Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter II (Part 2)

I am happy to present the second post of Chapter II 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.



The scientific and the literary imagination are indeed not quite so sharply contrasted by most of the theorists as might be inferred from what I have said; most of them do not admit that the literary imagination should be entirely free to wander in its own “empire of chimeras.” Even literary imagination, they maintain, should in some measure be under the surveillance of judgment or taste. One should observe, however, that the judgment or taste that is supposed to control or restrict genius is not associated with the imagination. On the contrary, imagination is associated entirely with the element of novelty in things, which means, in the literary domain, with the expansive eagerness of a man to get his own uniqueness uttered. The genius for the Greek, let us remind ourselves, was not the man who was in this sense unique, but the man who perceived the universal; and as the universal can be perceived only with the aid of the imagination, it follows that genius may be defined as imaginative perception of the universal. The universal thus conceived not only gives a centre and purpose to the activity of the imagination, but sets bounds to the free expansion of temperament and impulse, to what came to be known in the eighteenth century as nature.

Kant, who denies genius to the man of science on grounds I have already mentioned, is unable to associate genius in art or literature with the strict discipline of the imagination to a purpose. The imagination must be free and must, he holds, show this freedom not by working but by playing. At the same time Kant had the cool temper of a man of the Enlightenment, and looked with the utmost disapproval on the aberrations that had marked in Germany the age of original genius (die Geniezeit). He was not in the new sense of the word nor indeed in any sense, an enthusiast. And so he wished the reason, or judgment, to keep control over the imagination without disturbing its free play; art is to have a purpose which is at the same time not a purpose. The distinctions by which he works out the supposed relationship between judgment and imagination are at once difficult and unreal. One can indeed put one’s finger here more readily perhaps than elsewhere on the central impotence of the whole Kantian system. Once discredit tradition and outer authority and then set up as a substitute a reason that is divorced from the imagination and so lacks the support of supersensuous insight, and reason will prove unable to maintain its hegemony. When the imagination has ceased to pull in accord with the reason in the service of a reality that is set above them both, it is sure to become the accomplice of expansive impulse, and mere reason is not strong enough to prevail over this union of imagination and desire. Reason needs some driving power behind it, a driving power that, when working in alliance with the imagination, it gets from insight. To suppose that man will long rest content with mere naked reason as his guide is to forget that “illusion is the queen of the human heart”; it is to revive the stoical error. Schiller, himself a Kantian, felt this rationalistic rigor and coldness of his master, and so sought, while retaining the play theory of art, to put behind the cold reason of Kant the driving power it lacked; for this driving power he looked not to a supersensuous reality, not to insight in short, but to emotion. He takes appropriately the motto for his “Esthetic Letters” from Rousseau: Si c’est la raison qui fait l’homme c’est le sentiment qui le conduit [If it is reason that makes the man it is feeling that drives him.]. He retains Kant’s play theory of art without even so much offset to this play as is implied in Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose.” The nobility of Schiller’s intentions is beyond question. At the same time, by encouraging the notion that it is possible to escape from neo-classical didacticism only by eliminating masculine purpose from art, he opens the way for the worst perversions of the aesthete, above all for the divorce of art from ethical reality. In art, according to Schiller, both imagination and feeling should be free and spontaneous, and the result of all this freedom, as he sees it, will be perfectly “ideal.” His suspicion of a purpose is invincible. As soon as anything has a purpose it ceases to be aesthetic and in the same measure suffers a loss of dignity. Thus the aesthetic moment of the lion, he says, is when he roars not with any definite design, but out of sheer lustiness, and for the pure pleasure of roaring.

