Thursday, August 22, 2013

Romanticism: The Philistines (and being fully human).

[H]uman beings only play when they are in the full sense of the word human and they are only fully human when they play.  - Friedrich Schiller. 
Romantics like Schiller believed the French revolution revealed the inadequacy of rational political solutions by ushering in state terror and imperial conquest. The true solution lies in aestheticism: "if man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice, he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to freedom."

There was however the practical matter of earning food and drink and shelter. The 18th century witnessed an explosion of population growth in towns and cities which offered a new source of income for artists. But this new income came with the price of artistic integrity because the public did not want the Beauty of Schiller, preferring instead easy listening and simple rhythmical poetry. Unsurprisingly the18th century also saw the word 'philistine' take on it's modern meaning.

A Philistine is an uncultured person hostile to art, culture, and the life of the mind, who, in their stead, prefers the life of economic materialism and conspicuous consumption as the paramount human activities and whose tastes are commonplace and material. The word first gained coinage from German students who took it from a funeral oration delivered in 1668 for the death of one of their number at the hands of a local  burgher:  "The Philistines be upon thee, Samson". The students identified themselves with Samson and began calling townspeople philistines. By the nineteenth century the confrontation had expanded to intellectuals versus the public especially the middle classes whom the romantics mercilessly mocked, portraying them in novels and poems as caring only for items of material utility and blind to transcendental art which truly made man fully human. The middle classes became the 19th century equivalent of Yeats's shopkeepers who but fumbled in the greasy till.

Most movements divide the world into those with us and those who oppose us. For romantics, the opponents were the philistines.

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