On Moral Imagination

“But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience wholesale NBA jerseys liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and wholesale NBA jerseys 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 New the Madrid. defects of our own naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our estimation, are debt. to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

-Edmund Burke, wholesale Cleveland Browns jerseys “Reflections on the Revolution in France”

Anything worth knowing can be approached in one of two ways: magnification or reduction. In studying a caterpillar, we can look at its nature in the context of its environment, or we can break it down into the scientific components that make it up.

The overwhelming trend in the 20th century has been to take the latter approach, what Michael Oakeshott called the “rationalist” or technical approach, to everything from science itself to human affairs. Moral arguments labeled “unscientific” are discounted. Even politics itself has been designated a “science” in most universities.

Edmund Burke argued that rationalism alone was inadequate to understand humans and the universe in which they live. Like Oakeshott, he recognized that there was another element of all knowledge; “practical” knowledge, or experience. Such experience is cumulative—a pianist can be told all the technical elements of how to play a piano, but in order to play a Mozart piano concerto, he needs hours and hours of practice.

But just as knowledge is not made up only of dry facts, it is not made up only of one’s own experiences. The pianist also needs knowledge of Mozart’s music itself (and Mozart had needed the musical discoveries of past composers to write what he did). In other words, he needs his own experience, and the experience of hundreds of years of past musicians. The music is more than the sum of the notes on the page—it has themes that develop toward a conscious end over the course of the piece, themes that draw from the discoveries and innovations of many generations.

The moral imagination is the ability to discern truth from human experience in this manner. Rather than reducing humanity to the notes on the page, it looks at the nature of humans in the context of their environment, drawing larger principles from their stories. Or, to return to our original example, it can see not only function but purpose in the caterpillar—not only dry facts and chemicals, but beauty. Because it is interested in magnification, it seeks out things that enable humans to step outside of themselves to grasp truths larger than themselves.

“Humane Pursuits” is a forum for the revival of the moral imagination in political discourse. Consequently, its contributors tend to value stories, art, and poetry as sources of political and theological insight. They value tradition. They often dislike rationalistic division of scholarly subjects, recognizing that politics, religion, sociology, literature, etc. are inextricably tied up with each other. They seek transcendent truth in day-to-day reality, desiring

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm Доброго of your the hand,

And eternity in an hour.

-William Blake, cheap nfl jerseys “Auguries of Innocence”


Brian Brown

Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

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