Can Change the World Again.
A SYSTEM OF MENTAL PHILOSOPHY. 1882.
REV. ASA MAHAN, D. D. LL.D.
All are aware, that there is such a function of the intelligence as that designated by the term imagination. When, also, we meet with any of its real creations, we readily recognize them as such. But, when the questions are asked,What is this power? What are its proper functions? and, By what laws is it governed? the true answer,that which will command general assent, does not so readily occur, as, at first thought, might be anticipated. If we recur to the works of authors who have attempted to define and elucidate the subject, we find that they differ so 'widely in their definitions of this faculty that little satisfactory information is obtained from their presentations.
By some, we are told, that the real function of the imagination, is to "present the objects of pure perceptions in groups and combinations which do not exist in nature," or to "take the component parts of real scenes, events, or characters, and combine them anew, by a process of the mind itself, so as to form compounds which have no existence in nature."
By others, it is defined as the faculty by which we "modify our conceptions, by combining the parts of different ones together, so as to form new wholes of our own creation"; or as "a complex exercise of the mind, by means of which various conceptions are combined together, so as to form new wholes." The difficulty which the student meets with in respect to such definitions, is the impracticability of determining, in their light, whether, when he meets with a given conception, he is in the presence of a real creation of the imagination or not. Without further remarks we shall now attempt a definition of our own.
An object of which our apprehensions are indistinct, may often be best defined and explained by comparing it with some other analogous object of which our apprehensions are distinct and well defined. The imagination, as all admit, is a conceptive faculty. So is the understanding, and of this latter faculty we are well informed. Let us compare these two faculties, and see if we cannot, thereby, obtain clear and distinct apprehensions of the real and proper functions of each. The understanding, as we have seen, combines the elements given by the primary faculties, sense, consciousness, and reason, as given, without modifying them at all; its exclusive province being this: to conceive of, and represent in thought, objects as they are in themselves, whatever their nature and characteristics may be. A conception of the understanding we always compare with its object, and pronounce said conception perfect or imperfect; as it does, or does not, perfectly represent that object. Now we have another and different faculty of conception, a faculty which re-combines the elements of thought given by all the other faculties; and blends said elements into conceptions which correspond, more or less perfectly, not with realities as they are in themselves, but with certain fundamental ideas in the mind,ideas such as those of harmony, fitness, the beautiful, the grand, the sublime, the good, and the perfect; or their opposites, the ludicrous, the grotesque, and the bombastic. We have in our minds, therefore, two entirely distinct classes of conceptions,those which respect objects just as they exist in the universe of matter and mind, within and around us; and those in which the elements of such objects are in thought combined, in harmony, more or less perfect, with fundamental ideas in the mind itself; as those of the beautiful, grand, sublime, etc.,conceptions which do not respect objects as they are, but certain arrangements of such objects. The function of the intelligence which gives us the former class of conceptions, we have denominated the understanding. That which gives us the latter is the imagination. By Coleridge it is called the "Esemplastic, or into-one-forming power." It re-combines the elements of thought into conceptions which pertain, not to mere existences; but to ideas of the beautiful, the perfect, the sublime, etc., in the mind itself. A conception of the understanding is perfect, when it represents its object as it is, whatever the object may be. A conception of the imagination is perfect, when it shadows forth forms of beauty, grandeur, sublimity, etc, which correspond with the ideas in the mind. Understanding conceptions are compared with the object. The only standard with which the creations of the imagination are compared, is the idea.
