Man was born for action. Even if he does not know this–especially if he does not know this–his physical being revolts from long intermissions of supine inertia, and craves the physical release of the violent contest. This is part of his blood-spirit, his irreconcilable inner Being. He can try to deny this, and he can try to avoid the consequences of this reality; but in the end the same simple truth returns to stare him in the face. Even the corpulent sloth will light up like a pinball machine when asked to discuss topics that are of intense interest to him; he will leap out his chair, gesticulate wildly, and hold forth on that topic to which all his energies are directed. Within him is that fundamental desire for action, and this no amount of subcutaneous body fat can suppress.
As Cicero reminds us in On Moral Ends:
Thus he who is most endowed with natural aptitude and accomplishments would never want to live a life in which he was stripped of his ability to act, even if he were able to indulge in the most seductive pleasures. Such men prefer to focus on their personal affairs; if they happen to have a more elevated spirit, they may seize the opportunity for a position of civil or military command; or, instead, they may dedicate their energies to intellectual study. Physical pleasure is so far from being their goal that they will accept stress, burdens, and sleeplessness in the service of the best part of man’s nature, which in us must be considered divine. They delight in the acuteness of their minds and characters, requiring neither physical pleasure nor respite from their labors. [V.20]
And this is most certainly true. Yet it seems to me that there is no greater stimulus to the spirit of action than the human imagination. It is that divine spark that sets in motion the other sensations and corporeal causes; and from this spark are generated the flames that sear the soul. Action may be possible in the absence of imagination, but no truly great action was ever undertaken without it. No more worthy boot ever collided with the hesitant man’s backside. We must, then, turn our attention to what cultivates and supports the imagination.
No one doubts that imagination is an innate ability, a talent much like the ability to play a musical instrument, to play a sport, to speak, write, or any other thing of this sort. But this does not mean that anyone can cultivate his imagination, or develop whatever talents that Nature has conferred on him. Some will have more, and others will have less: this is the way of Nature, and one must be realistic about what can and cannot be done. Despite this, you will find that with work, practice, and a certain amount of humility, amazing progress can be made in the development of the imagination. We will now try to describe some general principles on how this may be accomplished.
Care of the Physical Health. No mental activity of any worth takes place within a degraded and corrupted body. Sloth, lassitude, and inertia combine to slow down the reflexes, drain away masculine virtue, and ossify the mind. Mind and body are not separate, but essentially one. And if we accept that the workings of the imagination are a mental activity–which they undoubtedly are–then it must follow that a healthy body is an essential prerequisite for a productive imagination. Note that I am not speaking here of those unfortunate souls who, through no fault of their own, have lost the use of limbs or organs, and become debilitated in some way; instead, I am speaking of those who neglect their physical condition, allowing their bodies to become the cesspools of Hades rather than temples of Athena. Poor diet, inadequate nutrition, lack of exercise, and pernicious bodily habits are the real culprits here. So before our Argo can set sail on its voyage, then, we must restore our physical condition to its proper state, the state in which it was intended to be by Nature.
The Experience of Travel. Knowledge begins with the senses. Is there anyone who will doubt this? A muscle will atrophy if it is not used. The senses are the same way. Sense-perception must be bombarded with stimuli, in the same way that physicist Ernest Rutherford showered his laboratory test-screens with particles to prove one physical principle or another. A thorough deluge of stimuli works wonders in this regard. There are few ways of accomplishing this better than the experience of travel to foreign places. We must explore, poke, penetrate, and dive into the world of the Unknown, and permit our hesitant sensibilities to be confronted with the strange, the unfamiliar, and the dangerous.
This will have the result of opening up our perceptions to things previously thought impossible, and to ideas that were previously unthinkable. All travel is exploration in one way or another; the two concepts are interchangeable. The man of action must literally throw himself into unfamiliar arenas, and see how he responds. And when I say “arena,” I mean precisely this: the world is a battle-ground of sensation and understanding, where we must fight to master, and make our own, that which has until now been beyond our comprehension. Knowledge is not for the timid.
The Experience of Other Physical Activities. Travel and exploration are not the only activities that unfreeze the mind. Games, sports, social interactions and relations, and all activities associated with these things do much the same thing, and should never be neglected. Here again, it is the bombardment of the senses that is what we are seeking. The activities must be positive; I do not subscribe to the idea that the powers of imagination can be accessed in any sustained, meaningful way through the use of chemical substances or alcohol. It seems to me that those who advocate this commit the error of confusing the giddiness of the mind for the expansion of the spirit: intoxication is not enlightenment, but undisciplined stimulation. Discipline and self-control must act as the ballast for any voyage of exploration, as their absence causes the ship of the mind to float aimlessly upon the water.
