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Moral Imagination, Humane Letters, and the Renewal of Society

Vigen Guroian

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Heritage Foundation Lecture held on April 29, 1999

"Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all agreed that the world must be changed. `We must abolish property,' said one. `We must abolish marriage,' said the second. `We must abolish God,' said the third. `I wish we could abolish work,' said the fourth. `Do not let us get beyond practical politics,' said the first. `The first thing is to reduce men to a common level.' `The first thing,' said the second, `is to give freedom to the sexes.' `The first thing,' said the third, `is to find out how to do it.' `The first step,' said the first, `is to abolish the Bible.' `The first thing,' said the second, `is to abolish laws.' `The first thing,' said the third, `is to abolish mankind.'"
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Four Reformers

From the very start of his long and illustrious career as an essayist and social critic, Russell Kirk warned that late liberalism is transmuting America into the egalitarian and anti-human society relished by Robert Louis Stevenson's four reformers.

Forty-five years ago, in an article entitled "The Dissolution of Liberalism," Kirk named this social philosophy "brummagemism," a local vulgarization of Birmingham in England, where during the 19th century cheap and inferior knock-offs of finely crafted articles were manufactured. In that article, Kirk argues that contemporary liberalism is hawking a shoddy imitation of humanistic politics. Brummagemism "tyrannizes over the soul of man" by imposing an "equality of condition [and] uniformity of life and thought" through "pervasive state regulation," says Kirk. In the meantime, utilitarianism and pragmatism bridge the transition from the old liberalism, whose moral vision was still deeply indebted to biblical faith, to a new Machiavellianism "founded upon self-interest and creature comforts."

Under the new brummagemian order, radical moral skepticism evacuates the culture of the last remnants of religious sentiment that inspired the concept of a free society. The sole dogma is that a truly enlightened and progressive society needs no dogma. The result, Kirk advises, is "a society which would deny men the right to struggle against evil for the sake of good, or which simply cease[s] to distinguish good and evil."

Humility in the Wrong Place

In his work Orthodoxy, the inimitable G. K. Chesterton mocked this liberal version of virtue: "What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place," states Chesterton. "Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be."

Fifteen years after Chesterton published Orthodoxy, in the inauspicious year of 1929, a young Walter Lippmann propounded a no less damaging assessment of liberalism. Lippmann comments in A Preface to Morals on the eviscerated and enfeebled morality of his contemporaries, sounding a note that rings true for our present circumstances as well:

If they deal with the young they are likely to say that they know of no compelling reason which certifies the moral code they adhere to, and that, therefore, their own preferences when tested by the ruthless curiosity of children, seem to have no sure foundation of any kind. They are likely to point to the world about them, and to ask whether modern man possesses any criterion by which he can measure the value of his own desires, whether there is any standard he really believes in which permits him to put a term upon that pursuit of money, of power, and of excitement which has created so much of the turmoil and the squalor and the explosiveness of modern civilization.

When a political creed is no longer capable of handing on moral convictions to the young, it forfeits the privilege to speak for them or to act in their behalf. And that is where liberals are today, starting in the White House.

The souls of our children are in jeopardy. In recent days, the slaughter at Columbine High School has reminded the nation joltingly of the danger of bodily harm to which to our children are exposed even in their classrooms.

There is, however, a spiritual harm being done to the young that is even more damaging and more pervasive. America has become unfriendly toward and unhealthy for children. It has been pointed out repeatedly since the killings at Columbine High School that the two young men who bloodlessly set out to murder their classmates and teachers were moved by a diabolic imagination purveyed through the Internet and by shooter computer games. The violence and vulgarity on television and video games that even the smallest children are exposed to daily in America would have deeply offended my parents' sensibilities when they were raising my brother and me.

I am not glorifying the past; I am, however, reviling the present moral climate. Our lack of outrage at this situation and apparent inability to go to the heart of the matter is no indication of a praiseworthy advance in our understandings of freedom or childhood or parenthood. Nor is it a tribute to the free market or the democratic ideal: It is a measurement, rather, of our piteous moral degradation as a society.

Nurturing the Moral Imagination

In this past year, I published with Oxford University Press a book entitled Tending the Heart of  Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination. Long ago I was convinced by Russell Kirk in such books as Enemies of the Permanent Things and Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning that at the root of the social crisis is a lack of attention to the nurture of the moral imagination. My own reading to my son, Rafi, and daughter, Victoria, proved to me the importance of a parental role in this moral pedagogy. I witnessed firsthand how morally beneficial good stories are for young children—and that is when we must begin their moral education, when they are quite young.