A single illustration will throw additional light upon the distinct and separate functions of these two faculties under consideration. A number of human forms and circumstances, each characterized by greater or less beauties and deformities, are, we will suppose, before the mind. Of each, and of all together, we form distinct apprehensions; the group, with all its individualities, being, in thought, represented as it is in itself. Here we mark the exclusive action of the understanding. While these objects are before the mind there arises, in thought, the apprehension of a human form and countenance more beautiful and perfect, than any which had been the object of perception or conception before. The formation of this new conception is the equally exclusive creation of the imagination. The same holds true in all other instances. Wherever, and whenever, we find the elements of thought, given by the other faculties, re-combined into conceptions which correspond, not with realities as they are in themselves, but with fundamental ideas, pre-existing in the mind itself,ideas such as the beautiful, the grand, the sublime, etc., we here find ourselves in the exclusive presence of creations of the imagination. Such creations, as we shall see hereafter, may, or may not, be fictions, may, or may not, be true to objects which have existence in nature. Such creations, however, whether true to real existences or not, will always present their objects in the light of the ideas referred to.
IMAGINATION AND FANCY DISTINGUISHED.
Mr. Dugald Stewart is the first philosopher that I have met with, who makes a distinction between the imagination and the fancy. I will give the remarks to which I refer, as it will prepare the way for the distinction which I wish to make. "It is the power of fancy," he observes, "which supplies the poet with metaphorical language, and with all the analogies which are the foundation of his allusions. But it is the power of the imagination, that creates the complex scenes he describes, and the fictitious characters which he delineates." According to the distinction here made, it was the imagination of Milton, which created the whole scene, and the particular characters, presented in "Paradise Lost." His fancy, on the other hand, furnished the figurative language, analogies, and illustrations, with which it is adorned. The fancy, as thus described, is, as it will readily be perceived, nothing but a particular department of the operation of the principle of association. It collects the materials from which the imagination creates its scenes and characters, and then furnishes the attendant embellishments. In conformity to this view of the subject, fancy is defined by Coleridge, as the "aggregative and associative power." Thus defined, while the imagination is that function of the intelligence which is correlated to ideas of the beautiful, the grand, the sublime, etc.,the fancy is that function of the associative principle, which is correlated to the same ideas.
SPONTANEOUS AND REFLECTIVE IMAGINATION.
The primitive action of the intellectual faculties, is spontaneous, and not reflective. We reflect upon that only which has a prior existence in the mind. The same statement is applicable to all the creations of the imagination. In their primitive developments, they are the result of the spontaneous action of this faculty. By reflection, such creations are, subsequently, fully developed and perfected. The grand conception, for example, developed in "Paradise Lost," was first spontaneously suggested to the author's mind. To fill out and perfect that conception, was the object of thought and study for a majority of the years of his subsequent life.
REMARK OF COLERIDGE.
Coleridge has somewhere made a remark, which I regard as of great importance in guiding the judgment in detecting the peculiar operations of the imagination, and in separating them from the operations of other intellectual faculties. The amount of his remark is this. It is not every part of what is called a production of the imagination, that is to be attributed to that faculty. Much, often, is mere narration; and much is the mere filling out of the grand outline of the conception which the imagination has combined; and which as properly belongs to the understanding and judgment, as the filling up of the outlines of any other discourse of which the intelligence has conceived. With a great portion of the filling up of "Paradise Lost," for example, imagination had no more to do than with that of filling up the grand outline of a sermon, or oration. In the sublime conception itself, and in the mysterious blending of the elements of thought often met with, in throwing that conception into form,here we find the workings of this creative, plastic faculty. To evolve principles which would enable the student, under such circumstances, to discern the operations of this faculty, has, as before said, been the main object of the preceding analysis.
CREATIONS OF THE IMAGINATION, WHY NOT ALWAYS FICTIONS.
In the preceding part of this chapter, it has been shown, that the creations of the imagination are not always, as it has often been stated by philosophers, "new wholes which do not exist in nature." It becomes an important inquiry, When and why is not this statement true? It will be evident, at first thought, that when the elements of thought which enter into particular conceptions, are wholly recombined, the new wholes, thus produced, must exist purely in thought, without any corresponding existence. On the other hand, when the elements of beauty, grandeur, and sublimity exist in objects in connection with other and different elements,elements related to other and different ideas, and when the imagination blends these elements first named into some one beautiful, grand, or sublime conception, every element in the conception may be in strict correlation to realities. Take as an illustration, a single stanza from a familiar hymn:
"His word of grace is sure and strong,
As that which built the skies:
The voice that rolls the stars along
Speaks all the promises."
