The Triumph of Romanticism

“All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.”  ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

“We of the craft are all crazy.” ― Lord Byron

A CRASH COURSE IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: LESSON 6

As we discussed in earlier lessons for a time during the 18th Century it seems that the rationality of the Enlightenment triumphed over all other ways of knowing. Many rejoiced that soon the laws that operated behind the universe would all be known and humankind would create the future it wanted.

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 shortcomings of Enlightenment thinking just as the Enlightenment had emerged out of the shortcomings of the medieval church.

Philosophically the Enlightenment tendency to believe only what could be proven had backed itself into a corner. The philosopher David Hume took the quest for evidence to its ultimate skeptical end and 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 ‘real’ world, whether it be the physical world of time and space or a 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 the complete uncertainty of the human predicament.

Another, more tangible shortcoming of the Enlightenment was the failure of the French Revolution. What started as a revolt against tyranny with the aim of putting in place a government created according to the highest principles of enlightened thought turned into a blood bath showcasing the lowest side of human character. What did it mean? What had gone wrong?

A few thinkers began to feel that the Enlightenment was suffocating the human spirit and squeezing passion and morality out of existence. Kant in response to this dilemma created a new vision of reality. He rejected the view that behind everything was a set of universal laws that could be discovered, understood and controlled. Instead he envisioned a universe that grew like a tree and he further saw that human choices and acts of human will were a part of how that growth occurred.

The Enlightenment saw a mechanical universe run by fixed laws. The new thinking, later called Romanticism saw a universe that was organic and grew in accordand with acts of will. The Enlightenment had held human reason and rationality in the highest regard. The Romantics elevated human will and creative freedom to a stature above reason.

The Romantics were skeptical of science. Frankenstein, the great Romantic novel by Mary Shelly, is the well-known story of a scientist who creates life only to discover that his creation is beyond his control and in the end 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. We do not exist as beings separate from the universe that act upon it. We are part of the universe and by giving ourselves to our deepest yearnings we become enter into a cosmic process of creation.

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 their heathen faith. The Christian would simply see the zealous Pagan as that much more dangerous. The Enlightened thinker didn’t admire the passion of the monk’s love for God; instead the monk seemed all the more foolish. The Romantics admired even the passion of their enemies. To die for ones ideals was one of the highest goods and it is good no matter what the ideal. Because of this in Romantic literature you find stories in which the antagonist is the character who you admire the most.

If the Enlightenment thinkers had felt shackled by the superstition of the middle ages, the Romantic thinkers felt straightjacketed by the rigid adherence to natural laws of the Enlightenment. The Romantics loved to break rules, to snub laws and live as unconventionally as possible. They were original in dress, in lifestyle, and in thinking. As poets, playwrights and novelists they broke literary styles and their great musical composers, perhaps Beethoven 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. And this revolutionary movement found its way into America through the writings of the Transcendentalists of Concord who lead their own American Romantic Revolution.

The question I want you to ask yourself is, are you a Romantic? My answer will be, yes you are. Here are five habits that describe modern day romantics.

  1. You recognize that human beings cannot disconnect themselves from the natural world.
  2. You have a sense of style and accept that some choices are made purely based on aesthetic considerations.
  3. You see yourself as a unique individual who cannot be replaced by any other.
  4. When you eat at a restaurant you think about what you want to eat and don’t assume it will be the same as yesterday.
  5. You sometimes go window-shopping without a clear intention to buy anything, just to imagine yourself wearing those clothes.

If these statements apply to you then you are a Romantic.

As a Romantic you possess a consciousness that appreciates both the indivisible wholeness of life and the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual. You don’t believe that the universe is totally understandable. You accept that life is infinite and some aspects of it will always remain beyond our mind’s ability to understand. You are suspicious of the use of power to manipulate and control and seek to find a more natural flow with the life process and surrender into want wants to happen rather than force things into being.