books History Philosophy

Searching for the Sacred: Tim Blanning’s “The Romantic Revolution”

The Enlightenment holds much power in the imagination of the Western mind. Due to the significance of Whig Historiography (still prominent in Western, liberal, academic scholarship) that promoted the historical view that individualism, science, reason, capitalism, and industrialization constitute “modernization” and progress, nearly everyone wants to claim a lineage with the Enlightenment. However, the Enlightenment produced side-effects that influence contemporary discourse and modernity—the degradation of nature, the alienation of humanity through labor and nature, and the “death of God” insofar that the mystical view of God from the Middle Ages was reduced to God being a faraway author of “Natural Law” that he does not violate (hence the lack of miracles), at best (Newton, Descartes, Leibniz’s view of God), or that God did not exist (at worst). In response to these effects of the Enlightenment arose the Romantic Movement, a collection of philosophers, artists, and literary critics (literature authors) who vehemently opposed the Enlightenment project.

We have been told that the Enlightenment shaped modernity (thanks to Whig Historiography). This is simply not true, and ever since the early 1900s, and especially post-war (1945), the Western Academy has rediscovered the tremendous impact of Romanticism upon modernity as well. In politics, Romanticism has a negative connotation because many scholars have asserted that politicized Romanticism led to the totalitarian movements of the early twentieth century (this scholarship has been promoted by titans in philosophy and history like Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Norman Cohn, and more recently by Paul Berman). However, Tim Blanning doesn’t look at Romanticism’s political impact, as much as he looks at the art, culture, and literature of the Romantic movement and how it influenced modernity and modern thinking.

The story starts with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sometimes viewed as an Enlightenment philosopher in high school history books, but widely viewed as the father of Romanticism and the Counter Enlightenment in university studies and scholarship. Rousseau, as Blanning notes, broke with the Enlightenment on many key areas. Rousseau favored passion and emotion over reason, he favored the rule of the public over the enlightened experts (the proletariat over the technocrats), and he also attempted to re-enchant the world with a mixture of conservative Christian theology and Pagan-esque Pantheism (Christian Pantheism) in response to the increasingly secularized and disenchanted religious and theological worldview produced by the Enlightenment. (In fact, “Liberal Christianity,” as championed by people like Friedrich Schleiermacher, is not Christianity merged with the Enlightenment—that is Reformed Epistemology and the very mechanistic and deterministic theologies of Reformed Calvinism, the Puritans, and theological writings of Isaac Newton—it is Christianity merged with Romanticism: all about inward passion, spiritual (inwardly) experience, and the view that God is with nature.) Rousseau also extols, in his literary works, ideas of romantic love and childhood innocence. He found a widespread audience among lowly aristocrats who were upset with their lack of upward mobility and erosion of the world they knew.

Rousseau serves for Romanticism, the same importance Moses does for the Hebrews. Rousseau, like Moses, is a revolutionary prophet and leader who inaugurates a new age for the disposed and oppressed. Rousseau’s political tracts influenced Karl Marx while his philosophical and literary tracts influenced people from Immanuel Kant to Wolfgang von Goethe. Rousseau, a Swiss-born French philosopher, became the progenitor of the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) movement in literature, music, and the arts in Germany, as well as being important in the rise of Immanuel Kant’s career (therefore, it can be said that Rousseau is the father of German Idealism too!). Blanning recreates the artistic and literary culture of the Romantics. The “Sturm und Drang” Movement in Germany emphasized emotion, passion, loud noises, an imagination in their work as a musical and literary revolt against cold and sterile reason.

Romantic literature was obsessed with the notions of passion, emotion, love, and inwardness. Romantic poets demonized the industrial revolution and Enlightenment science as leading to alienation, mechanization, and material exploitation. Likewise, the necessity for innocence is a common theme in Romantic literature.

Romantic artwork rebelled against the neoclassicism of the Renaissance in favor of a new creation of the Medieval Gothic. The Romantics saw imitation (the prevailing neoclassical form of art, copying the works of the classical period of Ancient Greece and Rome) as cheap. The Romantics produced something much more radical, the idea that artwork can, and should, be created ex nihilo. Art should be a creative endeavor, and harkened back to reconnect man with God (insofar that God creates, man can create to grow closer to God). This is why Romantic artwork is so beautiful. The colors, textures, and landscapes are meant to elucidate an emotional and passionate response that drives human action, unlike the neoclassical art that was meant to cause rational inquiry (again, this is Romanticism’s rebellion against rationalism).

Blanning then moves into the framework of the Romantic mind and how Romantics saw reason, industrialization, and urbanization as destroying the delicate balance between humanity and nature. This was the nightmare of the Romantics—that humanity would not only grow alienated from the world, but through industrial capitalism, they would grow alienated from each other.

Likewise, Blanning moves into the importance of myth and language to the Romantics. The Romantics were so violently opposed to the present modernity, that they created imaginative worlds of the past: the Middle Ages, ancient history (the Pagans, Aryans, Norse), and even the “State of Nature” (Rousseau’s view that primitive man lived in an Edenic-like paradise until they “fell” with the inversion of reason, “The Tree of Knowledge”). Through language, literature, and artwork, the Romantics created an imaginary world that captured the imagination of their audiences. Folktales, folk art, and fantastical stories of dragons, goblins, trolls, knights with shiny armor rescuing the damsel in distress were all inventions of Romanticism—all of which terribly twisted the reality of ancient history (the Knights of the Middle Ages, for instance, far from being the heroic nobles of literature, were essentially the mafia of the Medieval Period, thugs on horseback who terrorized the peasants).

Blanning finishes with a careful consideration of how Romanticism transcends the Left-Right political paradigm. Conservatives and Revolutionaries, those who opposed the Ancien Regime and those who favored it, were all children of Romanticism. He notes that Romanticism influenced the development of modernity more than people realize, or have been told. Our modern ideas of love, passion, emotion, creative artwork (even Dadaism), fairy-tales, folk literature, the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, pantheistic Christianity (and pantheism in general), and intellectual movements like postmodernism are all direct legacies of Romanticism. What happened after the Enlightenment? Far from achieving supremacy, a massive intellectual, cultural, and literary movement arose in opposition to it.

At its heart, the Romantic movement was a movement that was searching for something sacred in an increasingly disenchanted, industrial, and mechanical world being created from the Enlightenment. These Romantics looked for the sacred in many forms: art, (traditional) religion, neo-religion (like Christian Pantheism or Spiritualism), music, literature, nature, anything!

Today, the politics of ethnic identity (following a radical understanding of Johann von Herder’s volksgeist), Marxism, anti-globalization and anti-capitalism, and free-love, the intellectual movements of postmodernism, moral relativism and nihilism, and the rise of literary criticism in the social sciences and humanities, are all part of the continued Romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment. Tim Blanning has produced, in under 200 pages, one of the best introductions of Romanticism possible. However, for those who have a great knowledge of Romanticism (perhaps because of being a philosophy major or a lay student of the movement), you will not find anything new. That said, this is the best introduction and popular account of Romanticism that I’ve come across!

This review is from my Amazon review of Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution.

Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution: A History

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