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Cultivate Virtue Through Imagination

Maybe we’re afraid of creating intolerant fanatics, or maybe we’re just afraid of the Woke crowd, but for whatever reason, many of us shy away from teaching anything as strong as virtue–things like courage or charity or honor–we’d rather stick to physical fitness and high test scores, or even to such issues as tolerance and environmental awareness.  That is, if we aren’t too busy developing our own “look”, or “finding our passion”, or being “good to ourselves” with a little “me time.”  


We’re happy to teach our kids to understand the dangers of smoking, be aware of the dangers of addiction, race/click/donate, etc. for the cure, and be sure to recycle–but these are not virtues, even though doing them may make us “feel good about ourselves.”

By the same token, having the “correct” view of abortion, homosexuality, LGBTQ rights, and pornography isn’t virtue either.  Virtue doesn’t consist in holding correct opinions, or in condemning certain evils, and it doesn’t consist in keeping up with the cause du jour;

virtue involves the practice of what is genuinely good, including unpopular things like self-sacrifice, blessing one’s enemies, and respect for those in legitimate authority–whether you agree with them or not. 

It’s doing the right thing when it isn’t the cool thing to do, when it’s uncomfortable, when nobody recognizes it, and when we gain nothing from it.  This is why it has power.

To cultivate virtue, we have to begin in the imagination, because it involves inspiration, a calling up of our thinking to something higher than personal satisfaction.  We have to realize that we are more than the sum of our desires, (including the desire to be right or the desire to be understood) and that life, in order to be truly human, must involve more than identifying what we want and going after it.  We are not limited to instinct and urges, but are capable of creativity, careful thought, wisdom, understanding, and the putting aside of personal satisfaction for a higher good.  For best results, this cultivation should begin in the very young.


To cultivate in your child an appreciation for visual or aural beauty along with imagination, find examples of great art and music.  The Breughel painting I’ve featured at the top of this post is a beautiful example of a piece of art perfect for stimulating a whole host of imaginative stories and ideas in children.  Check out art books from the library, or find museum websites and even sites for finding frameable art for the home, to find other wonderful examples of paintings that fire the imagination.

For music, try works by Edvard Grieg, Aaron Copland,  and Tchaikovsky to get started.  Many compositions by these composers tell particularly vivid stories (In The Hall of the Mountain King–Grieg, Appalachian Spring–Copland, The Nutcracker–Tchaikovsky) and definitely evoke mental images in anyone who will take the time to listen.  If your children are only accustomed to pop or rock music, it may take time for them to appreciate it–but I actually doubt it.  This music is beautiful, sweeping, dramatic–put it on while your children are involved in imaginative play or doing chores, and you will be surprised at what they do.  My kids often ended up dancing or marching or acting out various scenes to go along with the music.

There is a feast out there–a feast of visual, literary, and aural beauty that will nourish your child’s soul and cultivate virtue in them.  Take them off a diet of cheap snack food–video games, TV, radio, less-than-worthwhile books and movies, and especially smart phones and social media, which are filled with debasing and foolish content (see The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt)–and start to feed your child the really good stuff.  In the process, you may find yourself not being quite as concerned about the political situation or the woke crowd, or your own self-image; you may “find yourself” in ways you never imagined–there may be a genuine princess down deep inside!

A little girl dressed as a princess reading a book

” . . . every little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it, except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud.  I have seen little princesses behave like the children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need to be told they are princesses.”   from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald

(Full disclosure: I'm part of the Amazon Associates program, and receive a small commission if you purchase any of the items above using these links.)

*this article was originally published in march 2014, and has been recently updated for new resources

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