The Romantic Flight from Reality – How Modernity Ruined our Favourite Movement
Scientific Interpretative Monism
According to Jonathan Haidt, one of the biggest problems of modernity is interpretative Monism – the fixed idea that Reality is ultimately based on a single axiom or equation; that it contains no inner contradictions, because it’s perfectly ordered. This is followed by the Faustian quest for a Theory of Everything, in which we inevitably end up losing our Soul.
When thinking about interpretative Monism, the intellectual pride of the Modern Scientistic mindset is the most obvious example. Man invented science through the empirical method of dispassionate observation; this wielded such powerful results, that it convinced Enlightenment thinkers to postulate Empiricism as the only legit enterprise which will allow humanity to discover the ultimate Truth about the Universe. What this Monistic approach did was undermine all our axioms, values and ultimately kill God, leading to endless questioning and deconstruction rather than some ultimate Truth.
Romantic Monism – the Flight from Reality
We have all tasted this bitter medicine and have turned towards Romanticism in an attempt to revitalise our past values and belief systems. The hidden problem here is that, as Bruno Latour has pointed out, the modern myths of progress and the anti-modern longing for tradition are twins who fail to recognise each other, both being consequences of the new conceptualization of time and the irreversible rupture with the past.
Romanticism was anti-empiricist. ‘Fuck your modern myth of progress, man. Ignore the petty nerd’s desire to control and predict nature. I want to worship nature; I want to be terrified and fascinated by it! I want the passion and devotion of the ancients, traditionalists and primitives. I want to find the hidden value in all past metaphysics, explore the back alleys of history’. And those of us who loved this idea sunk deep into the artistic depth and effervescence of Romantic art.
At first, this new liberation of the mind from all restrictions is extraordinarily fruitful. A new world, inaccessible through the old concepts, is waiting to be awakened, and only a mind which is utterly unfettered can go on incessantly absorbing new objects and thus rediscovering the fullness and abundance of life. The stimuli which result from Romanticism are unusually numerous and important. The conscious ordering of the world is confronted with its unconscious background; the simplifying of the world brought about by the Enlightenment is replaced by the mysterious wealth of the senses and the instincts, of the heart and the soul.
In this way, old symbols and myths regain their meaning, half-forgotten tales and legends, surviving only among simple folk, are revived, and the spiritual life of primitive peoples is explored. By the recognition of the unconscious man becomes able to grasp the essence and importance of religion, so that Christianity and some of the Eastern religions, awakening a new emotional response, acquire new meaning and new life – The Romantic Flight from Reality, Paul Roubiczek.
The sceptic soyboy’s critique to this endeavour was predictable – ‘Romanticism is, like, so inauthentic. You simply want the feels, not the responsibility and discipline that comes with it. Look how different you are from genuine religious believers!’
Before criticising Romanticism, it’s better to steelman it first. And no one did this better than the late Sir Roger Scruton. He argued that all civilisations, after getting past a certain level of complexity, end up killing their religions and losing faith in themselves. However, he thought that their core values and axioms survive in art and literature in raw form, and can still be accessed by non-believers. That’s because the Western Canon was shaped by a process of selection that separated those works exalting the true, good and beautiful, from the ones that did not.
The Romantic thus looks at this artistic conglomerate with reverence; he hopes to discover shards of divinity hidden in it; he reveres the past because Divine Archetypes were manifested and diligently recorded and treasured by men of culture. He admires it like he does with Alpine landscapes; simply beholding the past cultures’ depth and complexity, without trying to use them for some petty need. At first, this is incredibly fertile; it allows one to delve into the atmosphere of Iliad or the Arthurian cycle simply to experiment their otherness, to time travel using imagination, and this is enough for him. It is also useful to create great works of art.
The shadow side to this approach is the Romantic’s hostility and disregard for what is real and tangible. ‘Empiricism is bad because it killed our gods, so ignore the nerd and the debunker; I want my dreams and psychedelic experiences’. The Romantic employs the entire capacity of his intelligence to attack empirical observations and justify primitivism or traditionalism.
