Cross-posted at First Things
Inspired by Patrick Deenan’s outstanding essay about sociologist and cultural philosopher Robert Nisbet, I’d like to define a term that appears as a theme in his work and was popularized by Russell Kirk: the moral imagination. (The term comes from Edmund Burke, and its quotation is below the fold.) It can be defined as a uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness. It is a process by which a self “creates” metaphor from images recorded by the senses and stored in memory, which are then occupied to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience. An intuitive ability to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of chaotic experience, the moral imagination should be an aspiration to a proper ordering of the soul and, consequently, of the commonwealth. In this conception, to be a citizen is not to be an autonomous individual; it is a status given by a born existence into a world of relations to others. To be fully human is to embrace the duties and obligations toward a purpose of security and endurance for, first and foremost, the family and the local community. Success is measured by the development of character, not the fleeting emotions of status. Thinking “sacramentally,” (meaning humans are connected with a sacramental order of creation, a configuration of the mind in communion with the divine and beyond the rational) this is a sense that nature was created in such a manner that humans can draw “true analogies,” wisdom inaccessible by scientific method. Lived experiences, registered in memory and conjured through other experiences, can be interpreted through imagination so that memories may become images, analogous to the experience.
Despairing of the strong and quick changes that French revolutionaries were bringing to the established customs and institutions of civil society, Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France:
“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 bland assimilation, incorporated the 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 of 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 own naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”