“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” ~ Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery)
Every summer that I spend in northern Michigan I watch the 1985 film adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (northern Michigan—especially the Victorian summer colony of Mackinac Island—always makes me think of Prince Edward Island). My fascination with the power that words have on our imaginations probably started when I first read the ‘Anne books’ as a very young girl (and then re-read them multiple times). One of the most endearing characters in all of children’s literature, Anne Shirley made the mundane magical and infused ordinary life with wonder. During her early life in orphanages, Anne’s active imagination seemed to be a coping mechanism (i.e. Katie Morris, her window friend), but once she reached Prince Edward Island it became her characteristic response of gratitude for her new life (“It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?”), as well as the source of her passionate spirit, love of poetry and history, longing for transcendent mystery, and moral courage. Anne of Green Gables, without a doubt, was the fictional character who sparked my young moral imagination more than anyone else.
The term “moral imagination” was coined by the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and described those intangible ideals “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination” that form a foundation for all flourishing societies (myth, religion, poetry, art…in a word, culture)–sentiments Burke believed were being rejected by certain thinkers who wished to narrow valid experiences to those that could be explained by a limited definition of reason and a reductionist vision where human beings are little more than advanced animals. Russell Kirk reinvigorated the term in the 20th century, referring to the moral imagination as an empathetic “power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.”
Many parents want to encourage the imaginations of their children, but I also meet parents who are wary or discouraged by the kinds of stories currently being marketed to young people (“they’re so dark,” “there’s no clear sense of right and wrong,” “the content is too edgy and explicit”). Perhaps this fear explains why imagination has not always been thought of as a positive faculty. In the Middle Ages the word was often used to describe dark fantasies of the mind that tempted one to do bad things, and in modern times imagination is sometimes associated with romantic daydreamers who can’t cope with the world as it is, so they create their own. This certainly wasn’t what Burke and Kirk meant by moral imagination, but defining the somewhat ambiguous term—especially as it relates to fictional stories—can be a challenge, so I’ve come up with a list of 10 Principles in an effort to narrow it down.
An important point to mention is that when it comes to books for children and young adults, stories with squeaky-clean characters and overly preachy messages (in addition to being dull) aren’t usually the best representatives of the moral imagination. Stories of the moral imagination promote wonder, empathy and hope. They allow us to enter into another’s plight and experience ethical dilemmas, but they also inspire by giving the reader confidence that Goodness ultimately wins out and is not for the weak.
What stories have you read that embodied these principles? Please comment below!
10 Principles of the Moral Imagination
by Ashlee L. Cowles
1) Stories of the Moral Imagination point to an enduring and transcendent moral order, and therefore resist ethical relativism, utilitarianism, and nihilism. They suggest that many aspects of the human experience are universal and can be shared across cultures.
2) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize “what a thing is”—especially, human nature. They recognize that there is something “above human nature” (the supernatural) and something “below it” (the diabolical) (Russell Kirk). The writer does not create this reality, but rather discovers it.
3) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that humans have a mythopoeic means of knowing reality that transcends rationalism and empiricism. Human beings are “sub-creators” (J.R.R. Tolkien) who naturally seek out the Good, True, and Beautiful through story and myth—our primary modes of understanding the deepest truths.
4) Stories of the Moral Imagination defend the notion of free will, while also acknowledging the possibility of destiny, grace, and providence. Because humans are free agents who will not always choose to act virtuously, they as individuals, as well as the societies they form, are always an imperfect—but redeemable—blend of good and evil.
5) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that the purpose of human life is not pleasure, power, or utopia, but arête (virtue or excellence) and, above all else, Love.
6) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist the extremes of libertarianism and collectivism by emphasizing individual personhood in inescapable community. This is reflected in the story’s heroes and in the lives of the writers themselves, whose craft is often the result of both solitude and community.
7) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize that there are “permanent things” (T.S. Eliot) which must be passed on in order for a culture to endure and flourish. The characters in such stories fight not necessarily for total victory, but “to keep something alive” (Russell Kirk). Memory is therefore crucial, as are the traditions of past generations.
8) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist rigid dualisms by stressing paradox, as well as the sacramental nature of existence. Humans are a mystery in that we possess some kind of consciousness/soul that cannot be explained entirely by scientific means, yet we are also embodied beings, which means the pleasures and sufferings of the material world are central to the human experience.
9) Stories of the Moral Imagination have an ethical end, but they need not be didactic and are not always allegorical. Their primary purpose is not to instruct, but to awaken (George MacDonald). Just as the Moral Imagination is not a thing or even a faculty, but “a process of making metaphors out of images and experience” (Vigen Guroian), stories of the Moral Imagination use powerful symbols, believable characters, and authentic situations to achieve their purposes, rejecting simplistic moral lessons.
10) Stories of the Moral Imagination recognize that truthful fiction often requires “getting yourself dusty” (Flannery O’Connor). Such stories do not shy away from depicting the nature of evil and the broken state of our world, but they also recognize that without the possibility of transformation and a vision of hope “the people perish.”