Mapping Culture in the 21st Century: The Relationship between Romanticism, Relativism and Imperialism

This is a very experimental article. I have tried to map out the influence that particular ideas and philosophical movements have had on our society and culture, manifesting in the perceived political chaos and social disintegration we are witnessing emerge in this decade. I believe that our current era is mirroring historical trends, and as such may ignore these cyclical patterns only at our peril. As with any attempt at identifying cultural shifts, and in evaluating specific philosophical movements, I may have gone too far in connecting certain dots.

I feel that I am beginning to integrate my knowledge — which was largely acquired in a piecemeal basis — within the context of a more meta, abstract perspective. This article is an attempt at articulating this perspective. It is predominantly observational, partially speculative.

A Sea of Change in the 18th Century: The Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment

Why study history? When taken in isolation, a particular historical time or place can seem unrelatable and irrelevant to the modern reader. But history only makes sense when considered from a cumulative, meta perspective. It takes time to acquire the knowledge and the wisdom to achieve this end, and undoubtedly no lifespan could ever provide one with enough time to fully understand the basis for historical trends. Given that the majority of our opinions and our ideas are not originally our own, but are instead the products of whatever governing school of philosophical thought and cultural environment in which we are nurtured and inculcated within, understanding the fundamental presuppositions which our modern civilisation is founded upon is fairly important.

These presuppositions emerged during The Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is nearly impossible to comprehend the revolutionary effect this intellectual movement had on society because the majority of these hard-fought assumptions are perceived to be self-evident to the modern individual. The Enlightenment was founded upon reason as the primary source of authority, and it came to advance ideals of liberty, progress, tolerance, freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. Whilst this movement had many supporters, as with any revolutionary change that challenges the existing systems in place, there were various segments of society vehemently opposed to man’s hubris in rejecting the divine rights of the governing king and priestly class.

‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, considered one of the masterpieces of Romanticism and one of its most representative works

Towards the end of the 18th century there was a strong kickback to this devotion to human reason, in the guise of a philosophical movement known as Romanticism, which originated in Germany. Romanticism ushered in counter-ideals of introspection and sentimentality and emphasised the importance of feeling in place of rationality, scientific inquiry and objective truth. The Romantic devotion to self-revelation, self-assertion and self-expression was displayed in art, literature et al but probably only exploded into mass cultural consciousness during the counter-culture revolution of the 1960’s, and before that in the Beat Generation writers of the 1950’s: this society exalted the ascetic, the impoverished artist, the anti-establishment hippie. The predominant discrepancy between Enlightenment and Romantic thinking centered on the conflict between rationality and irrationality, between reason and feeling, and between objective and subjective truth.

The Emergence of Cultural and Moral Relativism

Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead” was the acknowledgement that humanity had replaced a metaphysical structure of morality — believed to have been given by God — with rationality and reason. But could such a transition be successfully achieved? Not according to David Hume, who identified that one cannot derive an ought from an is — the naturalistic fallacy. In doing so Hume rendered the Enlightenment’s proposition that questions of value could be regarded as being answerable in the same sense as questions of fact as being fundamentally flawed (interestingly, even to this day we still see scientific materialists — Sam Harris being a stubborn example — dogmatically maintain that such an extraction of moral truth from facts alone is conceivable).

Nietzsche’s contention was that people now created values based on their own subjective selves, and not on God. The basis for our ethics became an innately personal pursuit, something that only we ourselves could ever truly know. This view that the subjective perspective of the individual was the basis for all answers to life has provided the fertile breeding ground for the emergence of the phenomenon of cultural and moral relativism. As Isaiah Berlin notes, “The question of whether an ideal is true or false is no longer thought important, or indeed wholly intelligible. The ideal presents itself in the form of a categorical imperative: serve the inner light within you because it burns within you, for that reason alone[1]”. Robert Greene has identified how this relativism, and the conflating of one’s sense of self with one’s opinions and beliefs, has led to the rise of political correctness: “My opinions and my ideas reflect something very intimately about who I am. And to challenge that is to challenge who I am and who I am at the core. And that makes it very hard to accept any kind of criticism or any kind of other opinion — it becomes this thing that people with other ideas are sort of a danger, and they threaten my very narcissistic sense of identity… And we’re hungry to feel validated, and we definitely feel validated by people who are like us, who kind of mirror our values and our ideas — they kind of give us that sort of narcissistic thrill that we are okay, that there are other people like this out in the world. It is what drives people to identify with some narrow group. The narrower the better [2].

