabolic imagination” – “that kind of imagination which delights in the perverse and subhuman.” Eliot writes:

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!

Not the most encouraging words you’ve ever read.

“Right order in the soul” is an important phrase, especially when paralleled with the definition of the diabolic imagination: it delights in the “subhuman.”  There are a lot of ways to define evil, but one of the most potent and oft-used in imaginative fiction is that of dehumanization.  Evil is turning away from created intent.  Aslan told the talking beasts of Narnia that if they behaved like the beasts that do not talk, they would become like them:

The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return. Do not so. (The Magician’s Nephew 140)

George MacDonald’s goblins and humans-turned-creatures in The Princess and Curdie fit the same picture of dehumanization.  Gothic literature portrays evil in the same way: distorted humanity.  Think Jeckyll and Hyde, or Frankenstein’s monster.

Eugene Peterson writes:

When we say “soul” we are calling attention to the God-origins, God-intentions, God-operations that make us what we are. It is the most personal and most comprehensive term for what we are – man, woman, and child…. “Soul” is a word reverberating with relationships: God-relationships, human-relationships, earth relationships…. “Soul” gets beneath the fragmented surface appearances and experiences and affirms an at-homeness, an affinity with whoever and whatever is at hand. (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places 37)

Hence, right order in the soul and in the commonweatlth (society/relationships) is vital, and they are related to one another.  (The next two entries in this series on moral imagination will explore how.)  And a society which abandons a moral imagination for the idyllic and diabolic will distort both the soul and the commonwealth.

Part 1
Part 2

Forthcoming – Part 4: Ancient Desires; Part 5: The Golden Rule


1 Comment

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Travis: thanks for this series, I’m loving it.

    Right order has to do with boundaries. There is no such thing as freedom in a vacuum, the freedom to be continually free to be free. To reject one thing (for instance, marriage) is to embrace another (“not-marriage”). Freedom, as Norman Grubb once put it, is really the freedom to choose our bondage. The Christian chooses his bondage – slavery to Christ; the world chooses its bondages: materialism, hedonism, food, drink, sex. To be enslaved to that which is above us (God) is to be free from all other bondages.

    To be free in our imaginations as the world thinks of “free” (think of the abuse of the phrase “freedom of speech”) is to go on a downward spiral. Think of pornography, a downward staircase of ever deepening depravity and deception; it is not freedom, but a prison that locks the man up, dehumanizing him and dehumanizing other humans in the man’s eyes. That’s the power of imagination on the dark side – the abuse of imaginative freedom.

    “Right order in the soul and in the commonwealth” frees us in the other direction.

    Real freedom is the ability to do what is right, no matter what our emotions or circumstances are doing. When we’re cut loose from “dogma” (a much abused, good word) and “convention” and everything else that makes us human and very nearly godlike, we slide willy-nilly into the Pit of dehumanization.

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