Truth in a Man’s Imagination

I have spent many hours listening to people extol the importance of education, reading about how education ought to be done, not to mention being educated myself. What I’ve come to realize is that discovering a method that works is actually the easy part of education. The hard part is making the learning stick. You can spend years inculcating a student with Latin and high-brow literature, but unless you can get them to love it for themselves, it’s all whistling in a hurricane. You have to tutor their loves, as well. Ultimately, we become what we love, as Jamie Smith would say. If you love what’s worthless, you will become worthless. If you love what’s true, your whole life will be characterized by truth.

Of course, I’m not saying anything new. I do, however, have another source to support it. In his wonderful anthology of George MacDonald quotations, C. S. Lewis included the following excerpt from a sermon:

[Man] is so constituted as to understand [true things] at first more than he can love them, with the resulting advantage of having thereby the opportunity of choosing them purely because they are true: so doing he chooses to love them, and is enabled to love them in the doing, which alone can truly reveal them to him and make the loving of them possible. Then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights. The man is a true man who chooses duty: he is a perfect man who at length never thinks of duty, who forgets the name of it.

First, choosing true and good things is purely a matter of duty. Dare I say, often a matter of conscripted duty. If you don’t choose the good and the true, you will be punished. Over time, that action of choosing the good and the true over and over becomes a genuine love. The teacher (parent, pastor) hopes that the student will develop a taste for truth and goodness. Eventually, the student puts duty to the side and pursues his loves, for his loves are “absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights.”

Is there any way to cultivate that taste? Another MacDonald quote from the same sermon puts us on the right path.

The truth of a thing, then, is the blossom of it, the thing it is made for, the topmost stone set on with rejoicing; truth in a man’s imagination is the power to recognize this truth of a thing.

According to MacDonald, the truth of a thing — a rock, an animal, an idea — is the “topmost stone,” the final cause. Its telos. Since we are bound in time, we can’t see the life of something all the way through to the end. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you knew the entire history of one thing, from its creation to its end, you would know the entire history of the universe. That knowledge (that truth) is hidden from us. But, MacDonald says, it is not completely out of our sight. We can recognize the a thing’s truth through the imagination.

This is one of art’s abilities. In life, we don’t often see all wrongs righted, all sins brought to light. We don’t always see where the small choices lead. But in a novel, movie, poem, or painting, we can and do see them through the imagination. By artistic representations of the “ends” of things, we learn to recognize their true natures. Good art creates good taste.