I've always viewed the Enlightenment as one of Western civilization's greatest achievements. It marked a major change in our perception of the world, redirecting us from faith and feeling towards logic and reasoning. The thinkers that dominated the era—individuals like Locke, Kant, and Bacon—helped pave the way for a rational world in which modern science, technology, medicine, and industry would take hold.
From a political perspective, the Enlightenment put democracy back into practice and absolute monarchies out of fashion. It also had a profound impact on human rights. For the longest time, I viewed it as a spectacular turning point in human history—one that was undeniably beneficial. Of course I was foolish to think anything in history could be so black and white.
As a sophomore-year English major, I've only recently begun to dip my toes into the literary and cultural movement that served as a backlash and counterpoint against the Enlightenment: Romanticism.
Beginning at around the time of the French Revolution in the 1790s and lasting up until the mid 19th century, Romantic writers sought to idolize nature and beauty, emphasizing passion and feeling. They fought against a world that was leading them closer towards cold, unfeeling reason.
Consequently, lyric poetry became the dominant poetic form during the period. In a lyric poem, the speaker will typically, in the first person, try to describe or express emotions surrounding a particular moment.
Romantic artists valued intuition, imagination, and feeling over the rigid and logical structure attached to scientific and mathematical thought. These values are evident in Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Purloined Letter," when a detective, tasked with retrieving an incriminating letter, fails to find it through his formulaic and carefully measured search method. It is only through another character's ability to empathize with the criminal that the location of the letter finally becomes apparent.
In their quest to uncover truth, the Romantics did not bother with revealing the hidden equations and numbers that govern the world. Rather, their focus was on attaining "spiritual truth" and transcendent experiences.
Eventually, like most movements, Romanticism faded away. In the middle of the 19th century, Realism emerged to replace it, never to be seen at such a scale again.
But that was almost 200 years ago. Where is Romanticism now? If I were to summarize how a Romantic artist would view our world today, I would simply reuse the words of Romantic Era poet William Wordsworth in his poem "The World Is Too Much With Us" (1807):
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn."
In a traditional 14-line Petrarchan sonnet, Wordsworth expresses frustration at society and how, through its growing materialism, rationality, and industry, our ability to feel and appreciate nature has faded.
In the poem's sestet, the speaker frustratingly concludes that he would rather be a "Pagan," ignorant of reason and technology, than lose his ability to see wonder and beauty in the natural world. In other words, the speaker of the poem would rather revert back to having childlike mystery and grandeur placed into the world more than all of the advancements in industry and in thinking that we have made.
Although this notion is exceedingly radical on its own, if turned down a few notches in extremity, there's a chilling degree of relevance to the modern day.
It’s doubtless that Wordsworth would be horrified by how monstrously out of touch we are with nature now. Not only has new technology separated us even further from it, it’s also potentially destroying it.
I can only imagine the look on Wordsworth's face when he sees a child, holed up in their air-conditioned home on a summer day, playing in a virtual world instead of playing outside. Or what he would think of people walking with their faces in their phones instead of observing the world around them.
It seems the world that Wordsworth describes in his poem is our world—more so than it was his.
Perhaps then, it's time for Romanticism to make a return. If anything it could serve to offset and balance a society that so strictly emphasizes science, technology, and industry.
In the Information Age, our world is seemingly being reduced to ones and zeroes. We're becoming more technologically dependent by the year. The Digital Revolution along with modern materialism/consumerism would be seen as, through the lens of Romanticism, grossly complicating and bloating society and separating us from what is truly important. Furthermore, the Humanities, the subject matter concerned with emotion and the human condition, is losing its relevance in modern education as policymakers are beginning to dismiss it as economically unproductive.
Clearly, popular philosophy is moving further and further away from Romantic ideals, but that's precisely why we might see it pop up again. Maybe, because of these shifting tides, another Romantic movement is inevitable. After all, movements always seem to produce counter-movements. Therefore, it might stand to reason that Romanticism may return once more as backlash, to re-introduce some feeling into a world caught up in reason.