Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter I (Part 5)

I am happy to present the fifth and final post of Chapter I of Irving Babbitt’s great work Rousseau and Romanticism (first published in 1919), in which the reader is introduced to perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of romanticism as a literary school ever penned. Babbitt (1865-1933) was a cultural and literary critic, serving as Professor of French Literature at Harvard. He and his friend Paul Elmer More (of Princeton) became the founders of the conservative literary movement known as the New Humanism. Babbitt was a pioneer in the study of comparative literature; his writing, as you will see, is notable for its clarity and perspicacity.



IV (Concluded)

Before considering the value of the method chosen by Rousseau and the romanticists for breaking up the “tiresome old heavens” and escaping from smugness and stuffiness one should note that the lack of originality and genius which they lamented in the eighteenth century—especially in that part of it known as the Enlightenment—was not due entirely to pseudo-classic formalism. At least two other main currents entered into the Enlightenment: first the empirical and utilitarianism current that goes back to Francis Bacon; and some would say to Roger Bacon; and secondly the rationalistic current that goes back to Descartes. English empiricism gained international vogue in the philosophy of Locke, and Locke denies any supersensuous element in human nature to which one may have access with the aid of the imagination or in any other way. Locke’s method of precise naturalistic observation is in itself legitimate ; for man is plainly subject to the natural law. What is not truly empirical is to bring the whole of human nature under this law. One can do this only by piecing out precise observation and experiment with dogmatic rationalism. One side of Locke may therefore be properly associated with the father of modern rationalists, Descartes. The attempt of the rationalist to lock up life in some set of formulae produces in the imaginative man a feeling of oppression. He gasps for light and air. The very tracing of cause and effect and in general the use of the analytical faculties—and this is to fly to the opposite extreme—came to be condemned by the romanticists as inimical to the imagination. Not only do they make endless attacks on Locke, but at times they assail even Newton for having mechanized life, though Newton’s comparison of himself to a child picking up pebbles on the seashore would seem to show that he had experienced “the feeling infinite.”

The elaboration of science into a closed system with the aid of logic and pure mathematics is as a matter of fact to be associated with Descartes rather than with Newton. Neither Newton nor Descartes, one scarcely needs add, wished to subject man entirely to the natural law and the nexus of physical causes; they were not in short determinists. Yet the superficial rationalism of the Enlightenment was in the main of Cartesian origin. This Cartesian influence ramifies in so many directions and is related at so many points to the literary movement, and there has been so much confusion about this relationship, that we need to pause here to make a few distinctions.

Perhaps what most strikes one in the philosophy of Descartes is its faith in logic and abstract reasoning and the closely allied processes of mathematical demonstration. Anything that is not susceptible of clear proof in this logical and almost mathematical sense is to be rejected. Now this Cartesian notion of clearness is fatal to a true classicism. The higher reality, the true classicist maintains, cannot be thus demonstrated; it can only be grasped, and then never completely, through a veil of imaginative illusion. Boileau is reported to have said that Descartes had cut the throat of poetry; and this charge is justified in so far as the Cartesian requires from poetry a merely logical clearness. This conception of clearness was also a menace to the classicism of the seventeenth century which rested in the final analysis not on logic but on tradition. This appeared very clearly in the early phases of the quarrel between ancients and moderns when literary Cartesians like Perrault and Fontenelle attacked classical dogma in the name of reason. In fact one may ask if any doctrine has ever appeared so fatal to every form of tradition—not merely literary but also religious and political—as Cartesianism. The rationalist of the eighteenth century was for dismissing as “prejudice” everything that could not give a clear account of itself in the Cartesian sense. This riot of abstract reasoning (la raison raisonnante) that prepared the way for the Revolution has been identified by Taine and others with the classic spirit. A more vicious confusion has seldom gained currency in criticism. It is true that the French have mixed a great deal of logic with their conception of the classic spirit, but that is because they have mixed a great deal of logic with everything. I have already mentioned their tendency to substitute a logical for an imaginative verisimilitude; and strenuously logical classicists may be found in France from Chapelain to Brunetière. Yet the distinction that should keep us from confusing mere logic with the classic spirit was made by a Frenchman who was himself violently logical and also a great geometrician—Pascal. One should keep distinct, says Pascal, the esprit de géométrie and the esprit de finesse. The esprit de finesse is not, like the esprit de géométrie, abstract, but very concrete. (1) So far as a man possesses the esprit de finesse he is enabled to judge correctly of the ordinary facts of life and of the relationships between man and man. But these judgments rest upon such a multitude of delicate perceptions that he is frequently unable to account for them logically. It is to intuitive good sense and not to the esprit de géométrie that the gentleman (honnête homme) of the neo-classical period owed his fine tact. Pascal himself finally took a stand against reason as understood both by the Cartesian and by the man of the world. Unaided reason he held is unable to prevail against the deceits of the imagination; it needs the support of intuition—an intuition that he identifies with grace, thus making it inseparable from the most austere form of Christianity. The “heart,” he says, and this is the name he gives to intuition, “has reasons of which the reason knows nothing.” A Plato or an Aristotle would not have understood this divorce between reason and intuition. (2)

