The Legacy of the Enlightenment and Romantic Movements: Science, Religion, and the pursuit of The Whole.

With the exception of the emergence of Greek thought and its Judeo-Christian counterpart, perhaps no other historical legacies have been so deeply felt or so firmly embedded in Western thought as those of the Enlightenment and Romantic movements.

The rational, scientific, and highly individualistic thought which blossomed during the Enlightenment had a huge influence on the spheres of science, industry, religion, and government, paving the way for new possibilities with potentially less suffering, ignorance, superstition, physical toil, and inequality. Moreover, in terms of accumulating knowledge, The Enlightenment creed, “dare to know,” gave us a valuable tool against dogmatism, encouraging us to question, challenge, and think freely about the world around us.

On the other hand, the Romantic movement, which in many ways was opposed to Enlightenment rationalism, reminded us of the value of emotion, imagination, personal experience, culture, art, and spirituality. It reminded us that the whole of human experience encompasses much more than just facts and data, and reassured us that there is nothing inherently shameful about nostalgia, mystery, religion, or the sacred.

However, the tragedy is that today is that the legacies of these movements – both in popular media and in popular intellectual and spiritual circles – are continually pitted against each other, portrayed as irreconcilable and separate entities – as dissonances rather than harmonies that complement the human experience.

For example, while The Enlightenment’s legacy of scientific and rational thought is often fully embraced and extolled by what is deemed the “secular” or “rational” camp composed of scientists, secular humanists, and atheists, this same tradition is often reviled and berated by the “religious” or “spiritual” camps belonging to people of faith, imagination, and deep spirituality.

Similarly, while the Romantic movement’s legacy of feeling, imagination, and spirituality is fully embraced by the “religious” or “spiritual” camp, it is rejected wholesale by people who identify as “secular” or “rational.” Therefore, in a sad sort of way, we seem to be receding further into the past, and with each step backward we risk becoming what Bertrand Russell would describe as individual cities at war with each other rather than “citizens of the universe.”

It is quite ironic then, in my view, that the two movements are not only compatible with each other, but are ultimately reliant on each other. To use a metaphor, they are not, as they are often presented, two poles of a magnet, but are rather two sides of the same coin in terms of the way they relate to each other. They are inherently complementary, not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the truth of this fact is most clearly seen when we take a closer look at the intended goals of both Enlightenment and Romantic thought.

The similarity and the irony of both movements, it seems, is that each strives for a kind of wholeness or completeness in its own way, but can never possibly hope to achieve this – at least not by itself. The purely Romantic person, like the traveler in Wordsworth’s “A Night Piece,” Or like Keats in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” are only able achieve momentary escape from the gloomy individual realities they inhabit before being rudely thrown back into the real world where they are faced with their mortal, individual selves.

It is in escaping from or transcending the individual self that Romantic strives to feel, experience, or otherwise achieve a kind of oneness or wholeness of existence – something akin to Plotinus’ conception of “The One,” Schleiermacher’s concept of the “Whole,” Or of the Hindu concept of “Brahman” – all of which are infinite and eternal. The goal of the Romantic, therefore, is to escape and transcend the individual self by attempting to reach or touch what is beyond the self, thereby feeling or experiencing the wholeness or fullness of spiritual life, which is simply to realize the self as part of a whole that eclipses the individual self: an admission that one is part of something greater. It is a constant striving for totality; something Plato would characterize as a longing to grasp the spiritual “whole of things.”

On the other hand, someone in the Enlightenment tradition (someone like Kant or Hume, for example) constantly strives to achieve an accumulation of knowledge – a totality of facts rather than a totality of feeling or experience. This is done primarily through embracing the individual self via acts of individual observation, analysis, testing, evaluation, and reflection. In this sense, the Enlightened person’s goal is to constantly think, discover, and re-evaluate ourselves in relation to the world around us.

This helps ensure that we are perpetually updating the idea of what what it means to be an individual with respect to the physical world, and that we are always seeking to more clearly distinguish the self from what it is not. However, as the old adage goes, “The more you see, the less you know.” Just as the Romantic cannot completely dissolve the self and feel the whole of spiritual existence, neither can the Enlightened person, by embracing and perfecting the knowledge of the self, achieve or experience the totality of knowledge: the intellectual “whole of things.”

Given that neither the Enlightenment nor Romantic tradition can allow us to achieve emotional or intellectual “wholeness,” respectively, – assuming that is even a goal which can be realized – I argue that the combined influence of these seemingly opposite movements, when put into practice, can get us closer to achieving this goal than if we opted for only one of them. This is because, I believe, our ability to imagine, feel, express, and ultimately connect with the spiritual “whole” of existence directly correlates with and depends upon our factual knowledge of the self and of the physical world that surrounds us. Simply put, “[we] can’t be what [we] can’t see,” so we need both knowledge and imagination to get us there.

In fact, many well-known atheists such as Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, and Neil Degrasse Tyson speak about the ability of new knowledge to open doors to experiencing the same kind of momentary “wholeness” or “oneness” that religious mystics speak about. However, perhaps nowhere is this idea more clearly and appropriately expressed than in the works of Albert Einstein and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Though separated by history, profession, and worldview (Einstein was a Pantheist scientist who denied a personal god, and Schleiermacher was a Christian theologian), they somehow both managed to arrive at similar conclusions regarding both the idea of religion and science.

