Percy Shelley: Imagination and Morality


“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Imagination is the capacity of empty awareness to fill itself with experiences such as concepts, ideas, images and thoughts. So though man may live a life of routine, habitually filling their awareness with a set number of variable experiences limited to the material fact of the world, their capacity to be conscious of other things remains latent, though unemployed: and this capacity is itself imagination: which is man’s greatest tool for change, improvement, and good.

If imagination is the capacity to be aware of more than is currently experienced, then imagining is the exploration of what this unemployed awareness may hold and so the “synthesis”(Shelley) of new experiences, ideas, and concepts. “The expression of the imagination”(Shelley) is therefore the expression of newly imagined “values” and “orders” (Shelley), which Shelley call’s “Poetry in the most universal sense”.

“Poetry in the most universal sense”(Shelley) is then the production of human values, and so “Poetry is connate with the origins of man”. (Shelley)  Shelley explains the generation of human values through the evolution of language, saying that “every original language, near to its source, is itself the chaos of a cyclical poem, and the copiousness of lexicography and distinctions of grammar are the works of later age, and are merely the catalogue and forms of the creations of Poetry” (Shelley).

By “catalogue of the creations of poetry” Shelley is referring to “Reason”(Shelley) as the “principle of analysis” (Shelley). Reason, as the counter part to Imagination, does not create values but rather the “grammar” that “enumerates” and “systemizes” (Shelley) them. Though Shelley argues that “language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination” (Shelley) he argues emphatically that “the indestructible order”(Shelley) and values produced by imagination are not random but rather a result of “approximation to beauty”(Shelley);  in a process where by the values and order expressed in poetry are the refined “imitation” (Shelley) of that which “delights our consciousness most” (Shelley), which is itself beauty.

Equating poetry with imitation as expressions of the imagination, Shelley’s illustration of a child imitating what delights its consciousness, mirrors Aristotle’s view that “the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood … and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.” (Aristotle) So “as the savage is to ages as the child is to years”( Shelley), Shelley argues, that humanity “learns its lessons” (Aristotle) through the process of refining imitations  of that which delights humanity, to express the “order which approximates more or less closely to that from which this highest delight results”(Shelley). For “in as much as man is social”(Shelley), that which delights humanity is the establishment of social orders which results in the net “highest delight”(Shelley).

This strain of utilitarian thought parallels Plato definition of rationality as being useful (Plato) to the rational directives of a self: namely survival. This parallel is something Shelley picks up on a makes an explicit distinction: imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged reason is more usefulh (Shelley). Associating the imaginative impulse with the pursuit of delight and pleasure Shelley argues that pleasure or good in a general sense is that which the consciousness of a sensitive and intelligent being seeks.h(Shelley)and so the expansion of imagination is the expansion of humanity and morality in men’s mind.

Plato agrees with Shelley on the point that “approximation to beauty”(Shelley) produces the perfect “order”(Shelley), but to Plato beauty is not the “that from which the highest delight results”(Shelley) but rather “the beauty of reason”(Plato). For Plato, values or “forms” (Plato), exist abstractly in perfect forms, and Reason is the vehicle through which self-evident, absolute, and abstract rational truths and values can be realized, rather than produced.

Plato would argue that imagination does not produce a beautiful “indestructible order”(Shelley) from the ground up by holistically refining what is “delightful”(Shelley) into a whole civilized order, but rather Reason (Plato) draws down absolute values which establish the most perfect and rational order, and that rationality is itself beauty.

So Plato, quite contrary to Shelley, argues Moral conduct is rational conduct, and in as far that the emotions, which “indulged to excess almost always produce a violent reaction…” (Plato), are Plato’s counter-part to reason in the stead of Shelley’s Imagination, then conduct based on irrational feeling and the pursuit of “unnecessary pleasures and appetites I [Plato] conceive to be unlawful; every one appears to have them, but in some persons they are controlled by the laws and by reason.”(Plato’s Republic IX)  He gives an example of homosexual sex in the pursuit of pleasure, which having no utility, is therefore immoral.

To this, Shelley might reply that Plato’s ideal forms, and the very ideas of his mind, are produced by imagination. That “Plato is essentially a poet”(Shelley), and the very concept of morality must be first imagined before it can be rationally justified and assessed. This completely undermines Plato’s previous arguments for the suppression of emotion and imagination to create rational minds.

