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31-08-2015, 21:33

The Romantic View of Life

The spreading belief that human institutions were improving had a profound effect on the arts and literature. In the Western world, it gave rise to romanticism, a revolt against the bloodless logic of the Age of Reason. It was a noticeable if unnamed point of view in Germany, France, and England as early as the 1780s and in America a generation later; by the second quarter of the nineteenth century, few intellectuals were unmarked by it. “Romantics” believed that change and growth were the essence of life, for individuals and for institutions. They valued feeling and intuition over pure thought, and they stressed the differences between individuals and societies rather than the similarities. Ardent love of country characterized the movement; individualism, optimism, ingenuousness, and emotion were its bywords. Romanticism, too, drew much from the religious sensibilities of mothers. Children were innately good; pernicious influences led to their corruption.

Frederic Edwin Church conveyed the romantic sensibility in Twilight in the Wilderness (I860). The clouds glow with religious portent, and their reflected light pervades Nature.

The romantic way of thinking found its greatest American expression in transcendentalism, a New England creation that is difficult to describe because it emphasized the indefinable and the unknowable. It was a mystical, intuitive way of looking at life that subordinated facts to feelings. Its literal meaning was “to go beyond the world of the senses,” by which the transcen-dentalists meant the material and observable world. To the transcendentalists, human beings were truly divine because they were part of nature, itself the essence of divinity. Peoples’ intellectual capacities did not define their capabilities, for they could “transcend” reason by having faith in themselves and in the fundamental benevolence of the universe. Transcendentalists were complete individualists, seeing the social whole as no more than the sum of its parts. Organized religion, indeed all institutions, were unimportant if not counterproductive; what mattered was the single person and that people aspire, stretch beyond their known capabilities. Failure resulted only from lack of effort. The expression “Hitch your wagon to a star” is of transcen-dentalist origin.