As promised here is a suggested reading list from my lecture on the Moral Imagination at Acton U last week…and a bit about plausibility structures which I left out of the lecture.
Here are some of the books I mentioned that are not included in the Handout:
- Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France
This is where the term “moral imagination” comes from:
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion”
- Josef Pieper: Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power
This is a wonderful little book about the importance of language.
- Josef Pieper: In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity
This is the book I mentioned during the Q&A about the importance of Sabbath rest as essential for human flourishing, family life, passing down culture, and building up the moral imagination
Speaking of which—here is another wonderful little book ( 23 pages) about the importance of Sundays by Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame:
- Maria Augusta Trapp: The Land Without a Sunday
And here are the books listed in the Handout:
- C.S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man
- Vigen Gurion: Tending the Heart of Virtue
- Mitchell Kalpagian: The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature
- Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Moral Imagination from Burke to Trilling
- Dietrich von Hildebrand: The Heart
- Russell Kirk: Eliot and His Age
- Mary Douglas: Natural Symbols
- Joseph Ratzinger: Values in a Time of Upheaval & The Spirit of the Liturgy
- Iain McGilchrist: The Master and Its Emissary
- Here is the link to Video I mentioned where McGilChrist summarizes his work.
You can find links to these here in Books I Like
One thing I did not discuss was the importance of plausibility structures—it is listed in the handout but we didn’t get to it in the talk.
The idea of plausibility structures comes from the work of sociologist, Peter Berger. Plausibility structures create the sociological contexts for meaning and ideas and play an important role in building up the moral imagination because they help create the context in which new understanding and possibilities can be understood and made plausible.
An example I sometimes give is what is happening at some of the dynamic Christian colleges in the United States. What many people nowadays think is an impossible is actually taking place at these institutions. Franciscan University, where I studied graduate philosophy is one of them.
The Plausibility of Vocation
In one the courses I took had about 25 people including 18 men. 9 of the 18 were actively living in community and discerning a vocation to the priesthood. This would have been completely unthinkable at Notre Dame where I was an undergraduate in the late 80s, early 90s. Very few people ever thought about a vocation to the priesthood and if they did, they kept it quiet. But at Franciscan university, a vocation was not only possible—it was plausible. A plausibility structure was created that opened people to new ways of living and new possibilities.
Saying No to the Hook-Up Culture by Saying Yes to Something Else
Another example: at most universities in America there is a pervasive hookup culture which shapes and perverts the expectations of how men and women should relate to one another. At Franciscan University this was not the mainstream culture. I am not saying it is perfect or sinless—but the hook up culture was far from the norm. Men and women were expected to treat each other respectfully. This standard was not only set by the leadership and faculty, but by the students themselves. A micro-culture of respect had developed. This created another plausibility structure that not only enabled new ways of thinking but provided concrete practice of how this could be lived out.
Most people do not want to live in the hook-up culture which degrades and dehumanizes. They want something different, but everything around them from television and movies to high school and college culture tells them that this is idyllic, anachronistic and no longer plausible. They are viewed as romantics prudishly trying to live out a Jane Austen novel.
In it is in these types situations where counter-culture plausibility structures are essential because they concrete and livable the “superadded ideas furnished by the wardrobe of the moral imagination.” While a young person may have heard their parents speak about a different way of life or heard something about John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, if they have never seen it in practice it appears illusory and beyond reach. But in going to a place like Franciscan University where men and women are actually trying to live differently it provides concrete model and turns the wishful into into a plausible way of living.
Living the Virtues
To rebuild the moral imagination, the ideas of nobility, justice, truth, beauty, goodness, compassion, forgiveness, and love cannot just be spoken about they must be lived. This is why we need to build plausibility structures–both intellectual frameworks and actual ways of living.
Thanks to all who came and for the interesting Q&A that followed. Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggested reading or any other suggestions about how to build the moral imagination. I am always looking for feedback and insights into this rich and complex topic.