Harsh Judgement on Romanticism

My attention was drawn to this quite heavy philosophical piece – Carl Schmitt on Romanticism as a Form of Occasionalism, with a hat tip to David Sullivan who sometimes comments here.

I won’t go into the philosophical details or try to refute this, but I’ll raise a couple of points and leave the reader to sort it out for himself, assuming he is interested. Read the article and see if you understand something.

I do take exception to the idea of Romantics refusing the absolute and any kind of final authority to substitute oneself for God, the non serviam of Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles or whatever you want to call the Fallen Angel. Some Romantics might have lost faith in God and became narcissistic, by not all by any means. I find sweeping statements unsettling. Of course, the issue is invariably not the absoluteness and authority of God, but of the institutional Church and its power over the “secular arm”! Of course, no church has such influence nowadays, except perhaps the Patriarchate of Moscow. Even there, Russia is quite independent from anything when it wants to, including American capitalism…

Romanticism is a metaphysical attitude that places the individual subject at the centre. The romantic does not free himself from divine control in order to submit to some temporal power such as the state; his attempt is to free himself from every external power. Romanticism puts the individual human being in the place of God.

Eek! The early nineteenth century was still groaning its way out of Robespierre’s Reighn of Terror and Napoleon’s exploits were hardly reassuring. Perhaps Gregory XVI from his Pontifical throne in Rome was happy for the Church in France to labour under the “authority” of the dying embers of the Revolution and the short-lived restorations of the Monarchy. Actually, some of the Romantics appealed to the authority of the Pope. Yes, the Liberals were the progenitors of modern Ultramontanism, and Lammenais got excommunicated for his trouble. Seeking authority was a theme of many Romantics, until they discovered that there were higher things than authority, and that was not always “private judgement”.

If we were to accept the sweeping statements of this article, every work of art would have to be trashed, because man is doing the creating, not God.

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16 Responses to Harsh Judgement on Romanticism

  1. ed pacht says:

    An article like that is surely out of accord with the New Testament, and, though not so clearly, even with the Old. Certainly authority and the consequences of opposing authority are a major theme of the Scriptures, and thus of both Judaism and Christianity. Certainly the requirements of the Law and the necessity of right belief and right worship are of crucial importance, but these are not the central theme of revelation. Jesus was certainly not kind to the commitment of the Pharisees to just such an approach. What could be more romantic than a recognition that these demands are impossible of achievement, that the consequences of failure are dire and just, BUT that the loving grace of God conquers that failure and brings redemption? Law and grace are not in opposition to one another, but stand, hand-in hand, to draw us into God’s love.

    • I discovered this a day or two ago, from the Songs of Innocence by William Blake:

      When my mother died I was very young,
      And my father sold me while yet my tongue
      Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
      So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

      There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
      That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
      “Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
      You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

      And so he was quiet; and that very night,
      As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
      That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
      Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

      And by came an angel who had a bright key,
      And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
      Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
      And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

      Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
      They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
      And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
      He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

      And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
      And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
      Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
      So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am always meaning to read some Carl Schmitt (to put it a bit hyperbolically) and also to read more of M.H. Abrams on Romanticism (e.g., The Mirror and the Lamp).

    I think what the ‘Maverick Philosopher’ relates and develops from Schmitt has some truth – in the sense that some things like what he describes may be peculiar dangers (or more than dangers) for some Romantics. There is another danger which I take to have its peculiarly Romantic forms, which is ‘fictionalizing’ as a Zauberwort, a ‘magic word’ whereby you do not directly change reality but you delude people into changing social and political reality by accepting your manipulative fictional construct as an accurate depiction and exposition of reality – for example, Marx’s ‘scientific materialism’, which has facilitated the deaths of millions.

    But what, for example, of Tolkien’s sub-creation of a Secondary World which in various ways can help us attend to the Primary World better, more deeply?

    Are there, perhaps, peculiarly ‘intra-Romantic’ battles (so to put it) going on, here? (Not unparalleled ‘outside Romanticism’, but having distinctly Romantic forms.)

    • Stephen K says:

      I won’t let the slur against Marx – that ‘his’ scientific materialism’ facilitated the death of millions – go unchallenged. He held nothing of the kind, understood properly, as anyone who will read his work will soon see. I attach here a link that summarises very succinctly how an assertion that Marx was a scientific materialist is wrong, let alone the implication that the death of millions is attributable to an economic and sociological theorist and not to politicians of all stripes. See https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch02.htm.

