Best of Afterthoughts, Educational Philosophy

Morality, Myth, and the Imagination

July 14, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

Now, if we send to any publisher for his catalogue of school books,
we find that it is accepted as the nature of a school-book
that it be drained dry of living thought.
It may bear the name of a thinker,
but then it is the abridgment of an abridgment,
and all that is left for the unhappy scholar
is the dry bones of his subject denuded of soft flesh and living colour,
of the stir of life and power of moving.
Nothing is left
but what Oliver Wendell Holmes calls the ‘mere brute fact.’


— Charlotte Mason in Volume III: School Education

As a prerequisite, we need to remember that David Hicks said that the supreme task of education was the cultivation of the soul. I used to think that the task of education was to get a diploma, but I now realize that many, many students graduate with a piece of paper and a maimed or stunted soul. So here at Afterthoughts we look at education as producing a sort of person rather than passing a certain test.

Morality, Myth, and the Imagination

Today’s idea is this: Morality is a function of the imagination. To expand a tiny bit more, a “good myth,” as Hicks puts it, inspires the imagination of the student and increases the student’s capacity for right moral behavior.

The reverse seems to also be true: unimaginative students do not excel in virtue.

It has taken me a couple of years to really wrap my mind around this concept. I first read of it in my favorite book of all time, Poetic Knowledge. Later, the thought was reaffirmed and re-expressed by Vigen Guroian in his work Tending the Heart of Virtue.

And now, David Hicks has concurred.

Myth as a Literary Type

When I was in high school, I was constantly irritated by an English teacher who insisted on calling the Bible a myth. I thought that calling it a myth meant that it was untrue. He condescended to explain to me that I was wrong — the Bible could be both myth as well as true because myth is a literary type.

I’ve had long time to think about this, and I see that David Hicks calls Scriptural stories “myths” as well. Hicks tells us that language is notoriously conservative because words are never emptied of their prior meanings, even when they acquire newer applications. In this sense, the new uses are adding senses of meaning without ever taking the old meaning away.

I do not naturally call true stories, even wonderful, awe-inspiring true stories, myths, because I have always myth to identify a level of falsehood.

With that said, I used myth in the title because Hicks used it in his book, and I’ll be quoting him. However, I personally will be using the phrases great story or living book as a name for the sorts of literature which are appropriate for education. These stories might be true or false or embellished, but because I will include the Bible, I just can’t bring myself to call them myths.

The Soul’s Encounter with Good Stories

There is a brilliant scene in the clever little Adam Sandler movie, Bedtime Stories. Sandler, who plays the part of Uncle Skeeter, is putting his niece and nephew to bed. He suggests a bedtime story, and searches the room for a book. What follows is actually a brilliant cultural observation:

Rainbow Alligator Saves the WetlandsOrganic Squirrel Gets a Helmet… I’m not reading you these communist stories!

Children’s books like these really exist. I remember an easy reader called Rikki Tikki Tavi that was a complete mutilation of the original tale. While Kipling wrote a story of danger and triumph that was also realistic and based on actual, observed animal behavior, the author wrote a story where Rikki Tikki faces great danger and learns a lesson in playing it safe. I will never forget the moral at the end: He would never leave home again.

And we wonder that we now have a generation of men who have failed to launch. Why wouldn’t they, when the greatest virtue we teach our children is to wear a helmet?

For all of human history, great men have been nourished on great stories. Hicks writes:

To the considerable extent that questions of value, of right and wrong, of justice and of beauty cannot be experimentally or rationally resolved, myth allowed many individuals to share an epiphany, a vision of truth granting them a basis for accepting certain normative standards for which there are no clear or convincing proofs. The myth of Job, for instance, has helped centuries of men and women endure suffering and injustice in the quiet certainty of right conduct.

And how many of us know that we can survive, for instance, famine or economic turmoil, because of the quiet heroism of Caroline Ingalls? How many of our sons will fight the dragon that they were born to fight because of Saint George and the Dragon? Great stories change us. To use a quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail:

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

Likewise, Hicks writes:

Myths inspire men to perform great and selfless deeds by assuring and warning them that their actions are not individual, but symbolic. Their actions and ideas have never-ending consequences. Truly, a civilized action or idea assumes the first principle of the mythos — that the thought and deed are both determined and existential at the same time, formed by the past, while transforming the future. The student of that myth is likewise transformed by participating in them through his imagination. The myth involves and commits him, civilizes him, stamps him.

