Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Romantic vs. the Idealist

Just some rambling random thoughts on recent readings…

Recent studies are putting an interesting picture in my mind. I was always taught that Jean Jacque Rousseau was the starting point for the Romantic. I have even repeated this. Now I am coming to the conclusion that I was wrong, and also seeing something that I consider to be quite dangerous. I guess you could call it an evil twin.

One interesting fact about the Romantics is that they never called themselves such. In fact the label was not applied until the 1890’s. Most scholars mark the end of the Romantic Era as World War I, but I argue it was 1929 with the coming of the Great Depression when the zeitgeist shifted from individualism to state planning. So time between when the label was fixed and the end of the era is less than forty years during which time seeds of the new collectivist zeitgeist were growing in the halls of academia.

This is important in that I have realised that I could make the argument that much of what has been taught about the Romantic and thus the common perception of people in and out of academia is a bias version codified by post-Romantic critics.

When we look at the writings of Rousseau, his book The Social Contract, and his theory of General Will, we do not see Romanticism. Edmund Burke accurately predicted the horrors of the French Revolution solely by extrapolating the inevitable outcome of the application of Rousseau’s theories. What we see are the seeds of modern liberalism and indeed socialism.

If we define the central premise of the Romantic as individualism and volition, then Rousseau and socialism are the antithesis of the Romantic. I also call the post-Romantic Era is the Socialist Era, so is it any wonder that the socialist academics have twisted Romanticism to make it their own by writing the history books and literary criticism so that it fits their model? I had to come up with a term to describe this dark mirror version of the Romantic that has led so many astray. The name I have settled on for the time being is Idealism. It seems to fit as Romanticism is often wrongly associated with Idealism.

I mark the beginning of the Romantic Era at 1776 for three reasons. That year saw the writing of The Declaration of Independence, the publication of The Wealth of Nations, and the use of the first commercial steam engine. Each of these empowered the individual, expanded freedom, and allowed for the level of individual expression and achievement associated with the Romantic.

The men behind these three events were all connected and all of them could be called followers of John Locke. They all knew each other as either friends or were admirers of each other’s works. They also shared a common vision. They were part of a social, political, and philosophical movement called the Enlightenment. The Romantic Era is simply the result of the Enlightenment put into action.

One of the leading lights of the Enlightenment was the French philosopher and writer Voltaire. He was a follower of Locke as well. He was also friends with Adam Smith (who was friends with David Hume), and Benjamin Franklin, and he even attended Sir Isaac Newton’s funeral. He was also a bitter enemy of Rousseau. When Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of The Social Contract he replied:

"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it."

In Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization, he argues that the American War of Independence was Locke’s revolution while the French Revolution was Rousseau’s because the French chose equality over liberty. I love this quote from Voltaire, “Men are equal; it is not birth but virtue that makes the difference.”

A virtue is a habit that leads to positive results. So what Voltaire is saying here is that yes, all men are created equal, but after that a man is judged by the profit of his actions. This is what makes one man better than another. When we deny the outcomes of both vice and virtue, then virtue becomes a vice and vice becomes virtue. We see this operating in society today where the weak and stupid are allowed to thrive at the expense of the virtuous and all in the name of equality.

In his book Democracy in America, Alec de Tocqueville wrote:

The citizen of the United States is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he only claims its assistance when he is quite unable to shift without it...In America the liberty of association for political purpose is unbounded...There are no countries in which associations are more needed, to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince, than those which are democratically constituted.

This passage is taken from his comparison of the American and French revolutions and contrasts the American with his distrust of social authority with the French embracing what Rousseau called the General Will and today we call the “greater good”. History shows that this idealistic pursuit of the general will for the greater good leads to mob rule, death, destruction, and tyranny.

I’ve always agreed with the idea that education is all about throwing shit on the wall and hoping some of it sticks. I saw the stuff that we want to stick as being the general headers, you know, the basic framework that can be filled in if needed later.

Now I see that though this is largely correct, more often than not students do not even take that away unless they actually have an interest or investment in a subject. Instead they have a sense of the subject material. So it’s not so much the shit that has stuck but a vague Rorschach image or impression.

