The Moral Imagination of C.S. Lewis
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the boy Eustace Scrubb happens upon a dragon. But he doesn’t know it’s a dragon. This might seem remarkable because a dragon seems like something that should be easy to recognize. Something obvious or self-evident. Eustace, however, “had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.” Because of this, Eustace did not know how to act. He doesn’t make a tactical retreat. He doesn’t plan an attack. He doesn’t avoid the dragon’s lair of cursed treasure. None of these possibilities were in the realm of his imagination.
So instead, Eustace acts the fool. He acts greedy like a dragon and so becomes a dragon and much misery follows. The education that would have served Eustace so well is given to him in the flesh, good and hard. He gets aggressively pruned, with sharp claws, because he hadn’t been grown properly in the first place.
C.S. Lewis poured some of his own experience into Eustace’s stunted imagination. After lamenting that, other than for some geometry and grammar, his time at an early boarding school was almost entirely wasted, he says in Surprised by Joy:
For the rest, all that rises out of the sea of arithmetic is a jungle of dates, battles, exports, imports, and the like, forgotten as soon as learned and perfectly useless had they been remembered. There was also a great decline in my imaginative life.
Just like Eustace, Lewis had read all of the wrong books. And for both Eustace and Lewis, this prevented them from seeing or doing what they ought and prevented them from avoiding what they should. Lewis didn’t start his rise toward true Joy until his imagination had been baptized by one of the right books (in his case, Phantastes by George MacDonald.) Eustace’s fall into literal dragonhood isn’t the only sign of his bereft imagination, but only the culmination. It is not the first time he acted the fool in the story. The boy is envious, cowardly, selfish, uncharitable, always complaining, and blinded by his ignorance no matter which direction he turns. He is, in short, an insufferable, spoiled brat. He was a dragon before he ever became a dragon. And he was taught to act like a dragon by his parents and his teachers.
Eustace is a boy who would come across a tree with wide limbs sprawled out to the sky, with several thick branches well within his reach, and never think to climb it. Eustace is a boy who, while in the woods walking with a friend, could come across two sticks, and would never think to wield those sticks as swords, pretending to be a knight in one of the great battles of old. Eustace could find a rock, perfectly round, flat, and smooth, and never wonder how it would skip across the waters of a lake. And even if these ideas had come to his mind, he would have despaired at getting his hands dirty and looked like a cat carefully licking itself after a long nap.
Eustace could not even conceive of the joy of simple pleasures, which meant he could not think outside of himself. He would never think to climb a mountain to save a princess. He would never think about fighting for anything beyond his immediate appetites. He would never think about striking out to sea to meet whatever adventure awaited him (not voluntarily, at least.) No concept of duty, honor, or courage. His imagination would only serve to generate excuses. It would keep his focus on immediate practicality. His imagination, in other words, forms the soil for his rotten character.
An education that does not train the imagination is an education that breaks the ankles of children before bidding them to walk. It smothers and deadens instead of providing fuel and kindling. At worst, however, it can train an imagination in a way that corrupts the affections and is a negative force that pushes away the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.
A man’s imagination, properly trained, helps ground his moral center. He can recognize evil when he sees it, both the evil in his own heart and the evil standing right in front of him, and he can imagine the good so he can attempt to bring it to fruition.
Education, above all, is meant to bestow virtue. A well-trained moral imagination gives a man a picture of what those virtues actually look like, how they taste, and how they feel. How do you recognize a limp imagination? How do you start to train a moral imagination? Eustace read the wrong books. What are the right books?
And how do you avoid replicating the imaginative vacuum of Eustace Clarence Scrubb?
Soul, Imagination, and Telos
“For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see My face and live.” – The Pilgrim’s Regress
What is the imagination and what is it for? The common definitions have a broad range. On the one hand, it is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” But it can also refer to creative ability or even the “the thinking or active mind.” This last definition is close to equating someone’s imagination with that person’s mind. It is their personality. It is who they are. Lewis takes it one step further in his dialogue between the Body and the Soul in God in the Dock. Talking about sexual appetites, the Body responds:
If you and your wretched imagination would leave me alone I’d give you no trouble. That’s Soul all over; you give me orders and then blame me for carrying them out.
Lewis echoes the same sentiment in Letters to Malcolm, showing that he basically agrees with Body’s point of view.
I’ve led the body into far more. If the imagination were obedient, the appetites would give very little trouble.
Not only does Lewis equate his imagination with himself, but he also hints that it originates from the Soul. Without our imaginations, we would have no personality. At best, we would be driven solely by our natural appetites, driven by a need for immediate gratification of our baser instincts. At worst, we would be drooling idiots wholly dependent upon others who had live and active imaginations. Our imagination is what drives us forward, for good or for ill. To take an action, we must first have an idea of what we want that action to accomplish and how that action might realize that idea. Our imagination shows us the endpoint and is the spur that nudges us toward that endpoint.
In this, we are like our Creator. God first had an idea, then He made His idea incarnate. Dorothy Sayers uses this term “idea” to describe the work of the Father in her book, Mind of the Maker, and how it maps to mankind, made in His image. God, however, has a perfect imagination and is endlessly creative. Whatever He imagines, He can accomplish. From Perelandra:
Never did he make two things the same; never did he utter one word twice. After earths, not better earths, but beasts…After a falling, not a recovery but a new creation…
We, as fallen creatures, have an imagination/incarnation mismatch. We are never quite as eloquent as we imagine ourselves to be. Lewis recognizes this in Miracles:
To think, then, is one thing, and to imagine is another. What we think or say can be, and usually is, quite different from what we imagine or picture.
We can imagine ourselves making a perfect throw, the football spiraling down in slow motion to the receiver’s hands, while our actual throw wobbles like a misshapen water balloon and then falls 15 yards short. A trained artist will be able to get on the page something close to what he imagines, but he will never draw exactly what he is imagining. That privilege is reserved for God alone. In this life, at least.
But the imagining provides the telos. We walk in the direction of our imaginings. If our imaginings are dull and lifeless, we will live a kind of still life. If our imaginings are large and expansive, we are more likely to strive for actions that lead toward accomplishing large and expansive things. Antoine de Saint Exupery once said:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
Even more importantly, our imaginings can be ugly or beautiful, evil or good. Whichever timbre our imagination vibrates with, our body will do its best to match its resonance. This is why the imagination must be properly trained. Lewis said in The Discarded Image that “nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.” But what determines the questions we ask of her? What guides our tools and inquiries? Our imagination acts as our guide, whether evil or good, whether blind or clear-sighted. It determines the evidence we will hear and the patterns that evidence suggests. And if our imagination is corrupted, we will ask the wrong questions and get evidence that confirms our corrupted imaginings. This is how you get something as preposterous as Darwinism. On the other hand, an imagination forged by the beauty of a designed creation will discover Newton’s third law of motion.
We are also dependent upon external sources. Our imagination cannot conjure up something ex nihilo but must pull from our memories, from other images, in order to build anything worthwhile. It can only work with what it has and we shouldn’t expect it to make bricks without straw. It cannot imagine beautiful things unless we have first filled it with beautiful things. But if it is filled with ugly things, then it will have nothing but rotten material to work with. However the imagination is trained, it also builds momentum, feeding into itself. Imaginings become a part of the raw material like trees springing up and shedding their fruit and seed to create more of the same. It can also be like weeds spreading in a garden. This feedback loop reinforces whatever direction in which your imagination happens to be traveling. There is no neutrality. We become more and more of what we already are. This is one reason why Scripture says that we become like what we worship. Whatever we are beholden to, whatever we linger on, we become more and more conformed to those things. Our imagination will make sure of it.
And so training is necessary but it isn’t enough. To paraphrase Lewis, an imagination must be baptized. Because our morality also depends upon the state of our imagination. If we already agree that the imagination provides the telos for our actions, this isn’t a huge leap to make. Are our intentions good or evil? Are our actions good or evil? All of us require a renewing of our minds. Does this mean that we can stop tending to our imagination and show a lack of discernment in what we feed our imaginations? To echo Paul: God forbid. The sanctification of our imaginations is a big part of sanctification in general.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. -Philippians 4:8
But the verse that follows provides the goal.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:9
How we train and exercise our imaginations is an act of obedience in itself, but thinking on “these things” should lead to a certain practice. Part of this is subconscious. If you start talking about “good posture” to a room full of students, those students will shift their positions as they ponder what “good posture” means.” In fact, speaking about anything good or beautiful should cause self-assessment of ourselves in comparison to that thing, whether we want to or not. This is healthy. And it’s one reason why it’s important to have our minds full of the right things. What we dwell on, we begin to imitate, and what we imitate, we start to become. Imitation can lead to transformation. While this is especially true when we attempt to make things incarnate through our fingertips, such is the power of the imagination that it does not need our body’s conscious cooperation.