The Relationship between Relativism and Imperialism

In the absence of any universal, objective truths, the race to assert a nation or a culture’s set of relativistic beliefs and values over the incompatible ways of all others took on great significance. Hence we find the United States of America assuming the virtuous role of ‘world policeman’, obviously by dint of a (hitherto) unexplained moral superiority which necessitates that the rest of the world, those noble savages in unconquered lands, must bend to the iron will of the Stars and Stripes banner. This exportation of neoliberal capitalism, Libertarian individualism and the accompanying destruction of any semblance of social democratic policies are all done under the guise of that ultimate ideal: ‘FREEDOM’ — although, strangely enough, the liberty of the recipients is rarely considered in the exchange. This kind of freedom is administered rather than bequeathed. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, Vietnam, East Timor, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, Chile. These sovereign nations have been ‘saved’ from the clutches of — predominantly — socialism and/or tyrannical dictators by the USA. But such imperialist interventions tend to have unintended consequences, least of all the vacuum that remains after institutions and (often) democratically-elected governments have been forcefully overthrown by unwelcome foreign actors. Donald Rumsfeld rather infamously termed this the “unknown unknowns”. Unfortunately the triumph of the ideology takes priority over any collateral damage, least of all human lives and well-being. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative — that human beings should never be treated as means, only as ends in themselves — is savagely refuted. A drone attack which kills 24 civilians is justified on the shaky ground that it (allegedly) eliminated a ‘suspected’ terrorist, whilst short-sightedly ignoring the radicalising consequences that this kind of warfare has on affected communities. Trotsky described this collateral damage in the name of ideology as “the rubbish heap of history”. He was also someone who believed that the end may justify the means, “as long as there is something that justifies the end”. Questionable, indeed.

One of the flaws with the argument that Romanticism has accelerated imperialist conquest is that imperialism — often in the name of religion — long preceded this relativistic epoch in history, the Christian Crusades being a good example. But it might be said that those previous conquests took place under the assumption that every competing side maintained a belief in a common truth that was, in principle, accessible to all human beings, and that true values could never contradict, so that what they were fighting over were merely the means of getting to this one truth. What relativism has possibly done is to raise the stakes — we are no longer fighting over the means but rather the ends. Our ideology must win, because otherwise it will descend into oblivion upon merging with ‘The Other’. We see this today in Western concerns — potentially very legitimate — that immigration from the Middle East and Africa could eventually lead to a theocratic Islamic takeover of Western civilisation.

Karl Marx

Why This Matters

It seems natural to question the relevance or importance of such issues. You could say that debating these first world problems concerning such abstract philosophical ideas is petty in light of more pressing global concerns like climate change, poverty or war. Yet such a contention disregards the phenomenal power and influence of ideas. Bourgeois academics have contributed to as much bloodshed as any historical Genghis Khan or Joseph Stalin — consider how the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx concerning class and economic utopia contributed to the 20th century Cold War between Soviet communism and Western capitalism; a proxy, geopolitical war which caused conflict and strife in pawn countries throughout the world. Or how the ideas which emerged from Enlightenment thinkers — through mere ink, pen and paper — was the catalyst for questioning the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ which led to the subsequent violent uprising of the French Revolution.

One of the most frustrating issues about our current partisan political climate is that both sides — ‘tolerant’ Liberals included — fail to appreciate the utility in having conflicting views represented and considered in any political argument or decision. They are playing a zero-sum game, and for decades there was only one right answer presented to the masses; broadly characterised as ‘globalisation’. The drive towards a universal set of laws and institutions — the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations — governed by a Platonic elite of superior individuals (technocrats, bankers, experts) has resulted in a kickback in the form of Romantic nationalism, a longing for a nostalgic past where local customs and values were celebrated. Patronising and condescending the individuals who find themselves swept up in this populist revival is a foolish approach, and the vitriol of Trump and Brexit supporters towards ‘liberal elites’ is evidence of why. Sharing virtue signalling Facebook posts, adopting a plant-based diet and commuting on a bike does not necessarily make one a better person. They are undoubtedly admirable and welcome commitments, but the virtue is negated if that same person fails to apply empathy and compassion to the (proverbial) coal miner in Appalachia who faces economic depravity and social irrelevance. This sense of moral superiority, smugness, passive aggressiveness and distinct lack of empathy perhaps even hints at a failure in these people to integrate the Jungian shadow self, resulting in an incessant need to validate and reassure oneself of one’s moral virtue, and to dismiss any notion of the possibility of moral duality — of personal good and evil.

