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What Is Imagination? (1/3)

For one glorious year, I was blessed to live as a Residential Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in northern Michigan, where I worked on my novel and researched Dr. Kirk’s understanding of the Moral Imagination.

As a result of this experience, I feel relatively comfortable when it comes to making distinctions between the “moral,” “idyllic,” and “diabolic” imaginations. Yet it wasn’t until a student recently asked me a straightforward question—“What exactly is the imagination?”—that I realized I didn’t have a simple definition of this whimsical “thing” we storytellers love to reference (and as a result, I’m pretty sure I just mumbled something about creativity).

So what is the imagination?

To answer this question, I turned to the two writers who have most influenced my understanding of the relationship between imagination, faith, and story: C. S. Lewis and Russell Kirk. Both men wrote extensively on this dynamic, serving as “translators” who not only sought to preserve the Great Tradition they had inherited, but to breathe new life into its ideas through writing that appealed to both reason and imagination. In this three-part series of posts, I will focus on defining the imagination, concluding each segment with a statement that hopefully helps elucidate what we mean by this word.

Lewis and Kirk both recognized that the Western world had left what Kirk called the “Age of Discussion” and entered an “Age of Sentiments,” where rational discourse was not, by itself, all that persuasive. Kirk foresaw that in this age

…there will survive some serious periodicals, and some decent books, and here and there obscure comers where a few people earnestly discuss some matters that cannot well be swept into oblivion. Yet this remnant of genuine thinkers and readers and talkers may be very small. The immense majority of human beings will feel with the projected images they behold upon the television screen; and in those viewers that screen will rouse sentiments rather than reflections. Waves of emotion will sweep back and forth, so long as the Age of Sentiments endures. And whether those emotions are low or high must depend upon the folk who determine the tone and temper of television programming.[1]

In the absence of deep discussion, the danger is that we “sink into an era of secular propaganda, unthinking conformity, and mass manipulation.”[2] Kirk did not live to see our own “age of the Internet” or “age of Netflix,” but most of us can acknowledge the validity of his concerns. The supremacy of sentiments opens us up to propaganda and manipulation, yet Kirk also acknowledged that it makes us postmodern people—who do not value cold rationality quite like our Enlightenment forefathers—more receptive to the subtle whispers of the imagination.

The immense majority of human beings will feel with the projected images they behold upon the television screen; and in those viewers that screen will rouse sentiments rather than reflections. Russel Kirk

Lewis also appreciated the potential of sentiments—worthwhile passions such as courage, love, honor, and a healthy patriotism—and wrote of this power of the “chest” in The Abolition of Man. He recognized that the rational justification of why we should or should not do something does not “enable a man to be virtuous,” for without “the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.”[3] Yet if our emotions are trained out of slavery to our most basic desires, they may well become enamored with all of the “useless” things that matter most, which Lewis describes in The Four Loves when he says, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”[4]

Philosophy and art? Perhaps these things have little value in our 21st century economy, but when it comes to education and parenting, Lewis insists that if we sacrifice the imagination in favor of more “practical” pursuits in order to produce a generation of “college and career ready” test-takers, we will end up with “men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”[5] After all, human beings are not merely rational, which is why society—no matter how scientific or technologically advanced—needs the poet, whose “route to our emotions lies through our imaginations.”[6]

First Conclusion: The imagination, then, is that part of us most concerned with transcendent concepts, virtues of “the chest,” and pursuits that are good ends in themselves.


[1] Russell Kirk, “The Age of Sentiments,” Redeeming the Time (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1996), 134.

[2] Russell Kirk, “The Age of Discussion,” Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (Peru: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1991), 44.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–37.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1960), 71.

[5] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 35–37.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 319.


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