The mind can discover simple and primitive things, but it is forced by its nature to understand and so to transcend the primitive state by steadily increasing the sphere of consciousness. The artificial preservation of the unconscious can lead only to the suppression of the mind. If the realm of the unconscious may not be penetrated by the mind, it can only be recognized by its being foreign to the intellect, a totally different sphere, and the more foreign, and even the more stupid and false it is, the more probable will its primitiveness seem to be. The mind, therefore, of necessity degenerates, grows confused and dulled. The overestimation of the intellect by the Romantics, therefore, leads once more to consequences which are paradoxical, for this tendency leads to the intellectual finding himself in the grotesque situation of struggling against the mind and bending the knee before a false simplicity and even before complete foolishness, throwing away his best weapons and trying in vain to subordinate himself where he ought to lead. The situation arises in which the cultivated mind, to which the naturally developed simple man aspires, serves to glorify the lack of intellect. In this way, the intellectual becomes disposed to accept any humiliation, to worship strength and stupidity and to betray himself in order to preserve what seems to be “the primitive” – idem.
By doing this he ends up reducing traditionalism and past metaphysical systems to aesthetic experiences, thus discrediting their value in the eyes of others. He cannot commit to a certain religious discipline, because he’s enamoured with pure longing, heroism, devotion, and he endlessly delays homecoming to keep the longing alive. This is a state of unending twilight which eventually turns into decadence.
The most conspicuous example of this wrong tendency is the romantic attitude towards religion. Friedrich Schlegel writes to Novalis: “My biblical project is not a literary, but a biblical one, entirely religious.” But this does not prevent him from adding: “I feel courage and strength enough not only to preach and be zealous like Luther, but also, like Mohammed, to go about the world conquering the realm of the spirit with the fiery sword of the word, and to sacrifice my life like Christ.” This is his “deadliest earnest,” but be asks nevertheless: “Or perhaps you have more talent for a new Christ?” This frivolity is approved of by all the Romantics, even by the theologian Schleiermacher. For him, too, the most important thing is an artificial attitude of mind; religion for him means a “taste for the universe,” and he admires the “virtuosi of religion” and the “virtuosi of holiness” – idem.
The Romantic’s disregard for pragmatic realism makes him build imaginary realms and elegant metaphysical systems like the world of pure will where nothing is lost or gained; or he ends up idealising political efficiency, raw power and determination, without regard for its good or evil character. Is it any wonder that many late 19th century Romantics found sympathy for the Devil and regarded Lucifer like a tragic Romantic hero? What about the more recent Norwegian Black Metal scene, a bunch of devil worshippers whose music was dope, but couldn’t find any ways to renewal after its first decade?
By falling in love with the boundless power of imagination and longing, Romantics lost touch with reality. Enamoured with idealised powerful historical conquerors like Caesar, Alexander or Alcibiades, they projected these archetypes over petty politicians of our own times and pledged allegiance to them. Figures like Hitler or Mussolini and their legacy were the most efficient terminators of Romantic or Traditionalist ideals. By attempting to react to the monism of modernity (its unrecognised twin), Romanticism fell into an equally devastating monism of feeling and imagination and thus exhausted and discredited itself.
You may read more about it in this devastating critique of the Romantic movement by Paul Roubiczek.
Jung’s Double-Edged Sword
The author Mats Winther is a Jungian who also retains a healthy dose of reservations to Jung’s ideas.
He thinks that the archetypes of collective unconscious are real and that Jung’s advise on individuation has genuine potential for healing and achieving balance in one’s life.
His main criticism of Jung boils down to his idea of synchronicity and his conviction that archetypes can be investigated using scientific tools.
