“The Origin of Vice,” wrote Mark Akenside hundreds of years ago, is “from false representations of the fancy, producing false opinions of good and evil.” “Fancy” was the word he used for what we now call “imagination.”
He suggested there were two causes: instead of working with reason, imagination can completely dominate the powers of belief. Thus, we soon believe what we imagine, even though it does not conform to reality. And as Goethe and Yeats were so intensely aware, imagination intensifies feelings -- good ones, and not-so-good ones..
Second, given the nature of man, Akenside believed a powerful imagination, if given to illusions, can encourage the passions of self-interest, such as envy and revenge. Animals, for example, having no self-consciousness and therefore no imagination, have no desire for revenge, or envy, or ambition.
Notice that Akenside wrote “false opinions of good and evil.” That would mean there are facts about good and evil. And there’s the rub. How do you tell the false from the true when it comes to defining good and evil?
In my view the worst of false and imaginary opinions about good and evil consists in believing in a pure good and a pure evil. In reality no one is either all good or all bad. This concept of good and evil is imaginary. It doesn’t exist.
People who believe in Pure Good and Pure Evil have disordered imaginations. Not surprisingly, they are also not rational, i.e., their reason is as distorted as their imagination.
It’s not, as Akenside suggested, that imagination is not working with reason. Instead, both reason and imagination are working together, but both are distorted. The result, as Goya said, is the sleep of reason that breeds monsters.
Those who believe in this imaginary view of good and evil always project it onto other people, although none of them appear to be conscious of what they are doing.
Samuel Johnson understood what the disordered imagination can do: “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity…it is not pronounced madness but when it comes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech and action.”