Basically, the goal of free and rational inquiry in the Western philosophical tradition is a simple yet complicated one, which is to survey “reality” and to arrive at the “truth” about the universe and its existence. What emerged from this philosophical tradition are two intellectual strands that stand in contrast to one another. For one, there is the “realist” tradition which espouses a deterministic and mechanistic view of the universe. On the other hand, there is the “romantic” tradition otherwise known as “romanticism” that is based on an existential and spiritual outlook towards the universe. Both traditions, despite their differences, share a common origin, which is the question of why everything exists. In turn, the only real difference between human beings and other animals is that human beings have the ability to ponder upon the mystery of the universe as well as its meaning and purpose.
Thus, romanticism and the existentialist thought that emerges out of this intellectual tradition assesses man’s relation to the universe and in turn serves as the pinnacle of the humanist culture that emerges out of the European Renaissance. Arguably, romanticism as an intellectual strand in the Western philosophical tradition began with the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who explored questions pertaining to aesthetics and love, which Plato called a “god-sent madness.” As a result, the collapse of Greek and Roman civilization equated to the collapse of philosophy and was replaced by a religious discourse shaped by the economic and social hegemony of the Vatican and the Pope.
The European Renaissance beginning in the late 1400’s led to the revival of Greek and Roman philosophy in the Western world, but with a focus on scientific knowledge and progress, which gave rise to the preponderant intellectual strand of philosophy known as “realism” that is characterized by scientific empiricism, rationality, and materialism. On the other hand, romanticism developed as an intellectual strand with a focus on the inner self, the soul, feeling, and intuition. Romantic thinkers generally had a disdain for academia due to its cozying up to an establishment that espoused the realist tradition. Whereas realism saw nature as something that could be broken down into material parts and analyzed, romanticism viewed nature as an animated force with a soul and spirit that could only be understood through feeling and intuition. As Friedrich von Schelling wrote: “Nature is visible Spirit; Spirit is invisible nature.” Goethe, who was another famous romantic thinker and poet, wrote: “Nature has no system: she has – she is – life and development from an unknown center toward an unknowable periphery. Thus, observation of nature is limitless, whether we make distinctions among the least particles or pursue the whole by following the trail far and wide.”
Thus, the basic discourse underlying romanticism is one that is based off a reverence for nature and a conscious recognition of pantheism. The founder and prophet of romanticism in the Western tradition was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Basically, Rousseau is the Western equivalent of the Eastern “Faqir” and Saint. One of Rousseau’s main contributions to romantic thought was to show that while the European enlightenment based on reason was “bright” and “illuminating,” it was not “penetrating.” The scientific method that emerged out of enlightenment thought could “explain everything but understand nothing.” Also, in a letter to Voltaire, who was one of the chief proponents of the enlightenment project, Rousseau suggested that the most important question a person could ask is the question of why one exists, which is a question that enlightenment thinking largely ignores. Rousseau also argued that nothing could be explained through scientific proofs because the meaning and purpose of the universe depend on its “Author,” and as a result true knowledge is “indisputably beyond human intelligence.”
With this considered, proponents of romanticism see the European enlightenment project as something incomplete, given that Western liberalism and science fails to answer the question of why everything exists. This question has been left to romantic thinkers as well as mystics from both the East and the West to explore and answer. Also, if there is any notion of God in a deterministic and mechanistic worldview set out by realism, it is one in which God is seen as a distant and far off “deistic lawgiver” who is largely aloof from the world. But this notion of God does not suffice for a romantic worldview with an existential and spiritual dimension. Nevertheless, a survey of reality cannot be complete without exploring the various notions pertaining to God. And for the romantics, as Tim Blanning has written, “a universe in which God had been demoted to the role of primal clock maker seemed to be a chilly place.”
Romantic consciousness is thus fully centered on a peculiar notion of God. As Philipp Otto Runge, a romantic painter of the 18th and 19th centuries, once wrote:
“Every leaf and every blade of grass swarms with life, the earth is alive and stirs beneath me, everything rings in one chord, then the soul rejoices and flies in the immeasurable space around me. There is no up and down any more, no time, no beginning and no end. I hear and feel the living breath of God, who holds and carries the world, in whom everything lives and works; here is the highest that we feel – God.”
Through romantic discourse, imagination prevails over reason. William Blake, a British romantic thinker, wrote: “Mental things alone are Real, what is call’d Corporeal Nobody knows of its Dwelling place; it is Fallacy and its Existence an Imposture.” Thus, romanticism is in a sense an elevated form of absolute or Hegelian idealism, which stands in stark contrast to historical and scientific materialism and realism. The latter views reality as something to be observed independently and objectively, whereas the former sees reality as something dependent on the individual and thus subjective. Also, the latter contends that “reality” shapes the human mind, whereas the former contends that the human mind shapes “reality.”
But in a deeper sense, the romanticism of the West is perhaps synonymous with the mysticism and spirituality of the East. One cultural byproduct of romantic thinking that intersects both Western and Eastern romanticism is “Bohemianism,” where freedom of ideas and lifestyle are buoyed over the rigid norms set by society as a means of exerting control and power over people. In a scientific materialist worldview undergirded by scientific empiricism, man is merely a product of his environment acting upon his sensations. To change the nature of man, one merely needs to change his environment. Thus, in an empirical worldview as advanced by Locke and Hume, the mind was seen as something passive rather than active and creative.
Moreover, the objective of the European enlightenment project even to this day is to accumulate as much scientific knowledge as possible in order to subjugate nature to man’s benefit, which in a traditional sense is not only ambitious, but also audacious. Beginning with Sir Isaac Newton, who through his “laws of motion” delivered a blow to organized religion and made scientific knowledge the only valid form of knowledge, the West began to assert that if knowledge could not be verified by a scientific method based on empiricism and mathematics, then knowledge could not be considered valid.
