The Collapse of the Enlightenment Dream
(from Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), Susan Nieman, Evil in the Modern World (2002), and Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (1967) )

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 (Universal Truth):

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.

From transcendent truth: 

In the Middle Ages, when mankind was at the center of the universe and 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. This truth existed ideally, in the mind of God, and even the great theologians acknowledged that they could only dimly deduce it. 

To scientific truth:

During the Enlightenment the notion of natural law had been transformed by the scientific revolution.     The study of nature had become concerned with observing the physical phenomena of nature itself. Natural philosophers (whom we came to 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). 

Newton and Locke

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 thinking rationally, actually doing science was the way to express this love. 

Locke’s great idea (tabula rasa) asserted that the mind owes nothing to inheritance and everything to environment. This idea demolished the Christian doctrine of original sin. According to Locke, the mind of man was merely a record of the sensations and experiences of the outer world that could become, as man used his reason to re-shape the world, the best of all possible worlds. By the use of our faculties alone, mankind could bring our 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 our minds from the bonds of ignorance and superstition and our 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 myth of salvation with the myth of utopia. The Christian story suggested that an ancient paradise could be regained through salvation. The Enlightenment philosophers suggested instead that a new heaven could be manifested here on earth. Man himself, not God, not a philosopher king, could engineer this good society through the progressive and incremental improvements made by successive generations of rational social scientists. 

The Myth of Progress had replaced the Myth of Salvation.

The Logical Flaw in Enlightenment Optimism: Voltaire and Hume

Unfortunately, the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment had already discovered logical flaws in this utopian plan, and through these cracks the Romantic Movement would grow. 

Voltaire's Pragmatism

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.

Is there an answer to this paradoxical conundrum?

What would a perfect society look like? What form of government would it have?

  • What would happen if  mankind were granted complete freedom?  (The mob will never learn.)
  • Is a ruling class necessary?                                                             (We are born with an inequality of gifts; unless this natural elite rules, we are bound for catastrophe.)
  • BUT, will there ever be social justice unless the majority truly rules? (Absolute power corrupts absolutely.)

There may not be a solution to this problem!

Some of our other universal ideals may be incompatible with each other:

  • Is freedom compatible with equality?
  • Is justice compatible with mercy?
  • Does the truth make us happy?
  • Does virtue consist in knowledge?

What was Voltaire's final advice to us?

  • The Meaning of Life?
  • The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Hume's Skepticism

(notes from Susan Nieman's Evil in Modern Thought, "The Impotence of Reason: David Hume" (148-169)

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, explored the logical flaw in optimistic determinism in a systematic fashion, yet his conclusions were even more disturbing than Voltaire's destruction of our idea of utopia. Hume never published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. He quietly left this subversive document concealed in his desk, for in it he takes aim at the Enlightenment's best hope: a natural religion that could be embraced by all who embraced reason.

The argument from design for the existence of God is at the heart of natural religion. The existence of God seems self evident by the natural facts which surround us. Hume points out that this argument is based on the testimony of what we seem plainly to see: a natural order of such fineness and complexity that  it could not have been developed by accident. Kant's favorite example of the exquisite design of nature is the preservation of life through the changing seasons. Simple common sense makes us rejoice at the wonder of it all. Hume, though, argues that this sort of reasoning is moved by the same sort of fear and trembling that led to darker varieties of worship. It is the fear of mischance and accident and other types of disorder.

Hume proceeds to deconstruct every brick and beam with which the argument form design is composed. We infer cause from effect, but what exactly does causation come to? No ordinary rules of logic tell us that events need cause. The claim that every event must have a cause (sufficient reason) is not in and of itself a claim of reason. All we note when events repeat with certain causes is constant conjunction not a sure relation. What about the cause of events which happened only once.... like the Creation? Can we be sure that every event has some cause or another?

Only unthinking anthropomorphism makes us think that the law of cause and effect has some sense. The natural thinking that tried to undo magical thinking turns out to be as rife with magic as any other. Christianity itself is merely one religious alternative among others. Hume argued that polytheism made more sense than monotheism (as well as being healthier: it promotes tolerance). If something as fine as a schooner cannot be produced by one man alone but requires a whole crew of skilled workers, why not assume that several deities assembled to fabricate the world?

The argument form design also hangs on the claim that the universe is a good artifact. Descriptions of the natural world made the argumetn from design a reasonable inference, if inference were possible. However, Hume argues that if the universe were indeed designed by some celestial contractor, then he did a pretty lousy job: the roof leaks, the stairs slope, the windows jam. War, oppression, sickness and death are undeniable. The universality of human misery is part of an infinite gradation of natural enemies, each seeking the other's destruction from above and below.What purpose could this strange machinery have? Storms ruin harvests. The sun destroys what the gentle rain has nurtured.

The defenders of both traditional religion and natural religion would reply with the challenge: if you don't like this world, could you design a better one? Hume rejects this idea as outside of his competence, but he does suggest that this design has been a disaster. A better designer would have dealt with four key problems:

  1.  The mechanism which uses pain as a spur to action, indeed to preservation. why not design a universe in which we feel nothing but varying degrees of pleasure? Does reason require that motivation be unpleasant?
  2. The necessity of natural law is required for a predictable world, but a really perfect builder might have designed general laws that work to everyone's advantage. Instead we are stuck with a world in which contingency and accident determine human affairs. Why can't accidents all be happy?
  3. Nature is stingy (even if we do have an extra eye and ear). Each species possesses the bare minimum it needs to survive. Why not create a few creatures with better properties: the speed of a cheetah and the intelligence of a human? Either God lacks good will or competence. Why not give humans more diligence?
  4. The workmanship pf the great ship of nature was never adjusted accurately. Winds and passions are constantly getting out of control. Why not turn down the capacity?

Human reason can find no ground why a universe could not be designed without those four circumstances that lead to so much evil. "Be reasonable!" That means "Reduce your expectations." Hume displays reason's helplessness time and time again.

  1. It cannot penetrate common mysteries like the causes that seem self-evident.
  2. The world could have been designed so much more reasonably: more humane and more systematic, and more receptive to law so that it would not have been the source of daily suffering.
  3. For reason, evil is thoroughly opaque.

No, Hume kept his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion locked away 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. (You’ll read about how tonight.) So much for the belief in social engineering!

The New Quest for Personal Freedom

The Romantics sought meaning not in science but in the 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 be defined by external codes of conduct, logical systems, even natural forces themselves, can the true nature of the life be experienced. Furthermore, the Romantic quest for 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 Diversity 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 Political Impact of Romanticism (positive)

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. (negative liberty) 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).

Hume left his manuscript in his desk, for he knew that to resolve this dilemma, he would have had to renounce the optimism of his age and move backwards towards faith or forward into atheism.