To be a Romantic or not, that is the question…

This little piece is intended to replace a criticism I made of a posting written by a brother priest and a dear friend. By deleting the post, I was certainly more severe on myself than on him.

What concerned me more than anything was an association being made between mob fanaticism in forms it is presently taking and a partial understanding of Romanticism. Of course, there were / are as many Romanticisms as Romantics. The word also describes a historical cultural phenomenon and an enduring world view. We cannot pretend to be living ten or twenty years after the French Revolution, but we can make historical comparisons to come to some understanding about our own response to give.

Like most people, I listen to the news or look at Google News (France, USA and UK) and have noticed that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is no longer in the headlines, but rather a very angry reaction to police brutality and alleged (sometimes very real) racism. It is as if the anger was bottled up by the quarantine and lockdown and has suddenly exploded. Our world has become a very dangerous place. Politicians, in their manipulation, lies and self-interest, have become about as useful as a chocolate teapot as the world erupts into something like a replay of the 1790’s or the 1930’s. Is the only problem that people are motivated by emotion rather than reason? I fear that violent demonstrations cause problems rather than solutions.

As people fight the police in the streets of Paris or New York, I live in a peaceful village in Normandy. I write and try to understand things at a deeper level, both in terms of formal reasoning and “depth psychology”. I live my little life. Is my detachment from the great controversies cowardice and indifference? Should I be in Paris bawling slogans and braving the tear gas bombs and truncheons? I sometimes wonder whether we should stay in what a witty person has coined as “Covid 1984” with Orwell’s dystopia in mind. Byron went to fight the Turks on the side of the Greeks, and died of illness. Orwell went himself to fight the fascists in Spain. Was it his war? Is anti-Brexit and “Black Lives Matter” mine? Would it do any good for me to be beaten, perhaps maimed and get a criminal record? I really honestly believe that humanity needs to seek justice at another level.

Simply put, the kind of emotional energy being discussed is raw anger and rage provoked by the way human beings behave in crowds. I have been for a long time convinced that collective intelligence is not intelligent. Human nature is not conscious, only human persons are. A crowd of humans is no more intelligent than a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle. Such emotion is destructive, not creative or capable of intelligence at any level. It is no more spiritual or creative than rational. Rob Riemen has studied the phenomenon of “mass humanity” or the crowd, and found in it the main cause of ideologies like fascism. I find this theme in both of his recent works Nobility of Spirit and To fight against this age.

Compare the fury of the Sturmabteilung in the 1930’s against Jewish shops and businesses in German cities, and then consider the Romantic movement in terms of philosophy, art, poetry, literature and music. Most of Romanticism precisely sought to reconcile modern rationalism with the creative imagination, far above cheap emotions and anger and sentimentalism. If Romanticism is all emotion and political ideology, the refusal of rational dialogue, then there is something wrong with it. There is Romanticism and Romantics. Some went far off the rails into immoral lives and sometimes to suicide. Others had clearer ideas about reconciling the achievements of the Age of Reason and the role of the creative imagination, the faculty in man that is responsible for art, literature and music.

One aspect of the article I criticised was the opposition made between strict Aristotelian logic and romantic idealism. I myself received teaching from the Angelicum in Rome and my seminary in the same country. At Fribourg, I was exposed to another way of “doing” theology through a less foundationalist view of truth and knowledge. Life simply doesn’t fit the convenient mathematical categories. The Papacy sought to bring back strict scholasticism at the end of the nineteenth century as a reaction to idealism and liberalism. It no longer had credibility in the minds of men like Newman and those who were labelled “Modernists” in the 1900’s. It would have been like an adult being forced to live and think as a child. The problem is human language and communication. Words don’t mean the same things to different people!

We need to continue studying philosophy and fundamental theology (concerning faith, revelation, tradition and reason). These are current questions that have been tackled most courageously by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI in their writings on faith and reason. Traditionalism (in its nineteenth-century meaning) and neo-scholasticism are two extremes to avoid. Benedict XVI incurred a considerable amount of criticism for singling out fundamentalist Islam as an example of a religious expression refusing the role of reason. The Regensburg Address is a monument in this work of reconciling faith, tradition, emotion, imagination – with reason. Ratzinger’s fundamental theology was a capital influence in my theological education at Fribourg. In my eyes, Ratzinger is a Romantic in the great German tradition, though perhaps more on the rationalist side, a man of my own heart as a theologian.

Romanticism itself was an early attempt at this work of reconciling the rational movement that was destroyed by Jacobinism and the French Revolution with the emerging inspirations of the human spirit. This is nobility of spirit and the ideal to which I humbly aspire.

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