      Pay particular attention to the following: The fundamental misunderstanding on which this interpretation rests is the assumption that historical materialism is a psychological theory which deals with man’s drives and passions. But, in fact, historical materialism is not at all a psychological theory; it claims that the way man produces determines his thinking and his desires, and not that his main desires are those for maximal material gain. Economy in this context refers not to a psychic drive, but to the mode of production; not to a subjective, psychological, but to an objective, economic-sociological factor. The only quasi-psychological premise in the theory lies in the assumption that man needs food, shelter, etc., hence needs to produce; hence that the mode of production, which depends on a number of objective factors, comes first, as it were, and determines the other spheres of his activities.


      Marx’s “materialistic” or “economic” interpretation of history has nothing whatsoever to do with an alleged “materialistic” or “economic” striving as the most fundamental drive in man. It does mean that man, the real and total man, the “real living individuals” — not the ideas produced by these “individuals” — are the subject matter of history and of the understanding of its laws.

      Marx directly opposed the tendency of ideologues to work out a deductive theory of how things ought to be i.e. value, and impose that on history. He – and I am with him on this – believed to the contrary that history informed value.

      What some appear to think of as a great apostasy of modern times may be simply the symptom of the resurgent instinct of common man to reject what is not rooted in empirical, historical reality. There is thus a great challenge for religion and theology: to revisit its foundations to ensure that at all times it is meaningful or authentic, and not merely the intellectual posturing of the powerful.

      • Stephen K says:

        In case the point is still missed, here is another extract:

        Among all the misunderstandings there is probably none more widespread than the idea of Marx’s “materialism.” Marx is supposed to have believed that the paramount psychological motive in man is his wish for monetary gain and comfort, and that this striving for maximum profit constitutes the main incentive in his personal life and in the life of the human race. Complementary to this idea is the equally widespread assumption that Marx neglected the importance of the individual; that he had neither respect nor understanding for the spiritual needs of man, and that his “ideal” was the well-fed and wellclad, but “soulless” person. Marx’s criticism of religion was held to be identical with the denial of all spiritual values, and this seemed all the more apparent to those who assume that belief in God is the condition for a spiritual orientation.

        The reality is:

        Suffice it to say at the outset that this popular picture of Marx’s “materialism” — his anti-spiritual tendency, his wish for uniformity and subordination — is utterly false. Marx’s aim was that of the spiritual emancipation of man, of his liberation from the chains of economic determination, of restituting him in his human wholeness, of enabling him to find unity and harmony with his fellow man and with nature. Marx’s philosophy was, in secular, nontheistic language, a new and radical step forward in the tradition of prophetic Messianism; it was aimed at the full realization of individualism, the very aim which has guided Western thinking from the Renaissance and the Reformation far into the nineteenth century.

        But the crucial observation by the summary’s author is:

        ….the description given of the aim of Marx and of the content of his vision of socialism, fits almost exactly the reality of present-day Western capitalist society. The majority of people are motivated by a wish for greater material gain, for comfort and gadgets, and this wish is restricted only by the desire for security and the avoidance of risks. They are increasingly satisfied with a life regulated and manipulated, both in the sphere of production and of consumption, by the state and the big corporations and their respective bureaucracies; they have reached a degree of conformity which has wiped out individuality to a remarkable extent. They are, to use Marx’s term, impotent “commodity men” serving virile machines.

        This is a spiritual blog, not a politico-economic one, but the last observation is highly reminiscent, it seems to me, of a typical religious mentality: in exchange for the assurances of salvation, life must be regulated and manipulated. The subservience to the state that Marx is wrongly accused of is in fact very much alive in “true faith” religious discourse.

        In my view, romanticism is about magic and possibilities; it is optimism. It is the nurturing soil of spontaneity, smiles, happiness and creative arts. Classicism may critique and regulate, but of itself tends to replicate and conserve at all costs. And that may be the crucial point: we need to conserve what is good but not make things a museum piece. We have to learn what is baby and what is bathwater.

      • I ought to study Marx of whom I am largely ignorant having been influenced like so many others by the opinion according to which he was a “dialectical materialist” – so for the moment, I can’t really comment on that subject. Very often, historical figures are accused of exactly the opposite of what they really believed and said. For instance, we have Nestorius who actually was not Nestorian according to the classical definition. Tyrrell has precious little in common with Loisy or the “liberal Protestants” like Harnack. Likewise Marx is probably not truly the father of Marxism or the various manifestations of “atheistic Communism”.

