Tuesday 24 May 2016

The destiny of the English and the failure of Romanticism

The English people have a destiny - that much seems clear; and the English diaspora in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa presumably inherit it.

England has been recognized as a favoured nation since at least the Roman era - this fact is extensively recorded. But why? Presumably because of that destiny - which became manifest with the Industrial Revolution, beginning to wind-up from around the middle of the 1700s and leading to the biggest change in the human condition since the invention of agriculture which is lost in pre-history.

So there was the industrial revolution and at the same time there was Romanticism - which is usually seen as a reaction against the associated materialism, scientism, rationalism, urbanization and the rest of it. But Romanticism was not a reaction - it was part of the same movement of thought - the same evolution of consciousness.

What was meant to happen was that Romanticism was supposed to be the future, not a reaction; was supposed to be made possible by the Industrial Revolution - not fight against it. The English were favoured not for their own good but because they had a job to do - a job not for themselves, or for their own benefit, but for Mankind.

Because Romanticism was - or should have been - the healing of the alienation of Man from nature, of mind from matter, the reunification of the inner life with the outer world, of subjective and objective - which had reached completeness with the Age of Reason and the agonies of the French revolution.

The way that this could be done was perceived, - albeit dimly and in fragments, by the genius of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in collaboration with his great friend Wordsworth - and was enacted in the life of Goethe. But the English failed in their destiny.

Romanticism broke up into fragments in opposition to Enlightenment, Reason, Industry and the like - so from the late 18th through the 19th century England hosted the pacifism of the Quakers, the abolitionism of the Clapham Sect, the sexual liberation/ license epitomized by the glamorous figure of Byron, the atheism of Shelley, the revolutionary communism of Marx and Engels, the scientistic metaphysics of Darwin, the reactionary revolution of the Anglican Tractarians, and nationally the glories of invention, technology, conquest and Empire and so forth...

In sum, a hotbed of innovation and exploration and achievement - of revolution - in multiple fields but not the one thing needful. That was steadfastly, repeatedly refused.

After a century came payback - with the decline of Christian faith. the horrors of World War One, then Two - loss of Empire, loss of vitality and confidence, loss of fertility, a mood of self-hatred and now the national suicide of reverse colonization.

What to do? The answer is - what should have been done 200 years ago - to restore Christianity as the focus and frame of life and immediately move ahead with the project of transforming consciousness that was set out by Coleridge and most recently revived and reiterated by Owen Barfield: to move beyond the split between purposeless rationality and pointless instinct into making conscious of everything, sensory and supersensible, the synthesis of all aspects of life and the world in a human thinking which uses all the resources of Man: including imagination, inspiration and intuition.

The task is for everyone, but perhaps most of all for the English - whose historical destiny it was to pioneer this metamorphosis of mind. We have been refusing repeatedly and vehemently this destiny for two centuries and doing anything-but what must be done - but anyone may choose to embrace the task today. 


Peter said...


you seem to have a very anti traditional view on the course of history and one much more in line with modern ideas.

all traditional religious cultures saw the world as declining from an initial sacred height and eventually running down and ending.

you seem to see history as at least potentially a process of developement, as - at least potentially - as "progress" - which is, of course, a thoroughly modern idea and one which no traditional religion entertained.

so instead of scientism and all that being a sign of the end times, it is a necessary stage leading - potentially, if we do the right thing, learn the right lesson - to a state much higher from where we started out.

and indeed, our early human state is seen not as Paradise and as close to perfection as possible but a limited condition capable of much improvement. indeed needing improvement.

this is, of course, a modern, non traditional idea.

interestingly, bruce, it was reading you that brought me back to tradition, for which I am supremely greatful, yet I cannot follow you onto these new regions which seem infected with modern ideas.

it seems tradition has failed to satisfy you and you are still a restless 'seeker' in the modern fashion - one who has not'found', and for whom the modern anti traditional myth of progress remains the defining idea.

William Wildblood said...

Good for you, Bruce, to maintain that the English have a divine destiny. I also believe this is true but it takes courage to say it nowadays in a mad world where such thoughts are deemed suspect or worse. It raises the question though, what is England? Is it the people and, if so, is it all of them? Or is it the land or something that lies behind the land? That last would be my opinion. Not everybody responds to it but those that do respond do so at a very deep level.

England has a mission in the world and it is a spiritual one. I think that must be why so much effort has been expended on trying to crush it recently what with the destructive tendencies of both left and right since at least the ‘80s (obviously this was going on before but it was stepped up then), and more recent attempts to wipe out Englishness, or make a parody of it, through mass immigration and multiculturalism.

You say the restoration of Christianity is the way forward and I would agree but what sort of Christianity? I don’t mean which denomination but it must surely be one with a much greater sense of the supernatural than any I am aware of currently possess.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter - I'm not sure whether you understand what I am saying - but you are certainly correct that tradition does not satisfy me as the basis for mortal life and beyond. The goal of eternal life is to become ever more like Christ, which is creative (because each of us is unique, and meant to be so), and an ascent to a new condition, not a return to some previous state. To believe this requires confidence that our loving Father has put us into the necessary situation on earth, and equipped us with a sufficient inner guidance system that we can at least discern the necessary assumptions to build upon.

@William - "a much greater sense of the supernatural" - Yes.

What I think is most lacking in the metaphysical basis for making life (including mrtal life) one - at least partially and intermittently, then building on that. This is why I am so emphatic about the need to regard everything as alive, responsive, conscious... and to set aside the mainstream idea of life as a (meaningless) mixture of random and determined. These are our bad habits; but to get rid of them involves changing basic, structuring assumptions; as well as trying to develop new and good habits of thinking.

