Romantic Era
The American Renaissance

Romanticism emerged in Europe, especially Germany and England, as a reaction to the Enlightenment. It didn't so much undo what was done in the enlightenment, as it tried to take a step beyond it perhaps. So, you have a great growing dissatisfaction with the strictures of the enlightenment. What is the word for that? It is sort of like a straight jacket the enlightenment is. Everything is reason, reason, reason. The buildings you build have to be very precisely laid out, and a certain form of elegance. So, a lot of Washington, D.C. built along the enlightenment models with the columns, and the stateliness, and all this other stuff. Music also tended to be by rules. Writing poetry, you wrote, of course, to rules. They were always discovering the "laws" of stuff, the natural law, how light works, how electricity works (Ben Franklin doing the thing with the kite). Similarly they tried to discover laws for writing good poetry. The trouble is, of course, that this tends to greatly limit what you can do.

So, the romantic movement shows a desire to move beyond it. Furthermore, there is a limit in the long run, somewhat dehumanizing the enlightenment. Where is the humanity in doing everything reasonably, in following laws and rules? The ultimate example of the enlightenment was the Napoleonic Code.

(Question) "What has that to do with us, by the way?"

(Answer) "We live by it in Louisiana."

(Response) Yeah, the basis of the laws in Louisiana, it's broken down, somewhat, over the years, but Napoleon enacted this enlightenment system of the legal system, which literally stretched from the furthermost reaches of the Louisiana Province up near the Rock Mountains, somewhere, all the way across Europe to all the places that he controlled, Egypt, everywhere the same law as if everybody was the same everywhere. Well, Egyptians and the Native Americans living thousands of miles apart, do they need the same legal system? That was sort of the romantic response. No, a people tend to follow a system developed for them growing out of their national spirit, their national character. That is why the Germans were so involved with it, because Napoleon was in the process of conquering Germany, and this was a nationalistic response. Nationalism, as a movement, starts in the Romantic Period; the idea of all Germans being together; all French being together; all British being together. Until then you've been cobbling together different nationalities, people speaking different languages, different religions and making one sort of overarching state (the empire model). Also, Romanticism tried to bring emotion back into things.

Part of this new nationalism affected America.  Americans had been living in the shadow of Europe, struggling to develop their own culture.  Literature is one expression of a nation's culture, and during this period American authors tried to develop uniquely American expressions.  So even as they copy European Romanticism, they have to pretend that they aren't.  Thus the term for this movement in its American manifestation is Transcendentalism.

(Question) "What is the most divine attribute in the Enlightened Period? What is the thing that is most divine about God? What is the thing that is closest to the divine about us? What distinguishes us from the animals?"

(Answer) "Our intelligence, our reason."

The idea of our intelligence separating us from the animals making us different and for them the highest attribute of God is His reason, the fact that He creates the universe according to reason. How did Thomas Payne pull down kings? Reason. It's this reason which will transform the world. Once you get the world operating according to reasonable rules and regulations then everything will be great. We will have the "Golden Age." But are we at heart reasonable people? We may have the capacity to reason, but is that what drives us?

(Question) "What drives us?"

(Answer) "Our passion."

The Romantic Era swings its pendulum back toward passion. Sure, we have intelligence, but intelligence does not serve itself, it serves our passions. In other words, we sit around and use our brains to figure out how to get food, how to get shelter, how to get sex all of these other things that drives us. So, they go back, moving toward emotion, bringing the emotion as a vital human characteristic.

Traditionally Western philosophy has favored reason over passion - this was true from Plato until the Enlightenment. Reason was to control passion. Now your understanding of reason would change. Remember, reason changed from understanding and following the rules of authority, to understanding the universe as you are able to perceive it. So, that the understanding of reason had changed, but the idea that reason is superior to passion was very deeply ingrained in our civilization. Reason rules passion; reason governs passion.


Well, for the romantics this becomes turned over. Even the ancient Greek philosophers, for the most part, would have agreed with this formulation. But now passion starts to take over. They are also big on the "will," the idea of making your own decision.

(Question) "Now, does this sound like something that would be popular in America?

(Response) "Ha! Ha! Ha! Well, yes."

The idea of being rugged individualists appeals to us. We all want to be Shane riding in from the wilderness. Don't we? The fact that we, for the most part, behave like a bunch of cattle is something we have to sort of justify to ourselves. Our rugged individualist Mr. X is gently sleeping in his room right now, rather than attending class. The rest of us are here doing what Tech tells us to do. Right?

Anyway, the will to say "No." There is a new hero who emerges during this period, the satanic hero. For them, Satin becomes the one who says no to God, especially the satin in Paradise Lost. Now in Milton's understanding, Satin was his villain, but his villain was so much more interesting than his Hero, because God is the Hero, and you hardly ever see Him. When you see Him or the angel or Jesus, or whoever it is, they are sort sitting there talking to Adam about the future, but Satin is active. He is doing stuff. Even though it is bad, it is what he wants to do.

One other element of this, our will sort of is a way of expressing our passion. Power is a big part, and also they love to see the power in nature. Where as the enlightenment, you go out and look at the stars, when you want to get in touch with nature. How you go out into the world and see it working according to its laws, rules, and regulations.

Everybody dies, we are all going to be there. That is the law of nature, right? So, take comfort in that. Well, the Romantics are not out there to see power. They go out to watch the stars; they want to see the waterfalls; they want to see the clouds moving into the mountains. They love mountains. For the enlightenment, their key to nature was the star system, because it works like a giant clock. Well, for these folks it's the mountains, because you've got the crashing of the clouds, and the lightening bolts flashing, and the weather can change form one extreme to another in a matter if minutes. Always on the edge, and for them this is what they like to look at and to think about. This power combined with will brings forth what was for them the ultimate divine attribute - creation.

What is it that distinguishes God? For the Enlightenment, it is His reason. For the Romantics it is His creative power. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." This becomes then their goal for themselves, to create. Not to sit around and follow a bunch of rules and regulations, but to make something. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, hence the popularity of satin. Yeah, you know he has killed a lot of people and you know done some bad stuff, but the dude is out there. He's doing stuff.

Bad or good, the fact is that it was more important for them that you are engaged, and you sort of create your own good and evil (for some of them). There is a wide spectrum of Romanticism - for this reason - many of them dissatisfied with the ways that the Enlightenment worked decided to imagine themselves around the world in some other sort of system, to try it out. Where as in the Mediaeval period you were really a mediaeval person, during this period you would dress up like a Mediaeval person, and sort of dress up mentally like a Mediaeval person. Try it out. So, you had a wide range of stuff. People who were in their theology rather orthodox Christian; others would bring in Eastern philosophy. What the common thread was the seeking for something more, the dissatisfaction with what the Enlightenment had bequeathed them, and the search for something that was more spiritually satisfying.

Now in the United States . . . Oh, by the way, for the first time now, the artist's task becomes thinking up something "new."

(Question) "Did Shakespeare ever try to have a new idea, as far as a plot?"

(Response) "Just very rarely. The Tempest is fairly creative on his part."

Most of the plays that he writes, he gets the plots right out of something else, another play, sometimes a history, sometimes a book of mythology, and that was seen good and proper. Why would you want to come up with some new story, there are so many out there to work with already. Well, now days, the goal becomes thinking up some story that nobody has ever thought of before. Is that very easy? No, but it becomes a goal, and it is a goal that is still with us. Right? People want to create something new. Make something up that has never been done before. And until then they have been sort of reworking this old material. Sometimes, someone would come up with something new, but that was not a particular goal. Now it is. It becomes sort of the hallmark that you've not only made the great work, but that you've made an original work.