For example, they know that the Great Depression occurred and that it was bad, but not much of the particulars. They have a vague impression that it was caused by rampant capitalism and Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and World War II saved America. The people who do know are academic experts who believe this to be the case because it supports their politics, even though the facts do not support that position. The facts are that the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression and the New Deal made things worse, but that does not support the popular conception.

In thinking about this I resurrected an old concept that I had come up with, the idea of presumptive cognition. This is basically how we think about things that we presume to have knowledge of but do not actually have all the facts. Instead it’s based on our sense or idea of a subject as derived from forgotten lectures, mass media representations, and memes.

For the average person their understanding of historical events is largely painted by a liberal academic bias in the same way that the modern mainstream media is presented according to a liberally biased narrative. In both academia and in the media any variation from the official liberal narrative is branded “right-wing” and biased and often regardless of the facts.

So let’s look at the common perception of the Romantic. Since the Romantics championed individual feeling people presume that they were against reason and empiricism. The facts just do not support this. I’d wager if anyone defended their ideological position to arch-Romantic stereotypes like Byron or Shelly by appealing to their personal feelings that they would be laughed at viciously, and yet modern sentimental idealists appeal to the Romantics as their ideological forebears and paint them as such.

If we accept the premise that the Romantic was a reaction against the Enlightenment, which is the common perception, then we can understand why Rousseau is so often seen as the Father of the Romantic. The clique of Enlightenment thinkers, which included Voltaire, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Francois Diderot, were all personal and intellectual enemies of Rousseau.

I discovered an article from 2006 which outlines the feud between Rousseau and Hume written for The Guardian newspaper by David Edmonds and John Eidinow called Enlightened Enemies. It contained this character view.

In hindsight, it seems unlikely that they were ever going to get along, personally or intellectually. Hume was a combination of reason, doubt and scepticism. Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination and certainty. While Hume's outlook was unadventurous and temperate, Rousseau was by instinct rebellious; Hume was an optimist, Rousseau a pessimist; Hume gregarious, Rousseau a loner. Hume was disposed to compromise, Rousseau to confrontation. In style, Rousseau revelled in paradox; Hume revered clarity. Rousseau's language was pyrotechnical and emotional, Hume's straightforward and dispassionate. JYT Greig wrote in his 1931 biography of Hume, "The annals of literature seldom furnish us with two contemporary writers of the first rank, both called philosophers, who cancel one another out with almost mathematical precision."

Where the Enlightenment thinkers believed that the application of reason and technological advancement would exalt the human condition, Rousseau believed "Nature has made everything in the best way possible; but we want to do better still, and we spoil everything,

It is easy to look at Rousseau and paint him in the mould of a Byronic hero, the misunderstood, alienated, loner, and genius driven by his passions. This has been the dominant narrative. However, we could just as easily paint him is less idealistic terms.

He is like Eric Cartman dressed like an out of control teenage girl on a talk show declaring, “I do what I want”. This is how Rousseau alienated himself, by being a selfish and deluded asshole. The great feud between Hume and Rousseau came about when Hume helped Rousseau flee the Continent for Britain and set him up, but Rousseau’s paranoia got the better of him and he became convinced that Hume was at the centre of a great conspiracy to entrap him. None of which was true.

I do not believe that Rousseau is the Father of the Romantic. He is the patriarch of something more sinister. His child is the Romantic’s evil twin, Idealism. This is the belief that personal feeling and perception supersedes everything else. Here is an example.

One of the academic clubs at Glasgow University is the centre of protest. Due to cut-backs the university has closed the club. This has become a magnet for protestors. At one such protest, students squatted in the club and the university called the police to remove the trespassers from university property. The police formed a line to prevent the angry mob from entering. The crowd chanted things like “this is our club” and “this is what a police state looks like”. That may well be their perception and their feelings, but it is not reality. The reality is that this is university private property and a police state is when the cops are beating the living shit out of you or invade your home.

Idealism, as I am putting it forward, is the French Revolution, Marxist theory, Republicrat politics in America, and the Green Movement to name a few outcomes of this ideology. These are all driven by individual perceptions and feelings over facts. Once you have programmed your internal sensors to spot this phenomenon you easily recognised the similarity between Rousseau knocking-up a scullery maid five times and then abandoning the children in a foundling hospital and Barack Obama’s parents abandoning him for the same reason. They felt like something that they wanted to do was more important than their responsibilities. Oh, Rousseau did take his dog, Sultan, with him when he took off.

