Category Archive 'Romanticism'

23 Jul 2018

Irving Babbitt’s Humanist Critique of Romantic Modernism

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Irving Babbitt, 1865-1933.

Amanda Reichenbach, a recent graduate of Yale, has an excellent essay in National Review on the now-almost-forgotten humanist Irving Babbitt’s critique of Modernism.

Babbitt reacted against what he regarded as the twin evils of the modern era: Romanticism and utilitarian scientism. … Babbitt did not see them as opposed forces. Rather, they worked in concert to reduce humans — complex, multi-dimensional beings — to cardboard cutouts incapable of moral choice.

Babbitt’s fundamental view of the human condition was that the “higher will” waged a lifelong, internal “civil war in the cave” against the “lower will.” Modernity, he believed, tended to collapse the distinction between the two wills. That “man is naturally good and that it is by our institutions alone that men become wicked” is, he thought, the most dangerous belief, found in Rousseau’s Confessions. It replaces the true dualism of the “civil war in the cave” with dualism between man and society.

This individual who sees liberty in the ability to follow every whim — someone whom Deneen would call a liberal, and Babbitt a Romantic — is drawn to a sentimental libertinism in which indulgent emotion is elevated over the hard work of becoming a good person. The Romantic wishes to see destroyed any laws and customs that might prevent him from doing all that his heart desires.

When human passions are released, however, writes Babbitt, “what emerges in the real world is not the mythical will to brotherhood, but the ego and its fundamental will to power.” The will to power often presents itself in palatable ways, replacing traditional notions of virtue with what Babbitt calls “a sort of parody of Christian charity.” The Romantic is drawn not to humanism but to emotional humanitarianism. Believing himself to be blameless, the Romantic locates the source of society’s evils in everybody else. The Romantic humanitarian, Babbitt argues, will always go around pointing out the specks in his neighbors’ eyes while a plank burdens his own. Rousseau, the chief example of this tendency, wrote a 500-page book on how to raise and educate children, after leaving five of his own to a foundling hospital.

The Romantic soon discovers that a lack of restraint is a sure recipe for loneliness, though he has been promised emotional communion with his fellow beautiful souls. When he finds that his philosophy is based on Arcadian unreality, his disillusion leads him to “drift towards a naturalistic fatalism.” Babbitt argues that the rise of science and sociology teaches man that he is entirely a product of his circumstances and incapable of individual moral improvement. Here, too, the lines are not drawn between what is good and what is bad within each human, but between the individual and the society that conditions him. Given the twin influences of Romanticism and scientism, Babbitt feared, “man is in danger of being deprived of every last scrap and vestige of his humanity,” since he “becomes human only in so far as he exercises moral choice.”

A must-read.

30 Jun 2011

The Morbid Romanticism of Antoine Wiertz

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Antoine Joseph Wiertz, Dernières pensées et visions d’une tête coupee (Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head), 1853

The Belgian artist Antoine Joseph Wiertz (1806-1865) devoted most of his art to expressions of the Romantic era’s obsession with death.

Wiertz took a personal interest in the scientific question of just how long consciousness survived in the head of the victim of execution by guillotine, and in 1848 used hypnosis to attempt to share the pains and rapidly fading consciousness of a murderer undergoing decapitation for the crime of bludgeoning his landlady. The result (above) was a triptych completed in 1853.

There is a state museum devoted to Wiertz’s art in Brussels.

Collected images of Wiertz’s paintings.

Jeffrey Howe essay.

02 Feb 2007

Isn’t It Romantic?

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Neo-Neocon, blogging at PJM, considers Suicide, Homicide, Terrorism and Romanticism, concluding that “Romanticism has found a cozy home on the Left. Toss in a soupçon of “sympathetic vibration with the anger of the suicide/homicide bomber,” and disaster follows. It’s all part of a long tradition whose end is in sight.”

The anger on the Left is more visible right now, fanned by the flames of frustration at being at last in power, but still not in control. That feeling had its roots in the continuing sense that the Left’s fell out of power in the first place as a result of election fraud. It’s not necessary that this perception be correct to be a powerful motivator; just that it be perceived as correct by those who believe it.

Some—although not all—of those on the Left who sport this anger feel an added sympathetic vibration with the anger of the suicide/homicide bomber. The Romantic glorification of the downtrodden Third World by the Left adds to that sympathy and gives it further political underpinnings.

There’s an interesting socioeconomic trend to Romanticism: it’s a philosophy that seems to attract a surprising number of the more well-to-do and well-educated. In Arab countries terrorists are at least as likely to come from the ranks of the relatively affluent as they are to be poverty-stricken. And in the West it seems to be the relatively well-to-do these days who are influenced most strongly by Romanticism.

Perhaps ‘twas ever thus. Romanticism—here and elsewhere—is not only fueled by the guilt sometimes felt by people who have relative plenty when others are suffering, but it’s also fostered by an educational system that teaches and glorifies Romanticism in ways both subtle and overt.

So guilt and education are part of it. But there are other ways in which affluence—at least, relative affluence—feeds into Romanticism, especially in this country. Romanticism is idealistic (I would say, naively so). Belief in Romanticism in its purest and most philosophical form requires a certain remove from the struggles of day-to-day existence only available to those not on a subsistence level (see here for a more in-depth discussion of how this might work).

The affluent may also be attracted to the intensity of feeling and experience of the terrorist and the suicide bomber for another reason. Many human beings are probably hard-wired to seek excitement. Those who are no longer engaged in an obvious struggle for existence—no lion hunts, for example—can sometimes feel a sense of ennui and a lack of thrills. Filling this need can take the form of seeking out extreme sports such as skydiving or auto racing, or by high-risk behavior such as gambling or taking drugs. But for some people the quest takes the form of an urge towards nihilism.

As for the Middle East, the influence of the West and of Romanticism—both the homegrown and the grafted variety—have never been absent from the modern Arab scene. From T.E. Lawrence to the Nazis (see Bernard Lewis’s book Semites and Anti-Semites) to the present-day Leftists, Romanticism seems to have blended in well with the pre-existing ethos of the area.

Romanticism and politics make strange bedfellows. They lead inexorably from a philosophy that celebrates nature and considers humankind to be essentially good to one that glorifies murder and rage. But whoever said people were rational? Certainly not the Romantics.

Read the whole thing.


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