Article Review: The Moral Imagination

A Review of:
– Awakening the Moral Imagination: Teaching Virtues Through Fairy Tales by Vigen Guroian
– Of Weeds and Fairy Tales: The Idylls, Idols, and Devils That Corrupt the Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian
– The Moral Imagination by Russell Kirk

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

G.K. Chesterton

A diminutive man who spins straw into gold. Evil stepmothers intent on destroying their stepdaughters’ lives. Beasts who must win love to transform into princes. Fairy godmothers. Giants with singing harps. Boys raised by wolf packs. “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after”. This is the stuff of fairy tales. This is the terrain of the moral imagination.

In several masterful articles, Russell Kirk and Vigen Guroian remind us of the sweet necessity humanity has for the story – and not just any story – but, more specifically, the fairy tale. How, it might be asked, can there be any enduring value in the silly-headed yarns that filled our childhood bedtimes with witches, frog-princes, and dragons? Aren’t there bigger problems, weightier issues, and worldly concerns that should crowd out these flights of fancy? In short, in an age of science and utter seriousness, don’t we just need to grow up? The simplest and most direct answer is: absolutely not. Perish the thought that we should ever cease being children.

It is fine to say this as a platitude, but what does it really mean? Quite simply, the stories of childhood matter. To consider these tales as something purely to occupy a child’s time would be to cheat them of their true import. Playing house, riding a bike, or assembling Legos could all play the same role. But stories are different. They have a message. Vigen Guroian quotes Flannery O’Connor:

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way…You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”

Even more, however, every story has a lesson or message, no matter how deeply buried. Children have an uncanny knack for identifying it. Ask either of my preschool daughters about Cinderella and you will experience a tempestuous ride through a tale of risk and reward, good and evil. Ask me about Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis and you will get a bumbling, boring, half-forgotten recitation with little abiding meaning. Fairy tales are different. Thus, if every story has a message, then it is vitally important to know what that message is. G.K. Chesterton brilliantly recognizes the vital dual role of fairy tales which mix the levity of a childish fable with the gravity of its deeper message when he says:

“That is the one eternal education: to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.”

Now goblins and fairies, witches and giants may not exist. And massive beanstalks and eternally-sleeping princesses may be pure figments of fancy. But as wild and unpredictable as the rules may be in fairy tales, one thing is dead certain and stone serious: what is right and what is wrong. In fairy tales, the vehicle may be imaginative, but the message is moral. To indulge in these stories is to grow the moral imagination. And while it is essential to nurture the moral imagination in our children, it is also vital to cultivate it in ourselves. As Vigen Guroian quotes Alasdair MacIntyre:

“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance… that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their minds.”

The nature of fairy tales is to compel – to draw you in. It is to propel you bodily into the center of the action so that the future of the kingdom, the fate of the princess, or the acquisition of the treasure all rely on you and you alone. In short, when you hear the fairy tale, you end up a little sweaty, goose-pimpled, and exhilarated that you were a part of something greater than yourself. You are hero, protagonist, and defender of good against evil. How much richer is this than the stale, common recitation of hollowed-out platitudes from agnostic professors to passionless tin-eared students? Again, Vigen Guroian quotes Flannery O’Connor:

“Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held a knife over Isaac.”

The morals of fairy tales move mountains. The ethics of academia perish at the mountain’s base.

The soul, Vigen Guroian and Russell Kirk argue, finds deep resonance in the moral imagination. Each of our lives is a story filled with temptation and sin, discipline and virtue. Morally imaginative tales provide us perspective and wisdom to guide us as our life story is unfolding. They model heroic deeds and virtues worthy of our aspiration, and dastardly deeds and vices worth of our opposition. As Vigen Guroian says:

“The moral imagination is the distinctively human power to conceive of men and women as moral beings, i.e, as persons, not things or animals whose value to us is their usefulness. It is the process by which the self makes metaphors out of images recorded by the senses and stored in memory, which then are employed to find and suppose moral correspondence in experience.”

Our modern era, preoccupied with political correctness and adrift in relativism, has all but bled the moral imagination out of the stories it teaches. In its place are hollow husks of style without substance, without meaning, without soul. As Russell Kirk has said:

“When literature has lost sight of its real object or purpose, literature is decadent.”

