The Duty to Crush Dreams

“Keep the imagination sane—that is one of the truest conditions of communion with heaven.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the American Notebooks (1868)

Imagination is the power to simulate sensation without external stimuli, and every intelligent person knows this power can be healthy or depraved.  The word depraved means bent, so that imagination is depraved when it is bent to simulate sensations that it should not simulate.  These may be the hallucinations of a lunatic or the forbidden figments of a “dirty mind,” and these and many other simulated sensations are insane because they cripple those who imagine them.

When Hawthorn enjoined his wife to keep her imagination sane, he was particularly enjoining her to eschew the then red-hot fad for mesmerism.  This was in 1841, and mesmerism was the name for various techniques whereby a trance was induced and an extrasensory image evoked in the mind of the one who was mesmerized.  Hawthorne told his wife these extrasensory images were no more spiritual than the phantoms evoked by opium; and what is more, he warned her that phantoms evoked by artificial stimulants bend the imagination in ways that are not easily straightened.

Hawthorn was expressing the old view that imagination is a dangerous power that must be kept on a short leash, and that men and women who fail to keep it on a short leash are often crippled by insane dreads and desires.  This was, for instance, Plato’s opinion in the Philebus, where he wrote:

“In man’s imagination, numberless false fancies spring up continually . . . and frequently break forth in all kinds of foul mischief.”[1]

Plato goes on to say that these false fancies are not always limited “to the persons themselves, who are tortured with these feverish distempers of the soul,” but that often,

“by contagion, they spread the calamity through whole families, tribes and nations.”

If a society does not keep imagination on a short leash, the false fancies of distempered souls will spread and cripple that society with insane dreads and desires. The society will be haunted by hobgoblins, and will hunger for delights that it either cannot or should not hold.

Indeed in Plato’s opinion the chief end of philosophy is to prevent this kind of social insanity by curbing all “wildness of imagination.”

“To prevent these mischiefs and cure these diseases . . . to banish the exorbitant or over-abounding fancies, and to restrain the wildness of imagination, we may reasonably presume to be the chief ends . . . for which the principles of mind and reason are imparted to the human soul.”

* * * * *

With this in mind, we may reflect with some misgiving on the new view that exalts, extolls, and excites imagination.  This new view began in the Romantic follies, of which mesmerism was one.  It is evident in the fact that almost all of today’s educators promise to “unleash” the imaginations of young scholars.  Far from being the font of foul mischief and calamity, imagination is, they assure us, the Pierian Spring from which all wisdom flows.

Parents throughout the land gloat with satisfaction when the fruit of their loins is an imaginative child with a mind in which “numberless false fancies spring up continually.”  Indeed, it is in the hope of such a harvest that they manure the minds of their offspring with books and movies renown for “overabounding fancies” and “wildness of imagination.” They strongly disagree with men like Plato and Hawthorne, and believe it is very easy to “keep the imagination sane.”

* * * * *

The old view held that sleep also removes the restraint from imagination, and that the figments of a wild imagination therefore differ little from the phantasmagoria of a dream.  This is how the eighteenth-century schoolmaster Henry Norris described the frolic of wild fancies that crowd a sleeping brain.

“Now wild imagination takes her reign,
Enthroned majestic, o’er the subject brain;
With vain creations cheats the slumbering sense,
Curbed by no power, and bounded by no fence.”[2]

Had he not held poetry in such low esteem, Plato might have penned these words to describe the way in which the fictions of enthroned imagination overwhelm reason and bring calamity to a man, a family, a tribe or a nation.  As I said a moment ago, these fictions cause people to be  haunted by hobgoblins, and to hunger for delights that they either cannot or should not hold.

And this is not the end of the calamity, because the splendid fictions of imagination also cast an unflattering shadow over the sober facts of life. The world of sober sense seems especially drab to a man who has just opened his eyes from an especially delicious dream.

