• Awakening Soul

Participating in the World with Imagination






"I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world." -Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe



Many artists, philosophers, entertainers, and even scientists will speak about the "imagination", but it's never clear what exactly they mean. Most people assume it is something enitrely "personal" and fanciful, i.e. a faculty which is detached from concrete Reality itself. To participate in the world with Imagination, we first need to remember what exactly it is, in its essence, and how it functions in our immanent experience. Those are really two ways of asking the same question - what the Imagination does is also what it is. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, Jean Gebser - four philosophers, artists, and spiritual emissaries who set out to return the Imagination of humanity to its rightful place in the modern world - can help us greatly in our quest to answer that question. All four understood Imagination as a faculty of cognition which transcends mere abstract intellect and its rigid spatiotemporal perspectives on the world, and, moreover, as a faculty which only became accessible to the human soul in the last 150 odd years.




Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking. There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive. In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the IMAGINATION.
- Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817)

That Europeans write novellas about things that do not exist is, according to the Oriental view, a highly superfluous activity. In their view, all our art is only a rather superfluous and useless occupation. Clearly, we have to understand the Asian art works we possess as Imaginations of spiritual reality; otherwise we will never understand them at all. We Europeans in turn judge Asian stories not by Asian standards but by our own and call them fanciful and beautiful fiction, products of the fertile, unbridled Oriental imagination.
People will gradually have to realize that we have to speak more and more in images. Of course, if we were to speak in pictures only, we would be going against modern European culture, so we can't do that. But we can gradually allow ordinary thinking, applicable only on the physical plane, to turn into thinking about the spiritual world, and then into pictorial thinking, which develops under the influence of the spiritual world. Natural scientists also develop a view of the world, but if they think their view is clear and comprehensible, they make the same mistake as we would if we claimed we could paint a portrait, and the subject would then step out of the canvas and walk around the room.
- Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (1895)

When we use language [symbolically], we bring it about of our own free will that an appearance means something other than itself... that a manifest 'means' an unmanifest. We start with an idol, and we ourselves turn the idol into representation... we use the phenomenon as a 'name' for what is not phenomenal... As consciousness develops into self-consciousness, the remembered phenomena become detached or liberated from their original [meanings] and so, as images, are in some measure at man's disposal... they are at the disposal of his imagination to employ as it chooses. If it chooses to impart its own meaning, it is doing... with the remembered phenomena what their Creator once did with the 'external appearances' themselves. Thus there is a real analogy between [symbolical] usage [of language] and original participation [in the creation of 'external appearances']... there is a valid analogy if, but only if, we admit that, in the course of the earth's history, something like a Divine Word has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created - so that what was first spoken by God may eventually be respoken by man."
- Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957)

Of course, nothing that exists exists for its own sake; it exists for the sake of the whole. In origin, the whole is pregiven for man; it takes on for man its conscious character in the time-free present, for consciousness is not restricted to time and space. It cannot be concretized in conceptuality since conceptuality deals only with abstractions and absolutes. It can be fathomed only dimly in vital, magic life, and is realizable through imagination and experience, as in myth and mysticism, only in a twilight of consciousness. It is approached in thought, but thought immediately closes itself off since in its process of deduction discursive thought always excludes any openness in its compulsion to system. The new mutation of consciousness, on the other hand, as a consequence of arationality, receives its decisive stamp from the manifest perceptual emergence of the spiritual.
- Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (1953)


We could crudely summarize the above as follows - to Think, in its highest sense, is to Imagine. "I Imagine, therefore I am". It is to perceive and connect phenomena within the World Cotent through flowing images from a variety of perspectives, thereby co-creating the World with other Imaginative beings in the process. When we perceive the physical around us, we are engaging Imagination of this kind - what Coleridge called the "Primary Imagination" - but we have simply forgotten that we are so engaged in the modern age. The flowing images have calcified into frozen 'things', imprisoned by our forgetfulness, our rigid abstract concepts, and our lack of Imagination. Owen Barfield clarified that "images" must be distinguished from mere "things" if we are to begin re-calling this Primary Imagination - "things" are representations which only relate to us outer surfaces and quantitative properties of 'things' in the world, while the "images" convey the fullness and richness of interiority - a wide range of inner qualities of meaning. The person who perceives a tree as a 'thing' will only see roots, branches, leaves, color, sizes, etc., and then only a chance cross-section of those 'things' in time.


