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Warming the Cold Imagination

Image by SplitShire via Pixabay. Image by SplitShire via Pixabay.

When is the last time you heard a song on the radio and searched for it on YouTube? Did you find the song you were looking for? What was it that made you look for that song? Ideas, art, and culture float around college campuses and cry out for our attention. What we pay attention to will affect everything we do.

Edmund Burke says the moral imagination is the ability to act as a well-mannered individual. We interpret all relationships with the symbols of this moral imagination. When I look at the wrinkles on an elderly teacher’s face I don’t just see untangling elastin in the skin, I see symbols that demand courtesy and respect. The long and solemn church pews are no longer monotonous benches, they are symbols of order, and invitations into humility.

The moral imagination is properly developed by putting in the good, the true, and the beautiful. To form my moral imagination I have been setting aside Bieber for Rachmaninov (I never really listened to JB, honestly). After many years of settling for mainstream music, coffee-stained magazines, and no-limits-hedonism I am starting to ask, “what seizes my moral imagination and why?” As Pedro Arrupe says,

what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

To Burke, the moral imagination is an important piece to our teleological end and so culture should foster its development. There is a reason why culture begins with the root word “cult.” What we hold highest in society is what we worship. One of the biggest threats to a well-formed moral imagination for American college students is the worship of equality and freedom.

When equality is worshiped it tells us to strive for something if our neighbor has it. But this does not fulfill our teleological end of a relationship with truth, beauty, and goodness. We are obligated to sack the temple of the Goddess Equality and melt her wax fingers from our imaginative powers. If we want to have freedom and equality we can’t just “dream big,” we must dream well.

The consequences of worshiping freedom are vivid in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The killers had a moral imagination formed by enjoying paradise at any cost, and the writers had a moral imagination formed by creating satire at any cost. Without restraint our moral imagination runs wild.

The music we play, the movies we watch, and the books we read will change the way we act toward family and strangers alike. Pay attention to your moral imagination because it has the ability to affect everything, including life itself.


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