* * * * *

Imagination gives rise to extravagant expectations, and extravagant expectations give rise to follies and disappointments.  This was the gist of the old view that young people especially should not read works of wild imagination, because doing so would deprave their imaginations and drive them insane.  Hester Chapone was a woman of the eighteenth century who subscribed to this old view, and who stated her reasons in a book called Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773).  One finds the same opinion diffused through the novels of Jane Austin.

Chapone did not place a ban on all works of fiction, but said,

“the greatest care should be taken in the choice of those fictitious stories, that so enchant the mind—most of which tend to inflame the passions of youth, whilst the chief purpose of education should be to moderate and restrain them.”

You see here an educational philosophy directly opposite to that of our own day.  Where we labor to fan the embers of childish imagination, Chapone espoused the old view that these should be sprinkled with water.  For the sake of personal and social sanity, every child should be brought to entertain sober expectations of the life for which he or she is actually destined.  Stated somewhat more harshly, it is the duty of every good parent and teacher to gently crush a child’s dreams.

“The expectation of extraordinary adventures—which seldom ever happen to the sober and prudent part of mankind—and the admiration of extravagant passions and absurd conduct, are some of the usual fruits of this kind of reading; which, when a young woman makes it her chief amusement , generally render her ridiculous in conversation, and miserably wrongheaded in her pursuits and behavior.”

[1]) Floyer Syndenham translation (1779)

[2]) Henry Norris (1752-1823) was a classicist and schoolmaster at Taunton, in Somerset.  The lines are from his “Court of Momus,” which was published in 1774 but written some years earlier.

20 thoughts on “The Duty to Crush Dreams

  1. Or if not crushed, then trained. I’m reminded of St. Ignatius of Loyola who had a problem with fantasizing about courtly love scenarios, so instead began imagining himself in Biblical scenes or saint lives as a form of meditation.

    My experience with young students bears a strong resemblance to the mesmerism craze: they are not so much “too imaginative” as they are addicted to images from other people’s imaginations. Personal creativity is, as a norm, dull. And this, mind you, is at a school where they aren’t allowed any phones during the day and use basically no electronics—the overuse in their off hours is enough to produce this effect. The more hip schools are eager to be as techy as possible.

  2. @JMS – As you probably guess, I disagree fundamentally. But I will focus on the problem of taking an ahistorical and acultural view of imagination – which can only be done by reducing imagination to a purely materialist and psychological phenomenon (as you do with your definition “the power to simulate sensation without external stimuli”).

    My understanding is that – for instance – the ancient Greeks at the time of Plato were vastly more ‘imaginative; than nearly everybody nowadays. Consider Socrates (the real Socrates, in the early dialogues) and the way he spoke of and about his daemon, and ‘the god’ – as being in a continual dialogue with them.

    So I would say that the problem is that we moderns, far from being too imaginative, do not take imagination with anything like the seriousness it should have. If we did, we would discard the mere slogans and impulses of popular imagination; and find that imagination can be a bridge to intuitive discernment – from that which is divine in each Man – and guidance by the Holy Ghost… which is exactly what we most need (in a world of systemic evil lies and corrupted, evil-allied institutions – including Christian churches).

    Note: I got this perspective from Owen Barfield – primarily. Part of it is that Romanticism must be distinguished – between its earliest and Christian manifestation with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Novalis – and its later corruptions which you describe e.g. the Byron & Shelley circle, with its atheism and political radicalism, up to this day.

    Romanticism in a Christian context is exactly what we most need, must have; but romanticism rooted in anti-Christian leftism is part of what got us here…

    Although since 2020 there is precious little of any romanticism, even the bad kind, remaining in a world that aims-at resetting into total bureaucracy.

    • I anticipated your objection as I wrote. I am here to some degree writing against my own inclinations because I am naturally imaginative and happiest in a world that is at least partly imaginary. My aim was not to disparage imagination, but to suggest a more critical appreciation of its merits and liabilities. That’s why I begin with a declaration that every intelligent person sees imagination as a power that can be healthy or depraved. Your distinction between the early and late Romantics is highly relevant to this critical appreciation, and of course raises the question how a healthy appreciation of the sublimity of Nature so quickly decayed into a depraved taste for horror and perversity, along with the characteristic Byronic ennui. I think the answer is that imagination is like drink, a dangerous power that must be used with care.

