Monday, June 24, 2013

The Romantics: An introduction (or the rejection of Locke and Newton)

If by romanticism one understands the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my aversion to models copied in the schools, and my loathing for academic formula, I must confess that not only am I romantic, but I was so at the age of fifteen - Eugène Delacroix

"The importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world. It seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred  and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to me in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it." - Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism.

For an explanation of the framework I use to discuss the history of ideas, please see [this post].


A central theme in Western philosophy is that the universe is ordered and structured;  that all genuine questions can be answered if not by limited human rationality, then by an omniscient being.  This proposition was born in classical Greece, accepted by Christians and by the Scholastics, considered axiomatic by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and embraced by the positivist tradition of the twentieth century.  Furthermore, it applied not just to the natural world but also to aesthetics, ethics and politics.  Art too must follow rational laws descended from the classical age. 

During the Enlightenment this process of breaking the cosmos into smaller blocks, then searching for causal relationships between them, climaxed with Isaac Newton and the laws of motion and universal gravitation.  Newton opened the way for the mechanization of the heavens and proved the supremacy of empiricism and mathematics that combine to form the scientific method.  Newton prestige was so great that Voltaire declared him "the greatest man who has ever lived, the very greatest, the giants of antiquity are beside him children playing marbles".

It was against this idea of a single answer to all meaningful questions discernible in nature through reason that the Romantics attacked, and even hated.  Their view of the universe  is of an unstructured, single organism in the perpetual change and flux of self-creation.  The rational philosophers and scientists who dissent the universe into smaller blocks easily understood by human rationality only embrace cold dead facts and distance humanity from life itself.  It is, in the phase of Coleridge, 'little-ist' :  "They contemplate nothing but parts and all parts are necessarily little - and the universe to them is but a mass of little things". 
From this follows a theory that all attempts to impose a pattern or order or a set of facts onto the universe, is folly and must necessarily fail because of the ever changing flux of the universe. What scientists study is nothing but a dead corpse stripped of it's living essence, a lost movement of time which may never reoccur. Facts and logical systems are not found in nature, but are imposed upon nature by human will and creativity. 

This rejection of objective facts, not only in the realms of aestheticism and ethics but in the natural world, leads to a shifting of focus away from the external world to the internal world of human perception, inspiration and will.  Under this theory the universe is not the dead inactive matter that scientists examine, but rather an active spirit of which we all posses a part because human will and mind are also active like the universe itself, and not passive like the dead facts and axioms of rationalism.

If the universe can not be understood through logical axioms or experimental science, then it must be understood through symbolism, myth and allegories for only these categories can allow us to partially convey what is immaterial using material means, to express what is inexpressible, to make conscious what is unconscious.

It is no surprise then that John Locke raised the ire of the Romantics perhaps more than even Newton by advancing a theory of human development that asserted at birth the human mind was 'white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas'.  Knowledge was acquired solely through experience and through our environment.  This idea was anathema to the new cult of genus and heroic individualism worshiped by the Romantics.

The Romantics reject objective facts in favor of focusing inward towards the human will and human creativity best expressed through artistic creation. They are not interested in knowledge, or science or political power or even human happiness.  Questions of right or wrong are deemed unimportant, if indeed they are considered at all.

The values to which a Romantic attaches the highest importance are such values as integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice ones life to some inner light, dedication to some ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying.   'Live for nothing or die for something' screamed Sylvester Stallone's Rambo caught in a modern passion of  pure romanticism.  Sincerity, passion and the will to succeed is more important than the actual cause.  Motive is more important than consequences.  

The most basic lesson of the Romantics is that there is no structure to things, that we can mold things according to our will.  Knowledge is at best an instrument towards achieving the ends we choose for ourselves because like the universe, all of life is action and self-creation. 
We create our values, our  goals and our ends in the same way an artist creates a vision of the universe from nothing but his own will and his own perception.  If a man does not act, then is is barely alive.  To be free, we must act; we must create. 

*In the 'Roots of Romanticism' Isaiah Berlin traces the origins of Romanticism to German humiliation at the hands of France  and the subsequent rejection of French rationalism.  I'm a huge admirer of Berlin but I think he overstates the case. It is not clear in his account how for example Romanticism spread to England in the shape of notable figures like Byron   If my account above is too Anglo centered, it is for the sake of brevity:  exploring the fairly mystical thought of Hamann and Schiller may wait. 
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