The Spiritual Basis of Romanticism

By Forrest W. Schultz
January 01, 2000

(A brief examination of the motivation which led Rousseau to launch the romantic movement, based on the discussion in Allan Bloom's Love and Friendship [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993])

Romanticism Needs to Be Defined in Terms of Its Spiritual Basis
A clear understanding and accurate definition of romanticism is possible only in terms of its spiritual basis. Romanticism exists in a bewildering array of manifestations. If we focus our attention upon the manifestations and ignore the spiritual motivation underlying them, we will not be able to grasp the real meaning of romanticism.

The best discussion of the spiritual basis of romanticism I have ever read is the one provided by Allan Bloom in his book Love and Friendship written in 1992 just prior to his death. (All page references below will be to his work.)

Rousseau's Response to the Enlightenment
To understand the significance of romanticism we need to know how its founder, Jean Jacques Rousseau, responded to the movement known as the Enlightenment. Unlike Protestantism, which revolted against the distortions of Christianity by trying to recover real Christianity, the so-called Enlightenment rejected real Christianity as well as distorted Christianity and developed a philosophy of mechanistic materialism in which God was either wholly absent or, at best, assigned a minimal role. Now Rousseau also rejected Christianity and accepted the Enlightenment's philosophy, but he wanted to avoid the consequences of doing so. That is, Rousseau did not want a "disenchanted" world: he did not want a world consisting only of randomly moving atoms, and he did not want a world devoid of poetry and purpose and love (88f.). Rousseau rejected Christianity but he could not accept the barrenness of no religion at all; so he invented his own religion (62f.). That religion was romanticism, which sought to reinject into life the religiosity which the Enlightenment was suppressing (74).

If, as the Enlightenment philosophers thought, the only reality is matter in motion, then there is nothing sublime about reality. Rousseau believed this, but he also wanted to have a realm of the sublime. Therefore, he launched the romantic movement in order to create the sublime. The sublime was to be produced by the poetic imagination as it set forth lofty goals toward which men could strive. This is Rousseau's version of sublimation. (By the way, according to Bloom, it was Rousseau, not Freud, who was the founder of sublimation theory and the one who coined the term.) Rousseau recognized that men were naturally selfish, but he did not accept the Christian doctrine of sin and salvation. Therefore, he thought that through the right kind of education into the sublimated goals a new man and a new Paradise could be created (51ff., 61-63, 137). The Enlightenment had destroyed belief in the reality of an eternal transcendent world. Rousseau tried to recreate a transcendent world through imagination (138). Sublimation would loft the ideal and freedom would reach it (137).

Perhaps the best example, and the one most stressed by Rousseau himself to illustrate this point, pertains to his romantic view of sex and marriage. Rousseau wanted to do away with God and the Biblical commandments, yet he also wanted to preserve the sacred character of sexuality (64), marital love and fidelity (43), and the exalted character of the family with its traditional male/female role distinctions (108, 123). Some of early romanticism's ideals, such as this one, were borrowed from Christianity. However, they were chosen, not because they were authorized by God, but because they happened to suit the person choosing them. Romanticism in its later, decadent stage, turned away from this ideal of sex, love, and marriage.

Romanticism as a Religion to Replace Christianity
To really understand romanticism requires that we recognize it, as Rousseau did, as a religion to replace Christianity. Rousseau wanted some of the fruits of Christianity, but not its Root, Jesus Christ. He did not want to be a branch grafted onto the True Vine. Rather, he wanted himself and his romantic movement to be the vine, believing that they could bring forth fruit without abiding in Christ.

According to Bloom, Rousseau understood himself to be a rival of Jesus and his writings to be a rival of the Bible (158). Rousseau wanted a "natural" religion, meaning one accessible to all men using their own natural faculties unassisted by revelation (75). Rousseau's God is not the real self-existent God, Jehovah, revealed in the Bible, but a God postulated by man, similar to the God in Kant's philosophy, which is a postulate of the practical reason. In fact, according to Bloom, Kant's conception of God's being a postulate of man was strongly influenced by Rousseau (83n). Kant's "postulation" is really just Rousseau's sublimation clothed in rationalistic garb. It sounds very sophisticated and very rational, but it is actually just as subjectivistic as sublimation. Indeed it is sublimation expressed as a philosophy.

In the Christian Faith, one believes in God, Who exists objectively; one focuses one's attention upon God, not upon himself; and one humbles himself before God in recognition of the dignity of God. But for Rousseau, the focus is upon the sincerity of the believer, and upon the dignity, subjective certainty, and legislative power of the believer and upon his personal feelings (75, 79). In Christianity, sincerity means being faithful to God, but for Rousseau sincerity means being true to yourself. Rousseau's religion, according to Bloom, is the religion of "the godless subjective self" (165). From this developed the "cult of sincerity," in which the sincerity with which one held a belief was regarded as more important than the content of the belief.

