Our Romantic Moment

Henry Fuseli’s Romantic horror masterpiece The Nightmare (1781)

Ours is a culture lush in Romanticism, but to grasp it we need to know what it was a reaction against: the European Enlightenment. [1] The Enlightenment began in full force in the 18th century. It was best defined by Immanuel Kant as man’s liberation from his self-imposed slavery to external religious authorities like God and the Bible and the church.[2] Man in his reason and experience was now positioned as the measure of all things. But it was collective man as the measure. In other words, Enlightenment held up shared human reason and experience as the final authorities. Enlightenment thinkers would talk a great deal about human reason. They meant reason that all people shared. If everybody could just put aside their prejudices and private opinions, we could all arrive at the rational truth. Reason was the same for everybody, if we could just access it and rely on it. We would then agree on religion (a rational but anti-supernatural religion, like Deism), as well as science, education, politics, and the nature of man himself. Man’s reason is (or can be) neutral and arrive at the truth without divine revelation.

This rationalism produced a cold, sterile world, and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Romanticism emerged as a reaction.[3] Romanticism didn’t like the idea of universal or shared reason and experience. It wanted to champion what was unique about every individual, not what humanity had in common. Romanticism is the first wholesale movement of individualism in world history. The really important thing was individual thinking, feelings, emotions, desires, and interpretations, not what all humans shared. Historians call this “the inward turn”; it’s a turning point in Western history. Objective truth outside us is no longer important, whether that truth is God or the Bible or the church or creeds or shared human reason or experience. The most significant thing in life is my inner, subjective life. This is the source of the “cult of authenticity.” [4] Before the 19th century, the right kind of life was determined by how you conformed to the Bible or to nature or to reason or experience. But after Romanticism, the best life was the life in which you live out what you’re privately believing and feeling. This is the “authentic” life. The “inauthentic” people try to please God or their parents or friends or the wider society’s expectations. The authentic people are “true to themselves.” They “follow their heart.”

Romanticism is the first wholesale movement of individualism in world history

This is the temptation the serpent offered to Eve in the Garden. “If you eat the forbidden fruit, you’ll know good and evil. You will become one of the gods, one of heaven’s great court.[5] You’ll see the world as only a god can see the world.[6] You’ll have a god’s-eye view of the universe. You’ll have a depth of knowledge that allows you to rise above mere humanity. You are the final arbiter.” Today that temptation would include among the churched: If you want to engage in premarital sex, that’s the new rule. If you decide to date an unbeliever, who’s to tell you differently? When you turn 18 years old, you can leave the church if you want: who has a right to dictate to you? If you’re a young lady and want dress in sexually provocative ways, that’s your choice and nobody else’s. If you’re young man and you lust for pornography, it won’t hurt anybody, and nobody else can decide for you. If this church and God stuff seems so unreal, why do you have to bow to it? “I’ll live my own life.” This is Romanticism in the church. Its roots are in the Garden of Eden.

We’ve gotten where we are today by gradually shedding all external authorities. When Kant said that Enlightenment is man’s coming of age by shedding external authority, he could never have envisioned today’s self-autonomy: sexting, juvenile profanity, teenage abortion, “sex-reassignment surgery” (correction: “gender-affirmation surgery”), and other reprehensible practices. But when we throw off authority — particularly God’s authority — there’s no barrier to anything being permitted.

When we throw off authority — particularly God’s authority — there’s no barrier to anything being permitted.

The Enlightenment idolized humanity in its collective sense: universal human reason and experience. Romanticism and its child postmodernism idolize every individual human in his own uniqueness. The fact that this leads to fatal inner self-contradictions hasn’t yet impeded the Romantics. For example, free speech is under attack on our university campuses. Why? Because students believe that have a right not to be offended. Other people must be restrained from saying things that offend me. But what about my speech? Shouldn’t I be allowed to express my opinion? If that opinion isn’t an acceptable, politically correct opinion, the answer is no, you may not. The same is true of gay pride parades. These gays think they have a right to be homosexual exhibitionists. But what about the right of parents and children who happen to be downtown at the time. Don’t they have a right not to be exposed to such depravity? And similarly artistic speech. An apostate artist claims the right to depict and display great acts of sexual debauchery or blaspheme, like a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. Does he have that right of artistic autonomy? If so, do I have the right not to be exposed to it? This is how radical human autonomy leads to inner contradictions. Today’s autonomous Romanticism can’t account for the inevitable conflict between the expressions of autonomy, or the autonomy or rights of others.

For this reason and others, some have predicted that today’s culture war will become a civil war.[7] The conflict is basically between the Christian, or-Christian-influenced, vision of culture on the one hand, and the Romantic view of culture on the other. The battle is whether we as a culture will return to God’s ways revealed in his word, or charge along the path of worshipping man and his radical individualistic autonomy. 

One thing is certain: there can be no compromise between the two.


[1] Peter Gay, The Age of Enlightenment (New York: Time-Life, 1966).

[2] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html, accessed July 6, 2018.

[3] Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[4] Charles Guignon, Being Authentic (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 49–77.

[5] Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis, A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 91.

[6] Robert S. Candlish, Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1866 reprint), 1:64–65.

[7] Angelo M. Codevilla, “The Cold Civil War,” Claremont Review of Books, Vol. XVII, No. 2 [Spring 2017], 24–27

2 thoughts on “Our Romantic Moment

  1. Yes it’s where we are today. Truth will stand, even now people are waking up to the fact doing whatever we want is not bringing anywhere near the satisfaction we thought it would.

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