Romanticism and Existential Philosophy

I have bee recently reading a book called “Irrational Man” by William Barrett. It was originally written in 1962 and it is generally recognized as the book that introduced the Existential philosophy of continental Europe to America. You may be familiar with existentialists, perhaps even without knowing that they were existentialist. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Soren Kierkegaard are some of the big names in Existentialism. Martin Heidegger is another.

As I have read about these late 19th and 20th century thinkers they appear to me to be an extension of the Romantic Movement of the early 19th century. The Romantics, as I have described in this blog, were reacting to what they saw as the excessive intellectualism of the European Enlightenment. They believed that humankind had developed an untenable hubris in relationship to its ability to understand everything. The bottom line of the Enlightenment was an unshakable conviction that the entire universe was understandable and could be understood totally by the human mind. The Romantics felt that we had lost the wisdom of the medieval world which recognized the limited ability of human beings to understand reality and left the lion’s share of reality draped in mystery and uncertainty. The Romantics felt that the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. They agreed that the universe could be understood much better than we had ever imagined and they saw the limitations of superstition and dogma, yet they wanted to recapture the mystery of life. They believed that the great religious and spiritual traditions were pointing to an underlying truth and that it simply needed to be rearticulated in a language of nature and growth.

The Existentialists similarly reacted against intellectualism, but where the Romantics looked back – well yes, romantically – at a time in the past where we were actually more connected to some fundamental and often transcendental reality, the Existentialist were trying to come to terms with the spiritual bankruptcy that came with the Enlightenment. “God is Dead.” Nitcshe said. Unlike the Romantics the Existentialists didn’t believe that there was anything to go back to. The faith that we had in days of old was lost and we had to deal with our spiritual bankruptcy head on. The Existentialists were not necessarily nihilists, although that tendency certainly exists in this bold confrontation with loss of meaning, rather they were trying to find another basis for faith in life.

Both the Romantics and the Existentialists saw that medieval Christianity had provided the bedrock of security that human existence had rested on for centuries. That haven had been undercut by the rationality of the Enlightenment. Both Romantics and Existentialists believed that where the medieval world had provided a unified and integrated synthesis of body and spirit (however inaccurate it may have been), science had now cleaved the material and spiritual world asunder. The Romantics had a tendency to reach backward in an attempt to regain the spirit that they believed had been lost, while the Existentialists called for a stark confrontation with the fact that humanity had grown beyond the old sources of security and must now face the emptiness that lie at the heart of human existence. Human beings needed to find an alternative foundation for faith that could fuel the human spirit and propel it forward into the unknown future.