March 07

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From the Enlightenment to the Romantic Revolution

For a time the rationality of the Enlightenment seemed to hail the final triumph of human reason. Soon the laws that operated behind the universe would all be known and humakind would be able to create the future it wanted. At least that is how it seemed for a while.

If Copernicus is the most easily identifiable figure to mark the start of the Enlightenment then it is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who can most readily be identified as the start of the Romantic Revolution. Romanticism was born out of a sense of disillusionment with the Enlightenment.

One source of disillusionment was that the Enlightenment thinkers through the pursuit of reason had backed themselves in a corner. In the end it was the philosopher David Hume that took reason to its ultimate skeptical end. Hume showed that ultimately we can know nothing. All we have are the perceptions of the senses and there is no way to know if those perceptions correspond to any outside world, whether it be the physical world of time and space or any transcendent realm of spirit. In fact, there was no way to know if there was any reality outside of our sense perceptions. Hume fell into such despair over this profoundly skeptical trap that he was known to frequent public backgammon games in order to take his mind off of humanities predicament.

A second short fall of the Enlightenment was the French Revolution. What started as a revolt against tyranny with the aim to put in place a government created according to the highest principles of enlightened thought turned into a blood bath demonstrating the lowest side of human character. What did it mean? What had gone wrong?

The Romantic thinkers began to feel that the Enlightenment was suffocating them and squeezing the spirit, passion and morality out of existence. Kant in response created a new vision of reality. He rejected the universe of the universal laws that could be discovered and instead envisioned a growing universe that was created in part by human choices and human will.

The Enlightenment saw a universe that was mechanical and run by fixed laws. The Romantics saw a universe that was organic and grew in accord with acts of will. Human will and freedom were for them sacred, where the Enlightenment had held human reason and rationality in the highest regard.

The Romantics were skeptical of science. Frankenstein, the great Romantic novel by Mary Shelly, is the well known story of how a scientist creates life only to discover that his creation is beyond his control and destroys him and those around him. The Romantics felt that the Enlightenment notion that the universe was knowable and controllable was naive. The universe was infinite, mysterious and ultimately unknowable. Yet we are a part of it and therefore if we give ourselves to our deepest yearnings we will be part of the creative part of the universe. For the Romantics the highest human value was not rationality, it was authenticity, moral integrity and passion. The Romantics were the first to value these things for their own sake regardless of what they were aimed at. A Christian in the middle ages would never admire the zeal a Pagan showed for a heathen faith. The Christian would simply see the zealous Pagan as more dangerous. The Enlightened thinker didn’t admire the passion of the monk’s love of God, instead the monk seemed all the more foolish. The Romantic admires even the passion of her enemies. To die for ones ideals is the highest good and it is good no matter what the ideal.

If the Enlightenment thinkers had felt shackled by the superstition of the middle ages, the Romantic thinkers felt that the natural laws of the Enlightenment were a straight jacket. The Romantics loved to break rules, to snub laws and live as utterly unconventionally as possible. They were unconventional in dress, in lifestyle, and in thinking. As poets, playwrights and novelists they broke literary styles and their great musical composers, perhaps Beethoven the greatest of all, were notorious for breaking musical convention.

In Germany the writings of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Goethe set the stage for a Romantic Revolution. This revolution would simultaneously erupt in the English poets Byron, Shelly, Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth.  All of these writers had a tremendous impact on the developing thought of America at the start of the 19th century and have become a deep part of the consciousness of America. The Transcendentalists of Concord represent the American Romantic Revolution. And they were reading all of the Romantic philosophy, literature and poetry coming out of Europe. I wonder if you can understand the American mind without understanding Romanticism.