Imagination: S.T. Coleridge, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien


Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“Like Ferdinand Magellan’s great voyage in pursuit of new passages to new worlds, since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Western intellectual tradition has sailed far and wide and discovered many wonderful things. But just as Magellan faced great risk navigating the treacherous waters around Cape Horn, the tumultuous intellectual waters of the modern West presented great risks too. How would we find our way?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge captures the picture well in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Having been guided through the treacherous waters and early-modern fog by the Albatross (the soul), the captains of the new world became annoyed by the bird. In hubris, they killed it and hung it as a trophy around the neck, believing it a good thing that they had killed it. By the mid-twentieth century, the ship of modernism stalled. It is now adrift in a postmodern sea, bobbing like a cork with no soul to guide it.”

I wrote these words in my book, Rediscovering God’s Grand Story: In a Fragmented World of Pieces and Parts. As is obvious, my intention in writing these words was to draw attention to how the modern world has become adrift like the Ancient Mariner. It has. I repeat them now for a different purpose. To raise the question of what imagination is.

This is not an easy question to answer because the answer varies by the period and the thinkers considered. Though all summaries suffer from imprecision, I’ll nevertheless make a few sweeping generalizations. I’ll say there are four broad periods for considering what imagination is (or means): 1. The classical period from the ancient Greeks (especially Plato and Aristotle (especially his De Anima, book III)) and Romans up through the Neo-Platonists; 2. The Christian period from St. Augustine through the Middle Ages (including the mystics) up to the Renaissance; 3. The Romantic period, broadly from Goethe, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Browning, up to and including, with a kind of Classical/Romantic period twist, Owen Barfield, Lewis and Tolkien; and 4. The Modern period including such poets as Hardy, Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Cummings, Frost, and so on. I could add a fifth, the Postmodern period, but for this paper I won’t address that period.

 The place or role of imagination differs through these periods. In the ancient period, arising from the Greek philosophers, imagination (phantasia: image-making capacity of human beings) is largely a faculty related to perception resting on “images” (including images occurring in dreams) instead of reason – in De Anima Book III.3, Aristotle says imagination (phantasia) is “that in virtue of which an image occurs in us.” Plato definitely viewed dialectical reason to be superior to imagination. Because it could be faulty it was not considered as valuable as the rational faculties. Art for the ancient Greek philosophers was not harmful as such (though it could be) but it doesn’t lead to the good life. Art for Plato is mimesis, imitating life as in plays, and to the extent it achieves its goal of imitating life well, it can evoke the emotions and feelings of the audience for good or ill. Historian J. M. Cocking[1] says, “For Plato, art improves in status as it moves away from naked feeling to moral judgment and uses its spell-binding power to promote virtue rather than to awaken thrills.” In this critical Platonic sense, Imagination was looked upon with a kind of wariness or suspicion. Unlike Wordsworth in the nineteenth century, who claimed imagination is a doorway into transcendent knowledge, this was not the case for Plato. The ancient Greeks did not consider imagination without any epistemic value, only that it is prone to error. Shades of mystery and this attitude prevailed largely through the Middle Ages. Cocking says: “For Aristotle it is a puzzling, intriguing aspect of mental life, hard to relate to the other parts of the soul—neither sensation nor thought, but somewhere between the two (De anima 432b). There Aristotle consistently puts it; and there it was to stay, in the rationalist West, until the Renaissance changed both its nature and its status.”

Sort of. The Neo-Platonists came to view imagination as a vehicle for the soul. Neo-Platonism significantly influenced the Church Fathers and triggered some heresies (Arianism[2]).  St. Augustine imbibed deeply in Neo-Platonism before his conversion (including following Manicheism[3]). But it was later, as Augustine the theologian who, thinking through these complexities, set a moderated path. For him, human beings recognize in our souls that we are made in the image of God, but this recognition doesn’t happen except through knowledge.

Knowledge for Augustine is always above imagination, and abstract knowledge is repeatedly distinguished from mental images. What the mind presents to itself in the form of images is as ethically suspect to Augustine as it was to Epictetus and the later Stoic moralists (City XI.26). . . .Augustine distinguished three kinds of seeing—bodily seeing, which is sensation together with consciousness of sensation, the mental representation or ‘spiritual seeing’; ‘spiritual seeing’ on its own, without sensation, which includes what we now call imagining and dreaming; and ‘intellectual seeing’ or understanding. (Cocking, p. 43)

 In the late fifth/early sixth century, Boethius establishes an integrated relationship between philosophy and imagination. Unavailable to St. Augustine (by all accounts), Boethius had access to Aristotle as well as the Platonists and Neo-Platonists. Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy invites Boethius to use his imagination to look at historical figures and poets, and judge them with philosophical judgment for approval by the philosophical imagination.

In the Christian West, the relation between philosophy and imagination largely remained a combination of St. Augustine and Boethius until the thirteenth century, when St. Thomas and Bonaventure came along. In his Summa Theologica (ST I, 78, 4.), St. Thomas, a Dominican, describes imagination “a storehouse of forms received through the senses.” Bonaventure, a Franciscan, though not contrary to St. Thomas, stressed the mystical power of imagination: “when [the mind] knows any-thing, [it] journeys from Christ’s humanity to his divinity. Shining the divine light of illumination on imagination’s phantasms, Christ manages the transition from sensory to intellectual cognition.”[4]

As the Renaissance emerged in Northern Italy[5] in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with respect to the meaning and place of imagination two things occurred: there was a strong desire to recover the classical world; and literary theory and criticism became a flourishing branch of literature. With the backdrop of all the dimensions of classical philosophy, theology, and medieval and renaissance literature, and with a marked move to a human-centered outlook coupled with growing resistance to received authorities, new views of the meaning and place of imagination developed. Creativity as a self-conscious deliberative process began to occur.

Then in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain a new explicitly imagination-driven movement occurred: the British Romantic Movement. The roots of this movement are in Germany with Wolfgang von Goethe. It was imported to Britain when Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth went to Germany and brought it back home. Coleridge was the first to write a systematic theory of imagination in his Biographia Literaria.

Coleridge says that the world is made of symbols and we all relate to them – our organs of sense are designed to correspond to the world of sense. In like manner, our organs of spirit are designed to correspond to the world of spirit, but they are not developed in all alike. “But they exist in all, and their first appearance discloses itself in the moral being.” It is the job of human beings to discover what these symbols are and what they mean. The question is, who set these symbols? Is it just us, with our own imaginations? Is it just God? “Or are these symbols created by a continuous meeting between His imagination and ours?” Coleridge says the latter.[6]

C. S. Lewis follows in Coleridge’s footsteps (“a kind of expanded Christian Romanticism”) though he does not subscribe to all things Coleridge. For him, “imagination is not simply the holding of images in one’s head, nor it is simply creative invention. It is something else, something twinned, but opposite, to reason.” As with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, imagination is not good de facto. It can be good or evil. But it must be married with reason. In his essay, “‘Bluspels and Flalansferes’, Lewis discusses the issues of metaphor. His concern is to show that metaphors are at once built-in to the very words we use on a daily basis, but that new ones may also be created.” Shades of Coleridge. But he also says in that essay that reason is the organ of truth and imagination is the organ of meaning. But they do not exist one without the other. This is likely an influence of both Coleridge and Lewis’s close friend Owen Barfield. After the now infamous stroll down Addison’s Walk that evening after dinner with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, because of what Tolkien told Lewis about myth it would add a new dimension to what Lewis thought about imagination.

After that walk Tolkien went home an wrote his poem “Mythopoeia.” This would be what opened Lewis up to the truth of the Christian Gospel. “Tolkien argues again and again that sight and true sight, is a necessary outcome of the imagination. He also argues in the poem that this right [sic, sight?] of what he will call fantasy, is one inherent to us, even when we misuse it.” Here we see, as with the ancients, there is a caution in imagination. In his “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien goes on to add another dimension to his view of imagination: human beings are sub-creators; we make things out of what has been made by God. This capacity allows us to cast worlds, to imagine worlds that don’t exist – linked to the Latin vert facere, to make. To make in the sense that an artist makes, a writer creates a story. For Tolkien this capacity is a reflection in man of the God who created him, whose story he lives within. Our sub-creative capacity is a mark of God in us.    

Additional links added for June 15:

85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth (

On Fairy-Stories : J. R. R. Tolkien : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive


[1] Imagination: A study in the history of ideas, London: Routledge, (1991)

[2] Arianism is first attributed to Arius (c. AD 256–336), a Christian presbyter who preached and studied in Alexandria, Egypt. Arian theology holds that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who was begotten by God the Father with the difference that the Son of God did not always exist but was begotten/made before time by God the Father; therefore, Jesus was not coeternal with God the Father, but nonetheless Jesus began to exist outside time.

[3] Manichaeism founded in the 3rd century AD by the Parthian prophet Mani (216–274 AD), in the Sasanian Empire. It is a form of Gnosticism. Manichaeism teaches an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Mani as the final prophet after Zoroaster, the Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ.

[4] Michelle Karnes, “Imagination in Bonaventure’s Meditations,” Imagination, Meditation, and Cognition in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press (2011). Available at

[5] The Renaissance began in the fourteenth century with humanism and reached its zenith in the late fifteenth through the sixteenth century. Key figures of the renaissance include: Lorenzo de Medici, Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonard de Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus, Petrarch, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernán Cortés, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More.

[6] David Russell Mosley, “Toward a Theology of the Imagination with S.T. Coleridge, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien,” 13 April 2020; Accepted: 7 May 2020; Published: 12 May 2020, Religions, MDPI, available at  

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