Deconstructing Authenticity

I wish to briefly address the rise of individualism, and the associated Romantic belief that authenticity ought to be the ultimate goal of any individual in society. Authenticity is a deep and compelling concept. I myself have derived an enormous degree of utility and enjoyment in striving towards my own subjective perception of ‘authenticity’, to uncover and embody what might be termed my ‘true self’. It is a feeling of alignment, of acting in harmony with who I am. Existential thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger were personally influential in this regard, in that they eloquently and emphatically stressed the importance of being authentic to oneself. In the eyes of the Romantic, to defy one’s ‘true self’ is the most heinous of all sins — as Isaiah Berlin interprets it, “deliberate moral suicide”. Aspiring to an ideal produces an eternal sense of self-judgement, certainly in my weaker moments. Yet authenticity is also about self-acceptance for who you really are at your core. Ironically enough, the Romantic pursuit of an ‘ideal’ mirrors the Christian the representation of the heroic individual, Jesus Christ; similarly, Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Superman).

Language and ideology are always changing and conflicting with one another but I believe that, ultimately, they all fundamentally address core concerns and needs of human beings. The idea of being your true self is the recognition of an ideal, of a oneness that we all share, of something beyond our physical, egoic self which transcends time and space. I think that this is the positive aspect of what the Romantics were seeking to revivify in the face of scientific materialism, and this emphasis on the divinity of the individual ought to be encouraged, in conjunction with maintaining social responsibilities and moral obligations.

Conclusion

Perhaps this article is too wandering and tangential. I certainly do not harbour ambitions for our society to return to an era of dogmatism in which those who question supposedly objective truths are damned as heretics, and where any platform for argument and debate about prevailing ideas are crushed by the tyranny of absolute beliefs. I am attracted by many of the fundamental propositions of Romanticism. The idea of authentically being your true self; Rousseau’s idea that culture can, and often does, have a corrupting effect on our natural essence; and the idea that truth is to be found within oneself by transcending the material realm of which our modern society places so great an emphasis, an emphasis which I often find myself railing against — the suffocating and mechanistic rationality of scientific materialism — while simultaneously acknowledging my gratitude for the astounding technological and medical advances this approach has reaped for society.

I strongly believe in a shared oneness and common humanity. To me this is a universal truth. Ideological differences and conflicts are merely a less evolved way of seeing this deeper reality. However I am not sure if these two apparently opposing ways of thinking are compatible. Must we be forced to choose? Maybe, given that life continually forces us to make definite choices. Freedom or equality? Knowledge or happiness? Justice or tolerance? Security or privacy? Must we be forced to choose — absolutely — between either i) scientific materialism, defined by its rationality and its systematic deconstruction of reality or ii) Romantic irrationality, where feelings and primitive impulse are the sole basis for truth in the world. I read that Immanuel Kant tried his hand at such a reconciliation, but I don’t know enough to comment on how successful, or otherwise, he may have been.

Is this a recognition by our society of the existence of certain universal truths?

I see there being a potential solution in the concept of pluralism. Pluralism is the idea that two conflicting ideas or schools of thought can co-exist in relative harmony. In some sense it is a halfway point, an appropriate medium, between universalism and relativism. It promotes non-judgement and acceptance of different cultures and morals, recognising that society can benefit from exposure to alternative views — one need only look at the positive influence multiculturalism has had on Western civilisation. Pluralism simultaneously retains a belief in the idea of certain universal truths which, by virtue of our shared human nature, binds humanity together and acknowledges that there are fundamental ideals to which we all strive towards. To this day we see examples of such agreed upon universal truths, most notably in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was largely a response to the atrocities of the Second World War. Almost everyone believes in the sanctity of human life — hence why we are so aghast at ‘crimes against humanity’ — irrespective of which race or ethnicity they are propagated against. This can only be a good thing.

I hope that I have laid out these developments in a semi-coherent manner and empowered you, the reader, to recognise the influence that these philosophical movements have had — and are having — on our public discourse. I think that there are merits and utility in both Enlightenment and Romantic thinking, and that we ought to focus on where we can find commonality and middle ground, rather than engage in strawman arguments and emphasis our differences amongst one another.

The Ithaca Diaries

Appendix

[1] Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Crooked Timber of Humanity’, p.199

[2] https://quillette.com/2019/01/01/stop-assuming-that-everything-you-feel-or-think-is-right-an-interview-with-robert-greene/