Imagination and the Intellect

Last Friday, we said goodbye to my sister-in-law’s family who live down the street…they are only gone for a week but we’ve been together almost every day since we moved two months ago, and so the separation was bittersweet! As we walked home with their dog whom we are watching, I looked back to see my 10-year-old niece, Mary, sitting teary-eyed but smiling on the front porch of her grand-old brick house. Their family chickens were clucking about in the yard to her right, dwarfed by the big camper, which they had borrowed from a neighbor for their trip, in their driveway. I could hear the faint noise of her siblings getting ready for bed inside as Mary sat watching us walk home.

When I looked at my beautiful little niece seemingly caught in some interesting and subtle emotion, I thought of my own girlish self at her age. So many experiences were highly tinged by my imaginative world, permeated by a melange of narratives, characters, and emotions culled from books and movies and family stories. That’s not to say that I was always pretending, but that I processed real experiences through the lens of my imagination, and I did this even during my adolescence. I found intricate meaning in simple occurrences because I was weaving them into an internal narrative.

I don’t think that this is an unusual thing for children; in fact, it seems a healthy sign of their imaginative life helping them to build their character and their sense of meaning vis à vis other people and the world, including the characters and imaginary lands in books.

Imagination these days is mistakenly relegated to the development of creative skills and impulses: we want to encourage imaginative play so that our children will be creative, think-outside-the-box kind of people. Although that is partially true, imagination is perhaps more importantly a key to our intellectual and moral development. My brother-in-law Nate recently wrote an article, “How Not to Become a Dragon,” in which he argues for the importance of good books in the development of the moral imagination of ourselves and our children.

It’s a short article, well-worth reading directly, but I found the most striking element to be Nate’s referencing of C.S. Lewis and then Plato to discuss the idea that our imagination is fundamental to our intellectual and moral natures. Nate writes:

Behind Plato’s penchant for poetic storytelling is the deep insight that narrative is the fundamental mode of knowledge. Storytelling is the principal means by which we make the world and ourselves intelligible, and intelligibility is always expressed in the form of a story. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue (1981), “Man is . . . a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” And he paraphrases Plato when he writes: “Deprive children of stories and you leave then unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”

There is a lot more at stake in a story than the development of literacy or entertainment. It’s important to cultivate a taste in stories, and I do not mean merely regarding the moral content of the story, but the actual quality of the writing and when applicable, the illustrations.

Nate’s discussion of the integral relationship of the imagination to the intellect and reason–as opposed to the modern dichotomy between reason and imagination–reminds me of an excellent book by St. John’s tutor, Eva Brann, which I just finished. The book is Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (1979) and I found it extraordinarily helpful in understanding education in our country and in general. Some of my favorite passages come at the very end, when she engages directly with the modern fixation on rationality, expressed in our emphasis on forms over content, standardization, methodologies, and utility.

Our reason, she points out, is the calculating tool of our minds: it “can be used or idled at will, can be handled like a tool to penetrate and strip and shape the world by distinguishing, analyzing, abstracting, comparing, contrasting, compounding.” However, the reason is not the same as the intellect, which is the “receptive capacity” of our minds to perceive and contemplate truth and beauty around us. It was just this sort of receptive contemplation, rather than reasoning, that was the height of philosophy.

Joe learning to contemplate music with his grandmother

And, she notes, the intellect requires an imagination informed by the beauty of the “grown and given realm” in order to be awakened. An education that focuses on rationality and our ability to impose order and shape the world has little place for imagination and contemplation.

One of the main forms with which modern rationality preoccupies itself is the “future.” According to Brann, the “future”  is an empty concept; it is merely “a notion that something is coming at us “which is “ever present.”

This demand that we prepare students for “tomorrow’s world” bedevils education, precisely because it enjoins attention to the most formal aspect of existence, its mere futurity […] The results of this fixation on the future is that the past and present substance is deprecated, and all efforts are centered on an indeterminable impending shape […]

In our focus on the future, we abandon the past and present, assuming that it will no longer be relevant anymore. Yet, such a futurist fixation, it seems to me, also assumes that there is nothing continuous and permanent in our human condition, and that the world of the future will not be at all shaped by our natures.

On the other hand, if we trust that our future will reflect our past and present, then the stories and characters of the past are valued not only for their entertainment and historical mystique but for their truth. It is in this sense that even ancient “poetry” (which I take Brann to mean broadly as poetry, literature, drama), supplies “model images to give resonance to inner life and reference to the public scenes.” This brings us back to Nate’s emphasis on the  importance of poetry for our self-understanding and ability to navigate the real world.

Nate’s concluding prescription in his article is to choose great stories for ourselves and our children and to read them aloud. I would add that we need to encourage imaginative play and storytelling even as kids get older. It’s easy to get annoyed by a certain dreaminess or scoff at melodramatic imaginative play (especially among girls), but we ought to resist these responses and allow kids to internalize stories and make them their own.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *