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This is Episode 2 of The Tragedy of Romanticism

Tags: Spirituality, Platonic idealism, Hegelian idealism, Marxism, Kantian idealism, the Kantian revolution, Johann Fichte, Romantic idealism, Martin Luther, Roy Bhaskar, the tragic sense of life, nihilism, modernity, The French Revolution, 1789, 1517, the Thirty Years War, the mind of God

Informal Romanticism

The French Revolution of 1789 expressed a primal, informal, romanticism that was an inspiration for the philosophical romanticism that developed soon after. It was a projection outward of subjective aspirations, heroically, against the teeth of practicality and realism as defined by the apparent balance of forces and probable achievements. “This is what we want. I don’t care if dreams cannot come true. This expresses my (spiritual) interiority.” The romantic attitude is the opposite of “practical” and “realistic” as ordinarily used. Plans and proposals that count as practical and realistic always expresses a normative political force. In authoritarian cultures, any kind of change in the organization of wealth, power, or status, is considered unrealistic and impractical, and so romantic. That is core conservative political rhetoric and mind-set. In the conservative lexicon “romantic” means frivolous, trivial, crazy, dangerously destructive. Informal romanticism is an assertion of the power of subjectivity against objective actuality, a willing acceptance of the creative non-actuality of subjectivity, but still asserting its value and power. In addition to privileging subjective non-actuality over brute objective actuality, informal romanticism is also a certain characterization of subjectivity, emphasizing the creative, chaotic, emotionally expressive character of dreams in subjectivity. It doesn’t have to be a denial of the reality of objective actuality, only a categorical rejection of the sovereignty and sufficiency of actuality, a resistance to claims of such a sovereignty. The romantic attitude puts emphasis on the creativity of subjectivity, on subjectivity as lawless and capricious, and so on the removal of subjectivity from the pre-determination of both nature and the normative force of cultural models. (Every individual has normative social conformity requirements in addition to the fall-line of physics to limit the possibilities of overtly manifested creativity.) That removal from pre-determination is here called the spiritual interiority of subjectivity.

There was something wildly terrible, tragic, and beautiful (romantic) about the French Revolution, the doomed efforts of age-long victims of aristocratic macro-parasitism, risking their lives and a marginally viable way of life for a slim hope of justice and dignity. By the time of that revolution, Germans had long ago attempted their revolution in the form of the Protestant Reformation, launched by Martin Luther in 1517, and which eventually brought the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), down on their heads. That history left Germans pretty well intimidated, but still substantially Protestant (in very regulated forms) by 1789. However, it could be argued that the Revolution became necessary in France because the Reformation had been so quickly and brutally repressed in the French Wars of Religion in the second half of the sixteenth century, soon after Luther launched the protestant movement. So, as a continuation of post-Reformation re-thinking of fundamental certainties and possibilities (the Enlightenment movement), the Revolution burst forth, and afterward the reactionary backlash inevitably followed, just as it had against the Reformation.

In yet another historical rebound of cultural forces, philosophical Romanticism was an interpretation of the French Revolution by the German academic, literary, and artistic class, just as the Revolution was a kind of French interpretation of the German Reformation (then more than two centuries in the past). The human interconnectedness is a medium and an echo chamber in which cultural creations get refracted by interpretations from person to person (interiority to interiority) and from group to group. In 1789 Germany was emphatically backward looking in political culture as a legacy of the Thirty Years War. German intellectuals such as Johann Fichte (1762-1814) and the artist known as Novalis (1772-1801) were both excited and repelled by the Revolution because in Germany they were immersed in a neo-medieval ideology of admiration for Christendom and its chivalrous aristocracy, even though they longed for complete freedom of thought at the same time. The young German intellectuals felt the thrill of new freedom but desperately wanted to fit it into the stability of existing (medieval) institutions in Germany. They merely wanted people like themselves to be recognized as meriting membership in the fellowship of the privileged.

Broad Effects of Philosophical Fundamentals

Those historical upheavals and catastrophes are inseparably involved with philosophical fundamentals, and especially philosophical conceptions of idealism, of which romanticism is one particular form. Idealism generally asserts that there is a category of non-actuality which is supra-actual, transcendent, and as such indispensable in any conception of reality. That category is what was described above, in relation to informal romanticism, as the spiritual interiority of subjectivity. Both of the following usages of “ideal” illustrate that special interiority. Certain politicians are described as ‘idealist’ rather than pragmatic. Idealist politicians are aspirational in the sense of striving for something not yet actual, something there is reason to believe would be better, but which might be impossible. Also, there is the sense of idealism in “idealized”, in which things are simplified and imagined in a perfected condition. The “idealized” item is distinct from any actual items, and it is commonly understood that, as such, it is interior to some or other subjectivity as an idea. In articulating the importance of a category of non-actuality, idealism goes “through the looking glass” as far as traditional social structures of all kinds are concerned, and so, much depends on the way idealism is conceived. Idealism is politically explosive because it is an affirmation and embracing of a supra-actuality, something more important than whatever nature, previous history, and the sagacious ancestors have bestowed on the current generation in terms of social norms and ways of seeing the world.

Standard Idealism: Plato and Hegel

The directionality of any human gaze is so laden with what cannot be perceived, with subjective non-actualities such as futurity, aspirations, and lessons learned, (caring, anticipation, evaluation) that it points (in addition to a region of surroundings) in a direction that can only be characterized as personally inward, to an interiority of spiritual non-actuality. Any philosophical idealism is some model of spirituality and a recognition of spirituality as elemental or non-reducible. In other words, idealism is some version of absolute recognition of the special interiority of intelligences. Recognizing the special non-actuality of spiritual interiority gives any position an aspect of idealism. A strong idealism asserts that the most fundamental character of the cosmos is intelligence or spirituality.

Romanticism is a kind of idealism, but not the only kind. For example, Plato’s idealism is quite different, and Platonic idealism has been the most influential by far, having established from ancient times a dominance in the European system of cultural reality that still has considerable force. Plato’s Ideal Forms are profoundly stable, eternal, removed from the space/ time and materiality of the mundane world, and so automatically associated with (the interiority of) some kind of divine super-intelligence. In Platonism, the Ideal Forms occupy a position near the top of a metaphysical hierarchy, a structure of descent from a divine One-ness at the highest level of reality down to a churning multiplicity of ephemeral appearances at the level of everyday experience. Their association with intelligence is far removed from ordinary subjectivity and from the capricious personality which some romantics have imagined as divine intelligence. Also, Hegelian idealism has been vastly influential, especially as it lives on in Marxism, in spite of the declared materialism of Marxism (dialectical materialism). The historical effects of Marxism are yet more consequences of the mutating conceptions of idealism. Hegel’s is clearly a mutation of Platonic idealism, a vision of cosmic history as the striving of all-encompassing universal Being toward full reality and self-recognition as Ideal Form. Hegel retains the Platonic metaphysical structure (including levels of reality not unlike those in Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism), but in Hegelian idealism the universal Being starts from the bottom and is striving up the “chain of ascent” to the divine One-ness at the final and highest stage of reality.

The Kantian Revolution against Platonism

Then there is the kind of idealism which occasioned philosophical romanticism, namely Kantian idealism, which maps out the necessity of personal spiritual activity in the construction of ordinary knowledge of the world, of every individual’s orientation in the world. Kantian idealism is the most personal and subjective of the philosophical visions of spirituality, especially as tweaked by Fichte. Fichte’s early work, in which he first rejects Kant’s idea of “thing-in-itself” and develops the idea of the individual subjective “I” which must posit its entire world, is the clearest alternative to top-down visions of the cosmos in the whole history of philosophy. Fichte’s vision is a re-orientation or re-conceptualization of reality as a whole, situating individual intelligence at the creative source. Such a re-orientation was implicit in Luther’s “leap of faith”, but was not fully articulated before Kant and Fichte, and there could have been no Fichte without Kant. Romantic idealism was clearly a development from Kantian idealism, although hardly a straightforward one.

Although Kant did describe his work as “a Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, it is not clear that he recognized the full bottom-up social and political implications of his personalized idealism. Kant was a social and political moderate-conservative, and as a university professor employed by the state, his livelihood depended on being seen as a supporter of the status quo, more or less. However, the spiritual entity who is the subject having experiences in Kant’s vision is self-legislating and so has no need for the Church, aristocracy, or any other social authority. Personal spirituality for Kant is almost monadic, clearly influenced by Leibniz in that way but completely free of Leibniz’s totalitarian predetermination. Kant’s personally interior idealism would logically lead to an equality of individuals based on autonomous spirituality, and so it implicitly discredited the whole social edifice of aristocracy and the hierarchy of Christendom. That qualifies Kant’s idealism as an extension of the European revolutionary movement into the matrix of ideas. That is the Kantian revolution, although it is doubtful that the early romantic philosophers understood it in that way. Nevertheless, the response in Romanticism was something altogether shocking: a declaration that philosophy as an activity should be abandoned completely and replaced by art; a call to forsake philosophical thinking, the better to seek immersion in poetry, music, stories, and images. That is why romanticism is more prominent as a literary and artistic movement than as a philosophical system. Something in their interpretation of Kantian idealism brought the romantic philosophers face to face with a vision of human tragedy from which they recoiled. The tragedy does not arise from Kantian idealism or Fichte’s absolute I. Those are not tragic visions.

The Tragedy of Romanticism

Radical French philosophers had made an attempt to construct a Plato-busting bottom-up metaphysics with their materialism (in the footsteps of ancient Epicureans), after the suppression of the reformation in France, and it had been remarkably effective up to a point, but it was not sustainable. Materialism and freedom are mutually exclusive. It was Kant’s elaboration of Luther’s idea of spiritual freedom which really accomplished (on the second attempt, so to speak) the bottom-up metaphysics. Kant’s idealism is clearly set at the level of the ordinary individual person because it is in continuous engagement with brute actualities of the ambient world within which the spirituality finds itself, entangled with effects of the “thing-in-itself”. However, the early romantics encountered Kantian idealism in their studies as Fichte’s philosophy students, and so really encountered Fichte’s interpretation of Kant, and they never took it seriously enough as a description of normal individual intelligence or spirituality with broad implications for empathy, sociability, and politics. Romantic philosophers lived in a very hierarchical culture and age. They would have taken value strata among human beings as self-evident givens. The grip of their top-down orientation was so strong that they couldn’t conceive the absence of hierarchy. So, they came to understand Fichte’s absolute “I” (so much more monadic than Kant’s because of the absence of a countervailing thing-in-itself) as a portrait of divine mind, the mind of God. Certainly it could be argued that the main effect of Fichte’s dismissal of the thing-in-itself was exactly to make his conception of spirituality less human and essentially divine.

As a vision of the divine mind, there was profound novelty about Fichte’s “absolute ego” as compared to the God of Abraham, of Maimonides, or even the purely rational God conceived by Leibniz (much closer to Fichte in cultural tradition). The Abrahamic God is bound and limited by goodness and by love for his creatures. However, the philosophy students who were on their way to developing the romantic vision, could not help but see Fichte’s divine subjectivity through the lens of their experience of the French Revolution, an intensely violent uprising completely justified by the stark contrast between the lives of the privileged in European society and the lives of the drudgery classes, gross institutionalized injustices, any change to which threatened the entire social order of their world. In that light, it was impossible to hold onto the idea of divinity limited by goodness. To the romantics, Fichte’s divine mind is absolute monadic creativity, an artist god, with no responsibility to any other and not bound or limited by anything. Fichte’s absolute ego, in its romantic interpretation, was not the slightest bit interested in morality or orderly civil society, and was nothing like perfectly rational as Leibniz’s God was. He issued no demands to humans for obedience, reverence, or worship, but also offered nothing to balance human suffering, no eternal reward, no redemption from guilt. Instead, he was a playful artist creating drama, emotional upheaval, and shocking beauty. In many ways, this was an historically novel concept, including a form of creativity that was broadly applicable to individual humans. With the absolute ego from Fichte, the emphasis is more on creativity than on command, control, reward, or punishment, and that removes some emphasis from command and control generally even in worldly social and political situations. It also recognizes creativity as the core of subjectivity. Fundamentally, it was gender neutral in conception, although in style and application it was full of male bias.

