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”?