        Personally, I eschew all social and political theories, because they all become corrupt and fail to respect the human person. The current social units (nations or communities / federations of nations / states) are too vast to respect the person. The tribe as the social unit? I haven’t studied the question enough.

        Like anarchism, we can only be Romantics in private and in our own lives. An attempt to produce a “romantic society” would be monstrous, just like taking away laws and authorities and expecting large societies to function without people devouring each other. Persons are Romantics, not societies, and we can only resist The Pit as best as we can and not expect society, law or convention to work in our favour. During this Passiontide, think not only of what Christ endured, but why. He revolted against the “machine”.

        As you say, it would be silly to seek to replicate the past. The Romantic is concerned for eternal and constant principles that are atemporal and outside trappings of fashion.

      • ed pacht says:

        Marx was not really a Marxist, any more than Calvin was a Calvinist. Followers often say and believe things that are mere distortions of what their leaders attempted to teach. I agree that ultimately no coherent system in politics, economics, or even theology is to be trusted. The act of systematizing and ideologizing inevitably distorts the wholeness of what really is.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Stephen K,
    Thank you for the link and the salient passages. I think the last time I visited Marxist.org was to follow up a quotation by Rosa Luxemburg from her criticism of the October Revolution: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter. Not because of the fanaticism of ‘justice’, but rather because all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effects cease to work when ‘freedom’ becomes a privilege.”

    In proposing for consideration (1) Marx as someone who might in some sense accurately be called a ‘Romantic’ and (2) ” ‘intra-Romantic’ battles” involving him and his thought, among others, I seem to have stepped unawares into ‘intra-Marxist’ battles (especially minefields?)!

    For, the various murderers of tens of millions of people in Russia, the Ukraine, China, Tibet, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Albania, and the ‘Warsaw Pact’ countries, among others, not only claimed to be Marxists, but presumably professed to understand, embrace, and act out of “der historische Materialismus” as explained by Marx.

    Is their successful murderousness indeed a slur against Marx? Have they read their misunderstandings into his work in order to read them out again and so act as if his “historical materialsim” facilitated their murders?

    My point of departure was such passages as this from Marx’s doctoral dissertation: “The confession of Prometheus, ‘In a word, I hate all the gods,’ is its [philosophy’s] own confession, its own verdict against all gods heavenly and earthly who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the supreme deity. There shall be none beside it.” This is not only dishonest about Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, and about philosophy, it is insistently so: Karolus locutus, causa finita – and when is he not speaking ‘infallibly’? Yet his pretense is, indeed, that what he is doing is ‘scientific’, rooted in empirical, historical reality.

    But how related or otherwise is the murderousness of various Marxists to Marx? Not so obviously unrelated if the attitude expressed concerning the prospect of the “gänzliche Vertilgung” of the “Völkerabfälle” expressed in the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” of 13 January 1849 is anything to go by.

    • William Tighe says:

      The most recent Penguin Books edition of the Communist Manifesto of ca. 2005 has a long fascinating introduction on how Marx’s atheistic views emerged from the milieu of German atheist-Protestant (or should I write Protestant-atheist?) disciples of Hegel. This edition replaced an older one of ca. 1966 with an arch and even witty introduction by the late controversial historian A. J. P. Taylor (who once characterized himself, IIRC, as a socialist and an atheist, but not a Marxist)

    • It occurs to me that Marx seems to have a similar role in Communism as it existed in the Eastern Bloc prior to 1989 (and today in China and North Korea) as Nietzsche and Wagner in Nazism. What Hitler did was to pick up strands of mythology, culture and art to support his thirst for absolute power and domination. What strikes me is how little things changed in East Germany after 1945, with soldiers continuing their goose-stepping in jackboots. This is certainly the most superficial view. A more substantial view might be to observe how similar “national” and “international” socialism were – the same anti-Semitism and the same repression. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Poland – one lot of Nazis defeated and another load of Nazis in different uniforms and under a different name coming back in!

      I still can’t comment on Marx because I know too little about him. As for his being a Romantic in the wake of Schlegel, Hegel or others, I have never found in any of the Romantics any ambition to power and domination.