Thus, in Tending the Heart of Virtue, I try to show how the best stories, whether the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm and Hans Andersen or the fantasies of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle, communicate faith, morality, and civic virtue. Yet vast numbers of America's children never experience their felicitous influence at home or in school.

Cecilia Kirk Nelson comments on her father's regular practice of bedtime reading to his four daughters in an essay entitled "A Literary Patrimony." She writes:

By sparking my imagination through fairy tales, and by providing perspective and reason through historical novels, my father imparted a legacy to me. For through the printed word, the wisdom of generations transcends the "provincialism of time" and speaks to us across the ages and oceans.... Children's literature especially has a universal appeal and...can transmit an imaginative, normative consciousness.

To ponder the crisis of modern education was for Russell Kirk to describe our failure to transmit a religious and moral patrimony to the young. Here he stood in the company of G. K. Chesterton. At the turn of the 20th century, in What's Wrong With the World, Chesterton warned of the dim prospects for freedom and morality in light of that failure. In that book, he speaks of "an ancestral responsibility...of affirming the truth of human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice." And he asserts:

[There] is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child. From this high audacious duty the moderns are fleeing on every side; and the only excuse for them is...that their modern philosophies are so half-baked and hypothetical that they cannot convince themselves enough to convince even a newborn. This, of course, is connected with the decay of democracy.

Americans are not only failing to pass on to their children a strong and abiding sense of what is good, beautiful, and true, but they are letting enter into their minds and their hearts, their ears and their eyes, every variety of smut and ugliness and deceiving phantasmagoria. This is the symptom of a grave crisis of conviction, a profound confusion of morals.

In The Idea of a Christian Society, published nearly 60 years ago, T. S. Eliot assesses with startling prescience our present condition—and he lays the blame firmly on the liberal philosophy:

We are living at present in a kind of doldrums between opposing winds of doctrine, in a period in which one political philosophy [liberalism] has lost its cogency for behavior, though it is still the only one in which public speech can be framed. This is very bad for the English language: it is this disorder (for which we are to blame) and not individual insincerity, which is responsible for the hollowness of many political and ecclesiastical utterances.

Eliot argues that modern liberalism vacates the societies it husbands of the very beliefs that made liberalism such a viable and powerful force in history. Liberalism discards "as superfluous or obsolete" vital "elements in historical Christianity" upon which it based its anthropology and doctrine of liberty. It confounds these vital elements "with practices and abuses which are legitimate objects of attack."

The outcome is that our deepest convictions about the dignity of the human person and the transcendental nature of freedom are ripped from their religious sources and lose legitimization. An empty and fruitless shell is left that may be filled with whatever dogma or ideology is favored at the moment.

The Growing Institutional Danger

In the meantime, a network of institutions is evolving in Western democratic societies that threatens to destroy the core of what it means to be a religious person and a believer in divine and human freedom. These institutions claim to be neutral about faith and about God, but they are in reality non-Christian and growing increasingly anti-Christian and atheistic.

Christians—and others who adhere to historic faiths—have little choice but to participate in some of these institutions. Yet this participation subverts belief in religious truth and obedience to religious authority. Eliot warns: "And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds the valuable advertising space."

Under the conditions Eliot describes, what can we do? We belong to a stream of history and tradition whose headwaters draw deeply from biblical faith. This is our fact, our situation, and our location. This stream is the living and life-giving tradition of our social world.

I agree with Russell Kirk when he says in a lecture delivered at The Heritage Foundation that, even in secularized America, nearly everyone who lives long in it, "though he be Jew or Moslem or agnostic, conforms in a large degree to American folkways and customs and conventions that are" deeply, historically influenced by Christianity. If it is our intent merely to jump out of the stream, that is one thing. The possibilities and consequences of such an action might be examined on some other occasion.

But if, even in these radically disjunctive times, our hope is for renewal of the social order, then we must begin with our particular location in time and history. If the stream in which we swim has become toxic, we must find ways to name and extract the toxins.

The Vital Nexus: Religion, Literature, and Morality

One answer to what can be done lies in the restorative role that religious persons of literature and letters can play in such an environment. We have seen it at work in citations from Kirk, Chesterton, and Eliot. In his well-known essay "Religion and Literature," Eliot locates the vital cultural nexus of religion, literature, and morality:

The common ground between religion and fiction is behavior. Our religion imposes our ethics, our judgment and criticism of ourselves and our behavior toward our fellow men. The fiction that we read affects our behavior toward our fellow men, affects our patterns of ourselves.