If I was to give a key differential between Romanticism and Idealism it would be that the Romantic extols the individual as I and not the personal ego of me. This goes back to the principle that the individual does not exist for the purposes of other individuals. If we accept this premise, then it follows that voluntary cooperation and trade is the only way the individual can morally advance and this requires a meeting of the minds on the common ground of reason.

The Idealist on the other hand uses rationalisation rather than reason to further their emotional desires at the expense of others because their feelings take precedent over the feelings of others; their desires take precedent over the desires of others; their perceptions take precedent over the knowledge and experience of others; and their ego takes precedent over the freedom of others.

In December 1997, a woman called Julia Butterfly Hill lived in a California redwood tree for two years to save the tree from logging. She claims that while there she began literally communing with nature. At one point the trees around “her tree” were being cut down and her tree began pouring sap which she realised was the tree communicating its grief. Yes, the tree was “crying”.

This type of infantile solipsism and projection may not have been Rousseau’s intention, but that is the logical outcome of his ideology. We also see this in protests where people have deep and personal feelings about an issue and they protest by dressing in costumes and dancing to drums with no rational dialogue even possible. It’s all about their perception and their level of mass feeling.

The ever present irony is that the system that they protest is the very boat that they are standing in. We see this in the protestors against globalization who use the tools provided by globalisation to organise their protests, or they protest corporations while consuming the very products produced by the corporations.

The outcomes of Idealism are historically the same. The masses driven by their emotions and perceptions become violent when they do not get their way, the “General Will”. According to the US Department of Defence, 4,435 patriots died in the American Revolution and 6,188 wounded, in contrast the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed as a result claimed in total close to four million lives. One reason for this is that in revolutionary France the General Will took precedent over all else and what determined the General Will of the people was force of the mob. We see the same in the revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba. Eventually a totalitarian regime takes over in the name of the mob.

To make a socio-political distinction between the Romantics and the Idealist we need only look at the political compass. The Romantics falls into the Libertarian-Right quadrant while the Idealists fall into the Libertarian-Left quadrant. Both groups are anti-authoritarian and pro-individual liberty. This is why they appear similar on the outside. The key differential is property rights.

The Romantic position is that the individual has the right to his justly acquired property to use, trade, and dispose of as he chooses. Another word for property is capital, the means of production. So the Romantic is by definition a capitalist and looks to government to defend that right.

The Idealist position is that the individual has the right to his justly acquired property except when such ownership, trade, and disposal runs contrary to the general will or greater good. So the question is “who determines the greater good?” Quite simply it is the people, the mob, the loudest voice, or society and the idealist looks to government to enforce the general will.

This is where the Libertarian-Left falls on its face. They are anti-authoritarian, but the only way to enforce the general will is through government force. So the best idealistic intentions shift in practice from the Libertarian-Left to the Authoritarian-Left. We have moved from the quadrant occupied by Gandhi to the one occupied by Stalin. This problem is usually addressed through denial. Stalin is seen as a one-off thug and not the true picture of communism, or they idealise mass murderers likes Ché Guevara or Mao because they acted for the greater good.

During the Romantic Era from 1776-1929 the concept of the classical liberal democracy was in full force and the people reaped the benefits and dealt with the problem of expanding liberty. That period rested upon the achievements of the philosophers during the Enlightenment who championed these liberties.

If this was the age of the Libertarian-Right, then the current Socialist Era is the Idealist Age of the Libertarian-Left. They even assumed the mantle of “liberal” and to an extent “romantic”. Their traditional adversaries were the Authoritarian-Right quadrant occupied by most political parties in the West.

Today we are seeing the inevitable shift from the Libertarian-Left to the Authoritarian-Left in the form of the rampant nanny-state, political correctness police, and of course more laws and regulations to enforce the general will for the greater good.

The reaction against this a bolstering of the Authoritarian-Right and a ground swell among the Libertarian-Right as the conservatives and the libertarians respectively. Where the Romantics inherited the benefits of the Enlightenment, today’s new Romantics must fight for it. They do not have the luxury of advocating individual feeling over reason because the pendulum has swung too far. Equilibrium must be achieved.

