Saturday, January 16, 2010



A thought:

The eighteenth century, as everybody knows -- this is a platitude -- was the age of the great triumph of science. The great victories of science are the most phenomenal event of that period; and the most profound revolution in human sentiment which occurred in that age was the result of the destruction of older forms -- the result of the attack both upon the established religion on the part of organised natural science, and upon the old medieval hierarchy by the new secular State.

At the same time, without doubt, the rationalism went so far that, as always happens in such cases, the human sentiment which is blocked by rationalism of this type sought for some kind of egress in other directions. When the Olympian gods become too tame, too rational and too normal, people naturally enough begin to incline towards darker, more chthonian deities. This is what happened in the third century BC in Greece, and what began happening in the eighteenth century. ...

There is no doubt that, while perhaps happiness and order might be provided by the new scientific philosophy, the irrational desires of men, the whole realm of those unconscious drives of which the twentieth century has made us so very acutely aware, began to breed some kind of satisfactions of their own. So, perhaps somewhat to the surprise of people who believe the eighteenth century to have been a harmonious, symmetrical, infinitely rational, elegant, glassy sort of century, a kind of peaceful mirror of human reason and human beauty not disturbed by anything deeper or darker, we find that never in the history of Europe had so many irrational persons wandered over its surface claiming adherence. It is in the eighteenth century that the Masonic and the Rosicrucian sects thrive. It is then that all kinds of charlatans and wanderers begin to have an appeal -- particularly in the second half of the century. It is then that Cagliostro appears in Paris and gets involved in the highest circles. It is then that Mesmer begins talking about animal spirits. This is the favoured age of all kinds of necromancers and chiromancers and hydromancers, whose various nostrums engage the attention and indeed capture the faith of a great many otherwise apparently sane and rational persons. Certainly the experiments in the occult of the Kings of Sweden and of Denmark, of the Duchess of Devonshire and of the Cardinal de Rohan, would have been surprising in the seventeenth century, and unknown in the nineteenth. It is the eighteenth century in which these things begin to spread.

Isaiah Berlin, "The True Fathers of Romanticism," The Roots of Romanticism

Perhaps I'm reading too much into Isaiah Berlins assertion that promotion of science also promotes irrationality. Perhaps a hint of the hydraulic analogy of human thinking - squeeze on one bit and the pressure causes a spurting leak elsewhere?

Could it not be instead that once the natural philosophers (scientists) escaped from underneath the cold dead hand of organised religion some of the fellow escapees felt free to experiment with alternative (though not necessarily rational) worldviews?

A relaxation of religious authority seems a more parsimonious explanation.
While I wouldn't discount your mechanism as contributing to the phenomenon, Berlin's larger point that Romanticism was a rebellion against the mechanistic view of the world is certainly true, and it is reasonable to see the irrational streak in the 18th century as the early stirrings of that rebellion.
I agree that Romanticism was a movement which reacted against the reductive and mechanistic world view of Enlightenment Rationalism.

The point I was trying to bring out was that it wasn't just a two sided debate. There was at least one more player - the reactionary political and religious traditionalists who were trying to reverse the move away from the authority of gods and kings.

The Romantics asserted the primacy of emotion over reason, but their sometimes uncritical acceptance of romantic ideals put them at odds with established religion too.
I find it interesting that a piece on attacking established thought uses phrases like "as everybody knows" and "There is no doubt that".
... their sometimes uncritical acceptance of romantic ideals put them at odds with established religion too.

A fair point and the Enlightenment's letting of the genii out of the religious establishment's bottle certainly freed up all sorts of heterodoxy, including many of the forms of Romanticism. Conversely, the move to Natural Theology was an attempt to inject religious authority back into Rationalism. So there was a lot of scrambling going on to adapt to the new intellectual fitness landscape.

I find it interesting that a piece on attacking established thought uses phrases like "as everybody knows" and "There is no doubt that".

To be fair to Berlin, this is taken from the Mellon Lectures he gave in March and April 1965 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, so he could not give the details he had widely written about elsewhere. Also, Berlin was a "historian of ideas," a field that has been justly criticized as somewhat "mushy."
...unknown in the nineteenth...

Berlin is very wrong here the 19th century is full of the most extraordinary woo of all kinds. A lot of it being praticed and propagated by the intelligentia as it was in the 17th century.
One might think of Darwin's endurance of "hydrotherapy" for one.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education