The Moral Imagination, Part 2: A Quote and a Question


Read The Moral Imagination, Part 1, as well as S.D. Smith’s excellent reflections on the same theme.

There’s a more in-depth discussion of Moral Imagination on the way, but in the meantime, a quote and a question.  First, the quote, from Russell Kirk, back in 1981:

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.

I don’t want to pretend that there was some Moral Golden Age of the past – say, the 1950s – and that if only we could return to the good ol’ days, like it “used to be,” we’d be OK.  I don’t believe that.  There are things that we did in the 50s that it’s a really good thing we’re not still doing now.

But I think it’s fair to agree with Kirk that as far as literature goes, we’re not exactly a culture captivated by a Moral Imagination – one that reads books for the purpose of transformation, of becoming better people:

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.

Most often, we hear books judged on their “escape value” – whether or not they’re page-turners that allow us to escape from the “real world.”  This is the wrong kind of escape we should be seeking from literature.

The question, then, is this: If Kirk is right that even in ages of “literary boredom and literary violence,” a generation might “grope” back toward a “moral imagination,” where, if at all, do you see that today?  What books have you read that were recently written (within the last 10-20 years) that you would point someone to and say, “Here. This teaches you how to be genuinely human.  This book is possessed of a moral imagination”?


  1. Loren Eaton

    I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and, strangely enough, it truly does have “a moral imagination.” An odd assertion, given that much of the novel is taken up with privation, chronic illness and cannibalism. But it’s also very focused on the love between fathers and sons and the imago Dei. I was pleasantly surprised.

  2. Marcus hong

    The Harry Potter series has already been discussed on this site (and Travis, you’d certainly know more about that than any of the rest of us, so I won’t try to write about it here). Also, Gilead by Marylinne Robinson, which is a wonderful book about a pastor’s last words to his son; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, which I believe was listed in the Rabbit Room bookstore, which deals with life and death and faith and hope and healing in a myriad of ways. I do think that if we’re talking about “fantasy” or fantastical literature, we don’t have as many books out nowadays that are in that genre that deal with moral issues as well as those around the middle of the 20th century.
    I’m in a Fantasy Literature and Children’s Moral Formation Class right now in seminary, and I just realized that half of the books we’re reading were written more than thirty years ago (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin). The other half of the books are more recent, but I’ve found myself less intrigued and less inspired by most of them (The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin; Twilight by Stephanie Meyer; Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer; The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman; and, the exception to the rule, Harry Potter by J.K., Rowling).
    Of course, we’re reading mostly the “popular” books that are well known. Perhaps there are excellent novels that have snuck under our noses. At the same time, I do think that the quality of the children’s/young adult novel has gone down. Being a person in my mid-twenties, I remember reading C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien while growing up, and comparing them with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. (Proof that not all letter period letter period names produce classic books).
    I’ve bought Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and, as a fan of Gaiman’s am excited to read it, but haven’t had the time yet. I’ve heard that it deals a lot with issues of love and trust, life and death, but don’t have a review of it as yet.

  3. Pete

    I’d add Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy. Pratchett is one of my favorite writers (I’ve read something like 20 of his Disc World books). He’s wickedly funny, and while the Bromeliad books are ostensibly written for young adults, they’re shot through with jokes only adults will truly get. In addition to great characters, the they have some great lessons about seeing a world bigger than the one around you.

    Marcus – in case you haven;t read it, Gaiman and Pratchett collaborated on a book called “Good Omens”. It’s the one that turned me on to Gaiman. He (Gaiman) was recently on the Colbert Report – you can probably find it on the Comedy Central site.

  4. Pete Peterson


    Some authors that came to mind: Anne Rice, Leif Enger, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry.

    I’d also include things like Moore’s Watchmen and Card’s Ender’s Game in any list of fiction that explores what it means to be human and live with the the consequences of our actions.

  5. Marcus hong

    Pete, that was actually the book that got me into Gaiman as well. A friend lent it to me and I just recently found a hardcover copy at a book sale. I haven’t read much of pratchett, unfortunately.

    Pete (2?), I actually just received Card’s Ender’s Game for a Christmas present. It’s on my (quite long) list of books to read this summer.

  6. Easton Crow

    Pete- I completely have to agree about Terry Pratchett. His books begin as parody and then slowly grow into so much more than that. By the time you reach later works like Night Watch and Thud he has created a world with rich characters about whom one cares deeply. He tells wonderful stories that move quickly between delightful and heartbreaking. And he really does speak to the larger world and I think really does have a strong moral imagination.
    I enjoy some Neil Gaiman, but a lot of his work is just too dark for my taste.
    Pete Peterson- I really want to like graphic novels because they are such a great tool for storytelling, but I often have a hard time getting past the relentlessly dark world they inhabit. I think I would like to give Watchman a try since I have heard so much about it, but I’m nervous.

  7. Pete Peterson


    The relentlessly dark world they inhabit?

    There are gobs of lighter stories out there. Stardust comes to mind right off the bat. Bone would be another (although I haven’t read it.) At the moment Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extra-ordinary Gents) and Frank Miller (Sin City, 300, The Spirit, The Dark Knight Returns) are the poster children for the graphic novel medium so that might be where you get that impression but graphic novels are every bit as various as written word novels.

  8. Luke Taylor

    Right now I am one-third of the way into Life of Pi. I don’t know if I will turn out to love it or hate it in the end, but it has been the catalyst for some really interesting thoughts about the state of man and our “search” for God.

  9. Dave Bruno

    Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Also Frederick Beuchner’s Godric. E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan. To name a few (mostly) recent books.

  10. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I read A LOT. And I find that there is value in all kinds of different books. You just don’t know when you open a book if it will change your life.

    Seriously, I understand what you’re saying, but a lot of people struggle with the act of reading itself. It’s difficult, not easy. I work with adults who would never in a million years choose to read a book on their own. (I tutor them in reading) So when my student finishes a James Patterson book, and comes to ask me what an epilogue is…those are the kinds of moments I live for. And she’s learning. I seriously doubt she would have gotten past the first page of many of the books listed here.

    Sure I think there are books that are complete and utter rubbish out there, but I know that to someone else…it might the gateway into a whole new way of thinking.

  11. Travis Prinzi

    Amy, I see what you’re saying, but I think we’re talking about two entirely different issues.

    A thing cannot simultaneously be “complete and utter rubbish” and of value. I know the old “one man’s trash…” statement and all. But if something is truly “complete and utter rubbish,” it is that for everyone. I’m talking in particular not just about works that are poorly written, but about finding books that embrace a moral imagination in a pile of books which primarily embrace and celebrate that which is immoral. It’s easy to embrace and celebrate the immoral when one doesn’t believe the purpose of great literature is ethical, but mindless escapism.

    But if we’re talking about people who are struggling just to read in the first place, by all means, hand them a fast-paced quick read if it will get them in the door of reading!

  12. David V.

    I realize this post has been dormant for a bit, but I have been wanting to read it for a while and finally got around to it today. . .

    Books that speak to what it means to be human!

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon is a great read about an autistic boy who finds his neighbors dog dead writes a mystery book about it for school. The story is told from his perspective as he relates how autism affects his view on the world and relationships. I read this book without stopping on a plane to Phoenix and I cried at the end. On the plane. With people around. And I didn’t even care.

    Life of Pi by Yann Martel is also a beautifully written story about survival and how we deal with struggle.

    And I have to agree with Loren, that ‘The Road’ was powerful. It hit me hard with the conflict that is sometimes present between doing what is ‘right’ and ‘good’ and self-preservation. How do you balance the two for yourself and how does the dynamic change when you are responsible for someone else’s welfare.

  13. Pete


    As long as you’ve opened the “autism” door, I’ll add another – The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon. It’s a near-future sci-fi piece where autism is now curable in the womb. This leaves the last generation of autistics, who now work doing data analysis for corporations. A cure for existing autists has been developed, and the book details one autistic’s struggles (written from his point of view) as to whether or not he should undergo the cure. It’s a great book, and a fast read.

  14. David V.

    ‘The Speed of Dark’ sounds good! I just may have to check that one out. Seems like it would raise a lot of interesting questions about our strengths and weaknesses as people and the ways we identify ourselves by them. . .

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