To be sure, an individual deprived of the tales of moral imagination can find himself confused, stunted, and desperately longing for a moral compass that is not forthcoming.

It is here that Russell Kirk and Vigen Guroian offer their greatest warning. The moral imagination is not an optional adjunct to one’s life – providing cheer and perspective if cultivated, but harmless and inconsequential if ignored. The soul hungry for the moral imagination will not be deprived of it. But it may seek, instead, imagination in its corrupted forms: the idyllic, the idolatrous, and the diabolical imagination (as dubbed by Kirk and Guroian).

The risk in neglecting the moral imagination is its replacement by the “amoral” and ultimately “anti-moral” imagination. In the absence of a story guiding us through the treacherous path between right and wrong, the soul finds itself grasping for shadowy replacements. The idyllic imagination seeks autonomy, liberation, and emancipation from “civic, social, and moral responsibilities”. Initially, seeming enlightening and self-actualizing, this imagination devolves to a soft hedonism and empty sensuality. Soon, bored and grasping for direction, the idyllic imagination is replaced by the idolatrous imagination which seeks to render the transient (e.g. celebrities, athletes, fashionable philosophies) permanent, and the permanent transient. Finally recognizing the emptiness of the idyllic imagination and the disappointment of the idolatrous imagination, the diabolical imagination emerges with the relativizing of good and evil, the softening or eliminating of consequences for actions, and the justification of egotism and greed. This is the dark, nihilistic end to a life deprived of a moral imagination. What the idyllic, idolatrous, and diabolical imagination seem so intent to jettison are the morals, norms, and the standards – what T.S. Eliot calls “the permanent things”. These “permanent things” are the bedrock of the moral imagination.

Perhaps in its most important role, the moral imagination reminds us of the invisible dignity within each one of us. The Spirit, the spark of God, the soul. As Russell Kirk would say:

“It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.”

In the absence of this moral imagination, Edmund Burke would warn:

[We are cast forth] from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonistic world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

And as Vigen Guroian summed up so well:

“Plato argued that conversion to that which is moral, that which is just, that which is right and good is like an awakening – like remembering something long forgot. Symbols, allegories, fables, myths, and good stories have a special capacity to bring back to life the starved or atrophied moral imagination, to bring again to mind what we once knew (emphasis mine). Through dramatic depictions of the struggle between good and evil and the presentation of characters that embody and enact the possibilities therein, moral vision clears.

Light comes into our eyes – an illumination of our darkened intellect and a warming of our frozen hearts. Fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living. They do something even better, however. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity. They possess the power to draw us into the mystery of morality and virtue. They enable us to envision a world where there are norms and limits and where freedom respects the moral law or pays an especially high price.”

The moral imagination is indispensable, yet often neglected. But Russell Kirk and Vigen Guroian have achieved something vital in their work. They have called us to make a choice of enduring value and measureless reward, called us to start simply and behold the results, called us to cultivate “the permanent things” in our lives. It is really quite simple. Read a fairy tale to your child and yourself.


About todworner

Father, Husband, Physician, Amateur Historian, & Catholic convert passionate about the interplay of history, theology, philosophy, & politics. I hope my efforts to refine the lens through which I approach life can help others as they refine theirs...
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4 Responses to Article Review: The Moral Imagination

  1. Regor Renrow says:

    Very thoughtful and moving. I am reminded of the thrill I experienced hearing fairy tales as a child and, much later, sharing them with my children. Interesting – is it not – when one reflects how much the tale of the Three Little Pigs mirrors Christ’s parable about the planting of seeds , how often we may be compelled to claim that some notable figure is repeatedly “crying wolf,” or overstating that the “sky is falling.” You are spot on. The lessons of these tales are never time-worn, providing an ethical framework that lasts a lifetime.

  2. Bryce Pierson says:

    So true, maybe if the current political environment could work on simplifying the fanciful stories to distil down to the important issues more would get done. We live in an environment where “literature/politics” has become decadent and is indeed perishing at the base of the mountain. I agree that my kids (ages 6 and 9) when asked what is wrong around you or what should be fixed…. are not at all hardpressed to answer in a clear and succinct manner.

    I enjoyed this post!

  3. Pingback: understanding metaphorical parables like the tree of life, the eyes to see and the ears to hear « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  4. Pingback: “Article Review: The Moral Imagination” | Ethika Politika

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