The Lost Transcendental: What About the Moral Imagination?

Ian and I did a lot of driving last year. Having recently moved to the middle of the country, equidistant between our two families with almost mathematical precision, we decided to forego flying home for the holidays in favor of seeing America by car. It was a great idea, and we saw a lot of cool landscapes, but let me tell you there are some areas of this beautiful country that are the very reason the Wright brothers desperately turned to flight. Sorry eastern Colorado, but you are one of them.

To pass the time we turned into podcast junkies. If you haven’t checked out Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast yet and you have any interest at all in history, you should go subscribe right now. His history of the French Revolution, in particular, is a fascinating study. No wonder there are tomes written on the revolution’s events and causes, and no wonder philosophers and educators so often turn to its example to discuss the role of education in a society. How can it be that just a handful of years after the successful and well-regarded outcome of the American Revolution, France was torn to shreds while reportedly pursuing the same goal?

Many traditionalist thinkers today point toward that era’s materialism and denial of the supernatural as the source of its failure. The French, they argued, lacked a cultivated moral imagination.

What do they mean? That America was a Christian nation and France was not? That America was virtuous and France was not? One of the great controversies within the new French government was whether the state would financially support either the Christian religion or a newly invented secular religion. Very few thought that the nation could survive if the people rid themselves of religion and moral values altogether.  

Mr. Duncan said something in a brief aside during one episode that I’ve been chewing on ever since. He said that the main difference between the American and French revolutions was that the Americans founded their laws on the premise that man is inherently wicked, while the French formed their new laws on the premise that man is inherently good. That’s it. That’s all. That’s the most important difference.

Do you know why so many French citizens were slaughtered by Madame Guillotine? It was because the French rulers who governed the Reign of Terror believed that before France could enjoy ultimate peace, all the unrighteous must be purged from the ranks of the citizens. Then, because man is inherently good, the people could flourish in their goodness without any evil influences. A time of virtue would reign without conflict.

The people of late 18th century France did not lack moral concern, far from it. They really, really cared about virtue––to the exclusion of maybe the most important virtue of all: human compassion.

So what was the disease that sickened their moral imagination?

In a discussion about the moral imagination, it won’t be very long until literature comes up. We read literature, it is argued, in order to shape our moral imagination. This is where the interpretive “should” or “ought” question enters the scene. By applying these kind of questions to an imaginative world, they say our minds are awakened to a love of virtuous behavior in the real world. But this is where we start to tread dangerous revolutionary waters.

We just finished reading Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with our students. It’s the story of Dr. Jekyll, who hopes to end his internal struggle with good and evil by creating a potion that will pour his entire sinful nature into the despicable Mr. Hyde. This will leave Jekyll free to be perfectly good, right? Wrong. Instead Jekyll remains the same combination of good and evil that he ever was, and Hyde is left to rage in his wickedness, leaving a wake of destruction and ultimately consuming Jekyll in the end.

So if a teacher applies the “should” question in order to engage the moral imaginations of their students with this story, they may ask the question, “Should Jekyll have created Hyde to roam free in his wickedness?”  The majority of students will answer, “No, he shouldn’t have, and neither should we.” The theme of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is “Don’t give into your wicked temptations.”

This interpretation gets a little sticky though because all of a sudden we have changed the conversation on the author. An effective tool for the rhetorician, the “should” question is less effective in interpreting an author’s meaning. Stevenson tells the story of what Jekyll does, not what he should have done.  Jekyll creates Hyde. It’s a done deal, and we cannot speculate about what would have happened had he acted otherwise because the author does not give us those details. It’s Stevenson’s world, and his rules.

How does literature form the moral imagination then? Perhaps the moral imagination is deeper and subtler than simply dictating right from wrong. The beauty of literature is that it works on the heart and engages our emotions. Jekyll is most to be pitied. And so are we, because like it or not we transform into our Hydes every day, in spite of whether we should or shouldn’t do so. Together with Paul we cry, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Maybe the formation of the moral imagination does not bring a conclusion to our moral struggle through the triumph of the virtuous man. Maybe instead it means the introduction of a life-long conflict. Through literature we gain an understanding and love of what it is that we want to do. We want to be true, good, and beautiful. But also through literature we see the inherent wickedness of man that fights against our best intentions.

At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo slips on the ring in order to escape his traveling companions, thus making himself vulnerable to the evil eye. What if instead of asking “What should Frodo have done?” we ask “What did Frodo do?”

What should Frodo have done? He probably should have kept the ring off his finger.

But what did Frodo actually do? He put the ring on his finger and tried to steal a boat so he could slip off to Mordor alone.

And what happened? Against all odds, Sam found him anyway and insisted on helping Frodo bear the burden.

As I have written elsewhere, like Frodo I desperately desire to destroy the Ring. But also like Frodo I just can’t seem to keep it off my own finger. The sad truth is that I give into temptation more often than I heroically resist. Yet it is not that I do not desire to be good. I despair at my futility in matching my actions to my intentions.

But here, where The Fellowship could offer a scolding, it offers comfort instead. When we stay inside the author’s world by asking “what” instead of “should,” the moral imagination is free to cultivate the deepest virtue. Our hearts grieve for Frodo’s weakness. They grieve for our own weakness. But instead of leaving us there, Tolkien encourages us to rejoice in the power of compassion and friendship in the face of failure. When human truth, goodness, and beauty fail because of our weakness, we are presented with the lost transcendental: grace. It is a complete picture of the human condition that kindles our desire to do what is right, and catches us when we fall and don't measure up to the standard.

“Should” is a convicting question. When we discipline children or students we often turn to it. “Should you have kicked your sister?” “Should you have passed that note in class?” A response of shame and repentance in the child is appropriate. However, this question does not change the fact of what they did. The story thus far cannot be rewritten; but there still remains the power to pen the conclusion. The conclusion can be where the moral imagination is most affected. What if, despite being unable to change their story to reflect the “should,” they are met with the “what” of “I love you?”  It is not a condoning of their behavior, but an affirmation of their identity. It is the gift to continue living and trying to do their best in an atmosphere of security, knowing that as they battle between right and wrong they cannot lose their identity as the beloved. This is the beautiful power that the greatest authors wield. The best authors place us in a community of failure and help us see that our identity does not come from what we do, but from what has been done for us, whether they point to the gifted and undeserved love of fellow creatures or of the divine.

This is the moral imagination that the French Revolutionaries lacked. They didn’t lack the desire to do good, but rather the understanding and comfort of common human frailty. Victor Hugo captures this idea flawlessly in Les Miserables, his treatment of the final years of the French Revolution. There Javert, who embodies the spirit that led the revolutionaries to wield the guillotine, goes to great lengths to enforce righteousness, not only in others but also in himself. But his unbending dedication to the standard of “should” cannot survive; he and his spirit die when his failure is met with forgiveness.

Thus is the moral imagination cultivated by great literature. It grants a freedom, founded on forgiveness and common failure, to wage the war of “should” with joy and abandon in peace with our fellow sinners, whose identity is not built on a future “ought,” but rather the past of what has already been accomplished:  “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)