This week we looked at Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic movement. Last week in our examination of the Enlightenment, we said that it both built upon the past (Scientific Revolution) and reacted against it (Louis XIV’s Versailles). So Romanticism both reacted against the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and built upon its rejection of current society.
We think of the Romantics praising the virtues of emotion, but we should not interpret the word ’emotion’ in a narrow sense. Rousseau focused more on our ‘gut,’ or our ‘inner man.’ For Romantics society itself was humanity’s enemy. All of its trappings, like wigs, crevattes, five-fork dinners, etc. put a ridiculous husk over the kernel of our true selves. Anyone who ever felt uncomfortable among the wine and cheese set, for example, can identify with at least some of what Rousseau preached. Manners and mores, if taken too far, can be elitist, exclusionary, and anti-human. When we consider that the picture to the left depicted actual hairstyles as worn by aristocratic ladies, we begin to identify with what the Romantics advocated. Rousseau wanted to return to what was “natural.” It makes sense, then, that one of his main causes involved getting mothers to breast feed their own children, rather than handing them over to wet-nurses.
Rousseau and the Romantics wanted to free people from society to live as they were truly meant to live.
For them, mankind need not fear logic and reason, but instead needed to realize that they do not come first in human development. We add them later, whereas our emotions arise naturally from within us from the very start. Reason, on the other hand, must be imposed from without. So our ‘guts’ are better guides to behavior than our reason.
From a Christian perspective one can say that God gave both emotion and reason, and that both can guide us to truth. We come back to the idea of truth in tension. Unfortunately we see the abandonment of this tension in Rousseau, who thought for example, that the tragic Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment against cities. C.S. Lewis’ famous essay “Men Without Chests” makes the point that, as valuable as our heads and our guts are, they need the “Chest” to act as a moral mediator. Separated from right moral guidance, both emotion and reason turn tyrant. Jonah Goldberg has a humorous but insightful take on what happens when men are left to their own devices here. When the forces of Enlightenment and Romanticism combined and then turned against each other in the French Revolution, the results would be less humorous.
Like the Enlightenment movement, the Romantics were on to at least a part of something. One example of this is the idea of breastfeeding. For centuries women in the elite of society considered it “vulgar” to breastfeed their own children and farmed them out to wet-nurses. One of the first goals of the “Romantic” movement was to get women to see that what was “natural” in this case was good. What could be more “unnatural” than the separation of mother and infant child? And yet, such practices persisted.
The problem of course lay in how one defined “natural.” If every “natural” thing has a direct moral imperative, then we must define “natural” very carefully. Like the Enlightenment then, the Romantics did not see the world or humanity as basically fallen, and this would bring forth terrible consequences in due course.
We looked at the tragic case of Louis XVI. In him we have a good man who, in turbulent times, lacked the foresight to be a good king. As a French king, he probably thought that supporting the Americans against the British was just something that French kings do. But Louis’ aid to the colonies, which involved people trying to overthrow a monarchy, can be compared to bringing the kudzu plant to the U.S. You are importing your own destruction, though Louis likely did not see this, just as we did not with the infamous plant. When an idea (like some plants) gets transplanted away from its native soil the results may be much different than we anticipated.
As the official diplomat to Paris, Ben Franklin knew exactly what chord to strike with the French. He knew that the French idealized the Americans as fulfilling Rousseau’s dream of living close to nature, and milked that as much as possible. To the left is a famous portrait of Rousseau, and the outfit Franklin donned for his portrait in France while on a diplomatic mission.
Louis attempted to enact many helpful reforms, and this makes his tragedy more poignant. Many have the mistaken idea that France rebelled against a decrepit regime bent on maintaining the status quo at all costs. In fact, many philosophes felt that France had the perfect king for the times. Louis worked hard at fiscal responsibility. He abandoned much of the waste and foolishness of Versailles. He avidly patronized the sciences, and founded the first known school anywhere for the blind. France did not rebel against a king who refused to change, they rebelled against a king who tried hard to modernize France. We shall have to unpack the significance of this later when we look at his trial under the Revolutionary government.
Usually no matter how often we criticize our Presidents we profess admiration for our First Ladies. Not so in France. Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was hated almost from the moment she set foot in the country. Many stood against her from the very start, but her actions, innocent though many may have been did not help her cause.
Strike one against Marie.
Marie was desperate to please. So, if the above picture showed how high-born ladies should wear their hear, she would do one better. She wore this hairstyle (the picture is accurate, not satirical) to commemorate a French naval victory. The French, with their vicious eye for taste, could easily detect when someone tries too hard.
So, as the Romantic movement gained acceptance, the pendulum swung the other way. Marie eagerly dove headfirst into the new style. She would be “simple.” She asked Louis to build her a special estate where she and her friends could pretend to be farm girls and feed sheep, milk cows, and so on. Again, Marie seems to be “trying too hard” to almost ludicrous proportions.
Her friend Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted the famous portrait of her to the left.
This new image would surely work, right? In this portrait she was elegantly simple, just as Rousseau would want her. Marie very much hopedInstead, once again the French detected desperation, someone who obviously was not “natural.” “You are queen of France. Act like one, dress like one!” the French seemed to say. Marie did not figure out how to act like a queen to anyone’s liking, perhaps not even her own.
When Marie finally had children, she settled down, and enjoyed her role as a mother. But much damage had already been done. Part of this damage stemmed from the personality differences between Louis and Marie. Introverted Louis never liked parties, and used any excuse to retire early (one source indicates that Marie purposely set Louis’ clocks ahead in hopes of having Louis retire even earlier). Once Louis left, Marie felt like she could cut loose, and played cards and danced the night away. Much of this behavior was very likely innocent, but it raised many eyebrows, and rumors flew. Louis, did what any wealthy, decent, and befuddled husband might do and bought her lots of expensive things. Marie got the blame for this, not Louis. In time various epitaphs floated around France, including, “The Austrian Whore,” and “Madame Deficit.” Marie could never understand the impact of her actions, and how important image was to her success in politics.
Next week we will see Louis lose control of events in the French Revolution, and how France’s abandonment of what Lewis called “the chest” would wreak terrible havoc.