Romanticism and Traditionalism

A major article has just appeared on the Orthosphere blog – Romanticism & Traditionalism. It is not a new article, but the blog acknowledges the source. The themes given here have resounded with me ever since my university days in the late 1980’s. Here, we see the rapprochement between Romanticism and something called Integral Traditionalism. The latter term has been largely taken over by right-wing reactionaries reacting against late nineteenth-century anti-clericalism and the so-called Modernist movement. Integralismo is full of suggestions of Franco and the Garrotte. Intégrisme, the French term, opposes compromise with La Gueuse (the French Republic) and theological Modernism as condemned in 1907 by Pius X. Integral traditionalism or perennialism refers to the work of René Guénon (1886 – 1951) and others. The problem is that Guénon came from the French Right, even though his thought developed away from strict Roman Catholicism. Sometimes, distinctions are not easy to make. Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) was another proponent of this kind of thought and was close to Mussolini’s Fascist party even though he was never formally a member of it. Both Evola and Guénon progressively distanced themselves from Christianity in their search among other religions for a constant traditional reference.

The description given of Romanticism is the one I have come to believe, namely the view that seeks to correct the classical tendency in the Enlightenment period of reducing everything to reason and convention. The Romantic seeks the natural order of things as opposed to imposed or conventional order. Do we not recognise this idea extending to the life of the Church, allowing some disorder and quirkiness instead of everything being codified and micro-managed to the last detail. The dialectic is already found in the differences between the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the middle ages, the Jansenists and the Jesuits in seventeenth-century France. We have here the interplay between reason and feeling, mind and heart.

What is this Traditionalism (standard pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic explanation)? It is not Archbishop Lefebvre, right-wing ultra-Catholic movements in France and America, the muscular phalange. It is a subject studied in the traditional scholastic discipline of Natural Theology or Theodicy, or what is usually called Fundamental Theology these days in universities – fides et ratio, a frequent theme of the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. How can God be known by man: by way of rational proof or experience and consciousness? This is the traditionalism of Chateaubriand, Bonald and Le Maistre. Scholasticism has always eschewed fideism on account of its denigration of reason. Traditionalism emphasises faith in tradition as a means of divine revelation. Here we find the later Modernist theme of continuing revelation as opposed to the cut-off point being at the death of the last Apostle. Here, there is less of a distinction between Revelation and Tradition (faith or spiritual knowledge), and the two are allowed some kind of περιχώρησις (I use the Greek term by analogy). The big problem is knowing what is Tradition as opposed to Papal authoritarianism.

An interesting tendency arose in the late nineteenth-century, at a time when spiritually-minded people were getting really restless. We find a new impulsion of the Romantic movement in the work of René Guénon in his remarkably clear criticism of the modern world and the “reign of quantity”.

For Guénon, the modern world “is anti-Christian because it is essentially anti-religious; and it is anti-religious because, in a still wider sense, it is anti-traditional.”

To a great extent, theological Modernism sought to escape from the excessive rationalistic methods and philosophy of Scholasticism in order to rediscover the transcendence and mystery of God and the spirit. Parallel with Guénon, we find the great Russian philosophers Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948) and Vladimir Soloviev (1853 – 1900). Modern man has lost the sense of going beyond the boundaries of what we call the material world, and only quantum physics seem now to offer a way out, since its rational terms speak to modern man of things that escape our habitual rational and scientific categories. Belief in the survival of consciousness and even personality after bodily death is becoming increasingly a subject taken seriously by science. But, by the by, our world resembles the eighteenth century at the level of the dialectic between reason and transcendence.

The notion of modern man as a “consumer”, a passive spectator of history, was known to Wordsworth and reflected in Guénon’s thought. Berdyaev is not always easy to follow, but his ideas are haunting and attractive. Neither God nor man can be reduced to epistemological categories, but are both transcendent.

When Berdyaev brings “grace” into his discussion, he echoes the original Romantics, whose version of grace was the epiphanic vision, the event answering to a crisis that brings about the conversion of the fallen subject and sets him on the road to true personhood.

