Politics and the Creative Imagination

For some time I have been puzzling over the sources of the cre¬ative imagination. I began close to home with an effort some years ago to probe the creative imagination among histori¬ans, but I have tried to go beyond that, to uncover some general clues to the sources of those mysterious impulses that propel the mind beyond familiar ground into unexpected territories—that account for the sudden appearance of creative configurations of thought, expression, vision, or sound.
At times the creative imagination seems to work in isolation, when an individual, impelled by some uninstructed spark of originality, glimpses relationships or possibilities never seen before, or devises forms of expression never heard before. But most often the creative imagination does not flare in isolation. Creative minds stimulate each other, interaction and competition have a generative effect, sparks fly from disagreement and rivalry, and entire groups become creative. We know something about how that has happened—how such creative groups have formed—in art, in science, in scholarship, and in literature; but the same, I believe, has happened in politics, though in ways we do not commonly perceive. I do not mean sudden turns in legislation or public policy. I mean the recasting of the world of power, the re-formation of the structure of public authority, of the accepted forms of governance, obedience, and resistance, in practice as well as in theory.
The creative reorganization of the world of power and all its implications has happened at various points in history, but rarely, if ever, I believe, as quickly, as successfully, and—so it seems to me—as mysteriously as by a single generation on the eastern shores of North America two hundred years ago.
The Founders of the American nation were one of the most cre¬ative groups in modern history. Some among them, especially in recent years, have been condemned for their failures and weak¬nesses—for their racism, sexism, compromises, and violations of principle. And indeed moral judgments are as necessary in assessing the lives of these people as of any others. But we are privileged to know and to benefit from the outcome of their efforts, which they could only hopefully imagine, and ignore their main concern: which was the possibility, indeed the probability, that their creative enter¬prise—not to recast the social order but to transform the political system—would fail: would collapse into chaos or autocracy. Again and again they were warned of the folly of defying the received tra¬ditions, the sheer unlikelihood that they, obscure people on the outer borderlands of European civilization, knew better than the estab¬lished authorities that ruled them; that they could successfully create something freer, ultimately more enduring than what was then known in the centers of metropolitan life.
Since we inherit and build on their achievements, we now know what the established world of the eighteenth century flatly denied but which they broke through convention to propose—that absolute power need not be indivisible but can be shared among states within a state and among branches of government, and that the sharing of power and the balancing of forces can create not anar¬chy but freedom.
We know for certain what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose—that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both execu¬tive force and populist majorities.
We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and pro¬tected by the force of law.
We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.
And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and bril¬liantly expressed, that religion—religion of any kind—in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny—-that, as he wrote in his most eloquent state paper,
to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on [the] supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy . . . because [the magistrate] being, of course, judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment. . . Truth [Jefferson concluded in his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom] is great and will prevail if left to herself. . . she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless, by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate—errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
These were extraordinary flights of creative imagination—politi¬cal heresies at the time, utopian fantasies—and their authors and sponsors knew that their efforts to realize these aspirations had no certain outcomes. Nothing was assured; the future was unpre¬dictable. Everywhere there were turns and twists that had not been expected. Though they searched the histories they knew, consulted the learned authorities of the day, and reviewed the masterworks of political theory, they found few precedents to follow, no models to imitate. They struggled with logical, ideological, and conceptual problems that seemed to have no solutions. The deeper they went the more difficult the problems appeared.
So they were asked: How could constitutions that were to restrict the exercise of power effectively dominate the agencies that had cre¬ated them?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *