Among the 18th century artist Goya’s famous collection of prints, “Los Caprichos,” number 43 (of 80) is entitled, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
It seems to be an affirmation of Enlightenment thinking amidst his general critique of cultural and class superstitions and in favor of the yawning European proclamation that pure reason is the ideal. But Goya’s compelling image and title is actually about something quite different. It is not a rejection of reason nor irrationality, but rather, points to a wholly different animal – one with similar DNA yet enough of a variation that it makes all the difference, and would make all the difference in the world.
Goya’s own caption to this print reads: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In other words, reason spliced with imagination produces a creature that reason by itself could never become.
In fact, pure reason is a monster.
Reason without imagination in its DNA produces inevitable terror worse than anything irrationality has yet unleashed. We have, as a species, crept close to pure reason but not fallen in. The advent of artificial intelligence may yet create that capacity but God forbid it happens. (Intelligence without imagination is a chilling oxymoron).
Reason needs imagination in order to keep a heartbeat of compassion and flicker of awareness toward unintended consequences. The history of science and technology (which should be a subject taught in schools) is rife with unintended consequences and decisions that follow in the wake of heartless reason. So much cultural attention toward institutional abuse is focused on the abundance of evil that riddles religion but it serves as a shell game to distracts us from serious conversations about channeling and restraining the institutions of (commercial) technology and science.
We know all too well the explosive temper tantrums of human irrationality and passions, and indeed they are hazardous. But the greatest danger to civilization is the dictatorship of reason.
Imagination makes all the difference in the world.
PS This “Rant” was inspired by a recent NPR interview with author Salman Rushdie