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Lecture 5b: English Romanticism

February 25, 2014

b. Understanding the intellectual bases of the Revolution

What brought on the changes in society necessary to fuel the focus on progress and technology both at work explicitly and implicitly in the Revolution? In no small part, the roots of this phenomenon lie in the changes in common beliefs that we have studied up to this point as these are embodied in the notion of rational control. What does rational control hold? First, that the world has a natural, regular order. Second, that the natural order can be changed, and all have some right to dignity. Third, that the natural order can be changed to suit our needs and desires, to improve our human situation and secure our happiness. Fourth and finally, the means to the end of happiness lie in making use of our rational control of science, technology and instrumental reasoning in order to change the world around us. Hence the dignity due to us as subjects of rational control. These sorts of views help fuel the intuitions at the root of the societal changes captured in the Industrial Revolution. In other words, the change in our outlook on the world is not merely intellectual; it reflects a change in our relation to the world as embodied in the Revolution. Historical changes like those of the Revolution do not simply come from nowhere. Quite the contrary insofar as these are closely tied to the changes that we have been examining in this class. Without these changes, we cannot get to an Industrial Revolution.

That said, these societal and cultural changes are not welcomed everywhere with open arms. In light of the negative aspects highlighted above, some citizens even come to have a particularly negative view of the changes underway at this point. Reform of these negative aspects does not always come from those affected most directly by them. Although this is the case with the rise of socialism and labor unions, it is important to remember that the laws forbidding or reducing child labor stemmed in origin from the plight of poor children being exposed to the upper and middle classes, who then agitated for reform. The essential thing to retain here is that there was opposition to these changes.

One of the more remarkable forms that this opposition takes is Romanticism. Although this position originates with upper- and middle-class intellectuals and literati, it comes to have a broader cultural currency that is still with us today. Before speaking more of that, we should, however, first try to pin down that which Romanticism consists in. In general, Romanticism sees in this culture and logic of self-control something fundamentally corrupt. In the new mechanical relations that predominate in the relationship between human and nature and in the communal living seen in the shantytowns and factories, something fundamental to (human) nature has gone awry. If humanity is naturally innocent and good, then it is nevertheless corrupted by the evils of society. So it is that we see a shift and a new accentuation in our theses from last week:

18th Century Democratic Thought:

 1.) Natural order: The world has a natural, regular order independent of any designer. Beings pursue the good of others because a.) it is in their own interest and 2.) their natural emotions push them to do so.

2.) Radical affirmation of ordinary life: If the natural order is not designed, then neither is the distribution of power or authority in the social order. Therefore, that distribution can be changed by human means, and each is due certain natural rights and free to decide for himself.

3.) Materialism and rights: If things in the world are neutral matter and humanity has a natural tendency to pursue happiness, then things in the world should further that happiness in accordance with individuals’ rights.

4.) Technical progress and rights: Knowledge and science should change the material world to improve humanity’s situation in accordance with individuals’ rights.

19th Century Romanticism:

1.) Natural order: The world has a natural, regular order. This world reflects our selves, such that outer world elicits strong feelings in inner self.

2.) Radical affirmation of ordinary life and primitivism: If the outer world reflects inner world and we are whole only in the presence of nature, then it is our duty to return to older forms of life to be closer to the world, as befits human nature.

3.) Humanized materialism: If things in the world reflect our selves and humanity has a natural tendency to pursue happiness, then order in the things in the world should further that happiness.

4.) Humanized progress: If the world exhibits a regular order, it is our duty to come to know that order better through both scientific means (rational control) and poetic means (individualized expression).

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