New Article: From Romanticism to Traditionalism

My essay From Romanticism to Traditionalism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  The argument is that numerous premises of contemporary Traditionalism find their prototypes in early-Nineteenth Century Romantic Movement.  The essay cites the work of the English lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge, as well as the work of Chateaubriand and Goethe, and of the American “Hudson River School” of painting.  I try to demonstrate the parallelism between Wordsworth’s outlook, or Goethe’s, and the outlook of the founders of Twentieth Century Traditionalism, such as René Guénon and Nicolas Berdyaev.  I offer a sample…

The Romantic subject resembles – or, rather, it anticipates – the Traditionalist subject, as Guénon, Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), and others have defined it.  Guénon himself in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945) characterizes modern man as having “lost the use of the faculties which in normal times allowed him to pass beyond the bounds of the sensible world.”  This loss leaves modern man alienated from “the cosmic manifestation of which he a part”; in Guénon’s analysis modern man assumes “the passive role of a mere spectator” and consumer, which is exactly how Wordsworth saw it.  Of course, Guénon does not write of loss as an accident, but as the logical consequence of choices and schemes traceable to the Enlightenment.  As Wordsworth put it, “We have given our hearts away – a sordid boon.”

According to Berdyaev, writing in The Destiny of Man (1931), “Man is not a fragmentary part of the world but contains the whole riddle of the universe and the solution of it.”  Berdyaev asserts that, contrary to modernity, “man is neither the epistemological subject [of Kant], nor the ‘soul’ of psychology, nor a spirit, nor an ideal value of ethics, logics, or aesthetics”; but, abolishing and overstepping all those reductions, “all spheres of being intersect in man.”  Berdyaev argues that, “Man is a being created by God, fallen away from God and receiving grace from God.”  The prevailing modern view, that of naturalism, “regards man as a product of evolution in the animal world,” but “man’s dynamism springs from freedom and not from necessity”; it follows therefore that “evolution” cannot explain the mystery and centrality of man’s freedom.  When Berdyaev brings “grace” into his discussion, he echoes the original Romantics, whose version of grace was the epiphanic vision, the event answering to a crisis that brings about the conversion of the fallen subject and sets him on the road to true personhood.

Angel Millar has done an exceptional job in presenting the essay.  I take the opportunity here to thank him publicly.

15 thoughts on “New Article: From Romanticism to Traditionalism

      • In that case, thank you, Earl. I never really thought that anyone would comment either, but then I live by faith, as best I can.

    • Subsuming the philosophical disposition of Romanticism, Traditionalism, which begins in a rigorous critique of modernity, is itself philosophical; liberalism is indeed ideological, as you claim it to be, reducing human fullness to a few slogans and two or three stereotyped emotions. That Traditionalism and Liberalism are “flipsides” of what you call “bellyfeel ideology” is, however, a half-truth only (you’re right about liberalism, but you’re wrong about Traditionalism) which therefore makes for an unconvincing thesis. Please tell me where I might locate the “bellyfeeling” in Wordsworth’s condemnatory analysis of the Revolution in France or in Vigny’s or Chateaubriand’s defenses of medieval against modern institutions? Or in Coleridge’s theory of the judiciary? Have you read Guenon or Berdyaev or Gustave Le Bon on modernity? How about T. S. Eliot? Did you read my essay? Have you read anything at this website?

      For anyone who might care to discuss it, I propose a thesis linked to my People of Shambhala essay:

      A standard view of liberalism that one hears from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, is that it is maximally emotive and minimally cognitive, but I regard this as an inadequate characterization. Liberalism, on the contrary, is as defective emotionally as it is cognitively; it reduces cognition to a few intellectual abstractions that assume the nature of an idee fixe, but it also eliminates all but a few of the emotions, until only resentment and smugness remain. Traditionalists are not opponents of emotion; they are thoughtful people who are aware that emotion, like cognition, must be schooled and that every situation has an emotion that is the proper response to it, and that is at the same time the complement of the idea that is proper to it.

      • Did you read my essay? Have you read anything at this website?


        “Modernity is a Polyphemus, an angry unison-chorus, shouting like thunder that man is the measure and that there is nothing, not measurable by man. Traditionalism is the quiet voice, seeking parlay with other hushed voices, so that together they might enter conversation with the Forest Murmurs and even the distant Music of the Spheres and come to know better what they already suspect, that man must begin by measuring himself against the measureless.”

