Imagination deserves special attention, for it enables reason to act justly on the facts presented to it. The imagination looks before and after; only through the imagination can we live in and experience other worlds than our own. Sympathy is the great source of love, and “love is the fulfilling of the law.” The expression of sympathy in action results from the application of the imaginative faculty to our relations with other beings.
In imagination we enter into the past life of the world, and are able, by comparison, to form a proper estimate of our own civilization, the results of which may not necessarily be to our likening. In the United States, we have a false conception of our position. We have passed through the buoyant stage of youth of the “American Experiment,” and have come to a more dangerous stage, in which we believe ourselves superior, not only in political institutions but, on the whole, in the moral and intellectual realm as well. There can be no greater fallacy than this, no greater danger to a nation. Self-knowledge is attained only by a comparison with what has been done by men of other times. This can be done by the exercise of the imagination alone.
It is only through the imagination that we can comprehend the greatest works of man in poetry and art. Poetry underlies all the fine arts. We have a large body of English poets, but without culture of the imagination, we read poetry with a lack of appreciation and fail to receive the pleasure and the ennobling influences that come from sharing the vital life of the most vigorous intellects that the world has known. There are no recreations so fitted to enlarge, ennoble, dignify, and invigorate life as the recreations found in communion and sympathy with the greatest minds. Through such communion, the happiness of life is indefinitely increased, and this is the one source of happiness in a man’s power that nothing can take from him, except loss of mind. The use of imagination always leaves the user happier than he or she was before. Then, too if we enlarge the intellectual life, we enlarge and invigorate the moral life also.
Finally, it is only through the imagination that we come to the appreciation of beauty. Beauty is the end of all true life. John Stuart Mill aptly quotes Goethe as saying, “The beautiful is greater than the good, for it includes the good, and adds something to it; it is the good made perfect and fitted with all the collateral perfections which make it a finished and completed thing.” There is no absolute beauty, but we all know what we mean when we say that we love the beautiful. It is through the culture of the imagination that we learn more justly regarding beauty. Every man should devote himself to this study; the intensely practical man requires it perhaps even more than others, for it preserves him from absolute dryness and mental extinction.
Knowledge provides the facts, the raw materials; natural science, physics, and the mathematical sciences all do with facts outside the nature of man. It is very important to know something of these in order to have a generally correct conception of the universe; but a man need not suppose that any knowledge of the universe, outside of himself, is of importance except so far as he could turn it into material for the elevation of his conduct and character. A man may learn all about geology, all about natural history, all about astronomy, and yet remain an ignorant man; but him who use what he learns of the beautiful for his own discipline, for the development of himself as a member of the great human family, then his knowledge becomes culture.
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