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin details how, seven weeks before a national martial arts tournament, he broke his right hand while training. He didn’t want his right arm to atrophy, but it was in a cast and he couldn’t put it through regular exercises. Instead, he did intense visualization. After doing his resistance workouts on his left side, he imagined himself doing them on his right side. No actual movement was possible, but he imagined the energy from his left side moving to the unused muscles of his right side. Four days before the competition, the cast came off. The doctor was stunned that there had been almost no atrophy and cleared Josh to compete. And he won.
We can sin with nothing but our hearts. We can also be obedient with nothing but our hearts. Of course, that is not where obedience should stop. Thinking on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy and then becoming: this is the ideal moral imagination.
The Moral Imagination
“We mistake our privileges for our instincts.” – Miracles
In The Problem of Pain, Lewis relates a story about him and his brother. They were drawing and he deliberately colored on his brother’s paper. As restitution, his brother was allowed to draw a line on Lewis’ paper. “That is, I was put in his place, made to see my negligence from the other end.” The punishment inflicted a forced empathy.
In a similar manner, Joshua Gibbs has observed that the lex talionis (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) forces the perspective of the victim onto the criminal. It is not inflicting arbitrary pain but inflicting the pain of the victim. This would mean, at some level, sin starts with a failure of imagination. The criminal lacks the creative power to see the world from the perspective of the victim. The more powerful the imagination, the more vivid an internal picture, the less likely someone is to step over certain lines.
The enchanted prince in The Silver Chair offers a picture of someone with a stunted moral imagination. A witch, who he calls his Queen, has captured him and taken away all knowledge of himself. After laying out the plot that he, the witch, and the Earthmen will overthrow the Narnian king, Eustace objects:
“It’s a bit rough luck on them, isn’t it?” said Scrubb.
“Thou art a lad of wondrous, quick-working wit!” Exclaimed the Knight. “For, on my honor, I had never thought of it so before. I see your meaning.”
He never thought of things from the conquered people’s point of view. And far from letting this revelation give him second thoughts, the prince sees it as funny. Even with the truth presented, he can only laugh and think the conquered people will laugh in turn. Here we see other possible symptoms of an untrained moral imagination: foolishness and naivety. Because of these, the prince takes nothing seriously. He cannot perceive the gravitas of anything. He is, literally (under the ground) and metaphorically, kept in the dark. Tellingly, the witch’s true form is that of a serpent, and those under the power of the serpent will never be as wise as serpents, because their focus will always be on themselves, locked in a tiny world.
Orual from Til We Have Faces has a similar problem. Her entire life has been a failure of imagination and part two of the book is her reckoning. She fails to see things from her sister Redival’s point of view. She fails to see things from her advisor Bardia’s point of view. She fails to see things from Bardia’s wife’s point of view. She fails to see things from Psyche’s point of view. And all of this has led to their suffering. Orual lives most of her life blind, and readers of her account are trapped in the same tiny world. Once she finally realizes the truth of how blind she has been, her world begins to open up in successive moments until she is granted an audience with the gods. Her education is our own education. In a synecdoche of what good books can do for the imagination, readers of Til We Have Faces, if they wish, can take what they have learned and reread part one of the book with new eyes. Orual’s journey allows readers to do what Orual could not.
This preventative empathy is one way the imagination feeds our morality, but it is not the only way. A well-formed imagination can extrapolate further into the future and perceive consequences, both good and bad. The story plays out in someone’s mind and they can act accordingly, high-stepping through the minefield. This isn’t always the case, of course. People override their consciences all the time. We know what we ought to do and fail to do it. Many a man has willingly gone down to the pit, knowing full well that it will lead to his death. We need no imagination to do evil. We need only be selfish. To do good, however, we need some kind of training and part of that training must be for our imaginations.
