The Romantic Rebellion in Context

The prophets of the age of Reason and the Enlightenment (Descartes, Bacon, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, the French Philosophes and Hume), brought with them that the light of experience and reason were the sole arbiters of truth. This new religion of science, this scientism, was so heavily engrained in the souls of this great achievement that they tended to mechanize man and the universe to merely matter in motion. It went so far that many believed everything could be quantified into equations. The enlightenment thinkers believed it was science’s task to put everything onto the butcher’s board to dissect just how the cosmos legislates its laws. Newton, with genius, was able to reduce gravity to a tiny equation. Locke, using Newton’s theory of gravity as a model, attached it to a theory of mind that he called the “association of ideas”. In a word, imagine a percipient looking out into the world through the senses collecting simple ideas—such as color, hardness, lines, circles–then somehow the mind knits these simple ideas together akin to gravity. As these simple ideas combine they then create complex ideas, such as the Pythagorean theorem and a red trolley. Therefore, if we only knew the laws of association we could crack the mind. This was a very simplistic theory of mind. However, the French Philosophes were the most radical. La Mettrie, who wrote, Man the Machine, took Cartesianism to an extreme. He believed that not only animals but man too was merely machine. However, he believed man was a machine that could mysteriously wind itself.


“Before we continue, what about this freedom of the will? Albert asked. “How do we know freewill exists?”

“That is an ongoing debate,” John said. “Voltaire (1696-1778), a strong voice of the Enlightenment, wrote, “It would be very singular that all nature, all the planets, should obey eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as he pleased, solely according to his own caprice.”

“That gets at my point,” Albert said. “To illustrate the completeness and determinism of physics, in principle, I will use an apt example given to us by Laplace (1749-1827) dubbed, “Laplace’s Demon”. Imagine a super-numerical machine, which knew the position, movement, and mass of all particles within reality. This machine would then conceive the past, present, and future as if it were a mathematical equation. Within this model, freewill cannot possibly exist. On another note, if we take the law of conservation, which states that energy remains constant within a system, then we see that within a physical system–such as the brain–that there is no extra energy unaccounted for. These mental processes, as opposed to physical properties, are mere illusions, do you see? This “mental” energy must be accounted for somehow but we can’t, therefore, calling it into question whether it has existence.”


“That’s the difficulty! We can’t explain such things as ghosts or freewill,” Albert said. “Both seem to slip through our fingers.”

“That seems to be the problem,” Spencer said. “How can we prove freewill? It gets even more difficult with psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Psychoanalysis suggests that there are deep, dark forces that move us unconsciously from within. That our mind is like an iceberg, and we can only consciously know the tip of that iceberg. What lies below nobody knows. Furthermore, with behaviorism we get the slogan “praise and blame”. With this slogan all our thoughts and actions are just a result of our past experiences of praise and blame. The behaviorists believe we are like determined balls going down an incline plane, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. There is no freewill to account for in this system.

“But there is a choice between the choices, between choosing pleasure or choosing pain,” Frank said. “One might choose to take terrible, sour tasting medicine in order to relieve oneself later.”   

“Exactly, Frank! I find this ironic that we are even debating freewill, for to question it means something doesn’t it, doesn’t it suggest that there is a freewill? I wrestle with this question nightly, but to question it might prove that freewill exists. As was said before, the child can choose to darken the world just by closing his eyes. Furthermore, when he grows up he can think of many courses of actions and select the one of his choosing. The more he knows the more freedom he wields.”

“But how can this be proven?” Albert asked.

“It’s intuitive,” Henry said. “We just know it by our own active powers of the mind and the power we wield through them. Science can only describe so much. It can describe us like a billiard ball going down an incline plane, however, at the end of the day we know we have freewill. We know this through the responsibility we feel as we act in the world. The behaviorist may think we act on reflex and reaction, but the man of common sense may act on principles and precept selected by himself according to his own caprice.”

“We’ve gone far off topic and need to return to Kant now.”

“Thank you, Frank,” Percy said. “That barrier between the phenomenal and noumenal realms that Kant firmly put in place left the romantics with splinters in their minds. How to break free from the bonds and chains of the scientific, phenomenal realm into the noumenal realm was on the mind of the Romantics. Furthermore, the industrialization of the Western world was taking its toll. Family farms and meadows were being bought and sold to banks and wealthy land owners because of rising debt. Cities were the new place for the common man to make money now. Inside mills men toiled and labored for low wages. A poet by the name of William Blake wrote a poem about the mills named Milton:

AND did those feet in ancient time 

  Walk upon England’s mountains green? 

And was the holy Lamb of God 

  On England’s pleasant pastures seen? 


And did the Countenance Divine         

  Shine forth upon our clouded hills? 

And was Jerusalem builded here 

  Among these dark Satanic Mills? 


Bring me my bow of burning gold! 

  Bring me my arrows of desire!        

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! 

  Bring me my chariot of fire! 


I will not cease from mental fight, 

  Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, 

Till we have built Jerusalem       

  In England’s green and pleasant land.

 This poem was about losing one’s soul, one’s identity inside the city’s flour mills that stood outside of Blake’s home. Day after day he saw laborers reduced to machine men. Man was losing his way and the city and industrialization showed the dim future of civilization.

            Evermore so, these men who labored lived so mechanistically that it seemed as though they did not have that spark of the divinity within that Kant spoke of, that key ingredient freewill. For the romantics, what really defines us is our freedom. It’s what renders us different from the entire cosmos. We may not see freewill while dissecting the brain on the butcher’s board, but we know it intuitively. Fredrich Von Schiller (1759-1805) wrote, “Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word man, and he is only wholly man when he is playing” (Reginald Snell Pg. 80). Our chief way of play is finally through the productions of art. Art requires the free play of ideas and it is through this play that we express our freewill most fully! This is how we tap into Kant’s noumenal reality, the Romantics believed.”



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