Are You a Romantic?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I don’t mean in the sense of displaying strong affection toward your spouse.  I mean in the sense of the nineteenth century movement of Romanticism.  I think the romantics still have something to say to us today, and I’m wondering how many of you can relate to their ideas.

According to William Lawhead, in his The Voyage of Discovery,  “Romanticism was a quasi-philosophical literary and artistic movement that reacted against the Enlightenment picture of the universe as a machine that could best be studied by the analytical techniques of the sciences.”

Lawhead expands on this theme:

For the romantics, the scientific vision of the world was too alienating, for it threatened to turn our moral, aesthetic, and religious longings into isolated aberrations within an otherwise mathematically ordered cosmos.  As the romantics looked out on nature, they did not see atomistic particles in motion.  Instead, they felt they were in the mystical presence of an organic unity that resonated with the human spirit. 

Furthermore, they were convinced that logic and telescopes missed what was most important about reality.  Rather than reason and science revealing the secrets of this world to us, they fragmented nature and turned it into a catalogue of abstractions.  In place of the banquet table of life, full of rich colors, tastes, and textures, science offered us only a cookbook of recipes. 

To be sure, every savory dish present at the banquet of nature was represented in the scientists’ recipes.  But to mistake the scientists’ calculations for the fullness of reality would lead to spiritual starvation.  The physicist could summarize the sunset and rainbow in optical equations, and the physiologist could describe the body of one’s lover as a machine made up of organic pumps, tubing, levers, and pulleys.  However, in each case the scientific account missed the beauty and the mystery of these realities.

Although I don’t agree with everything the Romantics had to say, there is much to be commended about their movement, and I find myself agreeing with several aspects of it.  It often seems to me that the battle of worldviews today is between the reductionists who want to explain every part of human experience in terms of scientific data and theory, and the modern romantics who see that human experience is so much more than what scientific data can explain.

Where do you stand?  Do you align yourself more with the reductionists or the romantics?  Why?

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t see why one negates the other. Understanding thr processes that create a rainbow doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

  • Agreed, but the romantic would say that beauty is more important, more fundamental to human existence than the physical processes that create a rainbow. It’s a matter of emphasis.

  • Anonymous

    As I understand it, the argument would be over which is a primary truth, and which is at best derivative.

    Is the esthetic beauty the truth, and the physics only the autopsy description of a thing, once it’s true value has been discarded; or is the physical and mathematic law the truth, and the beauty a pleasant but subjective reaction, socially useful perhaps, but not reflective of any kind of “truth?”

  • Anonymous

    So the argument from the Romantics would perhaps be that when I feel a sense of awe at, say Niagara Falls, that is telling me something real about the universe; that I am not the pinnacle of existence, and that there are entities so superior to me that awe is the appropriate response.

    One may debate whether that awe is properly invested or misplaced in the waterfall, but the existence of awe in any situation would be taken as compelling evidence that the relationships described are real and appropriate with at least some entities. It is even more a signpost towards the fundamental truths than are the signposts from science.

  • Well said, Eric. The romantic thinks of beauty, goodness, and the spiritual as signs of real things that exist outside of our minds – and that these are the things that life is really about.

    While it may be interesting to know what electrochemical reactions are involved when my wife experiences a positive emotional state, I would much rather know the goodness and beauty of her love toward me.

  • Andrew Ryan

    It is interesting to note research that shows a new mother’s levels of oxytocin is a very accurate predictor of her behaviour with her baby. Take ten women, measure their oxytocin levels, and you’ll be able to predict who’ll cuddle their new baby the longest and who’ll report the strongest feelings of bonding.

    As regards our appreciation of beauty, in faces it mostly comes down to symmetry. In physiques as a whole, we appreciate signals of reproductive fitness. It seems clear these are evolved feelings, similar to our disgust at rotting flesh and animal waste. There’s nothing intrinsically revolting about the latter two, as other creatures are happy to consume them.

    On a side note, one of the most extraordinary exhibitions I ever visited was called ‘American Sublime’, a huge collection of 18th and 19th Century landscapes. The artists were all Romantics, I believe. Many were Brits who travelled to the continent to capture the beauty, which they believed reflected the glory of their God. Amazing works, whatever your view on aesthetics.

    Of course, going back to your point, Eric, one could say that appreciating a pretty face is telling us something about reality just like appreciating the awe of a mountain, even if that reality is ‘reproductive fitness’.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Btw, as I was typing the above, my daughter just did the huge bowel movement I’ve been waiting for all day. To most it would be revolting, but the sight of it couldn’t make me happier – go figure!