Andrey Tarkovsky art

The Moral Imagination: The Cure for Foolish Millennials, Crude Celebrities, and Corrupt Politicians

6:00:00 AMAnne Foster

We live in an era where picket signs which read, “Keep Religion Out of Politics” are held up high alongside those which sport the slogan, “Love Trumps Hate.”  When we scroll down our news feeds it appears that the majority of our generation believes that scientific facts alone ought to dictate the laws of our country and that archaic religious principles be locked inside their reliquaries.  These same voices promote equality, tolerance, and love for all, no matter your race, religion, or gender. Many familiar faces in Hollywood have spoken out in support of these sentiments, using award ceremonies and podiums at protests, to make bold unapologetic speeches. The commonwealth alongside their illustrious spokespersons are demanding both a renewal of morality as well as a strict secularization of politics. 

Yet, should we not first ask ourselves if these goals are even possible?

I venture to say that they are not. Why?  Because the existence of morals and manners and the banishment of religion are fundamentally opposed. You can not have one without the other. 

The ethical principles and standards which we have grown accustomed to are rooted in the “genius of Christianity.” This audacious claim does not imply that therefore Christianity is the true religion and Jesus Christ was the Son of God and is your Lord and Savior. Rather, what I am postulating is that the morals and order of the State can not be merely rooted in the empirical knowledge of Scientific facts alone. This is an assertion which was also defended by the great ancient pagan philosopher Plato, who understood that only chaos will ensue in a Godless State. 

I believe we ought to admit that more or less Plato’s ominous warning is coming to pass. Chaos is ensuing not only on our overly political Facebook news feeds, but even more so within Congress, the streets, the workplace, and at our dinner tables.  

Fortunately, for us there is a cure which will revitalize the morality of the commonwealth, our nation, and our souls.  And surprisingly enough it involves the infamous Hollywood crowd and all those who make up the discipline of the Arts.  

The cure I am suggesting? The renewal of the moral imagination …

The term “the moral imagination” was coined by the great political thinker Edmund Burke. The moral imagination can be described as the power of ethical perception which is best exercised by the enchanting and influential properties of beauty and the Arts. Burke claimed that the moral imagination is exercised in it’s highest power through the arts and is key to instilling within the commonwealth a standard of manners and morals. 

Once upon a time there were many fine artists. Michelangelo, Botticelli, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, and Eliot to name a few, who sought through their crafts, to inform mankind of the more “permanent things” in life. For great works of art and craftsmanship can leave a lasting deep mark upon the human heart. Therefore, artists used to see it as their duty to respect the objectivity of beauty and it’s powerful effects upon the ordering of the soul. 

Due to the Arts ability to influence the moral compasses of the commonwealth, when works of art drift further and further away from truth, there are serious repercussions for their audiences. Russell Kirk writes, “as art sinks into the perverse, so modern civilization falls to its ruin.” Of literature he surmises that “the end of great books is ethical --- to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.”(1) 

In the words of the acclaimed Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky, 

“ Art appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively and at a stroke all the laws of this world -- its beauty and ugliness, its compassion and cruelty, its infinity and its limitations.” (2)

Thus, all works of art must steer clear from falling into the current trend of exalting the discord of man’s fallen nature at the expense of recognizing our ability to overcome evil and becoming who we are created to be. 

But alas, the trends of our times are slipping ever more into different avenues of the imagination. Rather than acknowledge that morality stems from spiritual truths which are as old as time itself, many wish to raise up a banner in opposition to the dogmas and manners of old. Similarly, it has become popular to delight in the perverse, crude, and 
subhuman.  This same crowd marches down the street holding signs which demand love and compassion from their neighbors. What they do not see is that goodness is opposed to ugliness, order in the State is opposed to chaos. One cannot strip Christian manners, which have been the foundation of our government, without undermining the entire structure.

To promote love and peace, the moral imagination must be ignited once more. Burke writes that where such imagination is lacking, we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

Bleak premonitions aside, I have no doubt that man’s desire for meaningfulness will live on.  

We are the people who march with purpose but carry blank signs.
We are the generation of paradoxes and conundrums, preaching against crudeness while shouting obscenities. Worshiping the ugly and the perverse while demanding that those on the opposing side be moved to exercise respect, charity, and compassion. 

Of this modern phenomena T.S. Eliot wrote, 

  “The number of people in possession of any criteria for discriminating between good and evil is very small,” Eliot concludes; “the number of the half-alive hungry for any form of spiritual experience, or for what offers itself as spiritual experience, high or low, good or bad, is considerable. My own generation has not served them very well. Never has the printing press been so busy, and never have such varieties of buncombe and false doctrine come from it. Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”(3)

But luckily, there is always hope for the foolish prophets. For not everyone can turn a blind eye to authentic beauty and perhaps amidst the rumble of the chaos we create, and the broken signs in the streets, mankind will recognize that he alone cannot solve all the vast problems and conflicts of the world… and he will be brought to his knees once more.


1. Russell Kirk, The Moral Imagination.
2. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art, 36-43.  
3. T.S.Eliot, After Strange Gods, 61.

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