Every element in this beautiful thought is strictly conformed to realities, as they are. Yet in the blending of these elements, particularly in the last two lines, we distinctly mark the plastic power of the imagination, in its sublimest and most beautiful form.
The same is equally true, where the same power embalms, in similar conceptions, the hallowed sentiments and experiences of the past, and present. Who that ever saw the tear of gratitude lying in the eye of affliction,a thing far more beautiful than the dew-drop, when it holds in its embrace the image of the morning sun,a tear started by some gift that eased, for a time, the pressure of woe, and, then turned away with a sorrowful heart, that such worth should be crushed beneath such a weight, does not recognize the truth, as well as beauty, of the thought contained in the following stanza, especially in the last two lines?
In another sense, all the proper creations of the imagination are true. They are true to thought. In the depths of our inner being, there lie thoughts too deep for any words which we can command. Nothing but an overshadowing imagination can call them forth, and give them an external embodiment. Whether the forms in which they are embodied are correlated to substantial realities or not, they are true to thought, the most important of all realities. We feel grateful, therefore, when we find the thoughts which we had vainly endeavored to express, molded into form, and thus assuming "a local habitation and a name."
I mention one other, and a very important sense, in which the creations of the imagination are true. They sustain, in many instances, relations to realities analogous, somewhat, to that sustained by general notions. In a very important sense, these last have no realities in nature corresponding to them; that is, there is no one object, that in all respects corresponds to a general notion; that is, that contains the elements it represents, and nothing more nor less. The elements belonging to it, however, are found in each particular object ranged under it. Let us now, in the light of this illustration, contemplate the forms of the beautiful, for example, shadowed forth by the imagination. We may not be able, in all instances, to find any one particular object which contains, and nothing more nor less, the elements which enter into this form. Yet, whenever we meet with an object containing the elements of beauty, we find that element represented in the forms of the beautiful bodied forth by the imagination. In these forms, we do not find any one particular shadowed forth, but each particular blended in the universal. In the most perfect forms of statuary, for example, we do not find any one human form, in distinction from all others, represented, but we find whatever is beautiful in every form there embodied. As the understanding represents the particular in the general, so the imagination represents all particulars relating to the beautiful, etc., in the universal.
SPHERE OF THE IMAGINATION NOT CONFINED TO POETRY.
Most of the examples introduced into this chapter are poetical. From this I would not have it supposed, that, in my judgment, the imagination is confined to this species of composition. We meet with its finest creations, on the other hand, in painting, in statuary, in prose, and in every kind of discourse in which the elements of thought can be blended in harmony with pure ideas. It admits, at least, of a doubt, whether the imagination of Milton ranged with a more discursive energy in his highest prose compositions, or in his "Paradise Lost."
LAW OF TASTE IN REGARD TO THE IMAGINATION.