      With respect to your last line, I would observe that total bureaucracy is not incompatible with total fantasy. My experience with bureaucracy is that it very largely consists of people with imaginary skills performing and demanding imaginary work. None of this is imaginative in the sense that you employ, although all modern bureaucrats imagine that they are imaginative. In any case, the great reset certainly aims to cauterize the imaginative power of transcendence, but I believe it will do this by (a) extolling the imagination and (b) supplying manufactured fantasies to fill peoples minds.

  3. Well, I too hope to be a grumpy old man one day, but these dream-crushing dreams of yours constitute a dangerous fantasy that must be crushed.
    Imagination gave the world the laws of Solon and the French revolution, the symphonies of Beethoven and Hitler’s plans of conquest, etc.
    Imagination is in other words powerful for good or evil, and it is an inescapable part of human nature. If you plan to keep it sane by locking it up in a cage and feeding it scraps, you will fail – almost certainly catastrophically.

    Imagination should not be restrained in the sense of held down or crushed, but rather guided and directed. The first rule must be from the First Commandment not to make an idol of your dreams. And then to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. That includes your imagination.

    A civilization is essentially a great tapestry of interwoven dreams. Every building, every piece of furniture or of music, every manner of expression etc. are things which did not exist until someone first imagined them and then gave them a form that can be shared by all. The challenge is not to avoid adding any threads of our own to the tapestry, but to strive to weave patterns that will be pleasing to God. And when we fail, to repent and try again. Only that which stands against God must – and ultimately will – be crushed.

    • The great problem with a catchy title is that it can slant a reader’s understanding of the post. I agree that imagination can lead to good and evil, or as I say in the post, that it can be healthy or depraved. I speak of crushing dreams as a duty because I wish to challenge the false platitude that a dream is that which never should be crushed. Dreams, as you say, can be good or bad, so we need to stop sacralizing dreams. Do you deny that people can be crippled by their dreams? Is our society not, at this moment, haunted by hobgoblins? Does it not hunger for delights it cannot or should not hold? Are we not surrounded by angry, disappointed young people who we allowed to dream impossible–insane–dreams?

  4. As Eric Havelock explains in Preface to Plato (1963) — and I am persuaded by his argument — Plato’s objection to poetry was his objection to an educational method based on rote learning and the shaping of behavior through the inculcation of slogans. I hold to the same objection. One of my long-term observations in my years of teaching was that the successive cohorts of freshmen demonstrated a diminishing imagination until they finally had only slogans and no real imagination at all. Screens displace imagination. The age of the slogan is the age of screens.

    • I don’t know Havelock and have a dilettante’s understanding of Plato, but this seems to push things too far. Plato’s writing is itself highly poetic and imaginative, so his strictures on poetry are not a precursor to positivism, but it seems to me he had a healthy mistrust of idle fictions. Perhaps he foresaw that the Neoplatonism would degenerate into depraved Gnostic dreamworlds.

      It is very boring to talk to a person who “thinks” entirely in terms of slogans, but practical politics must accept that that is exactly how most people think. I suggest that our job is not to deplore and eschew slogans, but rather to inculcate good slogans that epitomize good beliefs. Gods of the copybook headings, and all that.

      I expect that all media displaces imagination because it reduces (eventually to zero) the time we spend with our own thoughts. Portable (or ubiquitous) screens are the worst media because they are so importunate and obtrusive. The worst thing about forgetting to take a book to the dentist’s office is that my eyes will be drawn to the flashing colors on that imbecile screen.

