Essay Sample on Romanticism and Enlightenment Values

Posted on November 3, 2009

Romanticism is not the bastard child of the Enlightenment but its mistress’. Discuss with reference to ideas about ‘savage’ peoples.

In this essay on Romanticism I intend to review some of the key ideas from political and economic philosophy and the general themes that characterised the thinking of the two movements. I hope to trace the course of the perception of the ‘other’ from that of the semi-mythical through to the nascent reject of ethnocentricity. I will be focusing particularly on conceptions of the ‘state of nature’ and the development of the comparative methodology. Finally, I intend to argue that the separation of Enlightenment thought from romantic thought is to some extent a false division in the field of political philosophy.

The British Enlightenment movement, (the 17th & 18th Centuries), was deeply embedded in the political and economic upheavals of the time. The trial and execution of Charles I was an open challenge to the orthodoxy of the divine right of Kings to rule and much of the later political philosophy was to address the form and nature of government. Science and industrialisation were continuing apace, and by the early 1700s Britain would see the first Industrial Revolution. The old feudal order was rapidly giving way to a new capitalist one. While contributors to the body of work produced during the Enlightenment took quite different philosophical positions, it could be said that at the heart of the Enlightenment movement was “a confidence in science, a daring attempt at new discoveries about the human mind, an opposition to superstition and fanaticism, an emphasis on human nature, a restrained scepticism about traditional views of knowledge and belief, and a mood of reform and critique.” (Hume, 1999, [1748], 10)

A few years after the execution of Charles I, Hobbes was to publish Leviathan (1651), his seminal work in which he laid out his blueprint for civil peace. In Leviathan Hobbes examines the foundations and nature of civil society and envisions man emerging from a ‘state of nature’, (the hypothetical condition existing “if there were no common power able to restrain individuals, no law and no law-enforcement”. (Hobbes, 1968, [1651], 40)).

Essentially, Hobbes believed certain aspects of human life would always bring man into conflict with each other, constantly balancing a desire for power with an aversion to death or injury. He thought that men would reason that the best method of self-preservation was peace and that men should be willing to forgo their “right to all things” on the provision that everyone else does simultaneously. This system is precarious though as men will always seek to recover his devolved powers and use them to his own advantage and to prevent this, these powers must be surrendered to a sovereign.

This entire system is predicated on reason and thus the innate ability of man to determine the ‘laws of nature’: “A LAW OF NATURE (Lex Naturalis,) is a Precept, or general Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do” (Hobbes, 1968, [1651], 189).

Locke published his ‘Two Treatises of Government’ a few years later and the subject matter has much in common with that of Leviathan. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone” (Locke, 1960, 271). Elsewhere, Locke clarifies his use of ‘reason’: “Reason therefore here, as contradistinguished to Faith, I take to be the discovery of the Certainty or Probability of such Propositions or Truths, which the Mind arrives at by Deductions made from such Ideas, which it has got by the use of its natural Faculties, viz. by Sensation or Reflection.” (Locke, 1960, 390)

However, Locke’s conception of man in the state of nature is markedly more optimistic than that of Hobbes, political society is not responsible for all that is admirable in man, “for truth and keeping of Faith belongs to Men, as Men, and not as Members of society” (1960, 277) and neither is the state of nature the chaotic, hypothetic state of nature of Hobbes, but instead that situation where one “Body Politick” has been formed (1960, 277)

Hume is often considered a archetypal Enlightenment thinker, however, he struck an enormous blow against the prevailing rationalism, so prevalent in the thought and writing of Hobbes and Locke, “Many of these philosophers thought that, using reason alone, they could establish the existence and nature of God, identify the most basic entities that comprise the universe, and grasp the eternal truths of morality” (Hume, 1999, [1748], 11). Hume’s argument is strongly empirical, he claims that most knowledge, knowledge of ‘matters of fact’ as opposed to a priori truths such as those of mathematics, comes from our experience and that it is only through our past experience that we believe it to be ‘true’ knowledge. Furthermore, just because we perceive a cause and effect based on our past experience there is nothing that compels this necessary connection in the future (Hume, 1999, [1748], 109). While a fuller exposition of Hume’s writings is beyond the scope of this essay it is important to note that Locke’s understanding of reason, that which underpinned his entire philosophy, is comprised of intuitive, demonstrative and sensitive forms of knowledge. Thus the exclusive use of reason as a methodology for understanding the world and its laws was effectively challenged by reason.