It is, as we have seen, the peculiar province of the imagination to dissolve, re-combine, and blend the elements of thought. Its procedure in all these respects, however, is not arbitrary. Not every thought can be blended with every other, without violating the laws of good taste. Here, then, an important question presents itself; to wit, What is the law which guides the imagination, in blending the elements of thought? I will present my own ideas on this subject, by an example taken from the book of Job:
The propriety of blending the two conceptions,that of the mane of the war-horse and of thunder, has been questioned by some, on account of the total dissimilarity of the objects of those conceptions. It is readily admitted, that no two objects are in themselves more dissimilar. Yet it is confidently maintained, that there never was a figure of speech more appropriate. The reason is obvious, and everyone feels it, though he may not have an analytical consciousness of it. When two objects are, as objects of sense, totally dissimilar, the conception of each may excite precisely similar feelings. Hence the propriety and force of the figure employed by the sacred writer, in blending the two conceptions into one. This I conceive to be the universal law of good taste, relative to the action of the plastic power of the imagination. Whenever two conceptions sustain a similar relation to any one common feeling or sentiment, they may be blended into one. The more diverse the objects of those conceptions, the more striking the figure, under such circumstances. I will give one other example:
Who is insensible to the exquisite beauty of the thought here? Yet the wave of the sea or lake, reflecting the stars of night, no more, as an object of sense, resembles the dimpled cheek of beauty, or the mother catching up her babe and holding it in her embrace, than the mane of the war-horse resembles thunder. Why, then, are we struck with such delight at the blending of conceptions, the objects of which are, in themselves, so unlike? The answer is, these conceptions are mutually correlated to the same or similar feelings. When such conceptions are thus blended into a beautiful emotion common to both, there is shadowed forth the perfection of beauty. For this reason our hearts leap up, when we meet with such thoughts as the following, taken from the same effusion as that above cited:
IMAGINATION THE SOURCE OF IDEALS.
Another important function of the imagination now claims our attention, its function as the source of ideals. In illustrating this function, the first thing to be accomplished is to distinguish between ideals and ideas.
An idea, properly defined, is a conception of reason. As such it has the characteristics of universality and necessity, and is consequently, incapable of change, or modification. Thus whenever certain conditions are fulfilled, reason evolves the idea of time, space, substance and cause, which we have already considered, together with such as the beautiful, the right, the true, and the good, etc., hereafter to be considered.
An ideal is a form of thought intermediate between an idea and the conceptions or notions which the intelligence generates of particular objects, and presents archetypes in conformity to which the elements of such conceptions may be blended in harmony with ideas. In the mind of Milton, for example, the ideas of the beautiful, the grand, and the sublime, etc., existed as pure conceptions of reason. When the varied conceptions, the elements of which are blended together in "Paradise Lost," lay under the eye of his consciousness, his intelligence, brooding over those elements, at last blended them together into that grand conception, of which the poem itself is the external embodiment. This conception was the ideal after which the poem was formed, to realize his ideas of the grand, the beautiful, and the sublime.
IDEALS, PARTICULAR AND GENERAL.
Ideals, like notions, are particular and general. Thus, in the mind of Milton, there existed a general ideal of what a poem should be, in order to realize, in greater or less perfection, the pure ideas of reason. At the same time, there existed a particular ideal of the manner in which the elements entering into that poem should be blended, in order, in that particular production, to realize those ideas.
IDEALS NOT CONFINED TO IDEAS OF THE BEAUTIFUL, THE GRAND, AND THE SUBLIME.
Ideals are not confined to any one class of ideas. Every individual, in all departments of human action, has an ideal of the form to which the objects of his action should be brought into conformity, and in the light of which he judges of all productions which meet his eye. Ideas of fitness, of the true, the perfect, and the good, no less than the idea of the beautiful, are the archetypes of ideals.
IDEALS NOT FIXED AND CHANGELESS LIKE IDEAS.
Ideals, as compared with ideas, may be perfect or imperfect. They are consequently capable of continued modifications. We often hear it said of individuals, that their ideals are imperfect or wrong. As intermediate archetypes between conceptions of particular objects, and pure ideas of reason, ideals may, in the progress of the intelligence, undergo endless modifications, always advancing towards the perfect and absolute, without reaching it.
IDEALS THE FOUNDATION OF MENTAL PROGRESS.
As intermediate archetypes between particular conceptions and universal and necessary ideas, ideals constitute the foundation of endless progression in the development of the mental powers. Every new elevation which the intelligence gains, presents new conceptions of particular objects, and consequently new elements of thought. Every new element of thought involves a new ideal, more nearly approaching the perfect and the absolute, and thus lays the foundation for fresh activity, and further progress in the march of mind. Sometimes also ideals degenerate, and thus the foundation is laid for the backward movements of society.
