The best of Fred Hutchison
The moral imagination, politics, and wisdom
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
July 26, 2012

Originally published November 23, 2004

"I, wisdom, dwell with prudence....By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, and all the judges of the earth....When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices....By the blessing of the upright, the city is exalted....Take away the wicked from before the king and his throne shall be established in righteousness." (Proverbs 8:12, 14-16; 11:10-11, 25:5)

The Moral Imagination is that faculty which ties together wisdom and moral virtue. These verses from the book of Proverbs reveal that both wisdom and virtue are essential to government, politics, and the wellbeing of the state.

Politics and meaning

Some people feel understandably exhausted after a political season. Others feel an indefinable emptiness. Political activity and political ideology can be exciting, but these things by themselves do not deeply nourish the human soul. Peggy Noonan wrote that politicians are often deformed. They have a hole in their souls which they try to fill by their obsession with politics. Some of our needs can only be filled by God. Other needs are normally filled through family, friendships, and community. However, politics does have meaning. We all need a sense of meaning from an involvement in something greater than ourselves.

Politics can be an exciting and rewarding part of our lives if the following conditions are met: 1) We have a love of community and country and a highly developed ethic of our duty as a Christian citizen and voter; 2) We have a belief that God cares about the fate of nations and its leaders, listens to prayer, and providentially intervenes in the affairs of men; 3) A mental link is made between political principles and theology, morality, and the cosmic battle between good and evil; 4) We have a vision of how political issues are relevant to how we should live our lives, how the wise and virtuous man behaves, and what the blessed life would look like. It is the trait of Moral Imagination which links our political principles to our lives and helps us become wiser, happier, and more virtuous as a result.

The Moral Imagination

The term "moral imagination" was coined by Edmund Burke (1727-1797), the Father of Modern Conservatism. It became a core idea of Russell Kirk (1918-1994), the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism. Kirk was a very prolific writer, but he was most famous for The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, and The Roots of American Order. There is a Russell Kirk revival going on because of a book by Kirk protege Wesley McDonald, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology.

Kirk's two central tenets were "Permanent Things," and the "Moral Imagination." Permanent Things are the Universal Moral Law, the Laws of Nature, universal and unchanging elements of Human Nature, and universal principles of Truth. An Evangelical Christian might add basic Biblical doctrines, and a conservative Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian might add orthodox or confessional, doctrines of the faith to the list of Permanent Things. Permanent Things have an objective existence and are conceptually understood by Reason.

The Moral Imagination provides a vision of a life of virtue and meaning, the ways of wisdom and love and the nature of a humane life in civilized communities. The Moral Imagination is subjective and intuitive, and is inspired by poetry, literary classics, drama, and the sayings of wise men. One's cultural heritage, family, spiritual life, and practical experience of life help to furnish the rooms of the Moral Imagination. Kirk and Burke were major advocates of the preservation and cultivation of the best in the Western cultural heritage as a means of developing the Moral Imagination. The postmodern indifference, or even hostility, towards the Western cultural heritage is a major cause for the decline of the Moral Imagination.

The operation of the Moral Imagination

Permanent Things provide the skeletal framework and boundaries of life. The Moral Imagination nourishes the tissue and flesh of life which is attached to and contained within those fixed strictures and boundaries.

However, the moral law and transcendent truth were meant to be more than fixed structures. They were intended to be put into operation as part of life. The moral imagination can reveal what a Moral Law, Biblical Command, or a Wisdom Principle might look like and feel like and behave like as it operates within a life. Each set of circumstances is unique, and this creates the problem of how to translate general principles to specific situations. Moral imagination helps us to translate generalities to particulars. Great preachers often explain a biblical principle as the starting point of a sermon. As they tell a story and put flesh on the bones of a biblical principle, they inflame the Moral Imagination of the congregation. I was drawn to a serious study of the Bible in college by the lectures of a tall, white-haired botany professor of Scottish descent. He told Bible stories and made them vivid, colorful, and personal. In the process, he explained Bible doctrines that the story illuminated and quoted verses from various places in the Bible. The man had a wondrous moral imagination and was a superlative teacher.