But a little training can be more dangerous than no training. While evil is the default and needs no help, an imagination can elevate evil to diabolical ends. Lewis once talked about unliterary friends in An Experiment in Criticism. The friend “may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated.” Men inhabiting tiny worlds, with limited imaginations, don’t create plans for the Tower of Babel (though they might be patsies for those making those plans, like the enchanted prince). There are traps the highly imaginative can fall into that a dullard will never go near. Better no training than bad training. Better to inhabit a tiny world than a large one that you seek to exploit for your own gain. In this way, the imagination works similarly to wisdom and indeed is adjacent and related. You have, at least, limited the potential damage. You could even say the imagination is something that provides inputs to wisdom. A wise man will learn from the mistakes of others. A fool will only learn by making the mistake himself, with no imagination as a buffer. But wisdom can also be twisted. For example, Solomon would not have been able to expand his harem to such astronomical numbers had he been a bumbling fool.
But it is better that Solomon was wise, despite the pitfalls, and it is better that we have a fully trained moral imagination. Whenever you expand your tiny world, there are risks, but there are also opportunities. We don’t expand our tiny world only to fill it up with more furniture and show off our interior decorating skills. We expand it because it starts to overlap with others, and with that overlap, we can better serve our neighbors. And as a consequence, we can better serve our God. For He exists in all worlds, no matter how tiny. I am always amazed at some of the saints who always seem to know the right thing to say to a grieving heart, know the right gift to give to cheer a weary soul, and know how to discern a situation and begin doing exactly what needs to be done. All I find myself doing in these instances is slapping myself on the forehead, asking “Why didn’t I think of that?” Well, it’s because my moral imagination is lacking. If, when we try to quickly think up something to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, our brains have static on every channel, that’s a sign our imaginations need some serious tuning.
A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring… – Alexander Pope
We want fully trained imaginations. We don’t want to be potential patsies, innocent as doves and dumber than sheep. We should be thirsty for this training. We should want to drink deeply. However, we don’t want to quench this thirst by drinking deeply from the septic tank. This leads us to one of the risks.
“We can hope only for what we can desire.” – The Weight of Glory
A home Bible study was going through the book of Hebrews. When the topic of “Jesus as high priest” came up, one of the men participating had a confession. He recoiled at Jesus being a high priest because whenever there was a priest character in movies, that priest almost always turned out to be evil. This colored his idea of priesthood and it colored it in a dangerous way. His imagination had been catechized with lies and it rose to obey its education. This man at least had the wisdom to recognize the battle that needed to be fought, but he had still equipped his enemies with weapons before showing up on the battlefield.
In The Silver Chair, the evil Queen begins to corrupt the imagination of our heroes with magic and condescension. She convinces them there is no sun. There is only the rock above their heads. Eventually, they are even convinced that Narnia doesn’t exist. Their corrupted imaginations are almost their doom. All it took was repetition, gentle words, music, and a little gaslighting. The Queen’s methods are similar to modern attempts at gaslighting: “There is not really such a thing as male and female.” Imaginations corrupted by such nonsense will also lead to eventual doom.
Some false imaginings are more innocent and so we don’t want to have our moral panic meter cranked up to eleven all of the time. We risk frying our circuits. For example, I spent a lot more time worried about quicksand as a kid than I should have, spurred on by pulp stories and games. But if someone had sat me down and told me that I didn’t have to worry about quicksand in the forests close to our house, that would have deflated a lot of the fun I had making contingency plans.
Unfortunately, our imaginations don’t need much help to be corrupted. The mere knowledge of something forbidden acts as a light to moth-like will.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. -Romans 7:7-11
Knowledge of something good, like the law, provided additional opportunity for sin. We are fallen creatures. Knowledge bubbles up additional possibilities that we would not have imagined before. There is potential danger at every step, but this should not be an excuse to stay naive. It does mean we should be intentional about enlarging our imaginations.
One of my sons asked an innocent question one day: why didn’t Grandpa and Grandma live in the same house? I told him it was because Grandpa had divorced Grandma. He responded in a shocked voice: “You can do that?!” In his mind, divorce hadn’t even been in the realm of possibility. He couldn’t imagine it. Now, he can. In some ways, it is to his detriment. Part of his remaining innocence died that day. He now knows another way to transgress the law. On the other hand, if it is handled rightly, he will be better prepared to defend against it. No one wants a knight who is confused about why he’s wearing armor.
A limited, over-protected imagination prevents us from even seeing better possibilities. By definition, we can’t distinguish between the good and the better. Lewis, in Miracles, uses the illustration of a boy who can’t conceive of a pleasure greater than eating chocolate.