Some aspects of Karol Wojtyla’s existential personalism manifest similar themes as he sought to combat Marxist totalitarianism not by political polemics but by the transcendence of the human person made in God’s image.

The forces of materialism have for a long time been seen not to benefit humanity or personhood, but rather to oppress and destroy it. This has been seen in the various Socialist totalitarianisms of the twentieth century and the ultimate dystopia portrayed by Orwell in Nineteenth Eighy-Four. Marx and Engels has nothing better to propose to humanity than capitalism and the work ethic. Nor have the cultural-Marxist “politically correct” “liberals” of our own day. Berdyaev saw the roots of the abolition of divine transcendence and personality in the Renaissance. In the beginning, the Renaissance stood for humanism and creativity, and ended with the Ubermensch supervising gas chambers in Germany and Poland.

For Berdyaev, the principle of modernity is “envy of the being of another and bitterness at the inability to affirm one’s own.”

This is the principle of modern Socialism, the very ideology that is presently suffocating us all in Europe and America. In human terms, the only presently available way to break its stranglehold is through so-called “right-wing” politics – before resisting against it in the name of humanity, personhood and freedom like the Résistance (who were mostly French Communists) during World War II. Is that really what we want?

The spirit of Romanticism lives on as it adapts and changes, seeking the transcendent over the rational and material view of the world.

The Romantic, knowing that he can never achieve perfection in this world, shies from utopian projects that inevitably become coercive and globalizing.

This notion is extremely far reaching. Romanticism has its built-in checks and balances unlike the opposing forms of materialism. We know what we long for, but know that it is not in this life. The England I love and long for is not what I would find on disembarkation in Dover! The lyrical melodies of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Parry and Purcell point to heaven, another world as “through a glass darkly” as St Paul would have put it. I rejoin Plato’s notion of the World of Ideas of which the particular is only a symbol, and manifestation, an image or a shadow. That World of Ideas is universal consciousness, a notion now recognised by some scientific disciplines.

Thus “a romantic incompleteness… characterizes Christian art,” which takes as a premise, among others, the conviction “that final, perfect, eternal beauty is possible only in another world.”  That the Romantic often succumbs to the frustration inherent in eternal longing, Berdyaev duly notes; but the Romantics themselves knew their vulnerability in this regard well and were wont candidly to diagnose it, as Wordsworth does in “The world is too much with us.”  Berdyaev saw in Nineteenth-Century Romanticism the last pause in the steady descent of the Western world into materialism, utilitarianism, and nihilism, the equivalent of Guénon’s Kali Yuga or Dark Age.

Those of us who become conscious of the Romantic or the Traditionalist within ourselves face an unfulfilled and frustrating life. We tend to see things become worse and worse, yet the “reboot” never seems to come close. Such dissatisfaction, reflected in that epic poem of Walt Whitman, Passage to India, drove man to explore and seek out a new world.

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with neverhappy hearts,
With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither O mocking life?

Mankind has discovered everything except other planets and the bottom of the oceans, but we individually still have everything to discover. I remember that feeling in the August of 2009 on approaching the Glénans Islands in a sultry hazy blue as several hundred young people and myself were carried by a small passenger ship to our sailing courses.

The Last Frontier is what we fear the most – death – our transition from the life we know as we leave our very bodies and all our possessions behind. Only there will we begin to find what we only found partially in this world. Perhaps Romanticism gives something of a “sneak peek” into that other world, bringing us into contemplation of the divine and the beautiful, to creating and doing the best with what is left of our earthly life.

I found this article admirable, and I can only encourage my readers to read it with the attention it deserves.

As an afterthought, I wonder whether tradition and traditionalism is truly a part of the Christian message as opposed to a radical remake of the human mind and existence. Did Christ really intend a liturgical and sacramental cult in the manner of Temple Judaism and many pagan mystery religions. Christianity is attractive to the senses as a mystery religion (cf. Dom Odo Casel), but one that rises above Isis and Osiris in Eygypt, Mithra in Rome and Zoroastrianism in Persia and Arabia. This was always be the essential difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism on one hand and Protestantism on the other.

