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What Is Imagination? (3/3)

In Part II, we considered how imagination is the harmonious piecing together of images that rouse longings powerful enough to move us to faith in a “Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” The imagination also urges us to go beyond right belief by rousing the sentiments that make us more capable of right action.

Can it then be a mere coincidence that Russell Kirk’s concept of the “moral imagination” comes from a quotation by Edmund Burke in 1790 that includes the very “image” of longing that C. S. Lewis is best known for?

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.[1]

Through this metaphor of a wardrobe (!), Burke references humanity’s innate desire for the transcendent (“superadded ideas”), which he describes as the clothing that covers our “naked shivering nature” and raises us to greater dignity. In this wardrobe hangs everything that separates humans from beasts—all the symbols and signs which assure us we are not animals only, but spiritual beings made in the image of God. And yet it is through the concrete, physical world of culture that our spiritual nature is made known. Art, philosophy, storytelling, music, ritual, poetry, the virtues and customs passed on from one generation to the next—these are the fur coats Lucy must pass through and touch in order to enter a world that is at once more magical and more real.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it isn’t typically the soul of mystery. Ashlee Cowles

Burke wrote these lines in reference to the most extreme factions of the French Revolution, who sought to do away with “antiquated” custom. As a result, any reasonable motivations for reform were swallowed up by bloodlust and tyranny—the forces that always fill the vacuum that results when the wardrobe of the moral imagination is stripped bare and little remains of man but a brutal creature consumed by selfishness, hedonism, and the instinct to survive at all cost.

Kirk, in his interpretation of Burke’s passage, highlights empathy as the crucial imaginative power that separates man from beast, making the other “fur coats” of culture in the wardrobe possible. “By the ‘moral imagination,’” Kirk writes, “Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment.”[2] For Kirk, the moral imagination is our empathic ability to perceive universal truths—both about humanity and the world—that transcend our own narrow experience and the historical age we happen to have been born to. This imaginative power is awakened not only by poetry, literature, and song, but by any image that incarnates a deeper mystery.

Third Conclusion: The imagination, then, is our unique human capacity to empathize with the other, the enemy, and the least of these; it is our ability to find the universal in the particular.

Final Conclusions

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it isn’t typically the soul of mystery. Perhaps the imagination itself is a mystery, and as such, it is difficult to summarize in a simple, one-sentence definition. If Christ, the ultimate Mystery, is one who “plays in ten thousand places,” then the spellbinding power of the imagination—one of the most wondrous earthly mysteries He’s given us—surely requires at least a thousand words. C. S. Lewis and Russell Kirk believed the imagination’s dominion was neutral—it “can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream,” or “draw us down to the abyss.”[3]—but it is a power and should be treated as such. Throughout their careers, Kirk and Lewis called for and contributed to a renaissance of imagination, anticipating that the culture-maker, not the cultural critic, would be the voice “increasingly heard” amidst the noise of the modern world, and perhaps the prophet most capable of opening our eyes to “the great mysteries once more.”[4]


Read Part I

Read Part II

[1] As quoted in Russell Kirk’s “The Moral imagination” in Literature and Belief Vol. 1 (1981), 37–49. Accessed July 29, 2016.

[2] Ibid

[3] Kirk, “Rediscovery of Mystery.”

[4] Ibid.


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