English 10
European Humanities
Mr. Spragins

Romanticism (1760-1830)

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 Philosophers (1932))

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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:

  1. Man is not born in a sinful, depraved state.
  2. The end of life is life itself, the good life on earth, not life after death in heaven.
  3. Man is capable, guided solely by the light of reason and experience, of perfecting life on earth.
  4. 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, dangerous exercise.

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:

  1.  Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
  2.  Is God able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
  3.  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 world.

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 freedom.

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).