Rousseau's cult of sincerity explains his ambiguous attitude toward the Enlightenment conception of religious tolerance. On the one hand, Rousseau is impressed with the Enlightenment belief in religious tolerance and its concern over the horrors produced by the intolerance of the medieval period. But, on the other hand, he also praises the intolerance of fanaticism for its sincerity, its self-forgetting character, and its devotion to a cause, which appear as admirable qualities in contrast to the selfish indifference of Enlightenment toleration. In short, Rousseau preferred fanatics, because at least they care about something and are sincere. This cult of sincerity became prominent among the nineteenth-century romantics, such as Stendhal (85f., 166, 175).

Pascal had said, based on his Christian faith, that boredom was the result of a life lived without God. But the romantics attributed boredom to ordinary daily living, and they sought relief from this boredom in the excitement of drama peopled with characters willing to die for a cause or to die for their beloved (183f.). As the romantic movement progressed, the boredom of daily life came to be identified with morality, so that eventually it was believed that the good thing, the exciting thing, to do was to revolt against morality. In short, the exciting person, the interesting person had become the immoral person (167f.).

In the religion of romanticism, one experiences ennui if he lacks a dramatic devotion to a lover or to a cause. In this romantic religion it is regarded as the heroic thing to do to gain your "true love" at all costs, even if this requires violating morality, for instance, committing adultery, as Emma Bovary did in the novel by the famous romantic author, Flaubert. The contrast between this romantic theology and the Christian theology is stark indeed. Emma Bovary thought her ennui was caused by the absence of a man, not by the absence of God (211).

Bloom notes that Flaubert's novel contains no counterpoising figure to show that Emma's choice was wrong. Thus, he makes it appear that Emma's decision was the only possible alternative to the conventional order. By depicting vice as attractive, the book undermines public morals and religion. Now, to be sure, there is indeed a crisis in society. But writers like Flaubert have no answer for it, no positive example of what to do about it. All they can do is condemn modern society for its failures; they know of no alternative with which to replace it (227f.). The only kind of Christianity they depict in their books is a debilitated version. They do not show real Christianity as having an answer (218). So, they end up with no answer.

And not only do these later romantics end up with no answer; they even undermine the ideal of marital fidelity, with which Rousseau began the romantic movement. Indeed, as romanticism developed, it degenerated into ever more sexual decadence, as Camille Paglia showed in her excellent study, Sexual Personae. (See the author's review in Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1994.)

The Failure of Romanticism
Bloom aptly summarizes and contrasts the failures of both the Enlightenment and of romanticism. He says that the Enlightenment was a dull materialism — it had no uplift. In contract, romanticism was a vapid spirituality — it had no foundation (216). Romanticism failed because its goals were imaginary and illusory objects formed by poets who tried to make something out of nothing. The rope they made to pull men up was not attached to anything (61f.).

This rope analogy is reminiscent of Cornelius Van Til's analogy of the futility of trying to climb out of water using a ladder made out of water. And Rousseau's sublimation of a higher imaginary realm is reminiscent of Francis Schaeffer's depiction of Kantian and existentialist thought as an "escape from reason" by means of a "leap of faith" into an "upper story." By showing that romanticism was a rival, anti-Christian religion and that it strongly influenced Kant's philosophy, Bloom has done us a great service. What he has shown us about Rousseau strengthens Schaeffer's proof that Kantian philosophy is radically unbiblical. It now should be crystal clear that Kantian philosophy is really an anti-Biblical theology: no longer can anyone maintain that it is simply a rational disinterested attempt to relate science and theology or that it is a means of protecting Christianity from attacks by science. By showing that the Kantian postulation of God is actually a romantic religious sublimation, Bloom has unmasked the pretentiousness and pseudo-sophistication of Kantian philosophy. And it is now even clearer than before that the Kantian scheme, like the romantic scheme, was bound to fail, since it was not founded on God, but on the vain imaginations of men.

Although romanticism glorified the artistic imagination, it is interesting to observe that as the movement unfolded, it seemed to be less and less able to imagine what a truly good person — a true hero — would be like. Consequently it began more and more to make heroes out of criminals and immoral people, thereby preparing the way for its replacement by the debased twentieth-century aesthetical scene: "Modern Art" and the "naturalistic" novel. But, even when romanticism was at its peak in its pristine beginnings, the very best its writers could do, as Bloom says of Flaubert's character, M. Homais, was to look back at history and take the best out of its actors; that is, they themselves could make no original contribution to history nor could they in their own lives imitate these heroes, as the saints imitated Jesus (217). As Schaeffer has said of humanists generally, they were living off the capital accumulated during the Christian past.

This capital - this momentum - has now just about run out. This is the reason for the popularity of deconstructionism. As Bloom puts it, "contemporary high cultural lifeċŒan only deconstruct - it cannot construct or reconstruct" (24).

Topics: Philosophy

Forrest W. Schultz

Forrest W. Schultz has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Drexel University.

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