      I’ll see if I can learn a thing or two as this is becoming an interesting discussion.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        May I recommend, in this context, to anyone who does not already know them. two striking – and, not surprisingly, controversial – works? One is Edvins Snore’s film, The Soviet Story, which makes a case for substantial similarities, rooted to a degree in Marx and Engels, as well as giving a vivid picture of working together in the years of the Russo-German Treaty of Non-Agression. (Be warned, that in addition to fascinating comparisons of propaganda material, regalia, and so on – including a Nazi medallion with hammer and sickle – it contains many devastatingly shocking images and pieces of eye-witness testimony.)

        The other, in a way following up on Ferdinand Christian Baur’s attention to Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel in 1835 in the context of Ancient Gnosticism and Modern Philosophy of Religion, is Erich Voegelin’s 1958 Inaugural Lecture as Director of the Institute for Political Science at the University of Munich, published in English as Science, Politics and Gnosticism (in one volume with a complementary essay on Ersatz Religion – which brings us back to Schmitt, and what one scholar calls Voegelin’s “interest in Schmitt as well as his fundamental critique of his work”).

      • It’s really quite amazing how often the term Gnosticism is used to cast suspicion on anything. I know a French sedevacantist website that has gone very quiet now, but has been tarring the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism with the word Gnosticism. The big problem with this procedure is that there are many variations of Gnosticism from the Valentinian view to so-called Manichaeism, the Cathars or Albigensians in the middle ages to the Alexandrian school of St Clement and Origen. The latter is considered as being somewhat more compatible with orthodox Catholicism / Orthodoxy than the various other tendencies.

        I haven’t the time or the space to go into this vast subject other than advising readers to get informed about Gnosticism as a word actually meaning something rather than being a stick to beat their dog with. I recommend the site – http://gnosis.org/welcome.html – which is more for Gnosticism, and it is for the reader to use his critical faculties.

        Perhaps our sedevacantist / traditionalist / conservative Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant friends would have us live in their desired agnostic totalitarian regime with their Christian vocabulary but above all no spiritual life or experience of God, unless it is from hearing their words. It takes intuition to perceive the full horror of what those people would like to impose on society. What Gnosticism seems to be for them is simply any aspiration to freedom to be oneself, to think, to feel and to experience. Against the totalitarian aridity of what “orthodox” Christians have to offer, who would not seek elsewhere?

        The first ones to get a beating over the head are Existentialist philosophers with their own version of the mal du siècle. Indeed any tendency towards mysticism gets knocked and tarred with the same brush, and then it is Romanticism, either in its early nineteenth-century form or its later “neo” forms. There are themes in common between some Romantic tendencies with some Gnostic tendencies, probably more by way of coincidence than direct influence – or worse, by some mischievous conspiracy.

        One theme that comes out is the idea according to which “orthodox” Christianity has lost its credibility and that the only thing to do is to recover the “spiritual” dimension of religion. This seems obvious to most of us, but certainly not for the literalist fundamentalists. This is the real dividing point of Christianity as it is in Islam between Sufis, Shiites and Sunnis.

        Fundamentalism is the Industrial Revolution of religion, the Machine. Romantics and all spiritual-minded people react from it as did William Blake from the “dark satanic mills” of his day. The Gnostic is said to be preoccupied with spirit, and the eternal over matter and time. Are Christians supposed to be materialists? If that is so, then “orthodox” Christianity is not Christianity. There are many “progressive” Christians who think we should give up the “bunk” and just get on with fighting for social justice and political ideologies. That is where the Tweedledum of conservatism meets up with the Tweedledee of liberalism. Some of us want to be somewhere else!

        Romanticism brought colour to the grey and drab world of the Machine, and it continues to do so. We cannot escape the world, and we all have to negotiate with the Machine, but we can have different attitudes about it. We don’t all love Big Brother! They can spit on C. J. Jung’s psychology, but they cannot deny the good it has done for so many spiritually and emotionally maimed people.

        I discovered this “Gnostic” and Romantic notion of Christianity when I was at university through reading Vladimir Soloviev and Nicholas Berdyaev, Russian thinkers influenced by German idealism and Romanticism. What a breath of fresh air! I never turned back as I discovered George Tyrrell and his depth of thought as one of those dreaded “Modernists” incurring the wrath of the Papacy! The “Machine” proposes its harsh notions of negation and the rightness of might. The Romantic sees the weakness of Christ which was the inner principle of the Redemption. Christ opened the way of knowledge that the Pharisees sought to close. Persons matter more than institutions, and empathy and compassion replace hardness and harshness.

