Five Books on the Moral Imagination

By: Martin Cothran

I have been asked to recommend five books on the “moral imagination”—an assignment that sounds easy on the face of it, and yet it is very hard.

The reason it is hard is because it has caused me to ask myself what exactly is meant by the expression “moral imagination.” It is not an expression one runs across much these days. It lacks the rational or technical flavor we modern people like in our language, and because of this it appears to lack precision.

So my first task is to determine its meaning. How might this be done?

The interesting thing about asking myself this question is that it leads me right to the first book I must recommend: Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age. The reason I resort to this book first is because of its subtitle: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. There is our mysterious expression; surely the book must tell us what it means.

Kirk was the father of modern intellectual conservatism. It was his book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (a book I could have easily included among my recommendations), that formed the conservative movement in the mid-twentieth century, a movement that seems to have foundered on the rocks of individualism and libertarianism by the end of the century.

And indeed, Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot, two thinkers whose ideas Kirk spilled much ink extolling, may be the two greatest exponents of this moral imagination as Kirk conceive it. In fact, it was Burke who first coined the term in the second book I must recommend, Reflections on the French Revolution, a book that some have credited with single-handedly preventing the same kind of revolution from occurring in England that was happening in France in the late eighteenth century.

What kind of revolution was it?

It was a revolution―conducted in the name of reason, progress, equality, and freedom―against custom, tradition, and religion. But even more than that, the French Revolution was a war on the traditional conception of man. Its redefinition of the cosmos, its hacking of reality down to the merely material, operating by mechanical rules, forced the redefinition of man.

Burke rightly perceived that the Revolution was an attempt to amputate the moral imagination of man so that he might fit into a new and truncated materialistic world. Burke recognized the enemy as ideology, a word now used promiscuously, but which Burke (and Kirk, his follower) saw as a secular religion. An ideology is a reductionist view in which all reality must be hewn to fit its secular and materialist paradigm, as in the bed of Procrustes, the legendary Greek robber who hacked off the limbs of his victims who were too tall to fit in his bed and stretched those who were to short to fit.

In the case of the French Revolution, it was articulated rationality―that rationality divorced from custom and tradition, a sterilized and dehumanized rationality that was set at odds with what classical thinkers like Cicero had called “right reason” (recta ratio)―the agreement with unchanging nature. This articulated rationality would displace right reason, as the Goddess of Reason had replaced God Himself in the Temple of Notre Dame in 1793.

Burke saw that the “sophisters and calculators” who powered such revolutions were the enemies of the truly human, and their radical ideologies which threatened civilization itself. The majestic rhetoric Burke deployed against the enemies of Western culture formed his Reflections, the book Kirk considered the first modern conservative work.

What Kirk saw was that the Revolutionaries are still with us, and the enemies of order are ever working woe on those who still cling to the “unbought grace of life” about which Burke spoke so passionately.

Kirk articulates and defends both the external and internal order that are at stake in our cultural crisis in both Eliot and His Age and in the third book I recommend: Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics. This second Kirk book trains it sites upon the “modern defiance of enduring standards in literature and politics,” and explains how these standards are threatened by the “normative decay” that “gnaws at order in the person and at order in the republic.”

Kirk once told the story of being called into the Oval Office by Richard Nixon. The President told him of asking Henry Kissinger what books he should read, and complained of the length of both the books and the lists his secretary of state gave him. What one book, Nixon asked, should he read? Unhesitatingly, Kirk told him, “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, by T. S. Eliot.” But, said Kirk, “Nixon seemed faintly reproachful at my sibylline recommendation.” But whatever Nixon may have thought, it is my fourth recommended book.

In Bradley J. Birzer’s excellent new book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (another book I could have recommended if I had been asked for a longer list), he points out that Kirk thought that Eliot “understood, piercingly, the movement of all Western society―in government, education, and business―toward an embrace of ‘the machine,’ fragmenting the human person as mere parts, with an arrogant, semi- or uneducated elite ruling over all.”

Finally, I recommend a book by a writer unfamiliar to Kirk, largely, I think, because he came to prominence only toward the end of Kirk’s life. That book is After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre. It may be the most influential book of philosophy written in the last forty years, having single-handedly retrieved virtue ethics from the dustbin of history.

MacIntyre’s book is a diagnosis of the failure of ethical theory since the Enlightenment to make any sense of what we conceive of as morality. What MacIntyre proposes is the reconnection of morality with the imagination. He recommends a return to the classical view of ethics first proposed and articulated in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which the right action was that which corresponded with and perfected the person’s innate human nature. It was that action which brought to person closer to the ideal of what a human should be. This view of ethics held sway in the West until it was thrown out along with the rest of the medieval theological and philosophical synthesis during the European Enlightenment.

From these books we discover that the imagination is that faculty by which we are able to envision what could be—and that the specifically moral imagination is that faculty by which we are able to envision what should be. It is that faculty that distinguishes us from the beast. It’s what Aristotle meant when he referred to man as the “rational animal”―not the etiolate rationality of the French Revolutionaries, but the true rationality by which we see, not just the True, but the Good and the Beautiful.