For Romantics, then, there is a single immaterial spirit with a personality and mental life quite similar to a human’s but with infinitely more power. The Romantic deity is an artist. This spirit has dreams, it indulges itself in daydreaming, and those dreams are the world that humans inhabit, ourselves being dream-things in those dreams. Whimsically, he picks certain people to be his prophets, and grants favours and inspiration to certain heroes and artists, like the gods of ancient Greece were supposed to do. Every landscape is an inner landscape for romantics, pervaded with dream code-work, disguises, and multi-layered associations, unrestricted by cultural norms or by the laws of physics. With the inner landscape, things display (obliquely) their emotional meaning in their appearance, as things do in dreams. What romantics saw in this new idealism was the artist God who toys with the world, and with the humans in the world, without any interest in justice or redemption, as proven by the spectacle of the Revolution and the light it shed on social organization and the force of history.

This conception of the divine mind meant that the Christian religion as traditionally constituted, with pledges of eternal reward and redemption, upon which the stability of the European social hierarchy and culture depended, was a lie. Earthly suffering has no meaning other than the whimsical amusement of an omnipotent daydreamer. Romantics saw the political enforcement of Christendom as a version of Plato’s “noble lie” (Republic), and they accepted the necessity of using that lie to preserve the organization of society, so that some small minority at least could devote themselves to beauty and ideal things, supporting and enjoying the arts, the work of artists, for their own immersion in transcendent beauty. The human artist became the example of the optimal, godlike, human being. However, the romantics also felt tragedy in the need to lie to repress the vain aspirations of the vast majority, in a world so made as to depend on such a lie. Privileged people don’t want social justice and can’t want it because for them the age-old forms of injustice are the price that must be paid so that some few (themselves) can live the higher life of refinement, beauty, and ideal things, a milieu enabling such contemplations as math and science, but above all artistic beauty, as close as possible to the life of the high God and as such the authentic heartbeat of their civilization.

On that worldview, we humans are dreamed just enough in God’s image to think sometimes that we have freedom and power to achieve justice, but that thought is an illusion, and so the human situation is fundamentally tragic. The immediate form of our tragedy is the squalid institutions of unalterable human inequality. We must either accept being deceived by the dirtiest of lies or else be parties to proclaiming that lie, and the problem with philosophy is that its history has brought it to the point of exposing the deception and undermining the civilization of the champions of beauty. For romantics, the only real power we have is to dream, to create our interior non-actualities. That is the romantic vision of transcendence available to humans, and they take it as our shield against glimpsing the ugliness of the broader human situation. The romantic idea of the deity is an emphatic confirmation that the social oppression they witnessed was so entrenched as to appear metaphysically decreed.

Romantic idealism, then, is yet another top-down vision of divine spirituality, a mutation of Platonism into a more modern idiom. The real implication of Kantian idealism was completely different, a sort of re-distribution of spiritual creativity and power down from on-high and into the multiplicity of agents engaging in ordinary experience. The romantic vision of tragedy arises by removing spiritual agency from every individual and ascribing it instead to a universal deity, imposing a completely inappropriate top-down orientation on Kant’s vision of interior spirituality. In doing that, philosophical romanticism seems to glorify subjectivity, but in fact trivializes it. The romantic call to leave philosophy and turn to art and culture is profoundly political and strictly conservative. Their nihilism was the angst of the unjustly privileged, an awareness of the stark and pointless contrast between their lives and the lives of the drudgery class.

The Tragic Sense of Life

We are still living with legacies of romantic idealism, for example in the commonplace declaration that “stories are all we have”. The conclusion and fulfillment of that philosophical Romanticism is a resolve to abandon thinking that goes beyond stories and instead to concentrate on moments of subjective ecstasy or rapture in the altered states inspired by poetry, tragic drama, music, and stories of magic, wonders, and heroes. “Since actuality is ugly, depressing, and utterly beyond our control, let’s achieve the transcendence of personal tranquility and joy by listening to awesome music, contemplating beautiful images, or absorbing our minds in narratives of heroism and nobility.” The romantic “elevation” of ideal things is completely idle, and the narrative sparkle and flash of tragic heroes, witches, wizards, demons, exotic locations, high drama, violent conflict, glory in battle, dangerous rescues, lost causes, fatal flaws, futile but beautiful gestures, narrative suspense and satisfying resolutions, are all merely hiding romantic nihilism. That turn of romanticism is very much like mysticism, which embraces the trances and altered states of consciousness resulting from sensory deprivation, drugs, or mortification of the flesh as if they were higher states of being.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.