        Certainly, the Romantic of our time has much to learn from the constant Gnostic tradition as it has been formed and purified by orthodox Catholicism. In the end, there had to be a sense of balance between the mystical and prophetic life and the way of the Church with its ordained Priesthood and canons. It is certainly the leaven of spirit that gives meaning to the Church and distinguishes it from the two-bit dictatorship for which so many conservatives and liberals seem to yearn. We can be thankful, not for Gnostic heresies but for the Gnostic leaven as has survived and served as a spiritual leaven in the life of the Church.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Yes, Voegelin’s use of ‘gnosticism’ is one of the reasons he is controversial, not least among academic scholars of (Antique) Gnosticism! The best books I have read about gnosticism are Hams Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion (ed. 2, 1963), and Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis (in the 1984 English trans.),

    My impression (based on grossly inadequate reading) is that the orthodox tradition of ‘Gnosis’ which you mention in the context of “the Alexandrian school of St Clement and Origen” and which notably includes St. Maximus the Confessor among its descendants (so to put it) is a very good thing.

    Readers will have to draw their own conclusions as to Voegelin’s considering revolutionary and totalitarian ideologies in relation to the history of heretical gnosticism. An interesting characterization of his (in the context of Hebrews 11:1) is, “the temptaton to fall from uncertain truth into certain untruth”.

    • ed pacht says:

      “the temptation to fall from uncertain truth into certain untruth.”

      I LIKE this! I seem to find that most of the time the problems that divide stem from formulating the questions as either/or. In religion it is very dangerous to make an opposition between mysticism/Gnosticism and orthodoxy/fundamentalism. My moderately firm conviction is that to have one side of the dichotomy and not the other is in actuality to have nothing at all. To probe infinite/eternal verities with finite minds is inevitably to encounter contradictions (or, better, what seem to be contradictions). In most matters I find myself to be both certain and uncertain, and such a seeming quandary seems to lead me closer to the Divine.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        ed pacht,

        Do you know Charles Williams’s saying, “This also is Thou, neither is this Thou”? It might be useful (if that is not too inadequate a word) in this context. Neither a false or reductive ‘certainty’ dominates, nor a categorical, reductive ‘uncertainty’. Affirmation and denial, positiva and negativa, cataphatic and apophatic work together.

        I cannot remember if I have ever seen it discussed in the context of Martin Buber, and I think he used some form of it before Ich und Du was published, but when it came to mind after reading your comment, the ‘Thou’ amidst all the careful “also is”/”neither is” struck me strongly, which in turn made me attend to this being said by an ‘I’ to ‘Thou’.

        Perhaps this would not be a bad place to mention another book probably relevant to this conversation: Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1957) by R.C. Zaehner. As I recall, among other things, it discusses how differently mystical experiences of an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, and of identity, are seen. Various mystics or traditions may interpret one or the other as a step or stage on the way to the other as ultimate. I do not recall if he specifically discusses Antique Gnosticism.

        But I think a common feature in Antique Gnosticism is an experience and assertion that the Gnostic is ‘a spark of the Divine’ in the sense of ‘being God, realizing you are God’. By contrast, orthodox Christian mysticism, whether using the language of Gnosis or not, is at its deepest and most intimate an experience of relationship with God (as Other).

      • ed pacht says:

        Even here either/or is less than helpful. Most assuredly the Christian approach to the divine is one of I/Thou, a reaching out to Someone whom I am not, and yet, there is theosis, an undefined and undefinable sense that one is being divinized (whatever precisely that may mean), and brought into closer and closer union with that Other. Where the Gnostics (or a larger category including Hindus, contemporary New Agers, and many others) and the merely Orthodox err is (as is so often the case) in polarizing these concepts. In ways my mind cannot grasp “I and Thou” and identity are both true, if taken together – and both false or at best inadequate if taken separately.

        We do our best to comprehend what is true and to explain it, but, when we do so, it is necessary that we remember that doing so is, in the final analysis, an impossibility.

        AS for me, I am thoroughly orthodox, both in doctrinal matters and in morality, but also quite aware that such a stand is inevitably inadequate in dealing with ultimate and infinite verities, and does indeed (in the Red Queen’s intriguing words) involve ‘believing two impossible things before breakfast). To stand on a firm base and yet reach beyond it is, I guess, the way I’d describe it.

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