Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Romanticist "escape from reason"

Soren Kierkegaard - Existentialism, Nominalism, and the Three Spheres of Existence
The dawning years of the nineteenth century were indeed years of great historic change. The Age of Reason was slowly disappearing over the horizon and the Romantic era was gradually rising to the fore. Moreover, it was a time of momentous social change and industrial progress, an age of revolution and powerful human expression. While Rousseau and Jefferson assailed the divine right of kings and proceeded to carve out their respective revolutionary ideals, great artists such as Beethoven, Goethe, and Goya were offering to the world their timeless creations. Meanwhile, the engines of the industrial machine were set in motion by the inventive genius of the age, creating a momentous force which has not ceased to this day. Thus the dawn of the nineteenth century was pervaded by the spirit of optimism and human ascent, and it was posited for the first time that the "theoretical possibility of uninterrupted human progress might be concretely realized."1
But as contemporary historians have observed, the Romanticist "escape from reason" was nothing more than a "fallacy of hope,"2 an imaginary dream of utopian ideals from which the European man would awake in horror.Perhaps this shattered dream is best represented by the story of Beethoven and Napoleon, a story which seems to encapsulate the death of political idealism in nineteenth century Europe. As the story goes, Beethoven, though not a political man, but a grand admirer of Napoleon as an apostle of revolutionary ideals, dedicated his Third Symphony (Sinfonia Eroica) to the French general, inscibing "Buonaparte" at the very top of the manuscript's title page.
However, in 1804 when the orchestral master heard that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame, Beethoven flew into a rage and said, "Now too he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge in his own ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!"3 Infuriated, the master stormed to the table upon which his work of art lay, and tore the title page into shreds, the name of "Buonaparte" being committed to the hearth and flame. The resulting imperialism of Napoleon, then, would cause much dismay and disillusionment in the hearts of the European people; the intellectual edifice of Romanticism was doomed to collapse and a new context was being formed in which a new philosophy might emerge -- indeed, the philosophy of existentialism.Perhaps more than any other system of thought, the existential worldview is dependent on the socio-cultural context of the age. Unlike any form of transcendental idealism, existentialism envelops and engages troubled civilization, responding to the predicament of the existing individual.
Thus, we can say that existentialism is a philosophy which is attentive to the anguish, aspirations, and needs of the people, a philosophy which moves the existent to realize his "ultimate concern,"4 and thus attain an authentic existence. So, when we reflect upon the societal conditions which prevailed in post-Napoleonic Europe, and then take into consideration the fact that rationalism and higher criticism had already contributed greatly to the erosion of biblical authority, it is not difficult to see how the philosophy of existentialism could have taken root, even though it would not flourish until the twentieth century. In truth, a concrete definition of existentialism is elusive, indeed a difficult assignment. For, it is not a philosophical system or school of thought per se, nor can it be reduced to a series of propositional truths or tenets. # posted by Mysterium Dei : 7:46 PM Monday, October 16, 2006

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