Shelley goes further, stating “the end of social corruption is to destroy all  sensibility to pleasure, and therefore it is corruption. It begins in the imagination and intellect as at the core.”(Shelley) Clearly identifying purely rational conduct as being as circular and tautological as the logic behind “1 = 1”, and so ultimately inhuman. This reading is supported in the text where Shelley can be seen to be making a humanist argument against purely rational conduct, “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world, and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave” (Shelley)

It could be argued at this point, that Shelley’s Imagination is to Plato’s Reason, as Nietzche’s Dionysian primal unity (Nietzche), is to his Apollonian principal of individuationh (Nietzche). In this light, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, can be seen to narrate the development of the arguments between Shelley and Plato and their conceptions of the Dionysian the Apollonian in their terms of the imagination and reasonh.  For Nietzche, two very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each otherh (Nietzche) paired up with each other and, as this pair, finally produce Attic tragedy, as much a Dionysian as an Apollonian work of art.h (Nietzche)

This reading is supported in the text by Nietzche’s description of Apollo as “This deification of individuation, if it is thought of in general as commanding and proscriptive, understands only one law, the individual, that is, observing the limits of individualization, moderation in the Greek sense. Apollo, as an ethical divinity, demands moderation from his followers and, so that they can observe self-control, a knowledge of the self” (Nietzche) Which reflects both Plato’s and Shelley’s language in their conceptions of reason.

More importantly Neitzche’s description of the Dionysian mysteries resolves the divergence in Plato’s and Shelley’s conceptions of Imagination by incorporating Plato’s cynicism of the “tyrannical man” (Plato) with no “self-control” (Nietzche) who “Under the tyranny of erotic love has permanently become while awake what he used to become occasionally while asleep g (Plato)  in his description of Dionysian celebrations consisting of an exuberant sexual promiscuity, whose waves flooded over all established family practices and its traditional laws. Where the very wildest bestiality of nature was here unleashed, creating that abominable mixture of lust and crueltyh (Nietzche); with Shelley’s view of imagination as leading to a greater understanding beyond the individual self: the great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own. A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.h (Shelley) Here Shelley’s language reflects Nietzce’s description of Primordial Unity where every man feels himself not only united with his neighbor, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with himh (Nietzche) and even seeks to abolish the individual and to redeem him through a mystical feeling of collective unity (Nietzche)

So now it is established that the function of the imagination for the moral goodh can now begin to be discussed in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian.

Shelley’s conception of that which is morally bad as the Apollonian Selfishness can be best seen in his identification of an “excess of the selfish and calculating principle” (Shelley) in “money as the manifestation of self”(Shelley), and industrialization as “ cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty which is the basis of all knowledge”(Shelley) to which he “attributes the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labour, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?” (Shelley)

While on the other hand he argues the moral good seems to rest on an expansion of the individual self into a state of Dionysian selflessness through imagination and poetry. “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination: and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts” and that “poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man” (Shelley) because  in a drama of the highest order there is little food for censure or hatred: it teaches rather self knowledge and self-respect.h

Shelley’s moral duality between the selfishness of Reason and the Dionysian selflessness of Imagination might superficially be thought to be supported by Shelley’s  and Nietzche’s corresponding descriptions of the “highly praised artistic achievement”(Nietzche) of Athenian tragedy as the “” (Nietzche) of art. For Shelley “The drama at Athens or wheresoever else it may have approached to its perfection,” (Shelley) as the highest expression of the imagination, “ever co-existed with the moral and intellectual greatness”(Shelley).

However much Nietzche would agree with Shelley’s point that “the tragedies of the Athenian poets are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stript of all, but that ideal perfection and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires and would become.” (Shelley)  for Nietzche Athenian “Tragedy” (Nietzche) is not a single handed triumph of the imagination over reason, or the Dionysian world view over the Apollonian world view but rather it “presents itself before our eyes, as the common goal of both impulses, whose secret marriage partnership, after a long antecedent struggle, glorified itself with such a child―at once Antigone and Cassandra” (Nietzche)

Here Nietzche can be seen to argue that it is a balance between Reason and Imagination that produces the highest poetry of “Athenian Poetry” (Shelley). However for Nietzche “art does   not present itself for us in order to make us, for example, better or to educate us”. So Nietzche argues the “Attic poetry” (Nietzche)  as a balance of imagination and reason, functions for moral good, not because it “makes us better” (Nietzche) but rather, because morally speaking, the individual self and the primordial unity or “true self” (nietzche) are simultaneously realized and sublimate self v.s selfless moral thought altogether:

“We are, however, entitled to assume this about ourselves: for the true creator of that world we are already pictures and artistic projections and in the meaning of works of art we have our highest dignity ―for only as an aesthetic phenomena are existence and the world eternally justified―while, of course, our consciousness of this significance of ours is scarcely any different from the consciousness which soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle portrayed there. Hence our entire knowledge of art is basically completely illusory, because, as knowing people, we are not one with and identical to that being who, as the single creator and spectator of that comedy of art, prepares for itself an eternal enjoyment. Only to the extent that the genius in the act of artistic creation is fused with that primordial artist of the world does he know anything about the eternal nature of art, for in that state he is, in a miraculous way, like the weird picture of fairy tales, which can turn its eyes and contemplate itself. Now he is simultaneously subject and object, simultaneously poet, actor, and spectator.” (Nietzch)



Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher, 350BC < “” > HYPERLINK “” Web.

Nietzche, Fredrick. The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music

<HYPERLINK “” “” > Web.

Plato. Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett 360 B.C.E < Book 2,3> HYPERLINK “ Book 2,3” Web.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry

<> Web.

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