The formative role of past experience and local phenomena was to characterize much of the political and economic philosophy thenceforth, and although much of this thinking was concurrent with Hume’s work, his influence was especially felt on his friend Adam Smith. Specifically, thinkers were both encouraged further in the scientific method, induction rather than deduction. The search for the fundamental laws governing the universe and human behavior continued but empirical and comparative approaches prospered.

‘The Wealth of Nations’ both examines the inter-connectedness and causes of economic phenomena and provides a form of economic manifesto. Smith took a relativist approach to his work, “he recognized that in aesthetics, as well as in everything else, standards were variable and there was nothing that was ultimately ‘right’.” (MacFarlane, 2000, 84). Smith saw societies as moving though distinct economic phases influenced by their level of resources, government and whether or not they are at war. Like Locke, he saw the preservation of property as a formative factor in civil society, but unlike Locke this was no social contract but, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality, instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” (1970 [1776], 610)

This kind of environmental determinism is also found in Montesquieu’s writings, he writes extensively on the effect of climate on the character. While his position was certainly not relativist (“barbaric customs and penitences” (1989, 235)) he strongly embraced the comparative method and prefigured functionalist thought, such as that of Malinowski, by arguing that religious and social phenomena were in part a product of their environment.

Rousseau published the ‘social contract’ in 1762, returning to many of themes discussed by Hobbes and Locke a hundred years earlier but from a romantic perspective. By contrast, Rousseau looks not to the civilizing power of pure reason but to emotive forces that can be inculcated into men “form men if you want to command men.” (1997, 13). Political society is no longer a logical extension of natural law, but “the social order is a sacred right…yet this right does not come from nature; it is therefore founded on conventions” (1997, 41) the social contract ‘substitutes’ “a partial and moral existence for the independent and physical existence we have all received from nature.” (1997, 69). As Montesquieu had done before him, and Smith would do after, Rousseau believed that environment had an effect on the laws and custom of societies (1997, 74) but Rousseau is possessed of a more relativistic, if not idealistic, perspective, “When, among the happiest people in the world, troops of peasants are seen attending to affairs of State under an oak tree and always acting wisely, can one avoid despising the refinements of other nations which make themselves illustrious and miserable with so much art and mystification?” (1997, 121)

The French Revolution, and the shock waves it sent throughout Europe, was considered by some to be the natural result of applied Enlightenment principles. In particular Burke struck out at the “Empire of light and reason” (1968, [1790], 171), he wrote: “the pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” (1968, [1790], 153) Burke makes an impassioned defense of the merits of tradition and emotive values, “all your sophisters cannot produce any thing better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines or our rights and privileges.” (1968, [1790], 121).

This appeal to the values of emotion and a rejection of the primacy of rationality is characteristic of Romanticism which is echoed throughout the literature and music of the period. However, to view it independently or entirely in opposition to the Enlightenment is fallacious, it is very much a continuation and expansion of some of the key ideas:

“This can be seen with particular clarity in the fundamental schema of the philosophy of history that romanticism shares with the Enlightenment and that precisely though the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment became an unshakable premise: the schema of the conquest of mythos by logos…It is supposed to represent progress in the history of the mind, and precisely because romanticism disparages this development, it take over the schema itself as a self-evident truth.” (Gadamer, 1999, 273)

As a final point, and to return to the assertion of the essay title, in could be argued that in some ways the analogy of the Romantic Movement to that which is female is particularly appropriate given later structuralist thought. While rationality, science and individuality are associated with the masculine (“I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentlemen of that society” (Burke, 1968, [1790], 89), nature, superstition, emotion, the body and the organic conception of social systems are often conflated in western society with the feminine.

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