russel kirk

The Conservative Imagination: Orthodoxy and Popular Culture

Russell Kirk spoke often of imagination, specifically the “moral imagination”. It was, in his eyes, perhaps the keystone of a conservative mind. He defined “moral imagination” as,

a man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather from moment to moment, as dogs do. It is a strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

The phrase originated with Burke, who saw in the Revolution a fundamental challenge to this foundation of civilization:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

The moral imagination is also echoed in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s emphatic statement that “the issue is between man created in the image of God and the termite in a human guise”. It is what allows us to recognize that we are created in God’s image and understand natural law, to ascend from primitive barbarity into civilized beauty; it is that sliver of divinity within us that is our best defense from surrendering to our capacity for Evil. (more…)