The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 18, 2018

Moral Imagination
Russell Kirk - 12/19/11

“Moral imagination” is a term of humane letters and politics implying that men and women are moral beings and that the power of the imagination enables them to perceive, beyond mere appearances, a hierarchy of worth and certain enduring truths. The term appears first to have been employed by Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke speaks of “that generous loyalty to rank and sex,” a “mixed system of opinion and sentiment” that “had its origin in the ancient chivalry.” He continues,

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. 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.

In recent years, some popular writers have referred to man as “a naked ape.” That is precisely what man would become, Burke implies, were it not for the gift of the moral imagination. The “barbarous philosophy” of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, Burke declares, “is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings . . . as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance. . . . In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”

In Burke’s rhetoric, the civilized being is distinguished from the savage by his possession of this moral imagination. Drawn from centuries of human experience and reflection, these concepts of the moral imagination are expressed afresh from age to age.

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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