Romanticism and Existential Philosophy

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 9 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Anna Kelly
11 years ago

Who were the existentialists that DID come around to a belief in God during their search for a deeper meaning and greater purpose to life?

James Alexander
James Alexander
11 years ago

Hi Anna, Soren Kierkegaard is generally considered the father of existentialism, and he was a devout christian. I think all great philosophy should be about how we live life. Understanding reality and life is only relevant to anything at all to inform that purpose. I think the Existentialist generally understood that. They concerned theirselves with the existence or non existence of god only as a necessary step to determine how life should be lived. Some decided God did not exist and developed according ethical theories. Some decided God did exist and arived at somewhat different conclusions about the best way… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

Kierkegaard(1813-1855) did not ‘came around to a believe in God during his search for deeper meaning of life’. He had his roots in Christianity and (which is the path for an individual) responded from a certain history (culture) finding new meaning (individuality). Important for Kierkegaard is ‘fear’ which is connected to freedom (it attracts and rejects) and to ambiguity (one has to face oneself). Freedom because of the possibilities, ambiguity because one is in a situation which isn’t decided yet. He connects innocence with ignorance, not-knowing what is going to be. One has to JUMP into a new direction and… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I am reading more about the temporal and eternal and it is absolutely worth mentioning. What I understand from the temporal is everything in the ‘now’, health, beauty, success, wealth. It connects to ‘how one is seen by others’. The eternal is the moment that one realizes that one is more than that. This is where Kierkegaard’s fear arises, it connects to existential fear which is the route to freedom. This kind of fear drives one away from others, throws one back on oneself. It is the awareness that one is an individual who acts and thinks and is not… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi Liesbeth, re: “‘how one is seen by others’ Not only how others see us but also how we see others. The more my reality is obtained empirically, the more real it is but what’s also an important factor is what I gather in all the info that comes at me, including formal education reading and electronically. If we are too hung up on how others perceive us, we are too conditioned by outside influence. We shouldn’t come to the point where we disregard that but when we are guided by innerness, the sureness of the rightness of who we… Read more »

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[…] Romanticism and Existentialism […]

Sueli
8 years ago

Hi Anna, Soren Kierkegaard is generally cornsdeied the father of existentialism, and he was a devout christian.I think all great philosophy should be about how we live life. Understanding reality and life is only relevant to anything at all to inform that purpose. I think the Existentialist generally understood that. They concerned theirselves with the existence or non existence of god only as a necessary step to determine how life should be lived. Some decided God did not exist and developed according ethical theories. Some decided God did exist and arived at somewhat different conclusions about the best way to… Read more »

Ryan Peter
7 years ago

Reblogged this on Life-Ecstatic and commented:
This is an interesting piece on romanticism and existential philosophy