In Search of a Healthy Imagination

I have been reading a splendid new book that spends a lot of time extolling old books. Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen, a professor at Providence College, is a delightfully ironic screed against much that has become commonplace in the modern world, somewhat in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.

In the chapter, “Cast Aspersions upon the Heroic and Patriotic,” we find the following which is relevant to battle against abortion: “The task, then, for us who wish to destroy the imagination seems clear enough. We should kill the father and the mother. We have not yet been able to kill the mother. . . .We have succeeded much better at killing the father. In most of our large cities, it’s rare to find a child living with his father. . . .This killing of the father shuts the child off from a world of significance.”

The author goes on to discuss Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannos, in which Oedipus, who fled Corinth to avoid fulfilling an oracle that he would kill his father (Polybus of Corinth, as far as Oedipus knows), kills Laius of Thebes, who is in fact Oedipus’s father. Esolen continues: “When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannos, it seemed to some in Athens that they had, in their radical democratic reforms, also killed their fathers. The danger, as Sophocles saw it, struck to the heart of the social order. To ignore tradition – to despise the past, to ‘kill the father’ – is to set oneself above those laws that have no past, because they apply to all men, everywhere, at all times.”

He gives us the following lines from the play, sung by the Chorus:

            I only ask to live, with pure faith keeping
            In word and deed that Law which leaps the sky,
            Made of no mortal mould, undimmed, unsleeping,
            Whose living godhead does not age or die.

The fight against abortion is a fight to keep the “Law which leaps the sky.” It is a struggle of truth against power divorced from truth. Those who would claim that there is a right to abortion are holding out a false promise, a promise that cannot be fulfilled. At the moment of conception a unique, living, immortal human person comes into being, and nothing can be done to reverse this fact. A woman can, by violence, become un-pregnant. But her relation to the immortal soul of her child can never be erased. She does not cease to be a mother.

Not a “lump of tissue.”

These facts are rooted in the nature of things. They are not created by human wills; they are there to be discovered by the human intelligence. But this is the point of contention. Consider Justice Kennedy’s claim in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

While it may be true that each individual has the power to define his own sense of reality, that definition has precisely no effect on the realities to which the individual may wish to apply it. Thus those who defend a right to abortion tell this lie to women: if you did not intend to become pregnant, you are free to dispense with the consequences of your actions. This is the concept of reality that defenders of abortion define for themselves. But this is not reality.

In purporting to absolve the woman of the consequences of her actions, we absolve the man of the consequences of his actions and of his responsibilities to the woman; we absolve the family of its responsibility to the woman and the man; we absolve the community of its responsibility to the family. Thus we go on killing the father and the mother by killing the baby, and we find ourselves in a world in which, in our major cities, the majority children are born to mothers who do not benefit from the aid and protection of fathers.  These are the consequences of denying “that Law which leaps the sky.”

In his final chapter, “Deny the Transcendent; or Fix Above the Heads of Men the Lowest Ceiling of All,” Esolen lays bare a key tactic of those who would win us all over to their fabricated concept of reality: “[I]t is best to keep the word ‘only’ ready in the arsenal at all times.” He offers as an example the best way to dispense with the idea of God: “The idea of God is ‘only’ a projection of the father, or a wish, or an old fashioned explanation of things we know all about (such as matter, energy, gravity, electrical charge, the origin of the universe, the meaning of good and evil, chance, order, intelligibility, the end of man).”

The engineers of our new fatherless and motherless reality say it is “only” a lump of tissue, and too many still believe them. We must continue making arguments against this misrepresentation of the truth. But perhaps even more, we need to find ways to restore a healthy imagination – beyond the limits our culture has been trying to impose on us – so that we can simply see what is really around us.

Greg Pfundstein is the executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.