We are living at a moment in the history of Western culture when "the common code of morality" founded in biblical religion is being "detached from its theological background" as well as being leached from the soil of the common life by the acid rain of modern secularism, Eliot continues. But at precisely such times of pollution and deprivation, "`morals' are open to being altered by literature," he adds.

This may be for well or for ill. For the ground of our common life may devolve into the swamp and muck of the diabolic imagination, or we may experience refreshment and renewal at the enlivening stream of the moral imagination. Unhappily, Eliot concludes, "modern literature is corrupted by...secularism, [so] that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of the primacy of the supernatural." A new literary imagination that is open to religious faith needs to be birthed.

I wonder whether, if Eliot were alive today, he would be willing to broaden his description of the realm in which either a moral or a diabolic imagination comes into being. Would he, in the scope of his analysis, include also the visual images and spoken words that saturate our popular culture through television, the cinema, video games, and the Internet?

He certainly was alert to the often hidden yet powerful influence that ordinary recreational reading may exercise on human believing and doing. He observes in "Religion and Literature":

I incline to the shocking conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for amusement, or purely for pleasure, that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is literature we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular playwrights of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely.

If we expand this to include the electronic and other entertainment and advertising media, we gain an appreciation of just how powerful and pervasive the forces are that work upon the imaginations of modern people. In times of decadence, the religious person of letters may be better equipped than the moral philosopher to make the moral difference, not by a dogged defense of dogma—though an intelligent defense of dogma by theologians and clergy is needed—but by influencing behavior through new creations of the moral imagination.

When the common base of morality is eroded, that which is favorable or objectionable changes with the mood of the generation—nay, the decade even. Those who enshrine a false view of progress may regard this state of affairs with satisfaction; they may even declare it to be evidence of thehighest expression of human freedom. "Whereas," says Eliot, "it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people's moral judgments have."

The religious man or women of letters may help ordinary humanity to grasp more surely the quiddity of things and their true relations in a common life, founded upon the solid ground of religious and moral existence. In our time, that activity of authorship ought not to be limited to the printed word either. For millennia, poets and playwrights have composed for dramatic performance. Today and tomorrow, they must author poetry and prose that can also be translated into the images and spoken words of computer technology, without making an idol or obsession of that invention. George Lucas is showing us the power of this medium in his Star Wars trilogies.

"The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not," writes Eliot,

and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not. I suppose that everything we eat has some effect upon us other than merely the pleasure of taste and mastication; it affects us during the process of assimilation and digestion; and I believe that exactly the same is true of anything we read.

But Eliot himself knew that reading is not all of it. He did, after all, in his later years turn almost exclusively to writing plays.

Recovering and Renewing Morality

Thus, it is the great challenge, the high calling, of religiously minded men and women of letters to recover and renew true and substantial morality through imaginative writing, whether in the form of the essay or narrative and poetry. And just as important, those in positions to encourage and support this cultural activity must awaken to the need of it. In these times, politics alone will not do, for politics has lost its moral compass. It is like old blind King Lear lost and deranged in the desolate places.

Russell Kirk often said, "Nothing is but thinking makes it so." He easily could have added, "Nothing is but imagining makes it so." The 20th century Russian religious philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev was bold to say, "God created the world by imagination." Kirk believed, just as certainly as did Eliot, that the symbols and images of imagination are at least as real as the ideas and concepts of the intellect.

Twenty years ago, in Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Education, Russell Kirk addressed this subject of the image and the age. There he observes:

When the images of reality have fallen to grossness, why wonder that the notorious Identity Crisis afflicts every corner of society, fastening upon even the more promising natures? Who am I—only a cypher? Do I belong to anything enduring, or signify anything more than a perishable and precarious body? How do I fit into this sensual egalitarian world? Why wonder that some turn to fantastic and perhaps fatal imagery of narcotic, for some the moments' relief from the pain of being human.

Yet it is "the image...that can raise us on high, as did Dante's high dream" or draw "us into the abyss," Kirk continues. "It is [the] matter of the truth or falsity of images" that ought to be concerning us most in this age when the written word is being overshadowed by visual imagery that pours in upon us from radio and television, signs on the highway and advertisements in slick magazines, the cinema and videos, and on the Internet.

