Introduction: Characteristics of Romanticism
The late eighteenth century was an Age or Revolution.
The gradual transformation of the European economy, which had been underway
since Chaucer’s time, climaxed finally in a tumultuous political event that
altered the very structure of society. The French Revolution was not just a
watershed moment in our political history; it was a key moment in the history
of Western ideas. Although the leaders of the French Revolution used
Enlightenment principles of natural rights, social justice and universal
brotherhood to justify their overthrow of the Old Regime, the passion and
nationalist ferment, the terror and violence of the French Revolution helped
create not only a new political order based on capitalism but also a new era
in philosophy, art, music, and literature.
Romanticism rebelled against reason, order, balance, rationality, and
intellect, all the sacred principles of the philosophes. At its core was a
new conception of nature and a new respect for the power of the human
imagination. Romantics elevated emotion over reason, creative freedom over
logic. This was the age that invented the idea of ‘genius’ and celebrated the
heroic individual as the moving force in history. It was the age of Napoleon,
Beethoven, and Byron. Romanticism was born in the German speaking parts of
Europe that had been conquered by Napoleon’s armies. German thinkers rejected
the worldview of the French Enlightenment and rethought the relationship
between man and nature. Out of this intellectual movement would grow a
nationalist ideology which would result in the creation of a new nation state.
In England, six great poets came of age in a single generation. In Russia, an
Eastern culture came into contact with the ferment of Western thought, and
its writers would produce the greatest narrative fiction of the century.
During the Romantic Era, poets, philosophers, musicians, and artists rejected
the notion that one universal, objective truth existed. Truth was redefined
as subjective: the individual created his own reality, his own morality; a
national culture created its own art, its own political institutions. The Age
of Romanticism inspired great art and helped create new respect for diverse
cultures and alternate lifestyles. Paradoxically, Romanticism also nurtured
the nationalist racism and imperialist ambition that would tear civilization
apart in thirty years of World War during the 20th century.
Review of Central Enlightenment Principles
(notes from Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century
The emotional subjectivism of Romantic inspiration seems the polar opposite
of Enlightenment reason, but it actually grew out of the cool and rational
principles of the philosophes. By examining how our
notions of natural law changed, we can trace the evolution of the ideas that
would form the basis for the Romantic rebellion against reason.
The Enlightenment Redefinition of Natural Law:
To be enlightened meant to renounce traditional belief in
Holy Writ and Holy Church as “a fraud or at best an illusion born of
ignorance perpetrated by the priests in order to accentuate the fears of
mankind and so hold it in subjection.” (Becker, p. 52)
To be enlightened meant believing that God had revealed his
Law to mankind not through revelation, but in a far less mysterious way,
through nature itself.
In the Middle Ages, when the Church’s vision of the cosmic drama of mankind’s
quest for salvation dominated intellectual thought, natural law had little to
do with the actual observation of nature itself. Natural law reflected a
concept above and outside the physical universe (transcendent truth). It
existed ideally, in the mind of God, and even the great theologians could
only dimly deduce this truth.
During the Enlightenment the notion of natural law had been transformed by
the scientific revolution. The study of nature was now concerned with the
observed phenomena of nature itself. Natural philosophers (whom we would call
scientists) revealed an intricate and delicate system of inter-related
machines. Humans themselves were conceived as machines, marvelous but largely
passive recording devices whose identity was shaped through interaction with
the world (tabula rasa).
The Enlightenment worldview had been inspired by the great ideas of Isaac
Newton in physics and John Locke in psychology and political philosophy.
Newton’s laws of motion had made nature into a mechanism that could be
observed and controlled by anyone, even common workers. People believed that
the pursuit of reason would help them achieve a better way of life. The study
of nature revealed the force, wisdom and harmony of God’s design. Nature was
the new object of worship, and science was the way to express this love.
Locke’s great idea (epistemology) was that the mind owes nothing to
inheritance and everything to environment. This idea demolished the Christian
doctrine of original sin. The mind of man was merely a record of the sensations
and experiences of the outer world that would become, as man used his reason
to re-shape the world, the best of all possible worlds. By the use of their
faculties alone, mankind could bring their ideas and behavior into harmony
with the universal natural order.
Deism: the religion of the Enlightenment:
Man is not born in a sinful, depraved state.
The end of life is life itself, the good life on earth, not
life after death in heaven.
Man is capable, guided solely by the light of reason and
experience, of perfecting life on earth.
To accomplish this great goal, we must free their minds from
the bonds of ignorance and superstition and their bodies from the oppression
of corrupt social authorities.
Vive le revolution!
The Myth of Progress
What an intoxicating vision! What a powerful myth! The Enlightenment
philosophers had replaced the Christian myth with a new myth that would prove
just as attractive to the masses of common men during the Romantic era! The
Christian story suggested an ancient paradise could be regained through
salvation. The enlightenment philosophers suggested instead that a new heaven
could be manifested here on earth, a utopia. Man himself (not God, not a
philosopher king) could engineer this good society through the progressive
improvements made by successive generations of rational social scientists.
The Myth of Progress replaced the Myth of Salvation.
The Logical Flaw in Enlightenment Optimism
Unfortunately, the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment had already
discovered logical flaws in this utopian plan, and it is from these flaws
that the Romantic Movement would grow. In Candide Voltaire satirized the
optimism of these blithe social engineers. He was insulted by their affront
to his common sense: evil is rampant in this the best of all possible worlds!
Voltaire argued that asking metaphysical questions was finally a pointless,
I guess you won’t be surprised to learn that his advice went unheeded.
David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, explored the logical flaw in optimistic
determinism in a systematic fashion. He believed that it was futile to use
reason to establish either the existence of God or the goodness of God.
His logic runs like this:
If nature is the work of God, and man the product of nature, then all that
man does, thinks, all that he has ever done or thought, is natural too. How,
then, can we possibly be out of harmony with nature? Hume quotes the
questions of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is
Is God able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
Hume never published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. He quietly
left his subversive document concealed in his desk. For to resolve this
dilemma, he would have had to renounce the optimism of his age and move
backwards towards faith or forward into atheism. The Romantic philosophers
who followed Hume exploited the logical flaw at the heart of the
Enlightenment’s Myth of Progress and revolutionized our way of seeing the
Romanticism’s New Ideas: (from
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (1965))
Rejection of the Quest for Universal Truth
The Romantic movement broke forever the West's ancient quest to realize a
single, absolute and perfect understanding of the truth. More specifically,
the Romantics assaulted the logical propositions at the base of the
Enlightenment's plan for a rational Utopia: the idea that all true questions
have knowable and compatible answers. Hume had also demonstrated the
impossibility of this proposition. So much
for the belief in social engineering!
The New Quest for Personal Freedom
The Romantics sought meaning instead in expression of the individual will.
Only the freedom to choose a personal ideal offered dignity and identity to
the human experience. Only by refusing to de defined by external codes of
conduct, logical systems, even natural forces themselves could the true
nature of the life force be experienced. Furthermore, the Romantic quest for
sincere or authentic experience must be never ending, for to pause or rest in
any single formulation of self, no matter how unique, would be to cease to be
free. It is only in the pursuit of an essence which can never be defined that
true experience can be had- and we must make the pursuit or surrender our
The Varieties of Romantic Expression
The anti-logic of Romanticism inspired the creation of a diverse variety of
aesthetic theories, artistic forms, political movements and individual
philosophies. Yet all these contradictory impulses are "Romantic"
in that they reflect an unwillingness to accept a single, defining notion of
truth or reality. Even though Romanticism led to the creation of bizarre and
destructive movements, even broached the limits of sanity in some individual
cases, it did have a beneficent effect on Western Civilization.
The Impact of Romanticism
We no longer believe that any one political, philosophical, religious or
cultural system can claim the right to be applied universally. Instead we
have learned to tolerate and celebrate those who are different. We have
reached consensus on notions of civility in a diverse society which accepts
alternate lifestyles and cultures as long as their adherents do not seek to
impose their values on others. We recognize that tragedy is an inevitable
fact of life because our most cherished ideals are incompatible: Knowledge
will not necessarily make us happy. Perfect freedom cannot be reconciled with
equality. Justice and mercy do not always coincide.
In short, Romanticism broke the West's long dream of realizing a single
Utopian vision of the true society: Plato's Republic, Augustine's City of
God, or the philosophe's crystal palace of reason. Romanticism paved the way
for modern liberalism whose tenets are freedom (as long as your actions do
not interfere with another's freedom), toleration of diversity (even those
beliefs which run counter to your own) and pragmatic compromise (seeking
solutions but tempering expectations with the understanding that ideal
solutions are impossible).