Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Romantic Will: Conclusion

"'The Tree of knowledge has robbed us of the tree of life.'" The early German romanntic plays and novels are inspired by an attempt to expose the concept of a stable, intelligible structure of reality which calm observers describe, classify, dissect, predict, as a sham and a delusion, a mere curtain of appearances designed to protect those not sensitive or brave enough to face the truth from the terrifying chaos beneath the false order of bourgeois existence. 'The irony of the cosmos plays with us all, the visible is about us like carpets with shimmering colours and patterns...beyone the carpets is a region populated by dreams and delirium, none dare lift the carpet and peer beyond the curtain.' (Tieck)

"After this the way lies clear for Schopenhauer's world tossed hither and thither by a blind, aimless cosmic will.... a world without frontiers or barriers, within or without, shaped and expressed by art, by religion, by metaphysical insight, by all that is involved in personal relationships--this was the world in which the will is supreme, in which absolute values clash in irreconcilable conflict, the 'nocturnal world' of the soul, the source of all imaginative experience, all poetry, all understanding, all that men truly live by. It is when scientifically minded rationalists claimed to be able to explain and control this level of experience in terms of their concepts and categories, and declared that conflict and tragedy arise only from ignorance of fact, inadequacies of method, the incompetence or ill will of rulers and benighted condition of their subjects, so that in principle, at least, all this could be put right, a harmonious, rationally organized society established, and the dark side of life be made to recede like an old, insubstantial, scarcely remembered nightmare, that the poets and the mystics and all those who are sensitive to the individual, unorganisable, untranslatable aspects of human experience tended to rebel. Such men react against what appears to them to be the maddening dogmatism and smooth good sense Enlightenment rationalists their modern successors.

"Both liberals and socialists, and many who put their trust in rational and scientific methods designed to effect a fundamental social transformation, whether by violent or gradual methods, have held this optimistic belief with mounting intensity during the last hundred years [this essay was published in 1975]. The conviction that once the last obstacles--ignorance and irrationality, alienation and exploitation, and their individual and social roots--have been eliminated, true human history, that is, universal harmonious cooperation, will at last begin is a secular form of what is evidently a permanent need of mankind. But if it is the case that not all ultimate human ends are necessarily compatible, there may be no escape from choices governed by no overriding principle, some among them painful, both the to the agent and to others. From this it would follow that the creation of a social structure that would, at the least, avoid morally intolerable alternatives, and at most promote active solidarity in the pursuit of some commmon objectives, may be the best that human beings can be expected to achieve--if too many varieties of positive action are not to be repressed, too many equally valid human goals are not to be frustrated.
"But a course demanding so much skill and practical intelligence--the hope of what would be no more than a marginally better world, dependent on the maintenance of what is bound to be an unstable equilibrium in need of constant attention and repair--is evidently not inspiring enough for most men, who crave a bold, universal, once-for-all panacea. It may be that men [as T. S. Eliot said] cannot face too much reality, or an open future, without a guarantee of a happy ending....

"One is not committed to applauding or even condoning the extravagances of romantic irrationalism if one concedes that, by revealing that the ends of men are many, often unpredictable, and some among them incompatible with one another, the romantics have dealt a fatal blow to the proposition that, all appearances to the contrary, a definite solution of the jigsaw puzzle [of the perfect politics of the perfect society] is, at least in principle, possible, that power in the service of reason can achieve it, that rational organization can bring about the perfect union of such values and counter-values as indidividual liberty and social equality, spontaneous self-expression and organized, socialy directed efficiency, perfect knowledge and perfect happiness, the claims of personal life and the claims of parties, classes, nations, the public interest. If some ends recognized as fully human are at the same time ultimate and mutually incompatible, then the idea of a golden age, a perfect society compounded of a synthesis of all the correct solutions to all the central problems of human life, is shown to be incoherent in principle. This is the service rendered by romanticism and in particular the doctrine that forms its heart, namely that morality is moulded by the will, and that ends are created not discovered. When this movement is justly condemned for the monstrous fallacy that life is or can be made a work of art, that the esthetic model applies to politics, that the political leader is, at his highest, a sublime artist who shapes men according to his creative design, and that this leads to dangerous nonsense in theory and savage brutality in practise, this at least may be set to its credit: that it has permanently shaken the faith in universal, objectve truth in matters of conduct, in the possibility of a perfect and harmonious society, wholly free of conflict or injustice or oppression--a goal for which no sacrifice can be too great if men are ever to create Condorcet's reign of truth, happiness and virtue, bound 'by an indissoluble chain'--an ideal for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history."

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