Magazine | July 20, 2015, Issue

Romantic Comity

For reasons that should be obvious (particularly if you’ve already read the rest of this issue of NR), this is not an ideal time to be assigned the task of writing the Happy Warrior column. One needn’t be a passionate opponent of gay marriage, or a fan of the Confederate flag, or much concerned about the accounting techniques of Obamacare to fear that the rule of reason and the authority of law have taken flight, while will and passion sit on the throne, unopposed.

The intellectual in me — homunculus though he may be — wants to say that we are living in a Romantic moment. I do not mean in the Hollywood sense, but in the philosophical. Isaiah Berlin argued that Romanticism represented

a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.

Berlin saw Romanticism as a counter-Enlightenment, a rebellion against the new order. Newtonian physics, the philosophes, the triumph of reason, the universal rights of man, and, perhaps most of all, commercial progress: These were the bars of the cage trapping man’s animal spirit.

Tim Blanning, in his wonderful The Romantic Revolution, says it all began when Jean-Jacques Rousseau spotted an advertisement for an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon, on the question “Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?”

As with an essay contest one might find at the Yale student-life bulletin board on the question “Has diversity made us stronger?” the organizers simply assumed everyone would answer in the affirmative. But Rousseau went the other way. Modernity was evil, artificial, and corrupting, he realized in an epiphany; it alienated man from all that was good in him. Hence, it was the duty of artists and intellectuals to rebel against the straitjacket of the Enlightenment and pursue authenticity at all costs.

Well, not exactly at all costs. Few Romantics actually rejected modern commercial civilization. Instead they made quite a hefty profit from it, exploiting the unease of the times (and quite often making some timeless art). Rather than put their money where their mouths were, they put their mouths where the money was. It turned out that a great many of the rich and well-to-do like nothing more than being told how rotten they are and how they must throw off their chains.

Where I part company with the intellectuals is the emphasis on intellectuals. Romanticism was a human response to relentless change. Indeed, the period was arguably the most culturally tumultuous era in the history of Western civilization up until that time. But that had more to do with the printing press and the cotton gin than with the musings of Gottfried Herder or Rousseau. It seems to me that the intellectuals were responding to the times far more than they were creating them (eggheads always love to think the causality works the other way).

And here’s the thing: The pace of change has never really abated, at least not for very long. And all one has to do is look around to see the same game with different players. Oliver Stone is not going hungry by denouncing Western civilization and insisting that capitalism is evil. Peter Singer tells us it’s okay to kill babies but not cows — and he lives quite well as a result. Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, may feel oppressed by the pale penis people, but she has not been impoverished by them. Lady Gaga is constantly trying to break with convention — at a time when conventions are paper-thin. And let us not revisit Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and other contemporary efforts to throw off “old and cramping forms” in passionate pursuit of authenticity and other unattainable goals.

The late James Q. Wilson once remarked that the West’s story since the Enlightenment has been that of a battle between self-expression and self-control. That battle runs through the human heart, of course (which is why so many blood-and-soil European conservatives were champions of the counter-Enlightenment). Indeed, one major problem is that so many elites, who often become elites by virtue of their self-control, love the moral and psychological buzz of championing self-expression. 

So where does one find good cheer in all of this?

Well, for starters, in the fact that in the long run the forces of self-control tend to win. And by win, I mean they live happier and more fulfilled lives. The old T-shirt about how the guy with the most stuff when he dies “wins” was always nonsense. The bourgeois lifestyle may never be cool, but it is more satisfying in the most meaningful sense. Faith, family, relationships, and a feeling of earned success through hard work are the keys to a fulfilling life. And, not by accident, the bourgeois habits of self-control tend to yield the most economic success as well.

What happens in Washington matters, but Washington can’t take away your beliefs. It can only make it harder for you to act on them and more difficult for the poor and the alienated to change their ways. That fact creates the need for a political fight, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be happy in the fight. That’s because the real joys in life don’t come from politics at all. And, besides, being a happy warrior is the best way to rally others to your banner. Few armies want to rally around the generals who pronounce surrender or doom before the next battle.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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