Evangelicals are generally keen to discover concrete practical applications of biblical principles. But they often prefer to have a "how to do it" instruction kit than to fire up their moral imaginations and have the principles live in their hearts. The joyous and reformed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning had a transformed moral imagination. Therefore, he intuitively knew how to zestfully and charitably celebrate Christmas. He did not stop to write a set of rules or a list of specific applications in Christmas observances. He did not devise formulas, cookbook recipes, or programs for Christmas celebration. He was too eager to get on with the joy of the season to even think of such things.

The error of casuistry

Programs and techniques have their place and should not be despised. But no program is blessed unless the people using it have grace and a moral imagination. The use of programs without moral imagination can lead one into the error of casuistry. Casuistry is that branch of Ethics which employs logic to translate general rules of law, philosophy, theology, and morality into particular instances and applications in which there appears to be a conflict of duties.

Casuistry is useful in a court of law, but in literature the word is generally used in the pejorative sense. Some casuists use petty and parsing equivocations to avoid duty and responsibility. Others carry casuistic reductionism to microscopic detail. Majestic truth is reduced to petty scruples and peccadilloes. The epithet "Jesuistry" was once used to mock the tidy-minded and scrupulous casuistry of the Jesuits. Another kind of casuistry is a pitfall for a certain type of young, bold, and poorly socialized Evangelical guy. Once he gets a technique for applying a biblical principle into his head, he walks around creating havoc by applying the principle in a perfunctory, blunt, rude, poorly timed manner and in painfully inappropriate situations. To a man with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. This is true if the man with a hammer has no moral imagination.

The Permanent Things described by Kirk must be illuminated by a moral imagination to avoid casuistry. The demented codes of political correctness are the casuistry of the political left and reveal an astonishing vacuum of moral imagination and common sense. In reaction to the rejection of the Universal Moral Law by the left, some conservatives have reduced the moral law to an opposing casuistry. Interestingly, the most obvious and pointed examples of intellectual and moral casuistry of conservatives occurs among libertarians and Natural Law Philosophy folks, instead of among the Christian Right.

The Permanent Things without a moral imagination leads to casuistry and a dead legalism. Moral imagination without the Permanent Things is a shifting and shapeless mass of subjective sentiments. This aptly describes the incoherent mess we call the New Age Movement. The disintegrating left has two poles. New Age moral and imaginative chaos is at one pole, and politically correct oppression by control freaks is at the other pole. If conservatives could learn to integrate and articulate their principles with moral imagination, as Ronald Reagan did, they could win the cultural war against their confused, irrational, and self-contradictory liberal opponents.

Building a culture

A culture comes into existence in a civilized moral and intellectual order. Every culture is informed by moral and social values. A culture also includes an aesthetic vision of the world. The great masters in the arts, music, poetry, and literature are masters of the aesthetic sense.

Russell Kirk included aesthetics within the scope of the moral imagination. Contrary to an almost universal denial of our day, man's aesthetic vision of the world influences his moral sense. If his arts are depraved, his moral senses will be dulled. Handel's Messiah evokes an aesthetic vision of the beauty and glory of God. The glorious aesthetics of the music perfectly complement the exalted message. Handel's vision has moral consequences since the God he glorifies is the author of the Universal Moral Law. In contrast, when Mick Jagger screams, "Hey!! You!! Get offa my cloud!!", he expresses his defiance of all standards and his narcissistic lawlessness. Jagger's trash music is a perfect vehicle for that obnoxious message. Our long journey from Handel to Jagger involves the withering away of the moral imagination and a brutalizing of the aesthetic sense. Ideals of moral, intellectual, and artistic excellence have given way to the degraded and narcissistic culture of coolness and hipness, which are the ultimate in cultural shallowness.

