American Founder and second U.S. president John Adams once extolled his era. Some called it The Age of Reason. It was a time in which people were beginning to know more about their world than they ever had before. Knowledge was increasing at an exponential rate, and this filled the air with excitement. The Old World – Christendom, led by the Catholic Church – was on its way out. The Enlightenment was well underway to shape the West forever. Adams, a Unitarian, was greatly pleased that men would be able to lead their lives and their own society on the basis of their own conscience.
He then less than halfway joked that, just maybe, something bad might arise from the movement of his day:
“The world grows more enlightened. Knowledge is more equally diffused. Newspapers, magazines, and circulating libraries have made mankind wiser. Titles and distinctions, ranks and orders, parade and ceremony, are all going out of fashion. This is roundly and frequently asserted in the streets, and sometimes on theatres of higher rank. Some truth there is in it; and if the opportunity were temperately improved, to the reformation of abuses, the rectification of errors, and the dissipation of pernicious prejudices, a great advantage it might be. But, on the other hand, false inferences may be drawn from it, which may make mankind wish for the age of dragons, giants, and fairies.”
–John Adams, Discourses on Davila
Indeed, a great many false inferences were drawn from the Enlightenment. This period in history, which shaped America herself, started a downward spiral for the West that appears to have no end. Adams was right. In spite of himself and everything he achieved for the United States, times have definitely grown darker, and the cause for our empire’s downfall can be traced to its own blueprints.
As a result, the people in our day have a great need for escape. Over two centuries later, men find themselves at odds in a hateful world ruled by principalities and powers that are insurmountable. The people have been force-fed “the progress of civilization.” So now there are vast entertainment industries that produce escapist literature, film, music, and games to help people flee from the madness of their overlords. Over the centuries, they’ve carried the label of Romantics, Decadents, Symbolists, Counter-Culturists – they all run from the oppressive boot that shoves them onward to a destiny they didn’t ask for. They seek to escape from forced rationalism into something mystical.
Our Imaginations Must Be Free, Not Trapped
The mind can tolerate a wasteland for only so long. Men require a pilgrimage and retreat. Otherwise, one settles for vice and debasement. Experiencing wonder is necessary for a mature mind. It is not enough to be raised in a plain fashion, learning good moral habits to live by as if it’s all a simple matter of hygiene. Becoming a lawyer for “what’s good and what’s bad” does not securely instill the Faith in children, who, above all, are in the business of make-believe. No, we must leave the districts and subdivisions gerrymandered in our brains. We must fly above the rooftops from our suburban bobo communities. We’ve got to run for our lives into something fresh, new, and perhaps even dangerous:
“At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country inhabited by decent folk, with good roads, an inn or two, and now and then a dwarf or a farmer ambling by on business. Then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse. Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees. On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people. Everything seemed gloomy, for the weather that day had taken a nasty turn. Mostly it had been as good as May can be, can be, even in merry tales, but now it was cold and wet. In the Lone-lands they had been obliged to camp when they could, but at least it had been dry.”
–From The Hobbit
Perhaps it is true that people are considered respectable when they “never have adventures or do anything unexpected.” Maybe it is true that the majority of people value someone who never breaks a taboo and can be counted on to be consistent and predictable. And, after all, even Puritan-loving John Adams will tell you that obscure men are hardly ever honored. Conformity and monotony are what the world tells you it wants. But this mode of dry, uninspiring, Dudley-Do-Right, unimaginative thinking is like planting seeds in depleted soil:
“[T]he seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, romances, adventures–the thousand good books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest. Western tradition, taking all that was the best of the Greco-Roman world into itself, has given us a culture in which the Faith properly grows; and since the conversion of Constantine that culture has become Christian. It is the seedbed of intelligence and will, the ground for all studies in the arts and sciences, including theology, without which they are inhumane and destructive. The brutal athlete and the aesthetic fop suffer vices opposed to the virtues of what Newman called the “gentleman.” Anyone working in any art or science, whether “pure” or “practical,” will discover he has made a quantum leap when he gets even a small amount of cultural ground under him; he will grow like an undernourished plant suddenly fertilized and watered.”
–Ryan Topping, Renewing the Mind
There has been a war against fantasy, a war against wonder. And yet, those who wonder and philosophize are superior to those who despair cluelessly. And only someone who does not know everything has the capability to wonder. Therefore, what better place is there to explore than fantasy? The realm of fantasy is a place accessible to all, and as it is ever changing, we can never hope to know everything about it. The Land of Faerie, as Tolkien called it, transports and uplifts us. It renews us. It waters the soil of our minds, and it serves as a much needed respite from the godless demands of the world.
Fantasy’s Ultimate Effect
John Adams ridiculed imagination. He joked that Shakespeare could have been an electioneering agent. In his view, “superstition, prejudices, passions, fancies, and senses” were weaknesses to be manipulated, preventing you from ever having what he considered liberty. Adams believed that fantastical thinking was forced upon the West in order to control the people. This is all a grievous error. “For God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
It is the imagination that enables us to survive in today’s wicked world. We have a sense of wonder that rationalists like Adams cannot understand. This sense of wonder is what prepares us for understanding the wider world and what it means. The vast majority of people who fall away from the Faith or refuse to consider it lack wonder. As a result, you have a large portion of people in the West who fall into hedonism. They try to numb their own senses as they struggle to follow the crowd – as though they were swimming among a school of fish.
“Fantasy, horror, and science fiction, apart from allowing an author to comment on things in a way he normally could not in mainstream writing (so much of which is garbage anyway) – it breeds a sense of wonder. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do not have a sense of wonder, you cannot really understand the Catholic faith. You’ll just be ‘Oh well, the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ.’ You may actually believe that, but if you don’t have a sense of wonder?
“Listen, ladies and gentlemen, what is more amazing? The idea that with a wand I could wave, everything would start dancing around the room? Or that Christ Himself comes down onto the altar and becomes bread and wine that we are able to receive into ourselves? Which is more wondrous?
“If I already have a sense of wonder, then I can look at this incredible gift that God has given us. And the fact [is] that every single Mass that has ever been, or ever will be, or is being said at this moment across the globe is one with every other – and with the Crucifixion, and with the Last Supper. That’s astonishing. That’s absolutely amazing. And I have a sense of wonder that prepared me for that – to make it go from a mere set of things I learned in school and home to being a living reality that dominates my life. …
“[U]nless we approach our faith with that wondrous quality, it will grow old and tired. That is not a fault of the Faith. That’s our fault.”
–Charles Coulombe, “Off the Menu,” July 16, 2018
Being good “to be good” is not enough. John Adams thought so, but his Puritanical sensibility was mistaken. Man lives his life on a quest. He is not meant to run from his imagination and all that is mystical. He is meant to explore with awe and curiosity. His heart is meant to be lifted, not shackled.
A strange and exciting land lies before man when it comes to fantasy. We go to that place because it presages the Land Beyond we all hope to emigrate to, Heaven itself. “And Jesus calling unto him a little child, set him in the midst of them, and said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-3).
For related reading, you may want to check out You exist for wonder (Part 1): Go on vacation.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at The Forge and Anvil. It is edited and published here with the author’s permission.