The person who perceives the tree as an image will also see its flowing transformations across time; its growth and decay; its relation to other living trees nearby; its relation to our shared meaning of the word "tree"; the meaning of its trunk leading to branches, twigs, and leaves; the function of the tree in its environment; the uses of the tree for humans; and many other richly meaningful qualities. The imaginative thinker will eventually perceive the entire World from the tree, as William Blake perceived in a grain of sand, but without losing the resolution born of thinking its essence through carefully. So how do we begin rebirthing this Imagination from within? It is not a wish that we will be granted as if from a genie, but rather we should treat it as a delicate seed which needs needs to be cherished, cared after, and nourished. We should try to perceive all content in the world by way of images rather than dry verbal intellect. The next time you have a thought, think it again except without sounding out any words. Use only the images and, once you grab hold of their inner meaning, hold tight and let the visual structure of the images dissolve as well.


The visual scaffolding should be dismantled, because the abstract spatial dimensions of width, depth, height - indeed all 'physical' structures of 'things' in the world - do not exist in the manner that we perceive them. These representational structures exist to serve a purpose in our experience, which is to help orient our thought towards the full depth of inner qualities of meaning. Three dimensions of space, for example, point us to three core dimensions of our activity - Willing (width), Feeling (depth), and Thinking (height). Once their purpose is served, the abstract visuals are no longer needed - "new wine should not be poured into old wineskins or else both will be ruined". It cannot be stressed enough that Imagine is not other than thoughtful contemplation. It is quest for deep understanding of all that resides within the World Content. That is the Imaginative knowledge - the illuminating power - which possesses the strength to loosen the shackles which bind man to the flattened pictures of Nature. Imagination is not a simple flight of fancy, rather it is a pedagogical method of learning about the world. When we merely read a poem, we draw a measure of warmth and joy from its beauty. When we are connecting to the poem on a subconsciously intuitive level, we experience a shift of consciousness in the direction of its ever-present primordial perspective on the world.


Yet, we must raise the subconscious into the Light of consciousness if we are make it into something more than fleeting glimpses; something more akin to a mental habit which is born again in our souls, transfiguring mere intellect by way of the Spirit's baptism in fire and water, thereby making our Imaginative thinking 'second-nature'. It is only when we employ our Imagination in the humble and unceasing service of knowledge that we come to know how our meaningful experience of a poem connects itself to the meaningful content of all other poems, and how that network of poetic content connects its meaning to the entire realm of Art, and how that entire realm of Art connects its meaning to the timeless spiritual traditions of humanity, and how those timeless traditions connect our soul to the qualitative celestial realms of all human knowledge and Wisdom.



But in the case of a symbolic work we should remember the dictum of Gerhard Hauptmann: “Poetry evokes out of words the resonance of the primordial word...". Great poetry draws its strength from the life of mankind, and we completely miss its meaning if we try to derive it from personal factors... A work of art is produced that may truthfully be called a message to generations of men. So Faust touches something in the soul of every German... so also Dante’s fame is immortal, and the Shepherd of Hermas was very nearly included in the New Testament canon. - Carl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature



Man cannot remain in the embrace of mere abstract symbols if he hopes to penetrate fortress of Cosmic meaning. He must press on much further to rediscover, as inner experience, all of that content which lives in the outer images of the monumental world epics, so as to see clearly that his Imagination never exceeds his reach. All the drama of heroes and villains, saints and sages, beasts and dragons, landscapes and seascapes, legends and quests, adventures and play - all the feelings of courage and dread, joy and sadness, triumph and failure, satisfaction and longing, hope and dismay - all of these can be lived out in the soul of each individual through the aesthetics of Imagination. Then we come to re-member what only appears as fragments of a long-forgotten past; to re-cognize exactly who we were, who we are, and who we are destined to be.



Some time ago — to us it seems like a long time —


All those who made our lives happy climbed upwards.


The Father turned his face away from people,


And sorrow came rightly upon the earth.


Finally a quiet genius appeared, comforting in a god-like


Way, who announced the end of the day, and disappeared.


The choir of gods left some gifts behind, as a sign


Of their presence and eventual return, which we


May appreciate in our human fashion, as we used to.


That which is superior had grown too great for pleasure


With spirit among men. And to this day no one's strong enough


For the highest joys, although some gratitude survives quietly.


Bread is the fruit of the earth, yet it's blessed also by light.


The pleasure of wine comes from the thundering god.


We remember the gods thereby, those who were once


With us, and who'll return when the time is right.


Thus poets sing of the wine god in earnest, and their


Ringing praises of the old one aren't devised in vain.


- Hölderlin, Bread and Wine