In other words it is not enough to do it (as, arguably Goethe did) but we also need a theorey of it (as Coleridge tried to provide, but didn't really suceed in piecing togethr - or else it was not understood or accepted, and nobody else finished the job properly, until Barfield).

Chent said...


I could be wrong but I think Bruce has never defended tradition (I thought he was defending it when he was close to Orthodoxy, but I realized it was only a stop in his journey, he said he was play-acting). He was recently close to Mormon theology (which may be the less traditional branch of Christianity) and I guess these posts about Romanticism are the beginning of a similar change of thought. Time will tell.


I am afraid I partially agree with Peter. No mean to offend. I love your insights, even when sometimes I don't agree.

"Progress" is a modern idea and "the evolution of consciousness" is so (it seems Hegelian and New Age-y to me). The Christian idea is that we are fallen beings (original sin) so the way to go is repentance, not an evolution to a higher state of conscience (Is the origin of this idea Gnosticism? I don't know).

(I am talking about Nicene Christianity. I don't know Mormon theology very well so it could include the idea of progress, although I don't know if it is collective progress in this world - as opposed to individual spiritual progress)

The Enlightenment brought a worldview centered on the self (instead of God), with two branches: rationalism/materialism and Romanticism. Rationalism/materialism aimed to destroy traditional religion, which left a void. Romanticism aimed to replace religion with a self-centered substitute to fill the void. The right way would be to repent and go back to God, but Romanticism was part of the rebellion.

Our times are ultra-rationalists/materialists and, therefore, ultra-romantics. You see the emphasis put on subjective experience, feelings, the inner self, narcissism, the individual rebelling against conventions because of his authenticity and so on. Each one of these values was first proposed by Romantics.

So I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chent - You might still disagree with me - but you are very seriously misunderstood the nature of my argument; the way you characterize my position is almost the opposite of what I believe.

I am not changing away from Mormon theology - this stuff is all within that framework.

My point is that Christianity is ineffective now (partly) because it is accepting the dead, purposeless materialism of modernity wrt. nearly all aspects of life. Christianity is blocked because it regards most of the world as unalive and unconscious hence mechanical/ random/ determined. This is why we must have a transformation of consciousness, a new metaphysics, so that we think and experience differently.

The materialistic metaphysics of most Christians does not block *salvation* - but it does block theosis; and it seems that a Christianity of pure salvation lacks power to transform, at least under modern conditions - this etiolated, partial, theoretical type of Christianity is all too often merely a miserable state of endurance in face of a long and inexorable defeat, a waiting for death in a state of agomizing spiritual uncertainty (even when a person is not suffering and has many possibilities) - because, after all, these are the end times.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William "It raises the question though, what is England? Is it the people and, if so, is it all of them? Or is it the land or something that lies behind the land? That last would be my opinion."

I don't believe it can be reduced to any specific essence - because the 'definition' comes from God, not Man. So, I would say Englishness is an interaction between all these aspects and more, mutually reinforcing over time and dependent on human will and choice.

For example, the Anglo Saxons and Norse very rapidly became English, while the Norman aristocracy resisted Englishness for hundreds of years (at least until the middle 1300s) - and perhaps never entirely or whole-heartedly became English.

The diaspora likewise - some remained English for a long time and continuing, others almost immediately ceased to be English, others rebelled after a while and began to define themselves *against* Englishness.

Matias F. said...

@Chent - When claiming that romanticism aimed to replace religion, one should bear in mind in what sense Christianity was "traditional religion" by the 18th Century. At least organized Christianity (Theology) was very much Cartesian: the world is material (mechanical) and religion concerns only the spirit or soul. The most influential French materialists like Denis Diderot were educated by the Jesuits. So the materialist revolutionaries were using the theologians own weapons against them: a ontological monist (materialist) is easily more coherent and forceful in argumentation against inherently incoherent dualists. Traditional religion was "of the people", (most or many) theologians were practical atheists (Deists) already by the 18th Century.

So romanticism should not be characterized as attempt to replace religion: its main goal was to overcome the dualism that was dictated by metaphysics.

William Wildblood said...

The primary purpose of Christianity is not salvation but to make saints. This it no longer seems able to do because it has lost the sense of spirit. It has become too earthbound. So we need a new vision. Isn’t that the essence of what you are saying here, Bruce?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matias - Good point. Leading theologians such as Paley were very rationalistic. England experienced a massive and rapid decline in Christian observance and devoutness through the early and mid 18th century (exacerbated by the evolving apostasy of Quakers, Unitarians etc); which was partly reversed by the evangelical revival, the rise of non-conformism such as Methodists and Baptists mainly among the lower classes, and later the 'Anglo-Catholic" movement (contaminated with 'Christian Socialism') - but without ever fully recovering its lost ground, and at the cost of considerable inter-denominational conflict.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - More or less; but I tend not to use 'saints' as a term, being liable to be understood as something other than what I intend. Insofar as saints have advanced on the path to divinity during mortal life, then yes; but they are not necessarily ascetic, celibate, or even exceptionally 'good' people in terms of observable behaviour (i.e. they would be characterized by repentance, rather than by exceptionally good behaviour). Indeed, I adhere to the Mormon *ideal* of (intended-eternal) marriage and family as the closest mortal microcosm of Heaven (rather than monasticism).

Leo said...

England has a destiny to be Christian, to serve the living God, but so does every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Some nations have been better at this than others, and England certainly has been. And looking at the future, any nation can rise and fall and rise again.