There is a war on for the future and the enemies of the Romantic are the same enemies fought by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. They are political and religious authoritarianism and human ignorance. I can label these as Rousseau’s Idealists, Socialism, Islam, and to a lesser degree fundamentalist Christianity.

I’ve decided to conclude with this excerpt that I have found from Casanova’s memoirs. The scene takes place at a Paris salon where Casanova is discussing the fight for liberty with Voltaire at a party. Bear in mind that this was written from Casanova’s recollection of the discussion the following day. It can be found in chapter nineteen of his book.

VOLTAIRE:  If Horace had had to combat the hydra-headed monster of superstition, he would have written as I have written--for all the world.

CASANOVA: It seems to me that you might spare yourself the trouble of combating what you will never destroy.

 VOLTAIRE:  That which I cannot finish others will, and I shall always have the glory of being the first in the field.

CASANOVA:  Very good; but supposing you succeed in destroying superstition, what are you going to put in its place?

VOLTAIRE:  I like that. If I deliver the race of man from a wild beast which is devouring it, am I to be asked what I intend to put in its place?

CASANOVA:  It does not devour it; on the contrary, it is necessary to its existence.

VOLTAIRE:  Necessary to its existence! That is a horrible blasphemy, the falsity of which will be seen in the future. I love the human race; I would fain see men like myself, free and happy, and superstition and freedom cannot go together. Where do you find an enslaved and yet a happy people?

CASANOVA:  You wish, then, to see the people sovereign?

VOLTAIRE:  God forbid! There must be a sovereign to govern the masses.

CASANOVA:  In that case you must have superstition, for without it the masses will never obey a mere man decked with the name of monarch.

VOLTAIRE:  I will have no monarch; the word expresses despotism, which I hate as I do slavery.

CASANOVA:  What do you mean, then? If you wish to put the government in the hands of one man, such a man, I maintain, will be a monarch.

VOLTAIRE:  I would have a sovereign ruler of a free people, of which he is the chief by an agreement which binds them both, which would prevent him from becoming a tyrant.

CASANOVA:  Addison will tell you that such a sovereign is a sheer impossibility. I agree with Hobbes, of two evils choose the least. A nation without superstition would be a nation of philosophers, and philosophers would never obey. The people will only be happy when they are crushed and down-trodden, and bound in chains.

VOLTAIRE:  This is horrible; and you are of the people yourself. If you have read my works you must have seen how I shew that superstition is the enemy of kings.

CASANOVA:  Read your works? I have read and re-read them, especially in places where I have differed from you. Your ruling passion is the love of humanity. 'Est ubi peccas'. This blinds you. Love humanity, but love it as it is. It is not fit to receive the blessings you would lavish on it, and which would only make it more wretched and perverse. Leave men their devouring monster, it is dear to them. I have never laughed so heartily as at Don Quixote assailed by the galley-slaves whom his generosity had set free.

VOLTAIRE:  I am sorry that you have such a bad opinion of your fellow-creatures. And by the way, tell me whether there is freedom in Venice.

CASANOVA:  As much as can be expected under an aristocracy.  Our liberty is not so great as that which the English enjoy, but we are content."

 VOLTAIRE:  Even under The Leads?

 CASANOVA:  My imprisonment was certainly despotic; but as I had knowingly abused my liberty I am satisfied that the Government was within its rights in shutting me up without the usual formalities.

 VOLTAIRE:  All the same, you made your escape.

 CASANOVA:  I used my rights as they had used theirs.

 VOLTAIRE:  Very good!  But as far as I can see, no one in Venice is really free.

 CASANOVA:  That may be; but you must agree that the essence of freedom consists in thinking you have it.

VOLTAIRE:  I shall not agree to that so easily.  You and I see liberty from very different points of view.  The aristocrats, the members of the Government even, are not free at Venice; for example, they cannot travel without permission.

CASANOVA:  True, but that is a restriction of their own making to preserve their power.  Would you say that a Bernese is not free, because he is subject to the sumptuary laws, which he himself had made.

VOLTAIRE:  Well, well, I wish the people made the laws everywhere.