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Romanticism and the Pathological Imagination

In the annals of the debates over human nature there are two prevailing camps. One asserts the essential rationality of humanity. From this perspective, humans are truly homo sapiens; conscious and rational creatures governed by reason and material self-interest. The other asserts the essential emotionality or pathology of humanity. From this perspective, humans are primarily creatures governed by desire which we have come to call love or eros. This is an oversimplification to be sure, but throughout human history and culture we see this dialectic between reason and emotion, rationality and pathology, over and over again.

Pathological humanism has its origins in poetry, song, and dance. Long before the rise of philosophy, the central nexus of human bonds and community were in ritual song and dance. Song and dance, of course, has an undeniable pathological purpose. Most animals include singing and dancing, gyration, in their mating rituals.

Romanticism’s association with the pathological imagination rests on key tenets. First: we are pathological animals. Second: pathos is the great engine, or spirit, that drives human imagination and ingenuity. Third: human relations are grounded in the pathological impulses, rather than rational inclinations, of humanity. In other words, desire drives the formation of human society and not rational decision making. Fourth: human life cannot sustain itself without pathology.

All great art is a manifestation of the pathological imagination and its rebellion against the sterile encroachments of rationalism. I have argued in many essays, most notably here, that some of the greatest works of Western art and literature are the products of pathological humanism. The most sublime poet in the Western tradition, Homer, wrote the most magnificent work of pathos in the history of the world—for the Iliad is a cosmos of pathos at war which ends in compassion, love, and peace.

If we cannot sing and dance with Achilles, Dante, or Keats, human life will have capitulated. While we may not—to paraphrase a certain song—see ourselves alongside the books of old, Achilles, and other superheroes, human life still flourishes with those legends and myths that teach us all we need is someone to hold, kiss, and embark on a pathological adventure with.

Part of our task as teachers, writers, and defenders of the importance of the humanities—especially the arts—is to inculcate into a new generation shackled to the unimagination of digital memes the awe of sublime which is to be found in the great songs of our cultural patrimony. Since love is the great spirit of pathology, we must love our artistic tradition—not repudiate it and hold it in derision. Then, perhaps, by falling in love with art we can fall in love with the world once more.

My newly published book, The Odyssey of Love, attempts to offer this to all readers. From Homer to Tolstoy, I gather together twenty-one previously published essays from various journals and magazines on art and literature and offering a pathological interpretation of over 40 different books, plays, and poems from over 2500 years of literature. Matthew Arnold wrote that our artistic tradition contains “the best that has been thought and said” about the human condition. I concur. And I would go as far as saying that from Homer to Tolstoy, art and literature can move the sun and the other stars. It is the most transcendent of all human endeavors.

You can buy the book here: The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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