The Validity of Romantic Philosophy in the Modern Age
There are few periods in history that can be said to have produced as great a variety of art, music, literature, poetry and philosophy as the romantic era. One overriding theme found a place throughout this diversity of theme and form; the romantic ideal of the self. The romantics were the first to truly examine the self and what being an individual meant (Sypher, 19). Many scholars refer to the romantic era as the era that "created the self" (Sypher, 19). Yet despite this lofty claim no application of the romantics' ideas about individuality can be found in a world that now professes to be founded on personal freedoms. Modern society's utter rejection and even vilification of romantic ideals is not because its concepts of freedom and liberty have evolved beyond those of the romantics, but because the romantics' concept of individual integrity and self realization before all else are in direct conflict with the modern social system.
The philosophy of the romantics was primarily existential and was conceived as a reaction and defense against the industrial revolution (Löwith, 69). The industrial revolution had begun to permeate every level of society, alienating man from himself by making him nothing more than a means of production who's only goal was to amass more capital and "get ahead" (Fromm, Escape From Freedom, 110). In other words, the individual was becoming simply a cog in society's great machine.
This loss of dignity and integrity of the individual was the primary concern of the romantic philosophers (Sypher, 32). They sought to firmly establish the dignity and integrity of humanity by removing individuals from the society that was robbing them of these things (Sypher, 21). The romantics believed that concepts of beauty, love, good, evil and reality itself were fundamentally different for each individual and could not be derived from institutions, nations or religions. Schopenhauer, a prominent romantic philosopher, once wrote, "The world is my idea, the sun exists only as I see it. The earth exists only as I feel it," (Thomas, Living Biographies of Great Philosophers, 224).
This extreme form of relativism is one of the main reasons the modern world finds romantic philosophy unacceptable. Psychologists have established that all human beings have a natural desire for absolutes, for there to be something bigger than themselves which they can be a part of. Absolutes can provide the only sense of purpose and direction in a person's life (Fromm, Escape From Freedom, 104). Romantic philosophy cannot give people such absolutes.
Modern civilization has satisfied this need by establishing universal ethical norms in statutes like the UN Charter of Rights. People are expected to accept such principles not only as the law, but also as the final definition of right and wrong.
The romantics rejected such universal concepts because, during their time, universal concepts were turning people into machines, subordinating the individual to the state through nationalism and making the purpose of all people's lives to amass wealth through capitalism. With universal values failing to preserve individual integrity, the only solution was to establish relative ones. No one could force an individual to compromise himself in the name of good if all good was derived from the individual (Barques, 24).
Universal values are only acceptable if they promote the self realization and individual dignity (Fromm, Man For Himself, 118). By making the rule of law and the perception of selfishness as evil the cornerstones of its moral system, modern Western civilization has failed to acheive this aim (Fromm, Man For Himself, 119).
Modern society has taken the view that because laws help to preserve life and property they are by nature good things and must be obeyed. Even if an individual feels that a law is wrong, he is still morally obligated to obey it while it remains the law.
The romantics had a very different view of law. In writing, " . . . to sacrifice duty, that general obligation, to personal motives and to feel in these personal motives something general also, and perhaps superior; to betray society to be true to his own conscience,"(Hugo, Les Miserables, 529), Victor Hugo clearly stated the common opinion among romantics that if an individual's conscience was in conflict with society's laws or values, the only ethical action he can take is to obey his own conscience. They left nearly all matters of good and evil up to individual conscience. The only absolute good they were willing to establish was that of self realization (Sypher 29).
The idea that self realization is the only universal good is in direct conflict with the modern perception of selfishness as evil. Even though it undermines the realization of the self, such a moral tenet is understandable in that it fosters cooperation and social stability. However, as the romantics pointed out, any society that needs to suppress the conscience and degrade the individual to attain stability is flawed and unacceptable (Friedman, 124).
