The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2018

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Moral Imagination
Russell Kirk - 12/19/11

Irving Babbitt, in his Democracy and Leadership (1924), contrasts with Burke’s “moral imagination” the “idyllic imagination” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whom Burke had called “the insane Socrates of the National Assembly”). Rousseau’s sort of imagination, Babbitt contended, fancies that man is by nature innocent and great-souled, if uncorrupted by church, state, and private property: a fatal delusion.

T. S. Eliot, influenced by Babbitt and to a lesser degree by Burke, writes in his After Strange Gods (1934) of the “diabolic imagination” of degradation, cruelty, and perversion—at the opposite pole from the moral imagination. In the Book of Genesis is found the earliest reproof of the corrupt imagination: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

Such Christian writers as G. K. Chesterton have employed this term “moral imagination” from time to time. An elaboration of the theme by a Catholic writer, with some deductions therefrom that Burke, Babbitt, and Eliot might not have found agreeable, is Philip S. Keane’s Christian Ethics and Imagination (1984).

Further Reading
  • Kirk, Russell. Redeeming the Time. Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996.
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