The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
July 2015 – Vol. 18 Issue 5
Our imagination is a faculty that eludes a binding definition, for its properties are patently immaterial. By its means we can conceive and create all kinds of activities and existences. Charles Darwin stated in The Descent of Man that "The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results." The medieval mystics Hugh and Richard of the St. Victor monastery in Paris, perhaps applying Paul's classification of a man as spirit, soul, and body, referred to "Imagination, Reason and Intellect" as different facets of our inner nature.
We can trace a slow development in the Western view of the imagination. For example, Iamblichus (d. 333 AD) wrote: "Imagination is superior to all nature and generation, and through it we are capable of transcending the worldly order, of participating in eternal life and in the energy of the super-celestial. It is through this principle, therefore, that we will be liberated from the bonds of fate itself." A commentator interprets him to mean that by contacting inspiration and insight, we may overcome the “fate of our character by working through personality problems and limitations.” Indeed, the imagination can be a powerful influence to shape or affect our souls, for we thereby open new powers within ourselves. This aspect of the imagination is capable of being as destructive in its lower phase as it can be creative in its higher. In other words, we become what we imagine.
In modern times, the word imagination has acquired various meanings, usually limited to literature and the other arts. That is, it has been treated as though synonymous with fancy or fantasizing. But gradually the usages of the terms have grown far apart. The two poets of the 19th century who contributed much to the widening distinctions were Wordsworth and Coleridge, both of whom felt that composing a poem was strictly not a reasoning process. Elaborating on Wordsworth's tentative view that imagination is an "element of Nature's inner self," Coleridge identified it with creative power, the highest faculty that synthesizes experience into imagery. It perceives shape or form and order, using different, even opposite, elements of feeling, vision, and thought to achieve a unified whole. In other words, it fuses and assimilates the daily experiences into a larger unity. While Carlyle felt that imagination was lower in the scale than intellect, Coleridge regarded it as the "organ of the divine." Fancy, on the other hand, he felt to be merely the capacity to combine things and events. Wordsworth associated the "higher poetry" with the "wisdom of the heart" and the "grandeur of the imagination." He felt too that "wherever these appear, simplicity accompanies them." Shelley also deals profoundly with this theme. A Platonist, he places reason on a lower level than other aspects of mentality; it has a guiding principle, the imagination, which he images as a "throne contained within the invisible nature of man." He further suggests, in the words of Carl Grabo, that there is a “divine order, truth, and beauty, existing in the immaterial world of ideas, a world to which the creative or poetic mind has occasional access. It is in the light of its intimations from this world – what for want of a better word must be called intuitions – that the creative mind apprehending it imposes its imaginative reading, its discovery of relationships, upon actual experience and thus aids in shaping the actual into a likeness of the divine.”
As Shelley perceives it, what the world needs most is not more facts but the creative imagination, and he analyzes the perilous situation of our materialistic civilization that is based on scientific and economic knowledge. For him as for Plato, the world of the material phase of life partly obscures and partly exposes the real world of which it is the reflection or "shadow." During those moments when we feel illumined, we become aware of the "heart of things," which means we sense the presence of the eternal essence of life, of which all the routines and ephemera of our daily lives are but symbols.
Shelley has been accused of being impractical, but he did see the cruelty, injustice, and selfishness prevalent in his world, and discernible in ours as well! His diagnosis of the root cause of all the suffering and inhumanity probed to the desire we all have for happiness, and our confusion as to where to look for it. In comment, Carl Grabo writes that: “Reason, unless directed by imagination, leads nowhere but to futility. We have knowledge, material things, and command over natural forces; but these are nothing in themselves . . . unless, prompted by intuition from the divine, we shape them imaginatively to the uses of a freer and less selfish social order. This is not the analysis and teaching of a visionary, but realism of the toughest kind. It is inspired common-sense. It is not Shelley who is fantastic and insane but the world of ‘practical’ men.”
As Greek Platonic philosopher Longinus notes, often "the imagination oversteps the bounds of space, so that if we survey our life on every side, how greatness and beauty and eminence have everywhere the prerogative, we shall straightway perceive the end for which we were created." Imagination then is the divine aspect of mankind, upon whose wings we may fly and thus realize all our finest possibilities. – I. M. Oderberg
Sometimes our awareness of entrenched selfishness and amorality is almost overwhelming, particularly when it is found in so many organizations – local, national and inter-national, governmental, commercial, and nonprofit. Faced with powerful, widespread greed and exploitation, manipulations, brutality, and indifference to individuals, it is easy to become cynical. Yet shrugging off such behavior as "just human nature" is by so much supporting and insuring its continuation. Is there anything we as individuals can do to change practices that happen on such a large scale?
It is our inability to truly love that allows us to ignore, if not promote, the behavior that makes human life so tragic. This brings to mind two biblical commandments: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and – "the second is exactly like the first" – to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love here does not mean attachment, which originates in our limited sense of self and consequently brings with it fear, possessiveness, and self-centeredness. Rather, this love is rooted in our innermost depths. When we whole-heartedly love the most sublime that we can conceive of, it cannot help but manifest in our heart and, in time, transform us. For, as the ancient Hindu precept has it, Yadyad rupam kamayate devata, tattad devata bhavati: whatever a divine being loves or desires, that thing it becomes – and we are divine beings, though we seldom realize it, all springing from the same source.
We have many opportunities daily to make a difference. For example, we can make a conscious effort to appreciate and bring out the best in those around us, whether or not we agree with them or like them. However, changing our own way of living and thinking may seem an inadequate response to large human problems because we feel insignificant. But simply by who we are, each of us has a profound influence on human life everywhere. Humanity exists in a psychological atmosphere which every individual draws upon and contributes to. By a deliberate effort to aspire toward the highest within us and see the best in others, we raise the whole by strengthening its positive elements. Conversely, when we are selfish, fearful, self-important, or uncontrolled, we reinforce those negative energies, making them more easily available to others. Each moment our aspirations and actions are having an influence for good or ill on countless people who attract those same psychological energies to themselves.
Perhaps we feel that altruistic ethical values, while true in principle, are utopian and impractical. But ethics are more than mere human conventions or revealed rules. They are a means of bringing about harmony among humans and within the whole earth-community. In this sense, what is “right” is something we can test by observation and use. "Enlightened self-interest" is still promoted by some as a social good, particularly for organizations; yet self-interest can be "enlightened" only when our self includes all humanity, indeed all the planet. It is only when we center our consciousness in superficial aspects of our natures that we see ourselves as fundamentally separate from others. We fool ourselves if we think we can make positive contributions through self-seeking activities we design to bring about what is most advantageous to ourselves and our own group. Our motives and attitudes count, just as do the outward results of our actions. Certainly, trying to put our ideals into practice will not always bring success, but basing decisions on the worldly wisdom of selfishness and fear often turns out to be the most foolish and imprudent course of all.
We become what we think, feel, and do, and by these choices constantly shape our future self and contribute to the destiny of humanity. We can’t expect organizations to act on principles that we in our own lives are unwilling to practice. If we wish to have organizations and governments of vision and compassion which practice society’s professed ideals, then we each must do our part by striving to live up to our own individual ideals: refusing to become apathetic or cynical so that harmful practices and policies go unchallenged, and participating constructively in our many contacts with others.
We each bear the consequences of the actions of the groups we help form, and by our consent or indifference take part in their decisions. Often it takes a great deal of courage to practice what we believe, yet perfect love does cast out all fear, and with love of the sublime and our fellow human beings at the center of our aspirations, we can find the inner strength to strive to live up to whatever decisions and commitments we undertake, whether to family, neighbors or society at large. Only when enough people make a deliberate effort through love to rise above egoism and fear, and embody the spiritual values they feel are true, shall we see a reduction in institutionalized selfishness and amorality and real, lasting improvement in the lot of mankind.