However flawed the current system might be, to most modern sociologists it seems impractical to form a new one based upon the ideas of the romantics (Hausen, 72). How can laws be formed without at least some suppression of individual conscience? How can a society, an entity based on unity, be founded upon the idea that everyone should strive solely for their own enlightenment? The answer to these questions can be found within the romantic era.
John Stuart Mill's great work On Liberty, offers concrete social reforms that respect romantic ideals and make individual freedom the basis of civilization. Mill wrote that all persons must be allowed to retain "sovereignty over themselves." He meant that all people must be allowed to live their own lives however they see fit without any interference from others. Under this premise laws are created not based upon society's absolute concepts of what is right and wrong, decent and obscene or good and evil, but on fundamental human rights. The only crime is the violation of these rights. Individuals are therefore not forced to accept society's norms as right or wrong, they are allowed to believe whatever they want, so long as they do not violate another's right to do the same.
Like the romantic philosophers, Mill felt freedom of opinion was the paramount of these fundamental human rights and for the purpose of preserving this, freedom of speech was second. Mill would have society organized such that no law could limit an individual's opinion or speech, no matter how many people are against that opinion or its expression.
Mill went even further than to propose law reforms. He criticized the underlying mentality of "majority rules", and pointed out how public pressure is used to covertly force people to change their opinions or at least become silent. He wanted people to realize that they do not have the right to do this to others. The use of public pressure to prevent people from forming and expressing "unacceptable" opinions would be eliminated through public awareness of an individual's right to have and express their own thoughts.
Mill's concept of "sovereignty over the self" provides concrete social reforms based around the romantic ideal of the self. It ensures that the individual is able to attain self realization by enabling him to live free and apart from the regulations of society.
This very freedom has been the cause of another objection to romantic philosophy. Modern psychologists agree that if the individual is set completely apart from society, and not given the structure and direction of absolutes, he is prone to feelings of isolation and hopelessness that can eventually lead to insanity (Fromm, Escape From Freedom, 104). This was a problem the romantics were aware of and had a solution for.
In Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo accurately reflects the situation of the individual. He is utterly alone and ostracized, given to feelings of great isolation and hopelessness. These feelings cripple him far more than his deformed body does, but they are not his fault. They stem from society. Because Quasimodo transcends society, defying any role it can give him, it rejects him. He is made into a freak, a thing to be laughed at or feared. He is robbed of the strength and dignity that being a unique individual should have brought him.
The same is true of Esmeralda. She too transcends society, denying any role it tries to place upon her. The only difference is that she is still capable of social interaction and thus sanity. Society destroys her because it cannot allow an individual to be both free and dignified. To do so would prove that its own universal values are not necessary.
As Hugo so vividly points out, the feelings of isolation and hopelessness experienced by the independent, self-aware individual are the fault of society. When individuals refuse to fall into some acceptable part of the social mainstream, society forces them out entirely or merely destroys them. This utter denial of human contact and interaction, which is an essential part of sanity (Fromm, The Sane Society, 40), is so unbearable that the individual either conforms to society's demands, or loses the dignity and integrity that being his own person should have brought.
Only by abandoning its concept of acceptable roles, and recognizing that no one way of living is any more acceptable than any other, can society truly allow people to be fully developed individuals free from the burdens of isolation and hopelessness.
The sole objection that can be raised against not deterring people from leaving the social mainstream is the question of progress. If people are not in some way compelled to produce and contribute, how can society progress? This objection is more of an indication of flaws in modern Western civilization than any flaws in romantic philosophy.
Modern society has accepted that there will always be a demand for new products to improve quality of life. If enough people are not compelled to work in certain industries, how can these products be produced? This idea leads to the endless cycle of supply and demand, one of the foundations of society. The problem with it is that material goods are an end rather than a means (Löwith, 69).
The romantics wanted people to stop living for material ends and start pursuing their own interests. Material goods were a necessary side effect of living, and should only be given enough attention to continue living; anything more, and people begin living for something other than their true benefit (Löwith, 69).
This true benefit is not to be found in material goods making life more comfortable, but in individual, spiritual and intellectual growth. Unlike the modern system, the romantics defined progress not as having a new model car each year, but as having a more fully developed individual each instant.
This is the essential difference between romantic philosophy and modern society. Today's world tries to give the individual external definition through a highly structured society designed around preserving social order, utilitarian values, definite social obligations and improving creature comforts. Such a society is not individualistic, but absolute, intolerant and materialistic. The romantics tried to prevent these ideas from forming a basis for society by promoting the internal definition of the self through relative values, abandonment of external obligations, and self-realization.Works Cited
Barques, Jacques. "Intrinsic & Historic Romanticism." Problems in European Civilization: Romanticism. Ed. John B. Halsted. Toronto: DC Heath & Co., 1965.
This article attempts to impartially define romanticism.
Byron, George. "Don-Juan". 1821. Online. Netscape. Eserver. 22 Oct. 1998. Available: http://eserver.org/poetry/don-juan.txt.
Byron's epic poem deals with what is arguably the epitome of the romantic hero.
Christopher, James R., and George G. Wittet. Modern Western Civilization. Toronto: Oxford, 1991.
The text book's section on fascism examines the dangers of the ideas of the romantic age as applied to institutions rather than individuals.
Coren, Michael. "Human Rights Not What They Should Be." The London Free Press 8 Oct. 1998: A13.
This article deals with many of the problems faced in our society today.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Denmark: Woodsworth, 1993.
This Dickens classic proves that actions taken only to further the self do not necessarily fit our definition of "selfishness".
Fromm, Erich. Escape From Freedom. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Fromm, a psychologist, details how we in the modern age are not as free as we like to think.
Fromm, Erich. Man For Himself. Boston: Ark, 1986.
A companion piece to Escape From Freedom, this book defends existentialism as the solution to the problems dealt with in the first book.
Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. Greenwhich: Fawcett, 1955.
Another companion piece to Escape From Freedom, this work examines how insanity can be socially patterned.
Hausen, Arnold. "A Flight From Reality." Problems in European Civilization: Romanticism. Ed. John B. Halsted. Toronto: DC Heath & Co., 1965.
This article criticizes romanticism as a threat to social order.
Hugo, Howard E. "Components of Romanticism." Problems in European Civilization: Romanticism. Ed. John B. Halsted. Toronto: DC Heath & Co., 1965.
This article criticizes romanticism as detramental to the individual.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Trans. Walter J. Cobb. USA: Signet, 1965.
A good primary resource from the romantic age, this work examines society's constant attempt to classify and force roles upon individuals.
Hugo, Victor. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Trans. Walter J. Cobb. USA: Signet, 1965.
This primary resource deals with society's treatment of people who have
achieved some measure of individuality.
Löwith, Karl. Max Weber and Karl Marx. Trans. Hans Fantel. Boston: George Allen and Unwin, 1982.
This work is another illustraton of how the ideas of the romantics can be applied to practical politics.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. 1859. Online. Netscape. Gopher. 22 Oct. 1998. Available: gopher://wiretap.Spies.COM:70/00/Library/Classic/liberty.jsm.
This work offers a reconciliation between liberalism and utilitarianism.
Sypher, Wylic. Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.
This book argues against existentialism on the grounds that it is detrimental to both the individual and society.
Thomas, Henry. Biographical Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.
This book details the lives and philosophy of many of the romantic philosophers, among others. While it tries to be impartial, it generally portrays the romantic philosophers in a negative light.
Thomas, Henry, and Dana Lee Thomas. Living Biographies of Great Philosophers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1959.
The work is exceptionally good at detailing the lives and backgrounds of many romantic philosophers.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Rosemary Edmonds. Toronto: Penguin, 1978.
Tolstoy was one of the few critics the romantic ideal of the self during the romantic age. His metaphysics provide what is probably the strongest argument against existentialism.