Romanticism vs. Enlightenment

As you might infer from the title (you clever reader, you), lately I’ve been preoccupied with the concept of dueling themes. It seems like duality has been a feature of human thought forever. Light vs. dark, good vs. evil, etc. are common enough and certainly universal, but what about the more abstract oppositions? Thought vs. feeling, red vs. blue, law vs. chaos, and other less clear-cut themes are interesting to me because there is not obvious “right” answer. Good vs. evil is banal in the sense that no sane person truly believes that he or she is evil. A person who commits evil is usually certain of their own moral reasons for having done so, no matter how misguided. That, or they’re crazy.

Romanticism vs. Enlightenment is something that’s been on my mind ever since reading through that linked TV tropes page. I also read a post by David Brin that thoroughly denounces the fantasy genre, long a bastion of Romanticism, as “pining for Feudalism.” It all got me thinking and since I do my best thinking at a keyboard, here we are now.

Romanticism is one of those things that writers seem drawn to almost instinctively (unless you’re a science fiction writer). It just seems natural to want to be in the company of Poe, Shelley, Lord Byron, and countless others. All the talk about creativity just seems to fall right in line with the writer’s mindset. On the surface, I’d say I considered myself a Romanticist.

And I really, really like the aesthetic. I like the fantasy genre. I like swords and spells and dragons. I feel much more affinity for those tropes than any other. If such an opposition could be boiled down to two icons, it would be this: Star Wars (Romanticism) or Star Trek (Enlightenment)? I’m in the Star Wars camp.

Here’s the thing: I feel weird for choosing that side. When I think about my ideas and my world views, everything seems to push towards the Enlightenment side of the equation. A co-worker of mine, when posed this question today, said that she preferred the Enlightenment because she “views everything through the lens of feminism” and I found myself agreeing with her; it’s hard to embody feminism (or even the broader definition of humanism) without appealing to Enlightenment ideals.

So, which is it? Romanticism or Enlightenment? Perhaps it’s a foolish question, since a person is too complex to be boiled down to labels and broad definitions, but it seems that with enough consideration of the details, a general trend should emerge. It should be possible to identify one’s self as “leaning towards one” through an overall preference of one set of ideals, even if one does not enjoin all of them. And if these opposing themes are truly in opposition, it doesn’t seem feasible to say that one is “both.” At some point, a definition has to be made.

I do have a reason for why I ponder these things, unrelated as they might be to my larger existence. You know what they say about an examined life, yes? This is me examining my life and myself which should be an unsurprising endeavor for an introvert. I like to think that it’s possible to remove various mental contradictions and incongruousness from myself through the process of self-reflection. Perhaps this is to prevent hypocrisy of thought (a vegetarian who supports the death penalty? Wtf?) or perhaps it’s an attempt to live up to the skeptical ideal.

Maybe I’m over thinking it. All I know is that this is what’s going through my head at the moment.

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2 thoughts on “Romanticism vs. Enlightenment”

  1. I think being human means accepting what might seem like contradictions, because there are often unexamined levels of depth. Personally, I would fall on the side of enlightenment, but I certainly carry some of the vestiges of romanticism with me, tinged with my personal ideals.

    As an example, I enjoy fantasy novels. But I tend to enjoy low-fantasy and dark-fantasy far more than heroic-fantasy. I enjoy the sort of fantasy that challenges the belief that the world of yesterday was better than today by exposing the institutionalized oppression and nepotism of feudalism. A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t glorify the medieval period, it lambasts it.

    Watching the Game of Thrones TV show has lead to enough arguments between my girlfriend and I that we don’t watch it together anymore. The main point seems to be that she feels the show is violent, and that the violence is mere pandering. In her mind, enjoyment of a show with violence equates to an enjoyment of violence. To me, cruelty and violence is a storytelling tool. Joffrey’s abject cruelty is supposed to make us hate him, and the point of it is to make us feel uncomfortable.

    On a side note, I think this is why I don’t get excited about the Lord of the Rings stories.

  2. First, I have to say that I’m appalled that I let that get posted without a more thorough edit. Absolutely shameful.

    Second, I like what you said about unexamined levels of depth. It feels like a potential resolution to many of these existential misgivings about self-contradiction.

    Third, I think you’re being too hard on Tolkien here. He seems more like a proof towards the unexamined depths. To quote the TV tropes article (author unknown, of course): “The creation of the Rings of Power combined a Romantic desire to preserve the past and stop change with an Enlightenment faith in the power of Reason and Science and Logic to make the progression of time stop.”

    I agree completely about Game of Thrones, though.

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