Science deals with the realm of the material and employs empiricism (direct observation) to describe it through causality. Psychology deals with the realm of the psyche and uses intellectualism (reflection, introspection, understanding) to describe that which is in our minds. The monistic whisper of the Faustian Zeitgeist convinced Jung to attempt to merge these two methods together in a Theory of Everything. He therefore postulated that the archetypes of the Psyche must be at the core of Reality itself; so that ultimately the laws of Physics+Chemistry and the inner forces of our Psyche are the same – the Pagan Gods or something like that. Winther says that Jung revitalized Neo-Paganism and the Romantic approach which tended to idolize the powers of imagination.
Winther has many objections to a Neo-Pagan revival or a ‘Postmodern re-enchantment of the world’, as he calls it. First, he thinks this will reinstate the practice of human sacrifices. In Egyptian mythology, the gods had to give birth to the world anew every year, and in this process they exhausted they substance; this required humans to offer sacrifices in order to revitalise the gods so that the moon doesn’t swallow the sun or whatever. This theme of healing/renewal through literal rebirth is a constant in all pagan belief systems across the globe. In Winther’s view (backed by Jung), the Nazis rediscovered the worship of Wotan as the highest deity (Odin is a god of death, a lord of hosts) and it was thus inevitable to sacrifice an other to appease the one-eyed god of the inverted sun. Another critique of pagan revivals is that they do not solve the core problems of modernity – not only Faustian monism, but also moral relativism. According to Nietzscheans, being powerful equates to being good. How are we hoping to defeat Postmodern relativism and the inverted intersectional hierarchy by giving them what they want – some edgy neo-nazee cult boasting about being evil, misogynistic and powerful? Right-wing militias are the left’s preferred foe; as Moldbug put it, this avenue has been sealed shut with a thousand iron locks and only fools and lowlife would dare to attempt it.
Beside this practicality, we don’t want to equate the Good with raw Power; our actions define us and should be judged as good or bad in themselves, not through some virgin consequentialist justification. Leave that to Sam Harris.
Back to Winther – he ultimately rejects Jung’s attempt to reconcile science with the archetypes because it is pseudo-scientific. This synthesis does not do justice to the scientific method (according to which Ego, Self, Anima, animus are not empirically observable and therefore cannot be described or put to the test), neither to the realm of metaphysics, which should not be mixed up with science in the first place.
Winther’s Critique of Erich Neumann
Another unfortunate attempt to marry the two was done by Erich Neumann, who speculated that human consciousness evolves qualitatively in a liniar fashion and that mythological thinking is just a primitive way of dealing with external realities, by projecting the Great Mother on planet Earth, the Divine Father on the Sun and so on. Our savage ancestors were so retarded that they ‘projected’ their psyche on external realities. But luckily, the linear evolution of the psyche tends to turn the unconscious into Ego consciousness, so that now, praise Dawkins, we managed to discover scientific explanations to external phenomena. This evolution is equated with the hero’s quest of turning chaos into order.
Winther understandably criticises Neumann’s approach for being reductionist; unlike Jung, Neumann declares archetypes to be allegories (not symbols) of poorly understood material realities (Jung at least thought that the ultimate nature of reality is incomprehensible, and symbols are the best avenue to express and worship god). So we have yet another example of the negative consequences of a monistic approach, because in his synthesis Neumann not only belittles archetypes, but also comes up with a contrived and bogus scientific model. We know today that evolution is not linear, leading to ever more superior species, but chaotic, like a bush full of extinct branches.
Most essentially – what Monism does (in Neumann, Peterson and partially even Jung) is conflate the Ego with the Hero archetype, leading to pride of the intellect, delusions of grandeur and totalitarian dictators who end up thinking they are literally the Sun god. Read more in Winther’s partially justified critique of Jordan Peterson.
So what is Winther’s solution to Monism? The principle of complementarity, as defined by quantum physicist Niels Bohr. In quantum physics, objects have certain pairs of complementary properties which cannot all be observed or measured simultaneously. You measure the position, you lose the momentum and vice-versa.