Strangely enough, both Einstein and Schleiermacher thought that religion – that is, the emotional, imaginative, and inspirational quality of feeling – is not only compatible with science, but works best when paired with it. This idea is mentioned in Schleiermacher’s first speech from On Religion in which he encourages the fusion of science and religion: “Where you see science without religion, be sure it is transferred, learned up from another.” Similarly, Einstein famously remarks in one of his essays that, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Of course, one important qualification that I need to make here – and which Einstein also makes – is that this harmony of science and religion only works when religion sticks to the realm of belief and avoids the realm of fact. If religion can remain undogmatic and accepting of new knowledge, however, there is no inherent conflict.

While some expressions of the divine – New Earth Creationism, for example – could never pass the test of being compatible with science because it makes factual claims about the physical world, I see no reason why belief in a personal god – or any other expression of the divine – would be inherently incompatible with this notion of science and religion, as long as it avoids factual claims about physical reality. However, even assuming we all accept this “grown-up” or mature version of religion, one still might respond, “Well that’s all fine and good in theory, but what does this actually look like in practice?” “What does it mean for science to borrow from religion and religion to borrow from science?”

For one example of how science can and does borrow from religion, one only needs to consult Neil Degrasse Tyson’s essay, “The Cosmic Perspective.” Throughout the essay, Tyson demonstrates the scientific tradition of the Enlightenment by providing what he calls “ego softeners” in the form of facts intended to illustrate the insignificance and powerlessness of humans when compared with the sheer vastness of the universe: “There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.” In this way, Tyson focuses his energy on describing the individual self in relation to the universe while simultaneously revealing the fruits of scientific knowledge.

However, rather than concluding in cold, scientific fashion that human beings are therefore not very interesting arrangements of atoms which must feel bad for being so small and unimportant, Tyson does instead borrows from the sphere of feeling and imagination which is the core of religious thought: “Th[is] cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.”

The operative word here is “kinship” – a word which bridges the gap between fact and feeling. This allows Tyson to not only describe the universe is, but to describe what it is like to feel connected to it and be a part of it. Similarly, in another passage, Tyson also remarks that, “We are not simply in the universe. The universe is in us.” This latter passage, specifically, both parallels and harkens back to Schleiermacher’s idea that, “The sum total of religion is to feel that, in its highest unity, all that moves us in feeling is one.” In this way, I argue that religion – much like Russell’s view of philosophy – has a kind of humanizing effect on the sciences by both informing and enhancing the depth of our feelings and the morality of our actions.

Alternatively, to provide a case illustrating how religion borrows from and is made better by science, one only need look at how the views within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church have evolved since the scientific revolution of the 16th century. Indeed, once facts such as the reality of the heliocentric solar system, the big bang, and evolution were introduced and eventually accepted by the Church, this opened the door to a fuller, richer and grander kind of spirituality which necessarily expanded the believer’s conception of who or what God is, and thus created the potential for new ways of religious worship, expression, and ways of relating to or experiencing the divine.

Furthermore, the more the influence of scientific knowledge on religion grows, the more it increases the chances that our future understandings, expressions of, and ways of relating to the divine will be positive rather than negative, selfless rather than selfish, and harmless rather than harmful. Therefore, instead of opting for a fundamentalist, “god of the gaps,” attitude toward the divine in which God inhabits an increasingly smaller area of the universe, our idea of God necessarily should grow and expand in tandem with our knowledge of the universe.

The real problem isn’t that religion has no place in civilized society, but rather that many of our current versions of religion have no place in civilized society. It isn’t that religion itself is inherently bad or useless, but rather that our preferred tools for interpreting, understanding, and relating to the divine are outdated, incompatible, and ill-suited for purposes of the present. In the same way that we wouldn’t view the practices of human or animal sacrifice as morally acceptable ways of spiritually communing with the divine today, we shouldn’t look to the literal or rigidly dogmatic interpretations of ancient texts to provide us with solutions to today’s moral and spiritual problems.

In the end, it’s clear that the more science borrows from religion, and the more religion borrows from science, the better off we are individually and collectively. To completely embrace either the rational or emotional at the expense of the other, or to cling solely to either the individual self or the not-self is to miss out on the richness and complexity of life by intentionally limiting our ability to know and experience it.

Therefore, by tapping into and drawing from the dual wells of reason and emotion; science and religion; fact and imagination, we essentially draw from our own history, and from the important legacies of the Enlightenment and Romantic movements. In doing so, we move ever closer to achieving the “whole” of human experience, and the more fully human we become.

Works Cited:

de Grasse Tyson, Neil, and James Ferguson. “The cosmic perspective.”Natural History 116.3 (2007): 22.

Einstein, Albert. “Religion and science.” (1930).

Ferrari, Giovanni RF, and Tom Griffith. Plato:’The Republic’. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Russell, Bertrand. The problems of philosophy. OUP Oxford, 2001.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On religion: Speeches to its cultured despisers. K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, Limited, 1893.


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