One may assume safely the aesthetic attitude, or what amounts to the same thing, allow one’s self to be guided by feeling only on the assumption that feeling is worthy of trust. As appears in the very motto he took for his “Aesthetic Letters” Schiller was helped to this faith in man’s native goodness by Rousseau. We need to pause for a moment at this point and consider the background of this belief which finds not only in Schiller but in Rousseau himself, with whom it is usually associated, a rather late expression. The movement that took its rise in the eighteenth century involves, we should recollect, a break not with one but with two traditions—the classical and the Christian. If the plea for genius and originality is to be largely explained as a protest against the mechanical imitation and artificial decorum of a certain type of classicist, the assertion of man’s natural goodness is to be understood rather as a rebound from the doctrine of total depravity that was held by the more austere type of Christian [e.g., Lutheran, Calvinist]. This doctrine had even in the early centuries of the faith awakened certain protests like that of Pelagius, but for an understanding of the Rousseauistic protest one does not need to go behind the great deistic movement of the early eighteenth century. God, instead of being opposed to nature, is conceived by the deist as a power that expresses his goodness and loveliness through nature. The oppressive weight of fear that the older theology had laid upon the human spirit is thus gradually lifted. Man begins to discover harmonies instead of discords in himself and outer nature. He not only sees virtue in instinct but inclines to turn virtue itself into a “sense,” or instinct. And this means in practice to put emotional expansion in the place of spiritual concentration at the basis of life and morals. In studying this drift towards an aesthetic or sentimental morality one may most conveniently take one’s point of departure in certain English writers of deistic tendency, especially in Shaftesbury and his disciple Hutcheson. Considered purely as an initiator, Shaftesbury is probably more important than Rousseau. His influence ramifies out in every direction, notably into Germany.

The central achievement of Shaftesbury from a purely psychological point of view may be said to be his transformation of conscience from an inner check into an expansive emotion. He is thus enabled to set up an aesthetic substitute not merely for traditional religion but for traditional humanism. He undermines insidiously decorum, the central doctrine of the classicist, at the very time that he seems to be defending it. For decorum also implies a control upon the expansive instincts of human nature, and Shaftesbury is actually engaged in rehabilitating “nature,” and insinuating that it does not need any control. He attains this expansiveness by putting aesthetic in the place of spiritual perception, and so merging more or less completely the good and the true with the beautiful. He thus points the way very directly to Rousseau’s rejection of both inner and outer control in the name of man’s natural goodness. Once accept Shaftesbury’s transformation of conscience and one is led almost inevitably to look on everything that is expansive as natural or vital and on everything that restricts expansion as conventional or artificial. Villers wrote to Madame de Stael (4 May, 1803) : “The fundamental and creative idea of all your work has been to show primitive, incorruptible, naive, passionate nature in conflict with the barriers and shackles of conventional life. . . . Note that this is also the guiding idea of the author of ‘Werther.’ ” This contrast between nature and convention is indeed almost the whole of Rousseauism. In permitting his expansive impulses to be disciplined by either humanism or religion man has fallen away from nature much as in the old theology he has fallen away from God, and the famous “return to nature” means in practice the emancipation of the ordinary or temperamental self that had been thus artificially controlled. This throwing off of the yoke of both Christian and classical discipline in the name of temperament is the essential aspect of the movement in favor of original genius. The genius does not look to any pattern that is set above his ordinary spontaneous ego and imitate it. On the contrary, he attains to the self-expression that other men, intimidated by convention, weakly forego.

In thus taking a stand for self-expression, the original genius is in a sense on firm ground—at least so far as the mere rationalist or the late and degenerate classicist is concerned. No conventions are final, no rules can set arbitrary limits to creation. Reality cannot be locked up in any set of formulae. The element of change and novelty in things, as the romanticists are never tired of repeating, is at once vital and inexhaustible. Wherever we turn, we encounter, as a romantic authority, Jacob Boehme, declares, “abysmal, unsearchable and infinite multiplicity.” Perhaps not since the beginning of the world have two men or indeed two leaves or two blades of grass been exactly alike. Out of a thousand men shaving, as Dr. Johnson himself remarked, no two will shave in just the same way. A person carries his uniqueness even into his thumbprint—as a certain class in the community has learned to its cost. But though all things are ineffably different they are at the same time ineffably alike. And this oneness in things is, no less than the otherwiseness, a matter of immediate perception. This universal implication of the one in the many is found even more marked than elsewhere in the heart of the individual. Each man has his idiosyncrasy (literally his “private mixture”). But in addition to his complexion, his temperamental or private self, every man has a self that he possesses in common with other men. Even the man who is most filled with his own uniqueness, or “genius,” a Rousseau, for example, assumes this universal self in every word he utters. “Jove nods to Jove behind us as we talk.” The word character, one may note, is ambiguous, inasmuch as it may refer either to the idiosyncratic or to the universal human element in a man’s dual nature. For example, an original genius like William Blake not only uses the word character in a different sense from Aristotle—he cannot even understand the Aristotelian usage. “Aristotle,” he complains, “says characters are either good or bad; now Goodness or Badness has nothing to do with Character. An apple tree, a pear tree, a horse, a lion are Characters; but a good apple tree or a bad is an apple tree still, etc.” But character as Aristotle uses the word implies something that man possesses and that a horse or tree does not possess—the power namely to deliberate and choose. A man has a good or bad character, he is ethical or unethical, as one may say from the Greek word for character in this sense (ηθος), according to the quality of his choice as it appears in what he actually does. This distinction between a man’s private, peculiar character (χαρακτηρ) and the character he possesses when judged with reference to something more general than his own complexion is very similar to the French distinction between the sens propre and the sens commun.

The general sense or norm that is opposed to mere temperament and impulse may rest upon the ethos of a particular time and country—the traditional habits and customs that the Rousseauist is wont to dismiss as “artificial”—or it may rest in varying degrees upon immediate perception. For example, the Ismene and Antigone of Sophocles are both ethical; but Ismene would I abide by the law of the state, whereas Antigone opposes to this law something still more universal—the “unwritten laws of heaven.” This insight of Antigone into a moral order that is set not only above her ordinary self but above the convention of her time and country is something very immediate, something achieved, as I shall try to show more fully later, with the aid of the imagination.

It is scarcely necessary to add that such a perfect example of the ethical imagination as one finds in Antigone—the imagination that works concentric with the human law—is rare. In actual life for one Antigone who obeys the “unwritten laws of heaven” there will be a thousand Ismenes who will be guided in their moral choices by the law of the community. This law, the convention of a particular place and time, is always but a very imperfect image, a mere shadow indeed of the unwritten law which being above the ordinary rational level is, in a sense to be explained later, infinite and incapable of final formulation. And yet men are forced if only on practical grounds to work out some approximation to this law as a barrier to the unchained appetites of the individual. The elements that enter into any particular attempt to circumscribe the individual in the interests of the community are very mixed and in no small measure relative. Yet the things that any group of men have come together about—their conventions in the literal meaning of the word—even the tabus of a savage tribe, are sure to reflect, however inadequately, the element of oneness in man, the element which is opposed to expansive impulse, and which is no less real, no less a matter of immediate experience, than the element of irreducible difference. The general sense therefore should never be sacrificed lightly to the sense of the individual. Tabu, however inferior it may be to insight, deserves to rank higher after all than mere temperament.

The original genius proceeds upon the opposite assumption. Everything that limits temperamental expansion is dismissed as either artificial or mechanical; everything on the contrary that makes for the emancipation of temperament, and so for variety and difference, he welcomes as vital, dynamic, creative. Now, speaking not metaphysically but practically and experimentally, man may, as I have said, follow two main paths: he may develop his ethical self—the self that lays hold of unity—or he may put his main emphasis on the element within him and without him that is associated with novelty and change. In direct proportion as he turns his attention to the infinite manifoldness of things he experiences wonder; if on the other hand he attends to the unity that underlies the manifoldness and that likewise transcends him, he experiences awe. As a man grows religious, awe comes more and more to take the place in him of wonder. The humanist is less averse from the natural order and its perpetual gushing forth of novelties than the man who is religious, yet even the humanist refuses to put his final emphasis on wonder (his motto is rather nil admirari [to be surprised by nothing]). To illustrate concretely, Dr. Johnson can scarcely conceal his disdain for the wonderful, but being a genuinely religious spirit, is very capable of awe. Commenting on Yalden’s line

Awhile th’ Almighty wondering stood,

Dr. Johnson remarks: “He ought to have remembered that Infinite Knowledge can never wonder. All wonder is the effect of novelty upon Ignorance.” Granted the justness of the remark, Johnson seems inclined at times to forget how wide is the gap in this respect between us and the Almighty and therefore to be unduly hostile to the element of wonder. To take the opposite case, it is not easy to discover in either the personality or writings of Poe an atom of awe or reverence. On the other hand he both experiences wonder and seeks in his art to be a pure wondersmith.

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


    I need to brush up on my Kant.

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