G.K. Chesterton and the Use of the Imagination

Dale Ahlquist 

The purpose of the imagination is to make us more like God. Sounds like something a serpent might say. But it’s not. That really is the purpose of the imagination. To make us more like God. After all, our imagination is a gift from God. It is perhaps one of the greatest gifts God has given us. It not only separates us from the beasts, it allows us to create new worlds of our own. Our imagination gives us a kind of omnipotence. There is almost nothing that we cannot do within the infinity of our minds. The Creator has made us in His own image. That is, he has made us creators. Our creativity is re-creation. And yes, it is recreation as well. It is restorative and rejuvenating. It is a pleasure. It is peace. It is a gift that we have abused, but perhaps even worse, it is a gift we have left unused.

One of the people who understood this better than anyone was the great English writer, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). A genius who was a master of many genres, from poetry to fiction to social and literary criticism, Chesterton was a key influence on the some of the 20th century’s most imaginative writers, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. While Chesterton has always had fans, the world has largely forgotten this large writer. But as a new generation rediscovers his works, his importance is beginning to be appreciated. In fact, the incredibly quotable Chesterton only seems to improve with each passing year.

Chesterton says that imagination is perhaps the mightiest of the pleasures of man. But what is the use of these images that we make inside our heads? Throughout his prolific writings, Chesterton provides many marvelous answers to this question.

Our first use of imagination, chronologically, that is, comes in the nursery. The four walls within which we find ourselves as children, seem to be filled with endless worlds of adventure. Fairy tales serve an important role in our imagination. Left to ourselves, our imagination can go astray, even very early on. The fairy tales are the first way we are put on the right track. As Chesterton says:

Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Chesterton says that imagination is the most essential element in education, and it is the most important product of education. If we learn to use our imaginations, it gives us a certain freedom and self-sufficiency and contentment. “The man who can make up stories about the next-door neighbour will be less-dependent on the next day’s newspaper.” People who neglect their powers of imagination become both passive and restless. They rely on something else to entertain them, something else to occupy their minds. They are unable to do it themselves. Chesterton says that a society that pays others to dance for them is in a state of decadence. Soon we are paying others to think for us.

Perhaps the most important use of imagination is that it keeps us from going insane. Chesterton says the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. What he has lost is that human variable that is the creative imagination. The poet, says Chesterton, simply tries to get his head into the heavens, while the logician tries to get the heavens into his head. It is his head that splits.

Along the same lines, Chesterton claims that logic is not a productive tool. It is merely a weapon of defense. We can argue with our opponents using logic and we can certainly defend the truth with it, but we need more than logic to complete our philosophy and our faith. Chesterton says that we have to be like Nehemiah, the Old Testament hero who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Each of his workers had a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. The sword was the weapon of defense. The trowel was the creative tool. “The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword.”

So, just as we cannot lose our imagination, neither can we lose our reason. Reason and Imagination must go together. Our mental and spiritual health depends on keeping this balance. We must have an imaginative use of reason, and reasonable use of imagination. Without reason, the imagination merely runs wild and goes to weeds. Chesterton says, “Imagination is a thing of clear images, and the more a thing becomes vague the less imaginative it is. Similarly, the more a thing becomes wild and lawless the less imaginative it is.”

The right use of imagination then is to be lawful, not lawless. To be obedient, not disobedient. To use our creativity for worshipping the Creator, not for defying him. Worship is an act of awe. Artists who have detached themselves from a religious grounding, don’t fly but merely float away. Their creativity has no reference point. They try to be original. They try to be different. They try to shock. But endless shock merely makes us senseless. We have lost our true appreciation of surprise because we have the purpose of creativity precisely backwards. “The function of imagination,” says Chesterton, “is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.”

Art, like love, is not for ourselves alone. It is first for God, and then for our neighbor. The greatest art helps lift our neighbors to God, even our neighbors who have not been born yet. It is not a passing thrill, but an inspiration for the ages.

“The trumpet of imagination,” says Chesterton, “like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calls the dead out of their graves.”

Comments

  1. Raymond Bradley says

    A beautiful and lucid description of Chesterton’s own imagination. One important distinction which was alluded to in “re-creation” but ought not go underemphasized: as Tolkien tells us, humans cannot create nor “re-create” because creation can only occur ex nihilo. Humans do not “re-create” but rather sub-create, as re-create implies creating again, whereas sub-create means a lower level of “creating”, or rather, an ordering of that matter in a new fashion. Semantics perhaps, but a critical distinction!

  2. Richard Connell says

    Great article. I am almost finished reading The Everlasting Man. I like Hillare Belloc better for some reason. The only book I ever read by him is Characters of the Reformation. good book

    I think this article Star Wars and the Second Vatican Council that is posted also at newadvent.org is a great example of Chesterton’s conception of the right use of the imagination. https://vestalmorons.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/star-wars-and-the-history-of-vatican-ii/

    would like to have something more imaginative and awe-inspiring to post, but don’t–something good that flies froom my own head, not necessarily dappled, but possibly so

  3. yaya says

    “Chesterton says the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. What he has lost is that human variable that is the creative imagination. ”

    Could someone expand on this? A schizophrenic, a modern term for madman, is quite unreasonable yet is very creative, or his mind is, in the worlds and hallucinations he imagines.

    This statement by Chesterton does not make sense to me. Or am I not using enough imagination.