      • Havelock does not argue that Plato was opposed to Homer or Hesiod (both of whom whom Plato quotes in his dialogues), but that he was opposed to a method of oral rote learning, ubiquitous at the time, that sought no understanding of connotation, confining itself, rather, to the purely denotative. Rote repetition — this is Havelock’s reconstruction of Plato’s thought — makes for people who think “entirely in terms of slogans.” Havelock never argues that Plato sought a form of positivism, but that he wanted to divert those qualified to do it into imaginative, not rote, forms of thought. I agree with you that good slogans are better than bad slogans — and that, if good slogans are all that the student can learn, he should learn them. You and I recognize it as a boon that, however we did it, we are not stuck at the level of slogans, at least not always.

        It is a tough proposition to condense Havelock’s argument. I cannot say that I have succeeded.

  5. I wrote this at The Orthosphere a while back. —

    Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (1962): The scandal for modern readers of Plato’s Republic consists in the dialogue’s angry recurrence to the wickedness of poetry, which Socrates identifies with mimesis or “imitation,” which is, for him, and apparently also for Plato, itself a scandal. Modern readers of The Republic will also have read and greatly admired Homer and Hesiod, whom they regard as founders of a Western Literary Tradition – Homer especially being unsurpassed in his epic achievement. Why would Plato, himself a myth-maker, reject the myth-poets? Does it really boil down to a kind of Puritanism – that the gods of the epos behave badly and thus lower the moral bar for those who are supposed to follow their example? Havelock’s first stage in coming to terms with The Republic is to tackle the web of meanings in which Plato’s mimesis functions as a center. Far from being a vague term in the context of Plato’s discussion, Havelock regards mimesis as its fundamental topic. For Havelock, The Republic is less a political treatise than it is a pedagogical treatise. The dialogue represents Plato’s attempt to clarify an emergent cultural phenomenon in which his own work figured both as a consequence and as a furthering catalyst. Havelock performs an exemplary close reading of The Republic, requiring the full sequence of his fifteen chapters. In Chapter Two, “Mimesis,” Havelock writes that, in Plato’s unfolding argument, “mimesis has become the word par excellence for the over-all linguistic medium of the poet and his peculiar power through the use of this medium (meter and imagery are included in the attack) to render an account of reality.” Plato had recognized, as Havelock argues, that oral recitation, not being restricted to festive occasions, but permeating every aspect of communal existence, not least education, acted less as the transmission of inherited wisdom (although it indeed fulfilled that role) than as an obstacle preventing the development of an entirely new mode of thought.

    Havelock presents Plato as the discoverer of the difference between an oral culture and a literate one, he himself bodying forth a new literate style of thinking that came necessarily into conflict with the tradition. Havelock supports his case by surveying the evidence concerning pedagogy in the Archaic period of Greek civilization. Omitting here the details and recurring to summary only, the evidence reveals to him the systematic inculcation, not of independent cogitation, but of an immersive oral-formulaic view of the world. That regime prevented the emergence of the individual from the social mass, diverted psychic energy to rote memorization, and restricted intellectual maturity to a paltry short term. It wasted human potential. Plato wanted, Havelock asserts, to wrest the new generation from its total orientation to the spoken word and reorient it to writing. For Plato, writes Havelock, “Poetry represented not something we call by that name, but an indoctrination which today would be comprised in a shelf of text books and works of reference.” One might add: Textbooks of the most rudimentary sort – for first-graders – and works of extraordinarily limited reference. In Havelock’s interpretation, Plato also objects to the oral paideia because it stirs up emotion rather than reflection and sustains a pervasive agitation in the society. One thinks of the character of Thrasymachus as the dialogue’s prime exemplar of the phenomenon. He lives in a perpetual agony, appropriate perhaps in the Heroic Age, but misplaced in the much-developed Athenian polis.