There are also scientific models that cannot be reconciled; deterministic and stochastic (random-based) models. Both very useful, but impossible to derive one from the other or reach some middle ground. Rather than seeking a theory of everything, some ultimate principle at the core of existence, scientists (and philosophers) should admit that we might never achieve this; that we should use each theoretical model for pragmatic purposes and admit our fundamental ignorance about the nature of Reality. Prominent scientists like Boltzman, Bohr, Heisenberg and Howard Pattee reached this conclusion.
According to Winther, such is the case with the scientific and archetypal approach. Both are useful and legit approaches, but no one should attempt to reconcile them, as they are non-overlapping magisteria.
“At the limits of science, we have to remove our scientific glasses and put on spiritual glasses, and begin to see the universe differently. Therefore we should endorse the spiritual paradigm equally much as the scientific paradigm, although they are mutually exclusive. According to this dual and complementarian worldview, the spirit retains its transcendent nature, which means that it cannot be observed through our scientific spectacles. So the pagan worldview remains an historical artefact. In the pagan universe spirit and matter were highly commingled. It is connected with a naive frame of mind, which can lead to an obsession with archaic ideas. Esoteric tradition, Neo-Paganism and New Age do not present a solution to the problems of the modern world. The Aztecs, Celts, and the Mycenaeans, are very inspiring and interesting to read about, but the way back to this childlike age is barred. Still, there are people, especially in the Third World, whose psychic economy is truly animistic. Jung and von Franz asserted that medieval people still exist in the European population. Arguably, people of many different frames of mind would be capable of adopting a complementarian worldview” – Complementaris Mundus, M. Winther
Rather than this naive intermingling of spirit and matter, Winther believes the archetypes should be grounded in [neo]Platonism, the only philosophical tradition that retained its coherence and explanatory power. Here you can read more about his ideas.
There is one significant difference between today’s Romantic movement and historical German Romanticism grounded in Kant and Goethe: according to the latter, ‘the human mind is not only a passive recipient of the world surrounding us, but also its creator and law-giver.’ The laws of thinking have the same importance as reality itself, even more – as its sole creator, man is seen as absolute master of the world. ‘Fichte’s argument is: as it is I who think and recognize the world, and as of the thing per se nothing is certain but the fact that I recognize it, this “Ego” is the only thing which is certain.
The whole world, man as well as the external reality, is determined by this Ego alone, and all idea that “the substance of our perceptions might be given from outside” is utterly rejected’ (Roubiczek, idem). In broad terms it can be argued that, in order to reject the naive realism of Anglo-empiricism (the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are), German thinkers adopted critical idealism (the idea that the thinking mind is the only real thing) whose justification not only relies on an inverted acceptance of naive realism, but also leads to an extreme form of solipsism and the rejection of reality.
while Fichte still speaks about an abstract “World-Ego” which could replace God, the Romantics believe only in the individual Ego of every single person, and thus in unlimited individualism. All that matters for them is the real and intoxicating power of achievement of the individual.
“Mind needs nothing but itself . . . for what I recognize as the world is its most beautiful work, its reflected image, created by the mind itself.” Other creatures and objects “exist because we have thought them . . . we are the fate which keeps them in existence.”
This sovereign arbitrariness of the mind is for Romanticism the ultimate good, and in order to maintain it the Romantics try, time and again, to refute all binding laws and everything which might tie them down to earth. The flight from necessity is the common characteristic of all the different and contradictory trends within the Romantic Movement.
In contrast to this approach, contemporary Jungian Romantics deny both naive realism and critical idealism. The ego is only the tip of the iceberg, the chattering voice in the brain insisting on forcefully creating order out of disparate inputs. No one denies the existence of outer reality, matter or scientific laws. The effects of technology, which has allowed all forms of escapism to proliferate, causing people to find meaning in superfluous virtual universes of pure aesthetics and unbounded imagination might be the strongest advocate for critical idealism. We have become so separated from necessity, from a concrete relation with the land and its fruits, that it is easy to fall into Romantic contemplation.