        Blood and Soil, eh? Forest murmurs?

        A lot of Modern German Romanticism there. (I’m trying really hard to avoid Gresham’s Law) See where romanticism can lead?

        The difference between the Christian mystic and the poet is that the Christian mystic, in his experience, is having an empirical experience whilst the poet transcendence is intuitive. A mystic’s transcendence and a poet’s are two totally different things and equating the two is a conflation error. Transcendental experiences, therefore, have to be carefully evaluated in the light of truth and in themselves are very poor guides. A Christian mystic, receiving information about the reality of God can check his experience against the Bible, whilst a poet’s transcendence is a biological response to certain environmental stimuli. How do we vouch for its veracity? To the romantic poet, nature truth is truth because the experience of it is triple-plus-belly-feel-good. It’s a disguised hedonism.

        What’s worse, is the difference in the “transcendental” experience between the Left and Right poet may have more to do with genetics than any form of cultural refinement. The Evola strain of poet sees glory in war whilst the Tolstoyean strain sees nothing but horror. Who is right? Poetic transcendence is thus self-referential, as is just a different variant of man being the measure of all things. It, and Enlightenment “rationality”, are just flip sides of the same coin; one concentrates on the primacy of the head, the other on the primacy of heart. Sorry to rain on your parade.

        I agree with you, in a way, that Romanticism and Traditionalism are interrelated. With many Traditionalists “feeling” the rightness of Traditionalism. The problem is that Truth and bellyfeel are sometimes opposed and that’s why I’m not a Traditionalist. Truth overrides any “transcendental” feeling.

        By the way, Traditionalism is not ideological, it’s dispositional. It’s critique against modernity is aesthetic rather than philosophical. A proper critique of modernity begins with its epistemological inadequacies and metaphysical errors, not with modernism’s inability to agree with a conservative’s aesthetic temperaments.

  1. The transcendent is the metaphysical. The metaphysical is the necessary and truth is grounded in it. Transcendence cannot therefore be relativistic (one thing for me and something else for you), as you seem to assert, because if it were then truth would be relativistic, in which case the definition of truth would contradict itself. If you had bothered to read my essay and not just the two paragraphs that I excerpted from it, you would know that I identify the main line of Romanticism as Christian. Coleridge is constantly checking the Bible; so is Chateaubriand. I did not quote Evola in the essay. I did not speak of “blood and soil,” a phrase that you falsely attribute to me. Berdyaev, Eliot, Keyserling, Spengler, Guenon, le Bon, and the other early-Twentieth Century Traditionalists deal explicitly in epistemology — Berdyaev does so repeatedly and so before him did Coleridge. Apparently you are a materialist. At least that is what your appeal to “genetics” would indicate. I can’t see why you waste your time at a website so antithetical to your way of thinking or why you use the word transcendence at all. I don’t haunt Marxist websites or feminist ones. Playing the tick to the dog ain’t my cup of tea. You should hang out at materialist websites or geneticist (“Bluth und Bode”) ones. (T)

  2. The transcendent is the metaphysical

    Objectively transcendent or subjective? Who determines what is transcendent or what is a powerful inner feeling?

    I read your essay. True, you don’t quote Evola but you “rhyme”.

    Apparently you are a materialist

    Do you not believe in the influence of our biology on nature or are you pure spirit? Just a word of advice, the official position of the Church is hylomorphic. The flesh (genetics) matters.

    Gnosticism comes in many forms.

  3. My dear Slumlord, you write: “Who determines what is transcendent or what is a powerful inner feeling?”

    My dear Slumlord: God, the one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, is the author of creation, a truth reiterated endlessly by the Lake Poets, Chateaubriand, and the Hudson River painters.

    My dear Slumlord: The idea that the ability to discern truth is genetically determined to be inconsistent with the definition of truth, but quite consonant with various strands of Twentieth Century ideology.

    My dear Slumlord: The implied idea that some people are genetically privileged to discern truth while others are not is Manichaean hence Gnostic. Heal thyself!

    My dear Slumlord: Hylomorphism is not biological reductionism.