Pascal seems to get his insight only by flouting ordinary good sense. He identifies this insight with a type of theological dogma [Jansenist] of which good sense was determined to be rid; and so it tended to get rid of the insight along with the dogma. Classical dogma also seemed at times to be in opposition to the intuitive good sense of the man of the world. The man of the world therefore often inclined to assail both the classical and the Christian tradition in the name of good sense, just as the Cartesian inclined to assail these traditions in the name of abstract reason. Perhaps the best exponent of anti-traditional good sense in the seventeenth century was Molière. He vindicated nature, and by nature he still meant in the main normal human nature, from arbitrary constraints of every kind whether imposed by an ascetic Christianity or by a narrow and pedantic classicism. Unfortunately Molière is too much on the side of the opposition. He does not seem to put his good sense into the service of some positive insight of his own. Good sense may be of many degrees according to the order of facts of which it has a correct perception. The order of facts in human nature that Molière’s good sense perceived is not the highest and so this good sense appears at times too ready to justify the bourgeois against the man who has less timid and conventional views. So at least Rousseau thought when he made his famous attack on Molière [in his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles]. Rousseau assailed Molière in the name of instinct as Pascal would have assailed him in the name of insight, and fought sense with sensibility. The hostility of Rousseau to Molière, according to M. Faguet, is that of a romantic Bohemian to a philistine of genius [Rousseau contre Molière]. One hesitates to call Molière a philistine, but one may at least grant M. Faguet that Molière’s good sense is not always sufficiently inspired.

I have been trying to build up a background that will make clear why the reason of the eighteenth century (whether we understand by reason logic or good sense) had come to be superficial and therefore oppressive to the imagination. It is only with reference to this “reason” that one can understand the romantic revolt. But neo-classical reason itself can be understood only with reference to its background—as a recoil namely from a previous romantic excess. This excess was manifested not only in the intellectual romanticism [often called Mannerism, typified by the Metaphysical poets in England] of which I have already spoken, but in the cult of the romantic deed that had flourished in the Middle Ages. This cult and the literature that reflected it continued to appeal, even to the cultivated, well on into the neo-classical period. It was therefore felt necessary to frame a definition of reason that should be a rebuke to the extravagance and improbability of the mediaeval romances. When men became conscious in the eighteenth century of the neo-classical meagerness on the imaginative side they began to look back with a certain envy to the free efflorescence of fiction in the Middle Ages. They began to ask themselves with Hurd whether the reason and correctness they had won were worth the sacrifice of a “world of fine fabling” [Letters on Chivalry and Romance]. We must not, however, like Heine and many others, look on the romantic movement as merely a return to the Middle Ages. We have seen that the men of the Middle Ages themselves understood by romance not simply their own kind of speech and writing in contrast with what was written in Latin, but a kind of writing in which the pursuit of strangeness and adventure predominated. This pursuit of strangeness and adventure will be found to predominate in all types of romanticism. The type of romanticism, however, which came in towards the end of the eighteenth century did not, even when professedly mediaeval, simply revert to the older types. It was primarily not a romanticism of thought or of action, the types we have encountered thus far, but a romanticism of feeling, The beginnings of this emotional romanticism antedate considerably the application of the word romantic to a particular literary school. Before considering how the word came to be thus applied we shall need to take a glance at eighteenth-century sentimentalism, especially at the plea for genius and originality that, from about the middle of the century on, were opposed to the tameness and servile imitation of the neo-classicists.

(1) For a similar distinction in Aristotle see Eth. Nic., 1143 b.

(2) The Platonic and Aristotelian reason or mind (νους) contains an element of intuition.

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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2 Responses

  1. Christopher J Lane says:

    Excellent drawing and display of comparisons. Plus, I learned a new word, “ramify”.

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