Responses to the Age of Enlightenment Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Irrationalists and the Enlightenment

Thomas Carlyle and his friend Mazzini were a couple of the "irrationalists" who opposed the Enlightenment developments and believed men needed a "new religion" (Stromberg 50) in order to guide them towards future progress. The Napoleonic Wars had upset the order that the Age of Enlightenment had cultivated -- essentially a Protestant takeover throughout Europe in which the Protestant ethos sat at the heart. The backlash against this Puritanism, however, was the Romantic Era, which pushed the opposite direction from the "science" of the Enlightened Protestants. It elevated passion, intuition, spirit, nationalism, history, the arts, the past, nostalgia, poetry, the humanities, etc. As Stromberg notes, the "irrationalists" and their followers "made art the chief avenue to truth" (Stromberg 148). Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, they believed that art held the mirror up to nature and told man who and what he really was. The men of Enlightenment science were negligent with this mirror -- refusing to look at it, suffering from idealistic dreams and Utopian visions. Many Romantics suffered from this, too, while others held a more realistic view and produced gothic works -- such as the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's wife, Mary. Stromberg describes the "irrationalists" as "postscientific" -- men like Friedrich Nietzsche whose philosophy was born out of a poetic fancy rooted in Romanticism yet decoupled from the medieval scholasticism that had truly set the standard of reason centuries earlier. Nietzsche embodied the spirit, in a way, of Dostoevsky's Underground Man -- possessing all of the animosity towards the artificial, superficial world of the Enlightenment, yet none of the Christian virtue that Dostoevsky's later heroes recognized as the only possible, rational antidote to the philosophes.

There was also a political reaction, as shown by men like Klemens von Metternich, who wrote "The Odious Ideas of the Philosophes," attaching the French philosophes and their "false systems" and "fatal errors" that existed in their rationalistic doctrine (Perry 164). Metternich called their aims "detestable," their goal "all the more odious as it was pursued without regard to results, simply abandoning themselves to the one feeling of hatred of God and of His immutable moral laws" (Perry 164). Thus, on the one hand (the hand of the Enlightenment) "science" had reigned supreme and on the other, there arose a desire to see a restoration of order rooted in medieval morality. The French Revolution was a major reason for this push for such restoration, as it showed the ugly Reign of Terror that was lurking just below the surface of the Enlightenment, with its prideful show of certainty regarding how man could be "corrected" -- and when he resisted, the blood would flow. The Enlightenment fed directly into the brutal totalitarianism of the French Revolution, thus completely turning off men of some intellectual caliber who understood the heights to which man could rise and the depths to which he could sink.

Edmund Burke was another who criticized the developments in France, seeing the Revolution as a an ill-conceived plot to overthrow everything that was good and sacred in France. "The nature of man is intricate," argued Burke, "the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature, or to the quality of his affairs" (Perry 163). Burke's was a "rational" response to the Revolution, however, and would not be categorized as an "irrationalist." He stood for the societal order that still existed in England and was not a revolutionary himself.

Others, like Karl Marx and Charels Darwin, did advocate revolutionary changes to the old order -- and in one sense that did not so much as challenge the Enlightenment ideas as they did push them to their logical conclusions. Marx saw no sense in "reform" so advocated a "working class revolution" in which the laboring class would overthrow the bourgeoisie and destroy the ideology of capitalism (Perry 133), yet Marx himself had no ideology with which to suitably replace capitalism -- only communism, another philosophy rooted in materialism, as though materialistic answers were the only way to solve mankind's societal problems and inequalities. If one system did not work, another system surely would -- it was all in ironing out the mechanics. The problem was that Marx did not consider human nature at all. Humans at the top of a communistic system could still be just as corrupt as though at the top of a capitalistic system. Inequality and injustice would still flourish. What was the answer to man's corrupt side? Darwin proposed that "all life on earth had descended from earlier living forms; that human beings had evolved from lower, nonhuman species" (Perry 190). This was essentially the type of thought that Metternich had attacked as "odious" -- and it certainly undermined whatever religious principle still existed in the West.

Therefore, irrationalism and rationalism were bundled up together at this time, with one springing from the other, and both intermixing as individuals and groups attempted to chart a new course for the whole. The resulting disparate directions were born of individual needs to focus on one or more aspect of human nature that appeared important. Darwin focused on changes in nature and developed a theory based on that observation. Nietzsche looked at man's "natural selection" based on Darwin and pushed the envelope. Metternich saw these directions as impious and leading to ruin because they denied basic tenets, essentially that all life was created by God.

I myself lean more towards the critics of the Enlightenment rationalism. Having read numerous books by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, I see how there are two strains in human nature -- one that is "other" centered and one that is "self" centered. Essentially, as Dostoevsky shows, man is not a machine that can simply be "programmed" like a piece of logical hardware. Man is capable of acting in his own interests and in the interests of the common good and he is capable of just the opposite. There is also a spiritual element to man that Dostoevsky explores. Some say it is a purely psychological element, but I think the religious element is there in man and has been throughout all history. I do not think it stems from an old, primitive superstitious belief or fear, but rather from the recognition of the mysterious and the divine in nature and a sense of something superior to nature -- which is essentially where the transcendental virtues that Plato discusses in the Dialogues are located. Enlightenment rationality occurred as man became obsessed with himself in the 17th century, but as Mary Shelley also showed, those powers hide a dark side to humanity -- and her novel about Victor Frankenstein (based on her husband) is a perfect example of how pure "reason" can turn into madness.

Therefore, I think Enlightenment ideology fosters pride and a disrespect for the mysteries of the universe which remain elusive. Human beings should be more humble and accept the possibility of there being a God who created them. There is something there worth exploring, as the greatest writers have always shown, from Shakespeare to Hawthorne and Melville to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. The Enlightenment ideology is one that is closed off to real human nature, focusing solely on its own "science" -- as though there had been no such thing beforehand (I suppose medieval scholasticism was not "scientific" enough -- or else the Protestant/Puritan strain underlying Enlightenment ideology simply had too much contempt for the Roman ideology that underscored scholasticism!). I would not side with Carlyle and Mazzini, who wanted "to rescue humanity from Enlightnement materialism by producing a new religion" -- but rather I would focus on re-discovering the Old World values and religion that fostered the Western tradition (Stromberg 50).

In conclusion, the Enlightenment produced various responses in the West: in Paris, there was a bloody revolution, followed by the Napoleonic Wars as the general attempted to institute his own order; this was followed by a renewed spirit of nationalism and a nostalgia for the old ways. This in turn was combated against by the same Enlightenment spirit that refused to die. Thus, everyone was an irrationalist and a rationalist at the same time, as each tried to piece together the mystery of man without acknowledging the instruction that had been provided in the medieval era. If a new religion was needed, as Carlyle asserted, the question was -- why? Were there not already enough new religions in the West? Rather what was at the heart of the Enlightenment Age that was causing all the trouble was a brooding rejection of the Old World religion, overseen by the Roman Church, which had itself suffered from a terrible corruption among the clergy. The result was a more terrible blowback -- the Protestant Reformation and the root of the Age of Enlightenment and the cause of the Modern Age and its lurking dependence upon nihilism.

Works Cited

Perry, Marvin. Sources of the Western…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Perry, Marvin. Sources of the Western Tradition, Volume II, 9th Edition. MA:

Wadsworth, 2014.

Stromberg, Roland. European Intellectual History Since 1789. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

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