A Man is Responsible for His Imagination

To think without feeling would be thinking with a total indifference to the object of thought, which would be absurd; and to feel without thinking would be almost impossible. As most of the objects of thought are objects are also of desire or dislike, and therefore objects of choice, it follows that all important action of the intellect has a moral side.

This is from John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching, chapter six. Gregory goes on to say that all education has a moral character because the education is only possible through loving knowledge, which implies that knowledge is good.

I like the connection he makes here between feeling and thinking, but what I really like is where he goes from there. Objects of thought, he says, are objects of desire or dislike, meaning that we have an emotional or imaginative reaction to our thoughts. A man’s imagination can embrace thoughts or it can hold them at arm’s length. Therefore, says Gregory, objects of thought are objects of choice. Dwelling on something, weighing it in the mind, is a choice. And we are responsible for our choices, right or wrong.

This fact is hugely important in any discussion of imagination and, consequently, art. Movies are not simply looked at or books read. Your imagination chooses how to respond. In a saner era, people understood that the imagination (the emotions, really) could be trained to choose well. Today, we still train our imagination, of course, we just don’t always realize what we’re doing.

Most people in our culture (and others) are bombarded daily by objects that stoke their imagination: TV shows, commercials, ads, memes, tweets, pop music, headlines, photographs. In order to cope with the sheer number of these “objects of thought,” we need to recognize them as objects of desire or dislike, and recognize that our response to them is a choice that we are responsible for.