Reacting to the Enlightenment: The Conservative Backlash

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich. In the wake of the liberal, rational revolution, spurred on by the Enlightenment, many looked with regret upon a world stripped of its mysticism, a mysticism Freidrich looks to recapture in this seminal piece, completed in 1818.

As the new liberal ideology expanded across the continent, celebrating the empirical, the rational, and the scientific as forces that would liberate humanity from the inequities and superstitions of the past, a growing number of thinkers, poets, philosophers, and conservative moralists began to question its spiritual implications. English conservative elements looked across the Channel to the bloodshed and chaos of the French Revolution, and saw not a dashing of feudal oppression, but reason turned on its head: violence, revolution, hysteria. Others looked with disdain upon the growing world of urban industrial production, factory labor, and environmental destruction, which had been justified by a rhetoric of dominance over the natural world enabled through reason. In a world where all things are empirically knowable, where everything is simply sensation impressed upon a blank, malleable mind, as Locke’s watershed Essay on Human Understanding boldly claimed, there is little impetus to view the human as a subject, or beauty as something transcendent. The human is nothing but an instrument in a larger natural machine that can be modelled, charted, and graphed through universal formulae. Beauty is nothing but a normative evaluation of a particular coalescence of matter and form. The mysticism of the premodern was effectively killed by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and many found this transition abhorrent. These critics would diverge into a number of critical streams, but in totality would form what we now refer to as the Conservative reaction to the Enlightenment.

Edmund Burke and English Conservatism

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the French Revolution was English writer Edmund Burke, who in his tract, Reflections on the Revolution in France lambastes the liberal Enlightenment project. He posits, anticipating the work of the Frankfurt School in the 20th Century, that a blind faith in reason as a universal, normative standard to which we all must aspire, in fact gives rise to unreason; that the wholesale rejection of traditional structures of hierarchy and power leads not to universal liberation and a new utopian reality, but to the violent and bloody destruction of civil society.

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Patrician Conservatism

Related to Burke’s critique of the Revolution is another strain of conservative thought. Patrician conservatism refers to a rather a-political form of conservatism, based more upon a lamentation for the collapse of social hierarchy and aristocratic privilege than upon political discourses. Weinberg (1995), citing Theodore Lowi, defines patrician conservatism as one based upon the premodern privilege of certain intellectual and power elites. Pre-modern, feudal society was deeply and irrevocably stratified, with serfs committed to their lords, lords to the whims of their kings, and all to the authority of the medieval Catholic Church. This rigid hierarchy was seen as divinely instituted, and offered immense power to those in its upper echelons. However, with the discourse of liberalism, which valorized the natural rights of the individual, the equality of all humans, and the ability to self-fashion through the application of reason in the physical world, the premodern hierarchy was radically unsettled. In a lecture posted below, Courtenay Raina of UCLA references the “Ancien Regime,” a French term given to old guard European, patrician society; the intellectual and power elites whose unquestioned authority over the plebeian masses was swept away by the tide of liberalism. Writers from this strain were quick to criticize not the political consequences of the Enlightenment, but the moral and personal consequences; the collapse of the allegedly transcendent, divine natural order of man that granted the nobility, aristocracy, monarchy, and clergy authority over the general population.

The Romantics and the Counter-Enlightenment

Burke’s critique of reason and rationality as instruments of a new liberal ideology was couched in predominantly political language. While he did hint at some spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, such as his faith in a “human heart-” centered government, and a belief in the divine right of kings, rarely did he attempt to explore the realm of the sensual or the spiritual in any significant way. This is curious, as one of the components of daily life that empiricism effectively forces out of the social consciousness is any kind of mysticism, spirituality, or appreciation of the aesthetic.  This gap in the conservative critique, however, was taken up and explored in great detail by the Romantics.

The Romantics looked upon the rationalized vision of the world forged by the Enlightenment with a deep disdain. The universe, modelled by the Deists, had become mechanical, metaphorically rendered as a clock; nothing but an elaborate system of gears and wheels driven by contact physics. The brutal reductionism of such a world view was not lost on people like Goethe, whose romantic Sorrows of a Young Werther chronicled a deep, spiritual, sensual life beyond the reach of reason. Werther tells the story of a young lover, fated to be separate from his beloved due to circumstance. His internal tumult conquers his will to live, and he takes his own life for love. As Courtenay Raina notes in the lecture below, based on the conclusions of the Enlightenment philosophes, such a tale is absurd. In a rational, mechanical universe, the only compulsion a human has is to stay alive as long as possible, to meet his or her material needs. In a purely rational world view, there is little room for passion, sensuality, and the irrationality of emotion. Goethe, however, boldly asserts in Sorrows, that rationality is not absolute, that not everything about man and nature is reducible to “atoms crashing together in a void.”

Authors such as Goethe and Shelley, poets such as Wordsworth and Blake, and composers such as Rossini and von Weber became the heroes of the Romantic movement; the philosophes of the sensual realm. For the Romantics, art and the moment of inspired creation is the closest man can come to the perfection of nature, as nature is constantly in a state of creation, destruction, and reinvention according to a perfect, essential life force, beyond the reductive and dissociative logic of reason.

Black (2002) provides an excellent summary of the romantic valorization of the aesthetic and the sensual:

In the romantic universe, the aesthetic function of communication is the highest human faculty. By this “aesthetic” model of communication, the romantics meant the ability to create words and pictures that represent the mind’s own experience of reality, rather than seek the mere mimetic duplicate of that reality which empiricism prefers. In an empirically unknowable world, words and images assume the condition of art. It was the aesthetic that offered the only hope of reconciling a subject with an objective world town apart by modernity. Art was essential to Bildung, or cultural formation, by which the romantics meant the development of a person’s creative and spiritual powers. A community devoted to such actualization through art was restored to the autonomy and human potential it had lost as rationality pervaded life.

For a sample of Romantic-era music, listen to Franz Schubert’s Quartetsatz, performed by the US Army String Orchestra. Note the swells, shifting time signatures, and tumultuous aesthetic structure. This is a music that aligns itself with the vision of the world as beautiful, singular, but also potentially threatening, turgid, and empirically unknowable.

Romanticism took its impetus largely from the rise of rational society, tied up with which was an incipient capitalism, which by the 19th century, bolstered by the rapid expansion of industrialism and mechanization, had drawn many parts of every day life into its dominion. The brutality of factory work, the rigidity of waged labour and time discipline, and the commodification of human creativity proved troubling for a number of thinkers. What they saw was a system carrying out an ideological, symbolic, and literal program of violence, dismemberment, and atomization. Drawing influence from the Romantics and their critique of a new industrial system, but deeply politicizing this argument by combining it with a scathing criticism of the implicit violence of capitalism and the inequality it breeds within a culture, a new group of theorists emerged from the backlash against the Enlightenment- the socialists.

For a discussion of life under the new industrial reality, and its bridge to the new Socialist thinkers, namely Marx and Engels (who will be discussed in detail in the next two posts), watch this lecture on life in 19th-Century Europe by Lynn Hunt of UCLA history.


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All UCLA resources used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported license. All attribution goes to the source, at:

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