Tim Blanning – The Romantic Revolution

romantic revolution

Having a very limited knowledge of this period, reading Blanning’s book was fairly helpful, introducing me to countless artists, poets, composers and public figures in and around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Romantic Revolution presents the topic as a fatherless movement, given birth in reaction to the Enlightenment which tore down the avenues for emotional expression previously monopolised by the church. The Romantics stepped into the void created and acted in a dialectic manner against the voices of the Enlightenment. Initially a pejorative term, “romantic” was then used as a badge of honour by its proponents, creating a dichotomy against the “light” of the Enlightenment by receding into the “dark” of nightmares, dreams and “absolute inwardness” as Hegel put it.[1] Educated Europeans “looked to art in all its various forms to fill the transcendental gap that was opening up” and thus concert halls began to replace churches, and as L’Artiste in 1832 commented, “music [had] become a kind of religion”.[2][3]The reader learns of its humble beginnings as an elusive concept to its widespread adoration as The Romantics became international celebrities. Goethe, Rousseau, Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge were some of the most well known that denounced the emphasis on reason and instead turned to emotion as the axle of creativity. E. T. A. Hoffman amongst others remarked on music being “the most romantic of all the arts, one might almost say the only one that is genuinely romantic” due to its instant transmission from instrument to the heart without engaging the cognitive facilities.[4] Other forms require interpretation and thought from an audience or reader but music demanded only the ears.

That is not to say that poetry and art were not appreciated, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage became a success on the continent with its commentary on Greece’s occupation by Turkey, “Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth!/ Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!/ Who now shall lead thy scattered children forth,/ And long accustom’d bondage uncreate?”.[5] It struck me that Byron’s words about Greece seem relevant now as the country is subject to the beck and call of the IMF and the EU. Blanning spends a portion of the book discussing “The cult of genius” which was seen by romantics as something beyond intelligence and knowledge; something intrinsically spiritual  about a person that spoke on a universal level to mankind.[6]Many of them held the belief that nature was not just material, something of the supernatural lay behind the universe and it was only through looking inwards that one could glimpse the beauty of the divine. Blanning seems to revere their endeavours against the materialist petit-bourgeoisie. The author highlights the kinds of people that were most repugnant to romantic thought like Diderot whose encyclopaedia in 1751 was in many ways the manifestation of Enlightenment values, as expressed by Diderot himself: “all things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings…we must ride roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, and give back to the arts and sciences the liberty that is so precious to them”.[7] To me this is moving and inspirational; Diderot displays an adamant hunger for truth that is lost on many people today. Blanning seems to be similarly ignorant of the beauty in Diderot’s words and indeed those of many Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Paine. Instead, Blanning chips away at the prestige of scientific achievement, claiming that the Romantics he has discussed, “were they able to return to the twenty-first century to witness the effects of the further advances of scientific rationalism, their worst fears would be confirmed”. [8] The implication is that technology unleashed in the twentieth century which resulted in the deaths of millions was the fault of science rather than the fault of humans revealing that they are indeed nothing more than half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee. Blanning appears to regret scientific discovery as if it has had a negative impact on the world, finishing in the final paragraphs with a narrative of the continuation of the romantic revolution and how it can still thrive against rationalism, “the romantic revolution is not over yet!”.[9] He writes in an almost disdainful tone of scientific discoveries like Darwin, “the disenchantment of the world seemed complete”. I feel obliged to point out that despite the huge death toll in the nineteenth century due to humans themselves (estimated 1 billion), almost double that was lost to diseases now preventable by vaccines.[10] GM crops have similarly saved untold millions, particularly in Asia mainly thanks to the little known expert Norman Borlaug. Post-war societies in Asia were hit with draughts and famines that Borlaug arrested with pest and disease resistant strains of wheat that countries’ rapidly adopted:

“Since Ehrlich’s dire predictions in 1968, India’s population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Pakistan progressed from harvesting 3.4 million tons of wheat annually when Borlaug arrived to around 18 million today, India from 11 million tons to 60 million.”[11]

The lives saved by modern science run higher than the lives lost to technology harnessed by people to kill each other. Although such technology makes it easier to start and finish wars, it is ultimately the characters behind the weapons that are responsible. I have to strongly disagree with Blanning’s suggestion that science has only lived up to the negative expectations of the romantics. In fact, it has realised its spectacular potential which Benjamin Franklin regretted to Joseph Priestly that he’d never see.[12] Rather than stripping the universe of beauty, as the author implies, science has revealed it’s natural splendour; “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality”.[13]What religion attempted to obscure, science has revealed. It has been the Diderots, Sagans and Hawkins’ of the world that have illuminated the beauty and intricacy of nature. An artist can replicate and interpret the beauty of a flower but the enlightened individual can describe the wonder of its existence, origin and processes that have culminated into the phenomena of life. It is as J.B.S. Haldane said, “The Universe is not just [stranger] than we imagine, its [stranger] than we can imagine”. Blanning reveals he is either deaf to this argument or simply unable to understand it. But this does not take away from the scholarly and precise manner of this book which, as a first step into the topic, meets all demands.

[1] Blanning, T. The Romantic Revolution (Phoenix, 2010), p. 21.

[2]Ibid., p. 36

[3] Ibid., p. 39.

[4] Ibid., p. 176.

[5] Ibid., p. 166.

[6] Ibid., p. 31.

[7] Ibid., p. 12.

[8] Ibid., p. 175.

[9] Ibid., p. 186.

[10] http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/vaccines-saved-millions-lives/

[11] http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/borlaug/special.html

[12] Blanning, The Romantic Revolution p. 23.

[13] Carl Sagan, Cosmos


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