    The famous Parable of the Cave appears in a new light under Havelock’s reading. The oral style tends to catalogue things; it remains mired in the disorganized world of the many, which it iterates apart from logical arrangement. Chained to his bench, the involuntary pupil views the sequence, in no particular order, of the shadowy images; he does so, moreover, in enforced company, with his fellow prisoners. Nothing differentiates him from them. They are one and all the products of mimesis. A worldview imposes on them; they internalize it, and in so doing remain prisoners. Under the grace of his liberation, the protagonist of the parable becomes, nascently at least, an individual. He then progresses, in the direction of light and upward, from the dumb iteration of the disparate images to the domain of the sole and central luminosity – or simply from the many to the one, the former symbolized by obscurity and the latter by the solar effulgence. Havelock writes: “So it is that the long sleep of man is interrupted and his self-consciousness, separating itself from the lazy play of the endless saga-series of events, begins to think and to be thought of, ‘itself of itself,’ and as it thinks and is thought, man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.” To take a step beyond Havelock, it required the Platonic critique of “poetry” in order that, liberated from phonic repetition, the subject might re-appropriate on a new level what at an earlier stage he had to reject.

  6. Consider the point of view of the children; they are going to resist having their dreams crushed. At certain historical times (I’m thinking the 1960s) they might even get enough collective energy to to be successful, at least for awhile. Young and foolish though they might be, they will feel like soldiers in a righteous cause, fighting for a better world.

    Didn’t I already quote this passage from Dickens’ Hard Times?

    Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. … “You are to be in all things regulated and governed by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery.”

    Actually dream-crushing has evolved a lot since then. Today capitalism is too smart to out-and-out crush dreams and dreamers, instead it co-opts them; that is basically the story of Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley.

    • I would say the 1960’s pretty well tracks the arc of depravity I describe here. It began with healthy imagination and rapidly bent into drugs, violence and degenerate sex. The dream weavers objecting to my post are not answering my argument, which (as I say in the post) resembles that of Jane Austin’s Eleanor Dashwood rather than that of Charles Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind. I believe a wild imagination causes suffering, but would like to see everyone exercise a free imagination up to that point.

      • Ah so you believe in freedom up to a point. You only want to partially crush the dreams of children. Or not crush exactly, maybe more like constrain them to safe forms. Who could object to that? You were just using “crush” for rhetorical effect, I guess? It worked, I got triggered, congratulations.

        I didn’t mean to defend the sixties here. Believe it or not there are some limits to how much energy I can spend on futile tasks. Just pointing out that it is precisely the attempt to crush or even constrain dreams that gives rise to revolution.

  7. You are right, but I’m not good at philosophy and all I can offer is the dreaded “lived experience,” of having been encouraged as people in the late 1970s were encouraged to encourage girls of a certain intelligence level, no matter her family background or lack of emotional sense, and here I am today, a high IQ clerical worker, barren in every sense of the word. I long for a world in which I’d been steered into marrying my husband at 20, not 36, and we’d have made babies and a tractor dealership (or some such) to our hearts’ content. Instead, I was encouraged to think that marriage and children and a career as a journalist and a professor and a farmer and an activist were all possible in one lifetime. That’s a really evil dream right there because it’s not possible. And that’s long before we even get to the sex and drugs part, which I won’t be discussing here because it’s immodest in mixed company.

    Rock on, Prof. Smith.

    • To crush impossible dreams, we must mention the unmentionable fact of social class. I would let a little girl dream she was a princess, but if she were not a princess, I would one day warn her to put away those princess dreams. She will not be invited to the ball in the castle, and if she were, there would be no fairy godmother to give her a gown to wear. Most young people have the good sense to do this naturally, but we harm those who don’t by extolling pursuit of impossible dreams.

  8. “Just pointing out that it is precisely the attempt to crush or even constrain dreams that gives rise to revolution.”
    The Revolutions of the modern era are evidence that the exact opposite is the case. Louis XVI was initially rather taken with Enlightenment dreams and Nicholas II was rather wishy washy on crushing or constraining dreams of democracy. Glasnost and perestroika are another data point.
    My contention is that dreaming is necessary, and these leaders and the forces surrounding them did not forcefully enough profer their own dream, a good enough dream or have a good idea of what that dream even was. Their meager attempts to crush or constrain the bad dreams of liberal revolution were then half-hearted.

