Today, because Pascal has so much to say on the subject, we are going to talk about a topic near and dear to the hearts of creative writers and all creative people: imagination. In fact, imagination is not only our primary tool of trade but is an essential component of mental of life for all (or almost all) humanity. But what exactly is imagination?
The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines it like this:
the act or power of forming a mental of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality
a: creative ability b: ability to confront and deal with a problem : resourcefulness <use your imagination and get us out of here> c: the thinking or active mind : interest <stories that fired the imagination>
a: a creation of the mind; especially: an idealized or poetic creation b: fanciful or empty assumption.
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I think of imagination as the life and spirit of our minds and what makes us human. Animals do not seem to have it, at least not the type we humans have: the kind that lets us conceive and create ideas and objects that go far beyond the facts as they present themselves to our senses. When Pascal talks about imagination, he is referring to that part of our mental processes that goes beyond reason. Reason is that part of our mental activity that draws conclusions based strictly on logic applied to the information obtained through our five senses. Remember that Pascal lived during the Age of Reason, when the new hope was that reason would eventually provide the answers and remedies to all man’s woes. Pascal believed this idea was a false hope because, in practice, imagination rules human nature and trumps reason every time.
And it’s a lucky thing that imagination does trump reason, because that allows Mr. Pascal to come back from the dead for a special guest interview on my blog!
C: Welcome to my blog Mr. Pascal! I’m honored to have you as my guest.
P: I am glad to see my notes are getting exposure to a wider audience. Last I saw them they were a stack of parchments on my desk.
C: Yes, much has happened in the last 388 years. Your notes are now a Penguin Classic called Pensées. So, what is imagination, in your view?
P: It is the dominant faculty in man, master of error and falsehood, all the more deceptive for not being invariably so; for it would be an infallible criterion of truth if it were infallibly that of lies.
C: Wow. It sounds like you’re saying that imagination is deceitful, and like all liars, sometimes tells the truth, making it all the more slippery.
P: That’s correct. Since, however, it is usually false, it gives no indication of its quality, setting the mark of true and false alike.
C: So imagination is tricky and never bothers to verify itself. I guess wise people would just want to avoid it altogether and stick entirely to reason, huh?
P: I am not speaking of fools, but of the wisest men, amongst whom imagination is best entitled to persuade. Reason may object in vain, it cannot fix the price of things.
C: Price of things? That makes me think of a complaint I hear all the time. People are always asking: “Why do we pay football players and movie actors millions of dollars and yet pay teachers a pittance? Why do we put so much more value on entertainers than on those who labor to educate our children? It seems unfair and unreasonable.”
P: What are football players and movie actors?
C: Football players are athletes who play a sport with an oddly shaped ball and movie actors are like stage actors only their plays are recorded in pictures that move. People pay money to see the pictures of the actors moving on a big screen that is lit up with lights created by electricity.
P: What is…? Never mind. We are becoming diverted by foolishness.
C: Anyway, these entertainers get paid like 100 times as much as ordinary people doing more essential work like teaching or nursing the sick or protecting the streets from dangerous criminals.
P: Who dispenses reputation? Who makes us respect and revere persons, works, laws, the great? Who but this faculty of imagination? All the riches of the earth are inadequate without its approval.
C: So….we are willing to pay entertainers so much money because they appeal to our imagination? That means there must be great number of people willing to pay an awful lot of money to satisfy their imaginations. Why is imagination so powerful?
P: Imagination cannot make fools wise, but it makes them happy, as against reason, which only makes its friends wretched: one covers them with glory, then other with shame.
C: I see. People prefer glory to shame. So are you saying that imagination is a bad thing?
P: Imagination has its happy and unhappy men, its sick and well, its rich and poor; it makes us believe, doubt, deny reason; it deadens the senses; it arouses them; it has its fools and sages, and nothing annoys us more than to see it satisfy its guests more than reason ever could.
C: But smart people in your time and in mine place a premium value on reason. In my time, we place a high value science and empirical research. When we have a dispute, we like to call the one who appeals to reason “the adult in the room.”
P: Put the world’s greatest philosopher on a plank that is wider than need be: if there is a precipice below, although his reason may convince him that he is safe, his imagination will prevail. Many could not even stand the thought of it without going pale and breaking into a sweat.
C: So imagination, even in the most reasonable person, always trumps reason?
P: I do not intend to list all the effects of imagination. Everyone knows that the sight of cats, or rats, the crunching of coals, etc., is enough to unhinge reason. The tone of voice influences the wisest of us and alters the force of speech or a poem.
C: Yes I see that sort of thing every day, especially in politics. But surely there are places where imagination must be banished and reason must prevail. Like in a court of law.
P: Love or hate alters the face of justice. An advocate who has been well paid in advance will find the cause he is pleading all the more just. The boldness of his bearing will make it seem all the better to the judges taken by appearance. How absurd is reason, the sport of every wind!
C: I’ve heard of some court cases like that. But still, we need reason. Reason cannot just surrender to imagination and throw up its hands. Even imagination must have some connection to reason, if just to maintain some credibility, right?
P: Reason has had to yield, and at its wisest adopts those principles which human imagination rashly introduces at every turn….Man has been quite right to make these two powers into allies, although in this peace imagination enjoys an extensive advantage, for in conflict its advantage is more complete. Reason never wholly overcomes imagination, while the contrary is quite common.
C: I hear you saying that imagination is the natural downhill bent of the human mind against which the discipline of reason must fight an uphill battle which it cannot win. Any ideas why this should be?
P: Such, more or less, are the effects of this deceptive faculty, apparently given to us for the specific purpose of leading us inevitably into error.
C: But surely if it is so natural, there must be something good about imagination. It gives us so much pleasure and I really think it can point us in the direction of truth. Earlier you said it is not invariably deceptive, didn’t you?
P: Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which is the world’s supreme good.
C: Well that’s a relief, especially since it is so much a part of our nature and there seems to be no way to be free of it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine life without imagination – all mechanistic and all. It would be like being a robot.
P: What’s a… never mind. Anyone who chose to follow reason alone would have proved himself a fool. We must, since reason so pleases, work all day for benefits recognized as imaginary and, when sleep has refreshed us from the toils of our reasons, we must at once jump up to pursue the phantoms and endure the impressions created by the ruler of the world.
C: Thank you so much Mr. Pascal for being my guest today. I hope you will consider a return visit.
P: I will consider that possibility. And now, seeing that the important things haven’t changed much on earth in the past 388 years, I believe I shall take my leave and return to Eternity. I’m glad I made that wager!
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