Hicks on Myth

Hicks has a few details on the impact of reading the greatest stories of all time that I don’t want to leave out. He says that myths help us to know we are not alone. There are great people who have survived more extenuating circumstances than the ones we face, and we can be encouraged by that fact. Myths shared throughout a culture create a cultural cohesiveness, reinforcing the absolutes of virtue.

Myths have universal application. This is what he meant above when he said our actions are, on one level, symbolic. When I love my husband, for instance, there is a way in which my love says something about the love of all wives for their husbands. When I mother my children, there is a way in which my mothering makes a statement about what it means to mother. Myths give us an Ideal Type, an untarnished picture of what it means to be great.

So is it Scriptural?

Sometimes we Christians assume that because something isn’t spelled out explicitly in the Bible, it must not be true. The Bible does not say that virtue is born of moral imagination. However, I think that the concept is at least somewhat implicit in Scripture. It is assumed.

Let us take the favorite passage of Christian homeschoolers everywhere, which directly follows the Shema. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says:

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

God commands the families to remember what He has done, to remember what He has commanded. The faith is handed down by the constant retelling of the great and mighty deeds of the Lord (most especially the Lord’s bringing them up out of slavery in Egypt), and of the wise commands of the Lord.

Later, in Deuteronomy 31, the Lord Himself writes a song and commands Moses to teach it to the Israelites. The words of the song appear in Deuteronomy 32. I love verse 7:

Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.

Forgetting the past is a grave threat to Faith.

Later in the Old Testament, we see King Josiah (our family favorite). He had been preceded by terrible kings, and the nation in general was in disrepair. He was a good king, to be sure, but he became great when he finally got a picture in his head, a vision of what his kingdom was meant to be. You see, as he was going along, ruling as best he knew how, the Book of the Law was found. When it was read to him, he was enlightened, and therefore grieved. He declared that the anger of the Lord was burning against the people because their fathers did not obey what was written in the book. But God had mercy on Josiah because his heart was responsive to what he had read. Josiah becomes a truly great king, a king whose imagination was captivated by God’s Word.

Finally, in the New Testament, we have the famous passage from Philippians 4:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Here we actually see the progression I’ve been writing about. First, Christians are to be thinking about things that are admirable and virtuous. We see that the things in their minds, the things they are able to imagine, came from somewhere else, which is to say from Paul. It is the things they have learned that they are able to put into practice. And these were learned not just from hearing, but also from seeing. In other words, they saw greatness in Paul (and in Jesus, of course), and become imitators.

At its heart, education is imitation, but we’ll discuss that another day.

Back to Imagination

When a child reads or hears great stories and great ideas, one right after the other, his mind is filled with images of virtue and excellence. He can picture what greatness is. He knows what loyalty looks like, because he has read of David and Jonathan. He knows what perseverance is, because he remembers Bruce’s famous spider.

what the mind can imagine

Here is the important point: what the mind is full of is what the mind can imagine for its own character.

So if our daughters’ minds, are filled not with tales of Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Pocahontas, Boadicea, and the virtuous woman of Proverbs, but rather some silly cartoon character, their capacity for greatness, for imagining virtuous action, will be greatly diminished. The mind is full, and actions pour forth from it.

Applying the Concept

There are probably as many specific applications as there are men to make them, and what is required first and foremost is the asking of a very specific question:

In what way can we best prepare the imagination to attempt greatness?

Once we realize that the imagination is always working from a starting point, with the material with which it has been furnished through reading, story-telling, movie-watching, song-singing, or whatnot, we will realize the truth in what Hicks has said. Virtuous people have a picture of virtue in their heads already. When pressure hits, they rise to the occasion because the life of their mind has prepared them to do so. We cannot overemphasize the importance of training in the life of the mind.

Many “strict” families spend a lot of time and energy on censorship: seeking out what is evil and destroying it or prohibiting it. And surely such things have their place. But I think that energy is probably best spent on seeking out good things — great things — and refusing to settle for anything that is less than true, good, beautiful, and so on. When we spend our energy chasing virtuous thoughts for ourselves and our children, we have very little time left for mediocrity in all its various forms.

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9 Comments

  • Reply A mother’s character not fixed. It is a work in progress. - Around the Thicket May 3, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    […] Vencel at Afterthoughts gives a wonderful […]

  • Reply Brandy July 19, 2009 at 4:15 am

    Jan,

    A void! Yes! When I read your words, I was reminded of the passage in Luke 11, where it is stated that when an evil spirit leaves a man, it wanders around for a while, and when it doesn’t find anywhere else to go, it returns to the man it came from. Finding the man “swept and put in order,” the spirit finds seven spirits even more evil than himself, and moves back into the man, making his condition worse than he was previously.

