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Every artist copes with reality by means of his fantasy. Fantasy, better known as imagination, is his greatest treasure, his basic equipment for life. And since his work is his life, his fantasy is constantly in play. He dreams life. Psychologists tell us that a child’s imagination reaches its peak at the age of six or seven, then is gradually inhibited, diminished to confirm with the attitudes of his elders – that is, reality. Alas. Perhaps what distinguishes artists from regular folks is that for whatever reasons, their imaginative drive is less inhibited; they have retained in adulthood more of that five-year-old’s fantasy than others have. This is not to say that an artist is the childlike madman the old romantic traditions have made him out to be; he is usually capable of brushing his teeth, keeping track of his love life, or counting his change in a taxicab. When I speak of his fantasy I am not suggesting a constant state of abstraction, but rather the continuous imaginative powers that inform his creative acts as well as his reactions to the world around him. And out of that creativity and those imaginative reactions to the world around him. And out of that creativity and those imaginative reactions come not idle dreams, but truths – all those abiding truth-formations and constellations that nourish us, from Dante to Joyce, from Bach to the Beatles, from Praxiteles to Picasso….

Which brings me to the salient point: The gift of the imagination is by no means an exclusive property of an artist; it is a gift we all share; to some degree or other all of us, all of you, are endowed with the powers of fantasy. The dullest of dullards among us has the gift of dreams at night – visions and yearnings and hopes. Everyone can also think; it is the quality of thought that makes the difference – not just the quality of logical thinking, but of imaginative thinking. And our greatest thinkers, those who have radically changed our world, have always arrived at their truths by dreaming them; they are the first fantasized, and only then subjected to proof. This is certainly true of Plato and Kant, of Moses and Buddha, of Pythagoras and Copernicus and, yes, Marx and Freud and, more recently, Albert Einstein, who always insisted that imagination is more important than knowledge. How often he spoke of having dreamed his Unified Field Theory and his Principle of Relativity – intuiting them, and then, high on the inspiration, plunging into the perspiration of working them out to be provable, and therefore true.

But what is true? Is Newtonian physics any less true for having been superseded by Einsteinian physics? No more than Wittgenstein has knocked Plato out of your philosophy courses. The notion that the earth is flat was never a truth; it was merely a notion. That the earth is round is a proven truth which may one day be modified by some new concept of roundness, but the truth will remain, modified or not. Truths are forever; that’s why they are so hard to come by. Plato promulgated absolute truths; Einstein relative ones. Both were right. Both conceived their visions in high fantasy. And even Hegel, that stern dialectician, said that truth is a Bacchanalian revel, where not a member is sober. Well said, old Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; we hear you loud and clear. To search for truth, one has to be drunk with imagination.

—Commencement Speech at Johns Hopkins University, May 30, 1980

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Published: May 31, 2017
Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was the long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic, composing the scores of the broadway musicals West Side Story and Candide. Bernstein was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim, and he was the first conductor to give a series of television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death.
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1 reply to this post
  1. I very much enjoyed this. I was having a conversation the other day about theories of explanation in mathematics. I have found that, while I can do trigonometry easily, I don’t feel that I’ve really understood it because I can’t ‘see’ it intuitively. On the other hand, integration I understood intuitively long before I knew many methods of doing it. The doctoral student I was speaking with was positing that one has to appreciate the beauty of a proof before fully understanding it – something akin to Augustine’s credo ut intelligam. In our modern compartmentalization of knowledge, we often put mathematics and art or philosophy on opposite ends of the spectrum, but perhaps in the realm of intuition they meet and kiss.

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