The Moral Imagination

The use of an adjective like moral to modify imagination, suggests that the opposite construct, an immoral imagination, exists. Plenty authors, of course, have written about immoral behavior; yet even in depiction of horrific acts, an author is reflecting on man as the moral animal. Implicit is the assumption that a moral standard exists to which fictional characters conform to or deviate from to a lesser or greater extent. The very exercise of the imagination is a moral act; for what does it entail to imagine–to imagine anything at all?

The noun from which the verb derives is image–a picture in the creator’s mind, a vision of something or someone other than himself. The effort to enter into the consciousness of another individual, to try to walk in his shoes, and to inhabit his body involves a psychic and spiritual union with a fictional character that is a moral act–the very essence of morality.  Imagination of the other–the not-self–has a spiritual dimension.  Differences dissolve when we imagine another human being as prone to the same vices and virtues as we are. We start to see men and women of other races, nationalities, or circumstances as sharing the same interests. In this regard writing fiction, indeed the pursuit of any art form, is a moral act. Art is vivifying and ennobling, both for the artist and the audience, because vision broadens beyond the myopic self.

Art, then, is close to, or borders on, the religious experience, which artists have been known to regard as a religious calling, such as that of a priest, putting imagination in the service of revealing moral truths. Justly, then, the words moral and imagination inextricably are a bound pair, practically the two words in conjunction are a redundancy; similarly the term immoral imagination is an oxymoron.  A moral vision entails a search for values. In the process particular types of human conduct are either viewed as desirable or undesirable, producing either peace or conflict. Without the ability to imagine, the task cannot be attempted. The individual remains in a circumscribed shell, a prisoner of his own ego, and fearful of anyone who does not look like or behave like him.

This quote from A Course in Miracles describes how exercise of the moral imagination defines the spiritual path: “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him, you will see yourself. As you treat him you treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself.” It sounds a lot like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In every encounter with his characters, a writer is seeing himself, treating that character as he would himself, and thinking of that character as himself. Otherwise the character does not come alive on the page, nor can that character come alive to the reader who partakes of that moral imagination. With good reason a voracious reader expands his moral imagination too.

In this poem, I see Flannery O’Connor as a writer who exemplifies the moral imagination at work:       

           Intelligently Holy

Flannery O’Connor in her journal writes

            I want to be intelligently holy

As if intelligence and holiness comprise

            an oxymoron in her mind.

The mindlessness of holiness does exist,

            for the mystic adept in practice

Of emptying makes room for entry in

            of the Holy of Holies who bathes in

Light—enlightens, sanctifies, and delights.

To offer one’s work, one’s art, one’s pain

            in God’s praise is very Catholic,

Which she is before ever she writes a line,

            praying to create catholic stories—

Catholic in the Latin sense that they’ll hold

            universal truths of the human soul,

Being at its core, religious fiction—the kind

            that redeems, the kind that makes holy

Even the Misfit gunning down a grandmother.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Judith on September 13, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    All true as stated. I would only add that we humans and many animals as well as hard wired genetically to act in ethically responsible ways and that we all suffer when we do not.

    Reply

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