It is hardly necessary to add that the imagination is the sole originator of ideals. To form such conceptions is not a function of reason, nor of the understanding or judgment. It remains, then, as the exclusive function of the imagination.
IDEALS IN THE DIVINE AND HUMAN INTELLIGENCE.
In the divine mind, the action of the imagination is always in perfect and absolute correspondence to the reason. As a consequence, there is a similar correspondence between the divine ideal and idea. All of God's "works, therefore, are perfect." Not so with the finite. Man may eternally progress towards the infinite and perfect, but can never reach it.
Taste is that function of the judgment by which the characteristics of productions, especially in belles-lettres and the fine arts, are determined in the light of ideals and ideas of beauty, order, congruity, proportion, symmetry, fitness, and whatever constitutes excellence in such productions. The judgment may be exercised upon ideals relatively to ideas, and upon particular productions relatively to both. Thus Milton, when he apprehended the conception realized in " Paradise Lost," might, and doubtless did, often compare that conception with his own idea, to determine the fact whether the former made a near approach to the latter. In filling out the conception, he would continually compare the external embodiment with the internal ideal. In all such operations, he was exercising those functions of the faculty of judgment denominated taste. The existence of good taste depends upon the existence in the intelligence of correct ideals, together with a well balanced, and well exercised judgment, pertaining to the ideas of beauty, fitness, etc. If a man's ideal is false, his taste is of course vitiated. If his ideal were ever so correct, and he was not possessed of a well balanced, and well exercised judgment, pertaining to such productions, he would also lack the characteristics of good; taste.
PRODUCTIONS OF THE IMAGINATION WHEN NOT REGULATED BY CORRECT JUDGMENT OR GOOD TASTE.
In some individuals, in whom the imagination exists and operates with a high degree of energy, its action is not guided and chastened by good taste, or a well regulated judgment. In such cases we find the most perfect forms of beauty and sublimity shadowed forth in connection with the grossest deformities. The subject also will, in most instances, be wholly unable to distinguish the one from the other. In listening to such men, we, at one moment, are perfectly electrified with the forms of beauty, grandeur, and sublimity which are shadowed forth to our ecstatic vision; but the next, perhaps, we are equally shocked and disgusted with images worse than grotesque, and forms of speech in strange violation of all the laws of good taste. Under such circumstances we have special need of two things, patience and good judgment. The former will enable us to endure the evil for the sake of the good; the latter to separate the one from the other; that we may not, as is too often the case, receive the good and the bad, as alike good, nor reject both as alike bad.
The most perfect of all human productions are the results of genius associated with good judgment. Of these the productions of Milton may be referred to as striking examples. Grandeur and sublimity are the permanent characteristics of his genius. And how seldom are his sublime conceptions marred with violations of good taste!
PRODUCTIONS OF IMAGINATION AND FANCY.
The productions of different authors, we read with almost equal interest, but for entirely different and opposite reasons. I now refer to two classes of productions only, in one of which the operation of the fancy is most prominent, and in the other, that of the imagination. In productions of the former class, there will be an exuberance of metaphor, and beautifully appropriate comparisons and illustrations, and these will be the main source of the interest felt. In contemplating the productions of a creative imagination, on the other hand, the grand, conception will be the chief, and in some instances, the exclusive source of interest.
IMAGINATION AND FANCYHOW IMPROVED.
Every power is developed in one way only,in being exercised upon its appropriate objects. Each of the functions of the intelligence under consideration, has its appropriate sphere. To develop the power, we must find its legitimate sphere, and in that sphere exercise it upon its appropriate objects. The fancy is improved, by developing in the mind the sense of the beautiful, the true, the perfect, and the sublime; by furnishing the intelligence with distinct apprehensions of the forms of beauty, grandeur and sublimity which the universe of matter and mind, nature and art, presents.
The imagination will be improved by familiarizing the mind with the true functions of the power itself; with the laws which regulate its actions, in blending into form the elements of thought; and with its actual creations, as given in the works of minds most highly gifted with this function of the intelligence.