Wesley McDonald pointed out that the moral imagination illuminates aspects of culture which are morally neutral. The interior of a Baroque palace is clearly inspired by a moral imagination. Some of the Baroque ceilings open up into frescoes which depict the artist's vision of heaven. Much of the interior decoration is morally neutral but is aesthetically beautiful and harmoniously ornaments the majestic settings. The moral imagination helped the artists express the spiritually sublime through the aesthetically beautiful. Interestingly, McDonald described the process of painting a picture as a tutorial for how to develop a moral imagination. There are uncanny parallels between the aesthetic imagination and the moral imagination. It is no accident that in history, noble ideals personified in art have their has its parallel in poetry and literature which honor high virtue. Ugliness in art typically goes with a terror of demons or a skepticism about virtue. Left-wing political cartoons are often crudely drawn and have an ugly appearance.

Living in a civilization is taxing, exhausting, and neurotic. One of the sweet compensations of a civilized life is aesthetic joy. After a disjointing day in the rat race, music by Haydn can help one to feel renewed and reintegrated. If man is designed to develop his creative faculties as he lives in great civilizations, he needs an aesthetic vision to discover what the good life of urbane charm and grace might be.


A moral imagination includes a vision of high culture, virtue, moral excellence, and community. Different writers in the Burkean tradition put a different emphasis on these elements. Russell Kirk was an eccentric, rustic intellectual of rough American New England and Scottish stock, transplanted to rural Michigan. He put the emphasis on community. The brilliant, eloquent, and elegant Edmund Burke put the emphasis on high culture. The young Burke wrote a classic essay on the Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. The mature Burke wrote Reflection on the Revolution in France in which he chided the idealistic but soulless reformers who had no moral imagination and were destroying the delicate social fabric and inflicting fatal wounds on a high culture.

Kirk exceeded Burke in his preoccupation with history as he traced the cultural roots of the rugged American Republic. Kirk was a curmudgeon with a difficult personality, but paradoxically, he cared deeply about community. He sought with his moral imagination to illuminate his idea of community and what that means to the Republic. He drew from his extensive readings of history and classic literature to furnish his moral imagination with clues about community. He tested every proposed program and innovation for its effect on community.

Kirk's zeal for community is timely. As the American moral imagination contracted in the twentieth century, the sense of community has dwindled away along with it. Apparently, the two are tied together. Without a shared moral imagination, there can be no civilized community worthy of the name. Community aids the individual in developing his moral imagination.

Kirk and public policy

Kirk examined the deleterious effects of business corporations upon community and became hostile to corporations. He was not wrong about some of the deleterious effects, but his hostile attitude of opposition was a mistake, of course. The corporation is deformed because human nature is deformed. We ought to intelligently criticize the faults of the corporation and use our moral imagination to make it more humane. We should find ways to expand the moral imagination within the corporation and enhance the community through the corporation. Corporate enterprise is an essential form of economic activity. It is a product of human freedom and vision. The great adventure of enterprise finds its institutional expression in the corporation.

Kirk also noticed the deleterious effect that war has on community. He was against the first Gulf War. He was also suspicious of new technology. With corporations, technology, and war, Kirk went to extremes. Judging things by their effects on community has much to say for it, but it is not enough. Man is many things. He is more than just a creature of community.

Kirk may have been interested to know that no great poetry has ever arisen except from societies or nations of warriors. (Everyone protests this generality until they find that they cannot think of an exception.) The Irish, Scotts, and Welsh come to mind as warrior bards of distinction. Reagan's most poetic and lyrical speech was at Point du Hoc where the Army Rangers scaled a sheer cliff on D-Day. Kirk must have known that some of the great art of the early Renaissance was sponsored by great banking and business entrepreneurs of Florence. During the same era, great warrior nobles of Urbino and Mantua sponsored great art, architecture, literature, and a magnificently civilized culture at their courts. The Courtier, by Castiglione, was written at Urbino and became the basis for the Western idea of the gentleman and a guidebook for aristocratic life at court for five hundred years. The artist Rafael was raised and trained at Urbino. Great men with moral imagination can be great warriors or great entrepreneurs while they are sponsoring great art.

Readers, do not read Kirk for advice on public policy. Read Kirk to have your moral imagination expanded. Then consider public policy with your freshly expanded moral imagination. Russell Kirk is essential reading for the education of a conservative.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31