    • When the dreaming starts, the authorities have several options:
      – ruthless suppression (authoritarianism)
      – adopt bits of the new ideas without changing fundamentals (reformism)
      – infiltration, dilution, co-option (capitalism)

      Given that this blog headlines a quote from de Maistre, I am sure which of these is preferred around these parts. But I’m on the other side, so my own concern is how each of these methods of control may be resisted. The authoritarian method is in some ways the easiest to resist, since it is so crude and obvious.

      My contention is that dreaming is necessary, and these leaders and the forces surrounding them did not forcefully enough profer their own dream, a good enough dream or have a good idea of what that dream even was.

      I like that! But I may have a slightly different interpretation than you do: societies and governments do in fact have shared dreams that sustain them; but (as dreams do) they fade with time and are replaced by new ones. This is more due to the forces of history than due to inexplicably weak leaders who for some reason can’t propagate the dreams they inherited.

      • De Maistre opposed the revolutionary imagination, but he did not oppose imagination per se. Like all the old reactionaries, his principal beef was with political economists, whether they were on the left or the right. The main point of his book on the French Revolution is to imagine the revolution within a frame of providential judgment.

        I agree with your second point, although I think “forces of history” is a cop out. Societies are governed by dominant myths and those myths change. One can’t say why they change without entering into one of those myths. When myths are changing, there will be those who wish to postpone and hasten the change, and these two groups will obviously invent myths that will help them postpone and hasten the change. As a postponer, I see the hastener’s myths for the shabby, makeshift swindles that they are. As a hastener, you see postponer myths in the same light. There is not need to quarrel about this.

  9. I’ve been reading “Anne of Green Gables” to my girls, and they’re getting many amusing stories of the misadventures of a girl who can’t control her imagination. Canada one hundred years ago had an unimaginably healthier culture than we do now, and the adult characters mostly share Prof. Smith’s opinion.

    I myself sometimes wonder about the healthy and unhealthy uses of imagination, and in particular of fantasy. Roger Scruton used to distinguish in his aesthetic writings between “imagination” (good) and “fantasy” (bad). I don’t recall the exact difference, but I believe it had to do with imagination taking a detached view to its object and not engaging personal desires.

    Einstein’s famous thought experiments and L. M. Montgomery’s story writing strike me as the entirely healthy kind of imagination, as therefore are my own less impressive efforts at scientific speculation and storytelling. If instead of using his imagination to probe ideas about space and time, Einstein had spent his time fantasizing about how great it would be to be a great physicist, that would of course have been less useful. But even that might be useful in moderation as a motivator; there is a sort of continuum between fantasy and planning. Fantasizing about alternative pasts or presents strikes me as slightly more dangerous.

    The fantasies of dangerous intellectuals may indeed cause great harm, but the petty fantasies of ordinary folk like myself usually leave no mark on the world, at least no worse than Anne Shirley-style mishaps. If fantasies are wrong (and I suspect that some of them are, at least if indulged often) it must be because of what they do to one’s soul. Whether they concern the past, present, or future, a person who allows them to consume more than a small part of his consciousness is refusing to fully live within the life that God has given him.

  10. I think Scruton may have drawn his ideas about imagination and fantasy from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who made a very similar distinction in his Biographia Literaria. It’s been a while since I read STC, but he basically saw imagination as transcendental perception and fantasy as a retreat from reality. So imagination is a power that goes beyond sensible reality by forming symbolic images of transcendent reality, whereas fantasy is just idle entertainment and escapism.

    I do not oppose moderate escapism. To do so would be hypocritical, since I take vacations from reality and would find life unbearable without them. But I do see that escapism can become a problem. Your example of Anne Shirley is excellent, since she could not have grown up to imagine the Prince Edward Island of the Green Gables stories if she had not tamed the wild imagination of young Anne Shirley. I used the word crushed for rhetorical effect, but really meant tempered and tamed. We see the same taming of a wild imagination in Jo March in Little Women. She could not write Little Women until something “crushed” her habit of writing blood and thunder fantasies.

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