    I looked up the Greek on that verse, since you made me think of it, and the idea behind being “put in order” is that the man was made ready for something.

    I think of the censorship issue in that way. We protect our children very, very much. Much more than a lot of people. But I think this makes us responsible to not leave them swept clean and ready for anything. I see a definite application here. If we do not fill the void with good things, it is almost as if it were better for there to not have been a void in the first place.

    I like your thoughts, Jan…Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  • Reply Brandy July 19, 2009 at 4:06 am

    Willa,

    Congratulations! I had to Google “midrashim.” 🙂 I like new words.

    I liked was you said about missing the “fulness of truth.” I like that phrase and I plan to think about it for a while.

    By the way, I have been enjoying your looooong posts. I look forward to being able to spend more of my summer in study like you are doing. It is refreshing, even the bits I’m grabbing at odd hours.

  • Reply Jan Sublett July 18, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Brandy, this is an excellent post and I thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    The word myth is not one I could use with regard to the Bible and for that matter I try to stay away from the word “story” as well. I never want to give the impression that I believe the Bible is anything less than what it is, a record of God’s word, or message, to man.

    I very much appreciate your comments about “strict” parents and would like to add that we can spend our time not allowing the “garbage” in but if we do not fill up our minds and the minds of our children, or in my case grandchildren, with what is noble, pure and true we have only left a void.

  • Reply Willa July 17, 2009 at 1:21 am

    But I hasten to add that from what I’ve been able to find out, this priest calling the Genesis creation account “midrash” was actually inaccurate and not in accordance with Catholic teachings on the subject. So that example was to show my reaction, but in that case I think even the substance might have been a bit “off”.

  • Reply Willa July 17, 2009 at 1:16 am

    Mystie referenced Mythopoeia — I found it online and I thought I’d link to it! I actually hadn’t read it before.

    The post is a keeper, Brandy —

    I think you’ve articulated something vitally important. It’s good timing to be reminded of it just as I’m planning my childrens’ lessons for next year — so I put the most important things in first place.

    I agreed with your instincts on Bible as “myth” even though true. A recently visiting priest was calling early Genesis stories “midrashim” and that bothered me the same way — something like calling a human an intelligent biped — not untrue but missing something of the fullness of truth. But I have only glanced at the Tolkien poem and it could be that my uneasiness is misplaced.

  • Reply Brandy July 16, 2009 at 3:17 am

    Dawn, You are welcome. 🙂

    Mystie, Faerie. Yes. That was definitely the correct spelling. I liked your explanation for why you are comfortable using the word “myth” to reference the Bible. Even though I’m not, I get your point, especially since I love the magical parts of the Bible, like giants in the land, the Nephilim, sea monsters, and strange creatures with many eyes and wings. So I see what you are saying. For me, I just can’t shake the “it’s not true” connotation with that word, and what I love about the Bible is that it’s a place where the magic is real.

    By the way, Mythopoeia is actually on my to-be-read list. I didn’t know anything about it, but figured I couldn’t go wrong with Tolkein writing to Lewis.

  • Reply Mystie July 15, 2009 at 3:45 am

    Excellent post, Brandy! This concept is my favorite from Norms & Nobility and also in the booklet Classical Education & the Homeschool (Canon Press). It’s why I chose faerie (I love that spelling) tales to be an important part of our school material this year.

    Perhaps it’s the English Major in me, though I like to think it’s Tolkien’s influence, but I don’t have any problem with calling the Bible a Myth. I wouldn’t say it in casual conversation because of the connotations the word has now, but I think what appeals to me about doing so is how it emphasizes the Story and mythical power and poetic messiness and subtlety that the Bible does have. In reformed circles sometimes there can be a sterile feeling as if the Bible is a handbook of systematic theology. But it is written on the scale of Myth, as a narrative, a story, and not a systematic schema — although of course the systematics have their place.

    But, because of the reasons you pointed out, I wouldn’t call the Bible a Myth unless I was assured of my audience or provided an explanation & defense. However, my mind does not react against seeing it in print.

    Have you seen the poem Tolkien wrote for Lewis, when Lewis called the Bible a myth “though breathed through silver” before Lewis’ conversion? “Mythopoeia.” I love it! 🙂

  • Reply dawn July 15, 2009 at 2:41 am

    This is an excellent, to be oft re-read, re-membered post. Thank you.

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