The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. Opening our minds up to the positive things is one characteristic of a “right book.” The proper introduction to the negative things is another, if nothing else as an inoculation against some future poison. In That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock’s inability to imagine the possibility of an unhappy afterlife, even while thinking of a happy one, left him vulnerable to the machinations of N.I.C.E. Lewis talks about the creed of the Materialist, which promises to exclude bogies. “Every man who is afraid of spooks will have a reason to be a Materialist.” But it also leaves you vulnerable and unprepared when you stumble across a real bogie. You wouldn’t even recognize it, even if you allowed yourself to see it. Books that assume the Materialist creed, either through the characters in fiction or through the screeds of scientific textbooks, can eventually leave their readers defenseless. Especially if their readers don’t have a diet outside of these books or have not first been trained with better books.
But being blinded to the supernatural, while dangerous, is not the worst way our imaginations can be corrupted. The inversion of deep symbols risks much more. Eustace didn’t recognize a dragon when he saw one. That’s bad enough. But what if Eustace had been catechized to believe dragons were harmless lizards with whom you could share a good laugh? He might never have survived to go through his transformation. Children know that dragons and monsters exist. They don’t need books telling them that those monsters can be tamed or befriended. They need books telling them that those monsters can be slain. We want a child’s spiritual guard honed and trained, not lowered and unused.
Michael D. O’Brien has observed the following in his book A Landscape with Dragons:
The meanings of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind. They are a language about the nature of good and evil.
And now we have a definitive direction about what makes a book one of the “right books.”
The Right Books
In her introduction to George Herbert’s The Princess and the Goblin, Ursula Le Guin writes:
MacDonald was stern and clear about what nobility is. It has nothing to do with money or social status. A princess is a girl who behaves nobly. Curdie the miner, being brave and kind and behaving nobly and wisely, is a prince. The king is a king because he’s a good man. No other definition is allowed. This is radically moral democracy.
Likewise, none of the goblins are elevated to heroic status. It reflects reality in a deep sense. It seeks to reinforce existing symbols in a way that stirs the imagination and enlarges it before the imagination can settle back down. Books that do this are the “right books.”
This begs the question: where do these fundamental symbols and keystone ideas initially come from? What is the starting point? And this brings us, of course, to the Right Book. We inevitably land within the pages of the Bible. All other books should be judged by its standard. If a book deals with symbols and themes and archetypes the same way the Bible deals with them, it has met the minimum qualifications of being a “right book.” If a book’s heroes love what God loves, or at least learn to do so throughout the course of the story, it has passed the first test of being a “right book.” There are potential disqualifications, of course. A book can be clunky, or overly sentimental, or just badly written, so it would not be a “right book” because a good story badly told can turn people off of a good story. Aesthetics matter. Beauty matters. This, too, we learn from the Bible.
Why don’t we just read the Bible? Why do we need these other books? Wouldn’t we all be better served if we just stuck with the source? We might as well ask why we need preachers. Or why we need the fruits of a tree when the seeds are just fine on their own. The fact of the matter is that a man saturated in the Bible, and desiring to be obedient to its vision, will mimic God and seek to create things himself. Some of these things will be books. And these books will speak to different people at different times, offering different handles for various concepts, installing signs pointing to civilization in different parts of the wilderness so lost, wandering people have more opportunities to find the correct path. We want more treasure maps out in the world, waiting to be discovered.
But man cannot live by books alone. While the right books can provide rich soil for the mind and plant good seeds, it is ultimately God who must give the increase. In the end, Lewis recognized this and we get another clue that he identified himself with Eustace Scrubb. When the hero of The Pilgrim’s Regress comes to Mother Kirk, a stand-in for the Christian church, he begins to take off his clothes. They hung in shreds, plastered with blood and grime from his journeys, and “they were so stuck to him that they came away with pain and a little skin came with them.” He does this before diving into a pool. An obvious baptism.
With Eustace, we see a similar scene, but with one big difference. Eustace attempts to take off his dragon scales before dipping into a pool, but no matter how many times he tries, there is another layer of dragon scales waiting for him. He can’t do it. Aslan finally says “You will have to let me undress you.” His claws were painful and they dug deep, but they get off all of the dragon scales so Eustace could bathe as a boy again. This is Lewis’ evolution on the subject of conversion and repentance, more than 20 years after he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress. A more mature vision and a more memorable one, that shows us, at the same time, both the power of a good story, but also its inadequacy without the direct work of Christ.
Image Credit: Unsplash