“WHAT IS IT TO BE A ROMANTIC?”: PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING?

We have been looking at Romanticism in general and some aspects of pre-romanticism ( the picturesque, the sublime etc) and the history of “romantic” as a word. We shall be looking at various examples of Romantic poetry and prose and asking questions as to its continuing influence on us today. But here is another angle: what does romanticism mean to the philosopher? Below is a passage from Simon Blackburn’s “The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy” first published 1994.(O.U.P.).

Romanticism. The movement that swept European and thence American culture between about 1775 and 1830, although heralded by preceding elements in the 18th century ( antiquarianism, novels of sensibility, the taste for the sublime and the picturesque, and above all Rousseau’s elevation of nature and sentiment above civilisation and intellect). Romanticism was partly a reaction against the stiff intellectuality of the Enlightenment and its official, static, neo-classical art, in favour of the spontaneous, the unfettered, the subjective, the imaginative and emotional, and the inspirational and heroic. In philosophy, the Romantics took from Kant both the emphasis on free will and the doctrine that reality is ultimately spiritual, with nature itself a mirror of the human soul. In Schelling, nature became a creative spirit whose aspiration is ever fuller and more complete self-realisation. Knowledge of the nature of this spirit (the Absolute) cannot be acquired by rational and analytic means, but only by emotional and intuitive absorption within the process. The spontaneous innocence of the child (and of humanity in its childhood) is corrupted with the onset of intellectual separation from nature, but the individual, and equally human history, can overcome this separation by a spiritual process of regaining the lost unity, albeit cleansed and improved by the journey. Romantic art is thus essentially one of movement, figured in quests, journeys and pilgrimages whose aim is to return to a lost home or haven.”

Much of this points to what attracted me as a young man to the Romantics. When D. H. Lawrence-perhaps the last great Romantic- wrote “The two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.” The former I knew was the knowing inculcated by our schooling and mental predispositions and promoted by our technological, computer-based civilisation. But it was “knowing in togetherness” I craved. Hence, I went especially to the poetry of the Romantics, particularly Blake and Wordsworth and in seeking a sense of the religious I sought a “spiritual process of regaining lost unity”. As, when I read Carlyle’s classic Sartor Resartus years later, I found that he put it: ” that Communing of Soul with Soul; for only in looking heavenward…does what we can call Union, mutual love, Society, begin to be possible.”

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