“Imagination, The Mistress of Us All”: Commentary on Blaise Pascal’s Saying

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1998)

Of the several mental faculties that define the human psyche, the imagination is arguably the most powerful. Certainly it is the most difficult to rule. It is also surprising, given the active powers of the imagination, just how little scientific or academic literature has been devoted to the study of the imagination. University psychology text books typically discuss a wide range of topics such as learning, perception, memory, consciousness, motivation and emotion. Rarely do they discuss the imagination per se. Consequently, we know little about the workings of the imagination, and like other facets of the mind, the imagination remains largely a mystery.

The neglect of any serious study of the imagination may derive from the psychologist’s tendency to categorise the imagination as an aesthetic faculty belonging to the creative arts or literature. But as one of the dynamic functions of the mind, the imagination clearly belongs to psychology. The workings of the imagination have a profound and direct bearing on the individual’s intellectual, spiritual and creative activities.

Philosophers, working within a rationalist framework, have generally intended to view the imagination as an unstable faculty, inferior to logic or abstract reasoning which for them was a more royal and sure road to truth. At least, this was Plato’s view. Writers and artists naturally have a much more favourable view of the imagination since it is, through its various media, the wellspring of artistic activity. For Wallace Stephens, the twentieth century American poet and essayist, the imagination was a veritable god. In The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and Imagination (1942), Stephens wrote: “The imagination is the only genius.”

People who are preponderatingly visual have a learning style that is strongly image driven. Such individuals learn by forming pictures in the mind. When the concept can be visualised, it becomes clear. Thus, for certain souls, there is a direct connection between learning or the acquisition of knowledge and the imaginative faculty or true vision. Now a vision quest is vital, not only to the individual’s search for meaning, but to the orientation of society as well. “Where there is no vision, the people perish …. ” says the wise King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs (29:18).

In moral and spiritual life, imagination emerges as a double edged sword. Fancy making has long been identified by the world’s great prophets and spiritual teachers as an impediment to understanding Truth/God/ Reality, the Al Haqq of Islam. Gatauma Buddha, Krishna, the Hindu sages and the Bahá’í Faith’s, Bahá’u’lláh, all speak of the dangers of “idle fancies” and “vain imaginings” (Bahá’u’lláh). They warn us to beware of maya (illusion). The Hebrew Bible and the Gospel have much to say about the waywardness of the human heart which is strongly image driven in its tendency to err. In this view, the imagination’s picture gallery might be compared to the fleeting vapour in the desert’. The mythologies of many peoples feature a trickster figure and we might understand the trickster as a deceptive imaginative or fantasy making faculty latent within the mind. The prophet Jeremiah, however, commissioned in 626 B.C.E. during the last dramatic days before the fall of Jerusalem, foresaw a time when humanity shall no longer “walk any more after the imagination of their evil heart” (Jer. 3:17). It seemed, according to the Prophet, that the human race will one day exorcise its demons for good.

Although the sceptic will doubt, the imagination, trained in exercises of visualisation and nourished by positive thinking, can be a powerful instrument for happiness and healing. Happy thoughts, even if they do not correspond to the immediate circumstances of our life, will help to bring about the realisation of what we envision. Dr. Bernie Siegel in Love, Medicine and Miracles (1986) witnessed the powerful effect that visualisation or imaging played in both the disease and healing of the cancer patients he treated.

The imagination would seem, moreover, to have a prophetic quality, one that allows it to envision a more propitious condition than the one in which it now actually participates. The imagination’s vision of things better connects it directly to faith development which already believes now (today) in that which is to be (tomorrow).This vision of faith as the “then is now” points to the powerful reality making quality of the imagination. In William Blake’s cosmological work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we read in the Proverbs of Hell: “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.” For Blake, it was “Jesus the Imagination,” the divine, creative spark in all of us that would bring about the reintegration of our split personalities in which head/heart, mind/body, reason/passion would no longer be at odds with one another. Perhaps after all, we modern day Humpty Dumpties can be put back together again.

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