Among your faculties there is one that, unless it is disciplined and kept in control, is apt to do more to make a fool of you and lead you wrong than any other. It was Nicolas Malebranche, the French thinker, who coined the phrase “the fool of the house” to describe the imagination.
During all your waking hours, pictures are forming themselves in your imagination, whether you are conscious of them or not. Your memory recalls past scenes as they were. But the imagination comes into play and changes those former scenes and experiences into new shapes. When you daydream, for example, you see yourself in new surroundings, you are the hero of remarkable adventures and achievements that never were or will be, and you pass through admiring throngs and are hailed as heroes are hailed. Things that never happened and never will happen may thus become more real to you than reality itself, so that you may fall into such a deep reverie as not to notice what goes on around you.
This picturing faculty is nearly as spontaneous and constant as thought itself. It runs along with the workings of your intelligence, so that as soon as you think of something, the imagination tries to body forth that thought in an image. You think of a fortune, and your imagination conjures up a vision of gold and jewels. You think of courage, and your imagination represents the battlefield, with yourself, perhaps, as a hero, taking and giving wounds. You think of rest, and your imagination pictures a still lake and a shady seat on the shore, under the trees. You think of home, and your imagination gives you a picture of it, with your mother moving about at her daily tasks or your brothers and sisters gathered around the family table.
The imagination is continually running forward into the future, trying to conjecture what will happen in days to come. It anticipates pleasures and pains. You think of going on a journey, and your imagination shows you whirling along in a car, or perhaps it will take a sudden twist and represent a terrible accident, in which you are writhing under the ruins of a burning train. Sometimes this imagination of yours deceives you by picturing future joys and satisfactions that never will come to pass. You dream of riches, happiness, and contentment that may come if you take some special step, such as if you give up your present position and go to another one. These dreams are much brighter than the reality would be, and your imagination presents them so vividly that they may induce you to take a foolish step, to give up what you have in order to grasp at something you never will get.
Or, you have to face a difficult duty, and you naturally shrink from it. Your imagination adds to your difficulty by suddenly bringing up a fanciful picture of far greater obstacles and impediments than really exist.
That is why Malebranche said that the imagination is the fool of the house, because it plays so many tricks on us and works on our feelings so unreasonably by its changes of view and vision. It is like a perpetual movie, running across the screen of our consciousness, casting now comedies, now tragedies, now the true and accurate reflection of reality, now a mere made-up picture of never-to-be-realized things.
But while your imagination may thus play the fool with you and thus make a fool of you unless you correct it and discipline it, still it can also be of sublime service. It is the imagination that helps to give interest to character. It also confers the ability to see big projects and follow them through in your mind, by foreseeing the difficulties and the ways to success.
The trained imagination of the poet and the artist sweep through heaven and earth to find forms of beauty and of power. By its aid they create wonderful poems and masterpieces of painting and sculpture. The inward eye of the imagination sees these beautiful visions vividly, before they are expressed in words or delineated in colors or carved in marble. The splendors of human architecture, as well as the wonders of human machinery, are the result, to a large degree, of the creative imagination.
You can profit by these reflections to stir yourself up to a real zeal for the cultivation of your imagination. It is a wonderful servant, but a tyrannical master. People who train and enrich their imaginations by study and observation, discipline and self-control, acquire a power over their fellows and a grasp of the truth that fits them for the service of God and man.
Those who allow their imagination to run riot with them find it indeed to be the fool of the house, forever upsetting their plans, disturbing their calculations, stirring them to vain fears, or bearing them up with foolish and wind-blown hopes. The imagination must be brought under the dominion of the reason and the will. When the imagination aids the reason and the will, and is obedient to them and in accord with their decisions, then it is good and helpful. When it grows unreasonable, it ought to be disciplined like a foolish child.
It is useful for you to observe how much you are influenced by your imagination. When vain fears rise up to scare you, bring them to the test of reason, and force your imagination to come within bounds. When extravagant hopes and expectations turn your head, come to the solid earth, and try to see things as they really are, so as not to be misled. This continual discipline of the imagination will curb its tendency to play the fool with you.
You should also discipline and cultivate your imagination by reading good literature. Fine, worthy, imaginative literature enriches and ennobles your imagination by feeding it with true images and beautiful fancies. Great poetry, great drama, and great fiction, therefore, nourish the imagination.
Be extremely careful, however, what food you give this mighty faculty. The tainted, seductive, licentious fiction of today is a poison to it, and once the imagination is filled with unworthy and vile images, cleansing it becomes a herculean task. Indeed, it never does give up the wickedness that you throw into its retentive pool.
The pictures that this tainted fiction evokes in the reader are of a sordid, false, and morbid nature. They seem, as one reads, to be merely passing impressions. But science assures us that what goes into the imagination is never lost and never passes away. Thus, a person may seem to forget these morbid images, but at some future hour, when the person least thinks it, they may start up again into the consciousness, and the imagination will then take bitter revenge for the insults offered it in the past.
It is far, far better to look on your imagination as something sacred and excellent, and carefully preserve it from pollution. Fill it with noble, worthy, strong, pure images from great art, good literature, the conversation of worthy men, and the contemplation of God’s beautiful world and of the finer aspects of humanity. Discipline it, and insist that it dwell on what is excellent, beautiful, and elevating.
Then your imagination will be no longer the fool of the house, a fickle and deceptive faculty. It will be, on the contrary, a strong helper to the intellect, a powerful aid in creative work, along the lines of your profession or calling. It will be a handmaid to literature and a comfort and a source of keenest pleasure in writing and conversation, in your leisure reflections and in your quiet thoughts.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in The Catholic Book of Character and Success, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.