Plato's Myth of the Cave

Plato understood the power of stories. That is why he used the dialogue form to make the reader an imaginative participant in his exploration of great truths.

The idea of what I call “the moral imagination” is one that has been around as long as literature itself (and the oral tradition before that), but it is almost unknown in our day, and seldom discussed. This term refers to the idea that reading good, worthwhile literature (particularly works that have survived the test of time – centuries or even millennia) can help to form our character — our imaginations as well as our intellect. As individuals and as a society, we need stories that are both compelling and challenging, full of truth about the human condition and our relation to the world around us, as well as transcendent reality. These are stories of lasting value that do more than merely entertain — they connect us to a deeper truth and, often, ground us in our own cultural tradition. They help us understand how we ought to live, and the consequences of our actions.

The idea that fictional literature can, and should, both instruct and delight is an ancient one – Aristotle and Cicero both wrote about the “philosophical” value of literature – but it is an idea that has largely been abandoned in the modern world, which prefers novelty and entertainment to timeless truth or deep meaning. Yet there are still a few books being written that fulfill the edifying role of great literature and, from time to time, I’ll write about them, as well as more ancient stories.

At any rate, one of the things I like to explore on this blog is the way great literature, when read well, with understanding, and not simply “consumed” as entertainment, can help us to glimpse truths that can change our lives. Such literature helps form our moral imagination.

Below are links to all the posts in this category.

Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre ...
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Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

Doing this in public could earn you funny looks. If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I’ve run into on ...
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Poetic Knowledge, the lost “science”

I was delighted to run across this article on the Crisis Magazine web site. The article is a review by Kirk Kramer (originally published in 1999) of a book by James Taylor called Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of ...
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Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

0 MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 Recently I wrote about literature
as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth,
which can be
called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle
and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by ...
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Epic poetry and the moral imagination

This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply ...
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Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

In The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if ...
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Poetic Truth, Part I: Giambattista Vico

Vico drove me to it! I may be the only person ever to have a traffic accident
because of Giambattista Vico. Partly, this is because he has been dead since anno
1744, and ...
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Why Civil Society Needs Great Stories

On this blog, I’ve written a lot on something I call “the moral imagination.” Recently I was invited to address the Dallas chapter of the Saint Thomas More Society (Catholic lawyers’ guild), on a ...
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Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the ...
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Movie makers need to read great literature, too

I’ve talked quite a bit on this blog about the importance of good stories, and how sad it is that our culture no longer seems interested in stories that enlarge us, that take us out ...
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