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Irrigating Deserts with Moral Imagination

Except for salvation, imagination is the most important matter in the thought and life of C. S. Lewis. He believed the imagination was a crucial contributor to the moral life, as well as an important source of pleasure in life and a vital evangelistic tool (much of Lewis's effectiveness as an apologist lies in his ability to illuminate difficult concepts through apt analogies). Without the imagination, morality remains ethics—abstract reflections on principles that we might never put into practice. The imagination enables us to connect abstract principles to everyday life, and to relate to the injustices faced by others as we imagine what they experience and feel. Though Lewis did not use the term “moral imagination” and recent writers on moral imagination rarely cite or draw upon him, he presented a clear, accessible, and powerful delineation of the concept long before it became popularized in the 1980s and 1990s.

Lewis's slender but very important book The Abolition of Man contains the Riddell Memorial Lectures, delivered at the University of Durham in February 1943. Although the word “imagination” does not appear in the lectures, this is Lewis's fullest articulation of the importance of moral imagination. Addressing educators (but also by implication parents, who are a child's first educators), he raises the problem of imaginative impoverishment. The educational system of the 1940s, he believes, has misread the need of the moment: fearing that young people will be swept away by emotional propaganda, educators have decided the best thing they can do for children is to fortify their minds against imagination and emotion by teaching them to dissect all things by rigorous intellectual analysis. Lewis says in reply, “My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Children's and adolescents' imaginations need to be fed, not starved.

The central argument of the book propounds “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” Mere Christianity refers to these attitudes as “the Law of Human Nature” and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe depicts them imaginatively as “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time.” The Law of Human Nature, Lewis believes, is like language, both innate (as emphasized in Mere Christianity ) and something that has to be learned, absorbed from parents and society, nurtured by example and precept.

Such nurturing is the central theme of The Abolition of Man . The role and approach of education are totally different for parents and educators who accept objective norms and values and for those who do not. For those who accept objectivity, “the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists.” The child must be guided “to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.” Those who do not accept objectivity must decide either “to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil's mind: or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic 'justness' or 'ordinacy'.”

Crucial to such nurturing is the child's internalization of the standards and the appropriate response. Intellectual apprehension of abstract principles is not enough. When a child is tempted to steal a sweater that appeals to him or her greatly, the goal is not to have the child intellectually weigh the moral issues at stake; the child must “feel” that stealing is not only wrong but repugnant, feel it through trained emotions: “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.” A person possessing trained emotions—the equivalent of practical reason—relies not on the abstract reflections of the head, but on the properly nurtured judgments of the heart: “The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man.”

Lewis goes even further and calls this the defining quality of the human species: “It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” Education, whether at home or school, that is aimed only at developing knowledge and intellect produces children who are emotionally and imaginatively impoverished and who grow up to be “Men without Chests” (the title of the first lecture). The loss of belief in moral law and its implementation through practical reason will ultimately, inevitably, Lewis believes, lead to the abolition of man, to the loss of the qualities that define the human species.

Practical reason needs to be nurtured first by the direct moral guidance of parents, teachers, and society, through instruction in accepted attitudes and mores. It is such practical nurturing, not abstract ethical study, that builds a life-long foundation for sound moral behavior. The faculty of reason is important in perceiving and articulating principles of morality, but in one sense it remains subservient to imagination because until those principles are internalized by a person and connected to life situations, they do not become meaningful and affect behavior. As Lewis expresses it (using his imagination to create images and invent a memorable analogy), “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that 'a gentleman does not cheat,' than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.”

That initial grounding in practical reason can be further nurtured through reading and responding to literature. The imaginativeness of stories enables children to form and internalize “sentiments,” those complex combinations of feelings and opinions which provide a basis for action or judgment. They are helped to learn and live out “magnanimity,” the nobleness of mind and generosity that enable one to overlook injury and rise above meanness. In “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis wrote that a writer should not impose a moral lesson upon a story: “Let the pictures [i.e., verbal images] tell you their own moral.” Here, in sum, is Lewis on the moral imagination: the moral of the story must be embodied in the images and the images can be perceived only through the imagination.

Lewis derived enormous pleasures, probably daily pleasures, from the imagination. Without it, his life would have been diminished in many ways—dimmer, more constricted, and less rich and rewarding. But he also recognized its importance for faith and moral development. His own moral attitudes were shaped by his early reading and his imaginative writings later were intended—like those of medieval and early modern writers he admired greatly: Dante, Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, for example—not just to entertain but to nurture. He did not want the civilized values of the past to be lost or dismissed as no longer relevant. Through the use of moral imagination in his writings, Lewis was attempting to preserve and pass on the traditional values of earlier ages to the modern world.

Peter J. Schakel is a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In addition to many other works on Lewis, he has written The Way into Narnia: A Reader's Guide , published by W.B. Eerdmans in 2005.

This article is excerpted from Peter J. Schakel, “Irrigating Deserts with Moral Imagination,” Inklings of Glory, volume 11 of Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics (The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2004), 21—29. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. For a free subscription to Christian Reflection , please see the center's Web site, www.ChristianEthics.ws.