But the romantics would assert that the entire aim of the European enlightenment project would end in disillusionment. Upon a reading of Schopenhauer, one could decipher the views of romantic thinkers towards the entire enlightenment project based on “reason” and “rationality.” Essentially, romantic thinkers pierced through the superficiality and vanity of the enlightenment project and the modern discourse that it produced. As Rousseau wrote: “Nature wanted us to be passers-by on earth, not residents.” Rousseau also suggested that for all the pain and suffering people had to endure, which was met by nonchalance on the part of enlightenment thinkers, there had to be an afterlife as a form of compensation.
For the most part, the publics in Western societies as well as other societies are largely “philistine” in the sense that they are unaware of the differences and nuances of these two competing and contrasting intellectual strands within the Western philosophical tradition, namely, realism and romanticism. The latter is not only a sobering rebuke of conventional thinking, but it is also a confrontation with the myopia of the world and those who are enchanted by its prevailing discourse.
With the turn into the modern age came Kierkegaard and his notion of the “common plight of man.” As a result, what developed was the modern offshoot of romanticism, namely, the intellectual movement known as “existentialism.” The biggest intellectual and social challenge for romantic and existentialist thinkers since Nietzsche is the nihilism that stems from realist discourse, which is a social phenomenon that largely overshadows the power struggle between the competing ontological states such as liberalism, Marxism, populism, and romanticism that are essentially hollowed out by a small but potent power circle in the postmodern epoch. Thus, the challenge for romantic and existentialist thinkers would be finding meaning and purpose in a nihilistic age.
Nietzsche, by some accounts, was the last real thinker of the Western philosophical tradition and the cardinal contributor to the romantic and existentialist movements in the modern age. Everything that followed Nietzsche was merely imitation. Echoing Rousseau’s sentiments about the misery of the world that could only be compensated by an afterworld, Nietzsche wrote in his most famous work titled “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” that: “It was suffering and impotence – that created all afterworlds; and that brief madness of bliss which is experienced only by those who suffer deeply.” Nietzsche adds, however, that the afterworld is concealed from human beings, and thus the individual is left with intuition as one’s guide in life.
For existential thinkers like Sartre, the exploration of meaning constitutes an exploration of both “being” and “nothingness,” by which he concludes that “being” is essentially “uncreated, without reason for being” and that “being-in-itself is de trop (superfluous) for eternity.” Sartre adds that consciousness is derived from being, and that it is constituted by subjectivity, thus leaving the question of meaning to be answered by the individual. But for Sartre, neither realism nor idealism could provide the meaning and purpose of being and existence because Sartre ultimately believed being and existence were devoid of meaning and purpose. When one moves onto Camus, however, we come across his personal suggestion in perhaps his most famous work titled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which is that “even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.” Nevertheless, Camus acknowledged that the meaning of life was “the most urgent” of all questions and it was important to determine how one should proceed in the face of what is undoubtedly “the absurdity of existence.” For Camus, to cease in pondering upon this question amounted to “philosophical suicide.”
Ultimately, in the face of the “absurdity of existence,” we have only two options: hope or death. Camus asks: “Is one to die voluntarily or to hope in spite of everything?” As a result, absurdity, hope, and death are in a constant dialogue with one another, according to Camus. But through the Nietzschean madness in response to the absurdity of existence, we have ultimately set the foundation for modern-day psychiatry which was explored in-depth by Foucault in the postmodern epoch in a book titled “The History of Madness.”
As Foucault has shown, psychiatry became a focal point in the West as an institution aimed at confining “madness,” which traditionally has been equated to “bad will” or the result of an “ethical mistake.” Psychiatry is essentially the “Schlieffen Plan” of the realists against romantics and those who are viscerally nauseated by realist discourse. Thus, romanticism, with its reverence for imagination and its utter disregard for reason, is often times viewed by realists as a form of insanity or madness. Reason is equated with ethics and morality by the realists, and as a result romantic thinking is perhaps seen as an affront to an ethical and moral order established by the ratiocinations of a power apparatus that views itself as “rational.” The fault line between “reason” on one hand and “madness” on the other hand is one that hinges on a notion of truth versus falsehood. Thus, the choice between a realist and a romantic outlook can be framed as a choice between “reason” and “madness,” with each camp viewing the other as insane in the manner by which Voltaire viewed Rousseau and vice versa.
From a realist standpoint, “madness” is seen as “the counter-natural violence of the animal world,” as Foucault wrote. But from Christ to Nietzsche, romanticism as an intellectual tradition in the West sought to “honor” madness. As a result, romantic thinking and the “madness” that results from it had to be “confined” from a positivist and realist point of view, lest it leads to a “scandal” as argued by Foucault. Thus, romanticism equates to a “scandal” that needs to be “confined” in the overall scheme of things. The dilemma for the realists, however, is that “nature” is never subject to objective analysis, which in turn leads to the conclusion that “madness” and “unreason” are in fact the absolute truth. For instance, “objective analysis” suggested that Western powers could conquer and control Afghanistan, but “objective analysis” proved flimsy.
Only romantic thinking could reconcile two contradictory aspects of man, namely, the animal self and the spiritual self. As a result, “madness” and “unreason,” by virtue of romanticism, is given a proud place in the Western intellectual and philosophical tradition. To conclude, there is an Afghan poem which celebrates the romantic discourse and ontological state: “Spring has left us, and the flower will depart the garden; drink wine, for the season of reason has ended.”