The Heart and Soul of Romanticism

In deep meditation we encounter our own non-existence, or at least we discover that we are not who, or what, we thought we were. We see that our experience is made up of a never-ending parade of passing experiences. These experiences are all real experiences, but we have no way of knowing if they are real experiences of something real. It occurs to us that even if we were to find definitive proof of some independently existing reality, that proof would come in the form of another experience. There would be no way of knowing what truth that experience was pointing toward either.

As we stated already the Scottish philosopher David Hume realized this a long time ago. One of the contemplations he was involved with was an inquiry as to how he could know for certain that he was not dreaming right now. How could he know that his current experience was not actually a dream? He concluded that there was no way to be certain. This could all be a dream. So he preferred to play backgammon in public squares rather than face with the deep uncertainty that lies beyond the edge of what we think we know. Later we talk about the Existentialist philosophers on the early twentieth century who embraced uncertainty with vim and vigor, but even before that the Germany philosopher Immanuel Kant was carving out a space for uncertainty in the human experience. In his masterwork The Critique of Pure Reason he uses the word numenon to describe the real reality that lies beneath our phenomenal experience. We all have access to a filtered and interpreted perception of reality – phenomenon. Real reality lies forever beyond our reach, but it does exist even if we can’t touch it directly.

Kant’s view of reality is more or less the one that most of us hold today. It splits reality up into three parts – the really real, our perception of it and us. It represents a big step forward for humanity because it allows us to embrace different experiences of truth without giving up on truth all together. A world where everyone believes they have infallible access to the only actual truth leads to big problems because we assume that anyone who asserts a different truth must be wrong or crazy, and definitely dangerous.

The realization that we are all holding a perceptual version of reality and not a direct knowing of truth introduced a healthy uncertainty into culture. Over the last few hundred years we began to learn, sometimes slowly and painfully, to tolerate views that are different from ours. And we continue to improve our capacity to look beyond differences in order to discover the deeper truths that unify us.

The literary movement known as Romanticism actively embraced the idea of multiple perspectives. The romantics were in part reacting against what they saw as the limitations of the Enlightenment. One of those limitations was that for all of its magnificent advances the Enlightenment thinkers were still in some ways committed to a single view of truth. It was not the truth of any particular person. They no longer believed that a king or pope had special access to the really real, but they did believe that natural law told us what was unquestionably true. The Western Enlightenment was a triumph for rationality and was certainly more tolerant of difference than the church of the Middle Ages, but to the Romantics it was still closed to the full immensity and mystery of life.

The novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelly is a great Romantic story that metaphorically teaches us about what happens when human beings think they can know everything. Life is bigger than we can conceive of. If we make the mistake of believing that we can understand and control it the results will be… well… monstrous. Timothy Morton also of Rice University tells us that we are still in the Romantic era and I couldn’t agree more. Those of us whose imaginations have been captivated by the immensity of that which lies beyond our ability to grasp are captivated by the Romantic impulse. Poets and play writes like Cooleridge, Wordsworth, Shelly, Fichte, Goethe, Emerson, Longfellow and many others wanted to expand our conception of reality. If the perspective shared in this book compels you it is safe to assume that in your own way you are also a Romantic.

An astounding implication of Romanticism is that reality, at least as we perceive it, is in part created by us. We are both a part of reality and a source of it. This was a very strange idea in the seventeenth century. The Romantics played with the creative and multi-dimensional character of reality by appearing in cameo appearances in their plays. In a cameo appearance the author of the play plays a character in the story, effectively becoming the creator and a part of the creation at the same time.

For the Romantics our experience of consciousness was not something to be taken for granted. Our minds were not just mirroring reality back to us passively. Our minds were shaping our perception of reality. This is the insight that lies at the very core of so much of what we have come to call personal transformation. If our minds shape our experience of reality, we should be able to change our experience of reality by altering our minds. Reality is not something fixed that we exist in and have to take as it is given to us. Reality can be altered and we can have a creative role in the creation of a new future. This insight, which is a very Romantic one, is the heart and soul of conscious evolution.