We look back at this period of hyper-Reason and scoff. Silly us forever thinking that our Reason gave us ultimate value. What an archaic idea! We certainly don’t think or feel that problem-solving, logic, and reasoning is integral to our humanity. In fact, we can farm those out to computers now and really get to work in expressing our humanity in more meaningful ways. We no longer live in the Age of Reason, and we haven’t done for quite some time. In fact, 2023’s sensibilities are not with the Enlightenment Rationalists, instead, I’d argue that we are more in line with the Romantics.
In the 19th century, whilst the Age of Reason was still trundling on, there was a community of thinkers reacting against the spirit of the age - these were the Romantics. The Romantics looked at the Modern world and were disgusted by the banal capitalist industrialism of it all. They lamented the loss of beauty in the world and a sense of spiritual unity. The Romantics described the people of their time as being ‘triply divided’ by ‘three alienations’. The first was within the individual between our thinking and our feeling being at odds with each other. Second was between the individual and other people due to the decline of traditional communities and the rise of the capitalist marketplace. Third was between the individual and Nature due to the rise of modern technology turning the natural world into something to be mastered rather than something we are a part of. We had lost who we were and needed to go on a journey to discover who we truly are. Sound familiar?
The Romantics understood that the one thing that had previously remedied these alienations was the Christian religion and its God. A benevolent creator who provided morality, meaning, and value to the individual and her society. But ultimately, the Romantics were still people of their time and assumed that religion was on its way out and was an ancient superstitious system that needed to be done away with. And so the Romantics had to find something else to hang everything on, a new centre of ultimate meaning. Religion is out, Reason was too narrow. What we need is a way for the individual to integrate and express the whole of their identity. Set the stage for the enthronement of Creativity.
The sociologist Charles Taylor calls this the birth of the ‘Age of Authenticity’, where the most important task for the individual is to discover and express her most authentic self. In this way, artistic creation became an integral way in which a person could come to define themselves. So Schlegel, a 18th century Romantic, was fond of saying that the individual should make ‘his life into a novel, a beautiful whole’ aiming for 'the ideal of self-realisation and beauty’. This vision was so compelling that it spread outside Romantic circles. So 100 years later, the not-so-Romantic Nietzsche said that the most important task of the individual was to ‘give style to one’s character’. To make sense of all the incoherent combination of loves, desires, hatreds, and motives in our heart and make something beautiful out of it.
Since then, we’ve continued to elevate the role of Creative expression as an essential part of our human identity. Taylor made this observation: 'The artist [has become] the paradigm case of the human being, as an agent of original self-definition. Since about 1800, there has been a tendency to heroise the artist, to see his or her life as the essence of the human condition, and to venerate him or her as a seer, the creator of cultural values.'