* * *

Tuesday 13th September 2016. I have given this matter further thought, and can but say that one of the most fatal errors of our day is to use self-descriptive labels. I have come to be strongly suspicious of “perennialism” or “integral traditionalism” as a system, or anything else as a system of thought and praxis. I was quite attracted to some of these themes in the 1990’s and was in contact with some interesting people. Eventually, their interest fizzled out and they turned to other matters like baroque music or heraldry. It was quite an “in” thing in the 1990’s (in a very restricted circle) and is forgotten today.

For this reason, I am quite opposed to associations or groups. Human nature being what it is, you need to be a manipulative guru to keep things like that going, and that is exactly what I’m not. When it comes to relating to other people, the best is the blog (or the old-fashioned book) that is offered to them without any commitment in return. We need to be realistic. You can’t base a Church on such ideas, because churches are exoteric and addressed to the mass of humanity.

What I can do, as I have always done with this blog, is offer thoughts and ideas that may be useful to others but not always so. I have often found ideas by looking at the blogs of others, but without agreeing with everything. Make of it what you will…

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3 Responses to Romanticism and Traditionalism

  1. Warwickensis says:

    “Mankind has discovered everything except other planets and the bottom of the oceans, but we individually still have everything to discover.”

    Sorry, Father, but even scientifically speaking this is so far from the truth. Latest research has suggested that the goal of theoretical physics, namely the so-called Theory of Everything, is unobtainable. We have discovered that there are even things that we cannot discover – EVER! Even the problem of consciousness is unanswerable, especially from a scientific point of view.

    From the point of view of my meagre and rapidly-diminishing mathematical understanding, the number of open problems in science appears to be increasing and not decreasing. From the point of view of Science, there is now a great deal of Scientific Romanticism about “the good-old days” when classical theories yielded testable results. Even computers cannot decide whether a problem is solvable in efficiently. They never will and this has been proven especially by Kurt Gödel.

    Add into the mix that Science is evidentially and empirically incomplete (indeed, it cannot be complete) I would venture to suggest that the lack of knowledge that we have about the world around us is in fact growing. Science is at least as faith-based as any religious system and no less Romantic! Shame that many scientists won’t engage with that Romance!

    • Wow! Dear Father, what an insight! You are right, because our life is something like the analogy of the visible spectrum of light or a single radio frequency among any number of others. Our limited understanding will pale into insignificance on experiencing what lies beyond bodily death. I know and understand just about zilch about quantum physics, but I have captured the notion of an infinity of possibilities, the analogy of the “multiverse”, the idea that our present life is like a hologram with no more “reality”.

      What I meant is saying this is that your little daughter is discovering things we take for granted. Even in this “physical” world, I discover something new each time I take the boat out or simply go for a walk. When I said this, I was thinking only in terms of parts of this world, rather than the dimensions presently hidden to the human mind or spirit.

      The discoveries of the future won’t be made in ships, submarines or spacecraft. We do indeed find that the more we try to know, the more the end of the rainbow with the crock of gold takes its distance, like the water of the thirsting Tantalus.

  2. Francis says:

    Ah, the return to Nature… Indeed, Romanticism can to be understood as a reaction to the perceived rigidity of classicism, in which Man seeks to impart a Classical understanding order to his environment. But this way of thinking can lead to false dichotomies: the Middles Ages were more “natural”, and therefore better…which is where Chateaubriand ends, together with an extreme immanentisation of Christianity, which can lead to Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and so on. Maistre and Bonald were no Romantics. Maistre was “un bel esprit” who recognised the supreme value and necessity of Tradition most notably in its fundamental practice of sacrifice, while Bonald was intent upon justifying more geometrico the social structures of Tradition, and ended up, in my opinion, paving the way for deeper understandings of the structure of political decision and sovereignty. Both were children, albeit rebellious, of the Enlightenment, in their methods as much as in their references; both acknowledged a notion of progress that was strictly anti-liberal and, in fact, anti-ideological – progress as a temporal fact, entailing decay and generation.

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