    My dear Slumlord: Pure spirit, you say? Alas, I am but a sinner along with the rest of fallen humanity. And what are you?

    My dear Slumlord: The phrase “subjectively transcendent” annihilates any meaning that could possibly attach to its second term.

    My dear Slumlord: The phrase “objectively transcendent” is a redundancy.

    My dear Slumlord: The question whether one “believe[s] in the influence of our biology on nature” makes no sense. Nature, which is everything, is prior to human being; except locally, humanity cannot alter nature; it cannot even alter its own nature, and even locally it can only rearrange the available resources in various temporary ways, or “Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair,” as the ruined inscription in Shelley’s poem puts it.


    Thomas F. “No Pseudonym” Bertonneau

  4. Mr. Bertonneau, thank you for interesting essay. Until now I’ve had different picture of Romanticism. Therefore, I would have a few questions and objections.

    Wasn’t Christianity of Romantics rather sort of Christianity-based spirituality (like in Blake for example)? That would make them pioneers of individualist spirituality like the New Age today. This came to my mind when you mentioned Michell and Paracelsus. Many Romantics don’t strike me as particularly Christian or only in a very broad sense. Shelley was openly hostile to Christianity. Rousseau abandoned Christian concept of the nature of man.

    Also did the revolt against Classicism not lead them too far in the way of emotions and individualism (young Goethe in Werther or Novalis)? Or egoism according to R. M. Weaver. How would you respond to his critique of Romanticism as an early project of modernity?

    Perhaps I have it all wrong for I am ignoramus about literature. My romantic inclinations ended up with Count Monte Cristo 🙂

    • Dear RT: Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions. If we understood Wordsworth’s Romanticism or Coleridge’s or even Goethe’s as responses to the political side of Rousseau, to Jacobinism, and to what Burke called the Revolution, then the Romantic emphasis on individual liberty would be self-vindicating. The right of the wanderer to pass through the countryside without being apprehended for questioning by policemen of the Directory is, after all, simply one of the Rights of an Englishman, and worth preserving. Ditto the right of the “Solitary Reaper” (see Wordsworth’s poem) to sing her ancestral song as she wishes without being censured for it, or otherwise bothered, by the probosci of the Public Committee.

      Just as there were “Right Hegelians” and “Left Hegelians,” there were “Right Romantics” and “Left Romantics.” Shelley, Heinrich Heine, to some extent Byron, and of course Whitman, were “Left Romantics.” In a follow-up essay I would try to point out that the “Left Romantics” were an aberration on the mainstream of Romanticism, as Gnosticism was an aberration on the Gospel and Philosophy; in the existing essay, I emphasized the Wordsworth-Coleridge core of British Romanticism, and the Chateaubriand-Vigny strand of French Romanticism, both of which are responses to the Rousseau-inspired French Revolution.

      I try to understand Romanticism historically, as a reaction to an enormity. It would hardly be surprising were the reactionaries to over-react somewhat, given the extremity of that to which they reacted.

      I would derive modern American non-Christian or de-Christianized spiritualism from Emerson and Whitman. On the other hand, I think there are redeemable insights in Emerson’s authorship, and I would not wish to tip the Collected Essays overboard. If, however, one tipped overboard every other line in Whitman, no one would notice that anything had happened.

      I recommend to you a posthumous anthology of John Michell’s short essays, Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist. You might be surprised at how traditional a person, in your sense and mine, Michell was.

      PS. Respecting your comment on Goethe, Wilhem Meisters Wanderjahre is a Bildungsroman. The standard plot of the Bildungsroman is that a young man, in an ego-fit, leaves his community, is humiliated and disabused of his pretensions during his “walkabout,” while also learning many things in a positive way, whereupon he returns to his starting-place to be fully and positively re-integrated in the native society that he had formerly rejected. The wandering protagonist belatedly affirms or re-affirms tradition.

      PPS. I’m adding a bit more very extemporaneously. I mentioned John Michell in my essay deliberately and even provocatively. Michell’s theory, in case some reader is unaware of it, is that in Western Europe and the British isles in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages there was a universal high civilization whose remnants are the megalithic monuments. Although much of what Michell argued in his book, The View Over Atlantis (1969), was already supported by the celestial-mathematical analysis of Stonehenge by Alexander Thom, reviewers dismissed his arguments as fanciful and eccentric. Why? Because Michell had contradicted what one can only call “The Encyclopedia Article” on the Stone Age. With the exception of a few flashes in Greece and Rome, history, according to “The Encyclopedia Article,” was supposed to consist in mankind’s slow crawl out of the slough of darkness into Enlightenment, whose crowning glory was modernity, and indeed the definitive book-of-knowledge.

      Modern people, even those who contribute to The Orthosphere, are likely to have only the most neutral response to the idea of an encyclopedia. After all, what could be more useful? But an encyclopedia, or rather the Encyclopedia, namely Diderot’s, was anything but a neutral enterprise. It was a project to crystallize knowledge and limit or exclude dissent. The project of the encyclopedia cannot be separated from the project of total control over the thought-processes of a collective. The very notion of an encyclopedia contains the program of political correctness and of an end of history. Diderot’s Encyclopedie even prescribed what was acceptable in art and poetry. The Romantics rightly rebelled against “encyclopedism,” with its reductive and circumscribing version of knowledge. One way of understanding Romanticism is as a revolt against the reductive intention in “encyclopedism,” that after this there is nothing left to know or discover.

      I linked Michell to Wordsworth, Blake, and Coleridge because he, in their manner, refused to take “The Encyclopedia Article” as the definitive word on his subject, or any subject. Michell’s attitude, the Romantic attitude, is that free inquiry determines what is knowledge. The empirical record of this attitude in archeology is impressive: Schliemann at Troy, Woolley at Ur, and Blegen at Pylos. They were souls open to existence rather than encysted in an ideology. “Encyclopedism” is an ideology; the Romantics despised it; there is something attractive about that fact alone. (Etymologically, the word encyclopedia means, “the lesson-plan [paideia] around which a circle has been drawn.” I.e., the academy-sanctioned “core curriculum.”)

      Is every Romantic perfectly in accord with the contemporary Traditionalist view? Of course not — not even Wordsworth or Coleridge (an opium enthusiast). I would think that Traditionalists, unlike their liberal anti-types, would, as a matter of principle, not require that the objects of their admiration be perfectly in accord with some prescribed view; that was their attitude — that of the Romantics, I mean: within moral limits to accommodate intellectual differences. In this spirit, I can even tell you what is redeemable in Rousseau! I, for one, try to emulate the Romantic openness to reality.

      • Mr. Bertonneau, thanks for further clarification. The left/right or revolutionary/conservative distinction makes sense. I am still not sure the mainstream was conservative so I am looking forward to to your next essay to find out.

        You try to understand Romanticism as reaction to enormity of French revolution. In Bohemia Romanticism was probably reaction to Austrian tendencies to centralization and absolutism, reforms by Maria Theresa and Joseph II. That was Classicism, too. So Romanticism took form of awakening national consciousness by collecting folksongs, saving language etc. which was later followed by political nationalism where the moderates were influenced by English whiggism while the radicals by French jacobinism. However, from reactionary point of view both could be considered leftist.

        Thanks for recommending Michell’s anthology. In fact, I did not know him but I’ve heard of the ley-lines and advanced neolithic civilization theory. It sounds too fantastic but I’ve heard similar claims about ancient Egypt and China. Some say these civilizations were more advanced in the beginning of their known history and slowly declining ever since. It stirs my imagination. I just don’t know I can believe alternative egyptology more than mainstream. There might be serious people with interesting ideas but also crackpots. So I suppress the Romantic in me in favor of dry Rationalist.

  5. Dear RT. It is a pleasure to be in conversation with you. Wordsworth and Coleridge became Tories.

    A few thoughts: Shelley was an adolescent radical who never grew up. People pretend to find politics in everything, but I can find no noticeable politics in Keats. In France, Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Vigny were reactionaries. Emerson might be likened to a Whig. As Kristor put it to me, Michell’s project was simply to look at things and see them with as few prejudices as possible.

    On crackpots: I find that as crazy as they can be, often there is a kernel of insight in what they say, but I am not calling Michell a crackpot. A crackpot is different, after all, from a fraud or a swindler.

    Sincerely, T.

    • The pleasure is mine, Mr. Bertonneau.

      PS. Looked at *Conffessions of Rad Trad* on Amazon and it really seems worthy of the “sweat of my face”…


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