The human imagination represents both the very best and the very worst of our species. It enables us to think deeply, to create and enjoy the arts, to improve society, and to solve problems. But our imagination is also limited. Without a firm grounding in the way things are, we are bound to misunderstand the way things will or should be. Our imagination can limit our vision to our own two eyes, to rely only on our own opinions, and to believe and pass on only half-truths. And so we are warned by the mother of our Lord, who sang that the Father, “has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53 NKJV).
These positive and negative aspects of the human psyche are well represented by the second of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous essays, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (see our first post for Works Cited). In his work, Rousseau denies traditional interpretations of human origins and history, and presents an alternative view that is more in line with the rational, naturalistic approach typical of the Enlightenment. Yet while many find such a revision of our history refreshing, others are less persuaded.
Though several of Rousseau’s views are problematic on their own, my greatest concern is to be found in his general approach to his subject. In denying the value of historical fact and experience, Rousseau relies too heavily on his own thoughts and judgments. In other words, while we may agree with particular aspects of Rousseau’s thought, we come to distrust his “idyllic imagination.”
I borrow this term from the late Russell Kirk (which he, in turn, borrows from Irving Babbitt), who discusses the vital role of imagination in human society as well as its proper development through the normative function of great literature. Kirk laments recent trends in the writing and enjoyment of books, not only because they are often bad writing, but that they are also prone to encourage improper modes of thought. Like imagination, writing has the potential to be either good or bad, and the two factors go hand in hand: just as good writing has a supporting role in the development of good people; bad people are never challenged by bad books.
To clarify these trends and their effects, Kirk sets forth three types of imagination: the moral imagination (“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events”), the idyllic imagination (“which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention”) and the diabolic imagination (“which delights in the perverse and subhuman”; Kirk, “Moral”). The first of these types is clearly the goal of humane letters, and represents the peak of human thought and creativity.
When we deny the value of historical experience and go our own way, however, we are just as likely to be led astray by mere illusions, viewing reality through a darkly lit mirror, and eventually arriving at a point where we have forgotten what humanity looks like, satisfied with a mere shadow of the imago Dei, if even that. So while the role of culture in general (and literature specifically) is to cultivate the best in human nature while reforming our worst features, the idyllic imagination takes us one step further from a realistic view of character and community and moves us one step closer to pure ignorance.