The Age of Sentiments

More recently, in an essay entitled "The Age of Sentiments," Kirk advanced further his thoughts on the crisis of the moral imagination. In this intriguing essay, he argues that the Age of Discussion, which grew from the Enlightenment and earmarked modernity, is all but over. We are entering a new era in civilization, Kirk advises, where sentiments rule—indeed, we are entering the Age of Sentiments. And this momentous shift in mind and sensibility requires new cultural strategies for the nurture of the moral imagination.

Kirk is forthright about the course of events: The Age of Discussion, with its near divinization in certain places of analytical and discursive reason, was not all that it claimed to be. If it began with such hardy souls as Addison and Steele, Pope and Dryden, Hume and Smith, and, of course, Edmund Burke, it collapsed into palsied and impoverished Benthamite utilitarianism, Millsian egalitarianism, and Deweyite pragmatism. That is why Kirk does not lament its passing too much. He confesses:

I suppose I made it clear that I am dragged kicking and screaming into the Age of Sentiments. It is painful enough to be governed by other people's reasoning, without being governed by their sentiments. Yet it should not be thought that I bow down in worship before the late Age of Discussion. For the most part the Age of Discussion was an age of shams and posturing.

Kirk decides to make the best of the situation, and even in his late years his optimism about our humanity did not flag. So he sets out to understand the Age of Sentiments in order to refurbish a moral imagination that might transform and redeem the time. He defines sentiment as a human response to the world that rests somewhere between thought and feeling. But it is not mere feeling. And it is more than just sensation or emotion. "While it contains too much feeling to be merely thought," it does participate in thought and "has a large influence over the will."

Kirk reminds his readers that for "David Hume and Adam Smith, sentiments exert greater power, and indeed [are] better guides than reason—though Hume remarks in his Principles of Morals that sentiment and reason usually coincide." Kirk concludes, "I suppose we may say that for Hume and Smith a sound sentiment is a moving conviction."

That is an important consideration and a valuable clue to solving the puzzle of an Age of Sentiments. Russell Kirk understood that sentiments and imagination are quite closely related and that the quality of the images that memory stores strongly influences how sentiment moves people, whether to elevate or degrade life.

Throughout his mature years, and increasingly so, Kirk would remind his readers and listeners of his philosophical mentor T. S. Eliot. For Eliot also identified this shift in our civilization from an Age of Discussion to an Age of Sentiments. Eliot understood that, in the transition, there is great danger of decline as well as the pregnant possibility for grace and redemption.

Eliot was himself among the first of the post-modernists, but with a religious turn. He showed in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, and the Four Quartets that our civilization is broken and that its shards and fragments are scattered along the paths we walk. Some of our contemporaries stumble over a single shard and take it for the whole. Others sift nervously through the fragments hoping that this or that one might bring peace or pleasure. Still others endeavor to persuade us that what is broken can be put back together, like Humpty Dumpty, just as it was before.

A New Mosaic of Life

Eliot insisted that we see ourselves as pilgrims in the ruins and practitioners of the moral imagination. Then it may be possible to piece together successfully these shards and fragments into a new meaningful mosaic of life. The future is not mere fate—not if the God of biblical faith is real. For if He is real, then human freedom also is real, and an undetermined future waits to be brought into existence through human and divine willing and doing.

This conviction, however, that God is real, and so human freedom is also, comes to be in the hearts and minds of human beings not because it is practical or socially useful to hold such a belief—though that too may be—but because the light of religious and moral imagination shows that it is true about existence. The worst thing "of all," wrote Eliot, "is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial." Kirk added:

No man sincerely goes down on his knees to the divine because he has been told that such rituals lead to the beneficial consequences of tolerably honest behavior and commerce. People will conform their actions to the precepts of religion only when they earnestly believe the doctrines of the religion to be true.

The new Gnostics and prophets of a post-modern order in which God is no longer needed or wanted detest such religious speech. They would have the public believe that this talk is either dangerous or fantastic, or both. At every opportunity, they interpose their arbitrary prohibitions against it.

Yet they needn't prevail. Let those who are willing labor to bring into existence a new religious humanism expressed through works of imagination—of poetry, art, and letters. Russell Kirk spoke with optimism:

The restoration of true learning, human and scientific; the reform of many public policies; the renewal of our awareness of transcendent order, and the presence of the Other; the brightening of the corners where we find ourselves—such approaches are open to those among the rising generation who look for purpose in life.

Vigen Guroian, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the faculty of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. This lecture was delivered on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the death of Russell Kirk.

By Vigen Guroian:

Read the entire article on the Heritage Foundation website (new window will open).

Posted: 22-Jan-2009



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