Sunday, May 03, 2009
Some romantics certainly went too far. This can be illustrated by the extraordinary example of Max Stirner, which may perhaps show what it is, in the end, that is valuable in romanticism, even for us today. Stirner was a Hegelian German schoolmaster who argued, quite correctly, as follows. The romantics are quite right in supposing that when we think that institutions are eternal this is a mistake. Institutions are created freely by human beings for the benefit of other human beings and in time become worn out. When therefore, by looking at them from the point of view of the present, we see they are worn out, we must abolish them and have new institutions, freely arrived at by our own indomitable will. This is not merely true of political institutions, economic institutions or other public institutions; it is equally true of doctrines. Doctrines can also be a most terrible weight upon us, fearful chains and tyrannies which yoke us to all kinds of views which the present or our own wills no longer desiderate. Therefore theories, too, must be blown up; any kind of general theory - Hegelianism, Marxism - is itself a ghastly form of despotism ... But if this is true about doctrines, it will be equally true of all general propositions; and if it is true of all general propositions, then - and this is the last step of all, which some romantics certainly took - it is true of all words, because all words are general, they all classify. If I use the word 'yellow' I want to mean by it what I meant by it yesterday and what you will mean by it tomorrow. But this is a terrible yoke, this is a fearful despotism. Why should the word 'yellow' mean the same thing now and tomorrow? Why cannot I alter it? Why should twice 2 always make 4? Why should words be uniform? Why cannot I make up my own universe each time I begin? But if I do that, if there is no systematic symbolism, then I cannot think. If I cannot think, I go mad.
To do him justice, Stirner did duly go mad. He ended his life very honourably and very consistently in a lunatic asylum as a perfectly peaceful harmless lunatic, in 1856.
- Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism