Progress and Romanticism
A fascinating and thought-provoking article by SF author David Brin looks at the Lord of the Rings saga in a very unconventional light. Titled "Tolkien: Enemy of Progress," Brin traces the Tolkien's philosophical background through the ages; he's a classic exponent of Romanticism. His revisionist history of Middle Earth is tongue-in-cheek, but it's a refreshing look at a work I'd been taking more or less for granted. Speaking of the origins of the Romantic movement:
Temblors began splitting a chasm between Romantics and Enlightenment pragmatists. The alliance that had been so formidable against feudalism began turning against itself. Trenches soon aligned along the most obvious fault line, down the middle -- between future and past.
In this conflict, J.R.R. Tolkien stood firmly for the past.
Calling the scientific worldview "soul-less," he joined Keats and Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, Henry James and many European-trained philosophers in spurning the modern emphasis on pragmatic experimentation, production, universal literacy, progress, cooperative enterprise, democracy, city life and flattened social orders.
In contrast to these "sterile" pursuits, Romantics extolled the traditional, the personal, the particular, the subjective, the rural, the hierarchical and the metaphorical.
By the turn of the century, Romanticism was fast losing all vestige of its initial empathy for the concerns of common folk. One solitary artist -- or entertainer or lost prince or angry poet -- loomed larger in importance, by far, than a thousand craft workers, teachers or engineers (a value system shared today by the mythic engine of Hollywood). Just as in Homer's time, 10,000 foot soldiers mattered less than Achilles' heel.
It's a conflict between pragmatism and idealism, can-do and should-do, doers and dreamers, those who see reality as it is, and those who want to live in a different reality. The contempt Romantics feel for reality (and indeed, the common man) has led them over the ages to construct dream societies where all the ills would be cured and mankind would be happy again. The most famous work of this genre is Thomas More's Utopia
. In the vernacular, utopia means an elysian place of happiness. However, one common features of most utopias, including Thomas More's, is that all of these ideal dream societies are highly totalitarian and the rights of the people are severely circumscribed. The first Romantic in this sense was Plato, whose utopian fantasies of the ideal state was in effect a fascist oligarchy. Abolition of property has been recurring theme in utopian fantasies throughout the ages, as chronicled in the first chapter of Property and Freedom
. The first exponent of the opposing force of realism and common sense came from Aristotle. The conflict between the two sides has been going on ever since, right down to the battle between the values of the Englightenment and the darkness of communism.
The original concept of a Golden Age also stems from Greek antiquity. In Greek mythology, the Golden Age existed after the creation of earth, ruled by the Titan Cronus, with all goods plentiful and everyone in a state of grace. The following Silver, Bronze and Iron ages were successively worse. It's not entirely different from the Christian version, where the Golden Age was Adam and Eve's time in Eden; they too, fell from grace and man is still suffering the after-effects. It's only been the Enlightenment that moved the Golden Age from the past to the future, as Brin explains in his article.
While socialism in its many forms has been discredited, the conflict between the utopian Romantics and the realist Modernists still persists, despite the overwhelming evidence that the Modern way of doing things is infinitely superior. It has brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity and indeed liberty. We are fortunate to live in a time where we are the freest members of homo sapiens ever to have trod on the face of the earth. And that freedom and prosperity is now under threat by a particularly violent non-western offshoot of Romanticism. The Islamofascists also yearn for the return to a Golden Age that never was, and do not shy away from using violence to impose that Golden Age upon. It is not very surprising that our home-grown Romantics of the anti-war movement should be aiding them in this endeavor. The siren call of the Romantic movement has its appeal in the fact that it proposes a simple answer to complex problems. Go back to doing X or Y, and all will be well. It's an easy way of avoiding the confrontation with reality. Obviously, it's doomed to failure. After all, reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, does not go away.
Posted by qsi at December 17, 2002 09:24 PM
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