Conservatives, in reaction to Rousseauean liberalism, have become good at understanding how the government ends up becoming a deified abstraction. Solve Poverty? Fix social relations? If a theorist can think of an abstract solution, it can quickly become a justification for government action … even though the action is necessarily particular, multifaceted, and one among many activities affecting the problem. In other words, government activity is the opposite of theory.
But the problem is not that the government is abstract, but that we use it as if it were abstract. A hard perception to overcome! After all, government really is distant, impersonal, absolute. Its authority is cloaked, as if behind a curtain – some generations call this curtain “divine institution;” ours holds it in place simply by refusing to speak of it. This is necessary when speaking in secular terms, and it is a great achievement of our political society.
So abstraction can serve a purpose. It is a stepping outside of reality, yes, but this is what enables the second step … re-picturing reality according to some framework, i.e. imagination. The first step is abstraction, the second step is imagination.
However abused, the term “mankind” is necessary for qualitative human equality. In its best formulation, “mankind” allows us to step outside of our particulars so that we can step back into a world where we have something essential in common with people unlike us. This is what separates sheer localism, which refuses to take the abstract step in the first place, from the elevated and imaginative reality beyond racial essentialism, hatred, and serfdom. I am not saying all problems can be solved. By no means! However, the problems I have listed are all based in an inability to move beyond particulars.
Abstraction is always imaginative in some way – an image is pretty much a form, which is an abstraction – but moral imagination relates specifically to enabling an elevated reality and experience. Imagination is not just about a myth, but about using our language capacity to understand both purpose and goodness more fully. So abstraction and imagination are parts of a continuum, or rather, a process. When we short this process, we fail to bring it back fully to the concrete world we live in – like when some Progressives can’t stop seeing the State as the Ideal of the country, the government as the abstraction of society.
Thus, the full task of imagination is to complete itself by enabling a life that is more fully aware of the goodness God has made, and more fully aware of the potential he has made in us.
For the sake of reference – the original thought for this came from a post on The American Scene.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.