The Experience of Reading and Study. To see the world through the eyes of another is a good thing. This is one of the chief experiences of reading and study. We enter the mind of another and learn how he interprets the world; it is, in a way, another form of stimulation. But it is a more refined sort of stimulation than that which comes from travel, games, sport, or play. Ideas can be described in all their nuances. Fine points of differentiation can be laid out, discussed, and pondered; and, by so doing, our traveler of the senses gains new perspectives and vistas. He cannot help but be enriched and broadened by this experience. The eyes read the words, and the imagination supplies the rest. Some of the old Romans took a dim view of speculative fiction, those fictae fabulae (“invented tales,” as they called such literary endeavors) that they thought added little to a man’s education. In this they were mistaken, and should have known better. Consider this short passage from Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic Kidnapped, a veritable triumph of imaginative writing, in which young David Balfour almost meets his death in the House of Shaws at the treacherous hands of his uncle:
Well, I had come close to one of these turns, when, feeling forward as usual, my hand slipped upon an edge and found nothing but emptiness beyond it. The stair had been carried no higher: to set a stranger mounting it in the darkness was to send him straight to his death; and (although, thanks to the lightning and my own precautions, I was safe enough) the mere thought of the peril in which I might have stood, and the dreadful height I might have fallen from, brought out the sweat upon my body and relaxed my joints.
We can almost feel the waves of rage and horror course through Balfour’s frame. We need only read the description of events, and our imaginations supply the requisite emotion. How many of us have not, deep in our hearts, suspected our relatives of plotting to do us evil? How many of us have rightly thirsted for revenge upon those who would do us physical harm? And so the power of the imagination works this purpose: to satisfy our deepest cravings, and to make real that which was previously only disincarnate.
Discipline and Courage. There is a common misunderstanding that the activation of the imagination involves–even necessitates–some kind of free-wheeling, outlaw spirit that “makes its own rules” and finds “creative insight” in substance-induced hazes or ego-tripping frivolities that lead nowhere. This is not illumination, but concealment. It is a convenient way to avoid coming into contact with necessary truths. I am not a teetotaler; I enjoy alcoholic drinks, but do not use any other type of drug. Leo Tolstoy, in his essay Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?, proposed a reason why men sought out intoxication. He begins by noting:
All human life, we may say, consists solely of these two activities: (1) bringing one’s activities into harmony with conscience, or (2) hiding from oneself the indications of conscience in order to be able to continue to live as before.
Men use drugs, he reasoned, in order to stifle the voice of their own consciences. It is a way of avoiding a confrontation with the honest inner voice. This was Tolstoy’s unique explanation. He was a mystic, but he was offering a profound truth. We may agree or disagree with Tolstoy, but the fact remains that the architect of the imagination cannot be an undisciplined, free-floating spirit, dodging the responsibilities of life by taking refuge in intoxication and excessive indulgence in voluptuary pleasures. This is vanity, corruption and dissolution, and unworthy of a man. No: the architect must be a man of discipline and order, a man firm in his convictions, and a man who understands the necessity of masculine virtue in guiding and directing the affairs of the mind. The cultivation of the imagination is not some escape into fantasy, but an intense concentration on the production of some art or science.
Courage and Conviction. These are the architect’s final ingredients. All the creative, imaginative effort in the world is of little use if the architect does not have the courage to deliver his results to the public. Many are unwilling to do so, fearful of the verdict that may result. But one must submit to the workings of Fate in these matters. When Dr. Samuel Johnson learned that one of his plays had flopped in London, he was calmly philosophical about it. Boswell tells us:
When asked how he felt upon the ill success of his tragedy, he replied, “Like the Monument”; meaning that he continued firm and unmoved as that column. And let it be remembered, as an admonition to the genus irritabile [irritable species] of dramatick writers, that this great man, instead of peevishly complaining of the bad taste of the town, submitted to its decision without a murmur.
Would that we should have the attitude of Dr. Johnson! But at the same time, a man must take pride in his work, and believe with the firmest conviction that what he is doing is important and for all time. Without this passionate devotion, he will never be able to give his work that necessary tang needed to capture the imaginations of others. In this connection, I very much like the attitude taken by Arrian in his History of Alexander the Great, when he tells us proudly,
And that is the reason why I have embarked upon the project of writing this history, in the belief that I am not unworthy to set clear before men’s eyes the story of Alexander’s life. No matter who I am that make this claim, I need not declare my name–though it is by no means unheard of in the world; I need not specify my country and family, or any official position I may have held. Rather let me say this: that this book of mine is, and has been from my youth, more precious than country and kin and public advancement–indeed, for me it is these things. And that is why I venture to enter into the company of the great masters of Greek literature, as Alexander, of whom I write, was the great master of the profession of arms. [I.12; trans. by A. de Selincourt]
This is the kind of bold attitude needed to confront and master a great enterprise. He did not shy away from what he knew and intended to do. From his youth, the great deeds of Alexander had captured his spirit and arrested his attentions; moved by them, he set about preparing to write his history; then he donned his armor, entered the arena, and produced. All worthy dreams come with a cost, and the price is always high; only nightmares are free. The architect of the imagination designed his structure and built it without fussing about the opinion or reactions of this or that other person. The edifice still stands, to this day.
Read more in Thirty-Seven: