The power of the individual: The American Enlightenment and Romanticism

April 25, 2007 by aaron

During the 18th century, scientific and social changes reshaped the concept of the self. The individual slowly separated from the collective and began to develop as an antithesis of the collective agrarian society of prior centuries; thus, giving rise to a wave of new philosophical thought that evolved into the popular movement of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment developed around the belief that scientific thought and expression should be free from religious interference and that the foundations of society should be human reason and logic. Over time, these ideals gave rise to Romanticism which introduced the contrast of nature and the self, the internal desires, feelings and beliefs, and juxtaposed Nature with science. Franklin, Poe and Thoreau each represent one of the three popular faces of Enlightenment and Romanticism: Franklin, a well-respected Enlightenment writer, focused his writings on the improvement of the social order through improvement of the self and the realization of a deistic world; Thoreau, an Emersonian or “bright” Romantic, merged Nature with science and allowed for both to work simultaneously while emphasizing the individual’s ability to remove themselves from the flow of society; Poe, a “dark” romantic, wrote mainly on the way the individual views his world and the way the nature of the mind can recreate the world. While they tended to disagree on the specifics, they each agreed that the inner self was more powerful than the external self, and through self inspection a person could change their world and become the purveyor of order in the universe replacing religion, monarchy “” and to some extent “” God.

Arguably the most important “power” that these writers attributed to the individual was the individual’s right to power over their own beings. The ability to self-determine one’s destiny was not only necessary to the underpinnings of enlightenment, but it was also necessary to advance society as a whole. By allowing individuals to have power over their individual being, they became their own masters: no longer subjected by the whims of a larger society. As an illustration of these principles, once released from the tenets of religion, Benjamin Franklin “conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (364). By believing in the power of the self and the equality of men he accomplished this without requiring a higher moral authority , Franklin defined his own moral perfection and strove to achieve it. The power the individual has over the self is absolute, but as Poe warns, this can be used for ill: in Poe’s tale of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” his protagonist envisions the world around him through the filter of his own demented mind. The conflicts in the character’s internal self become so profuse that he projects them externally and creates an old man whose eye haunts him, and he is eventually undone when he fails to recognize the beatings of his own heart. This absolute power is both the greatest curse and privilege of the Enlightenment and Romantic views of the self, so rather than leaving this power unchecked, they emphasized the power of Nature as both the antithesis to the self and the guide of the self.

Even though the release from mortal authority and the servitude of religion was central to the Enlightenment, they did not banish the Deities. Instead they either personified deities as part of the natural world which allowed the individual the opportunity to be “part or particle of God” (Emerson, 657) or defined the deities as separate from the world and as a creator but not a participatory member of the universe. Franklin was one of the original Deisitic writers in American Literature, and believed in the separation of religion from God because of the oppressive and meddlesome nature of churches which mixed their theology “with other Articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us & make us unfriendly to one another” (Franklin, 363). As Romantic writing developed it moved the Enlightened Deity from the role of creator into the natural world by blending the deity into Nature and science. This natural view of God continued the deistic way of thinking, and removed much of the remaining power of the organized churches allowing people to find and define their own personal church, and while some created cathedrals out of mountains and trees, others made theirs out of numbers, facts and figures creating the first conflicts between the mystical nature and the exacting sciences.

While the individual had the power to determine their own personal beliefs, some found that they were still oppressed by things they could not control: science became increasingly important, and to some, this was as oppressive as the monarchs and gods of the past. Their objection was that in becoming the absolute authority, science created a monochromatic image of the world which stifled the individual’s ability to perceive the world around him for what he believed it was; however, others quickly realized that science allowed them to open their eyes and see the world both as it was and how it could be. Poe and Thoreau, in a clash between bright and dark romanticism, viewed science differently with the more middle-of-the-road approach being attributed to to the bright romantics. In Poe’s “Sonnet “” to Science” he attacks the mundane aspects of science and refers to it as a “Vulture! whose wings are dull realities” (1223), but Thoreau, in his journals, embraces science, but believes that one can only truly appreciate something when one “forget[s] all [their] learning and get[s] rid of what is called knowledge”. Poe believes that the science accosts his creativity and stifles his ability to be an individual and exercise his hard-won individualism, but Thoreau is capable of independently appreciating nature even if his opinions are invalidated by science because he believes that his power over his own perceptions is absolute, so balancing the science with the mystery of Nature and the joy of poetic expression is not difficult him or other “bright” romantics. These two different views of science are brought about by the way the writers treat science: Poe personified science and held it blamable rather than as a tool, but Thoreau treats science as a tool and because of this, he is able to cast it aside when it is unnecessary while Poe’s creations and imaginings are constantly surrounded, attacked and restrained by a personified science which replaces the monarchs and gods. For writers of similar beliefs to Poe, this restriction by science was contrary to the ideals of Romanticism, and created a stumbling block that hemmed in the powers of the individual.

The only restrictions on the individual, other than the perception of a restrictive science and or those self-imposed, were the restrictions of society itself. These societal restrictions are not the same as the restrictions of a Monarch, but are the attempts of society to control the individual and harness their powers for the good of society itself. To the Romantics, this acceptance of societal pressures was a sort of voluntary defeat which according to some, like Thoreau, was necessary because not all were capable of fully controlling their own lives (820). Thoreau believed that most people spent their lives “sleeping” only using their minds for menial pursuits and living lives “of quiet desperation” (813). However, while Thoreau allowed for control of these sleepers, he believed that should a man wish to remove themselves from the societal order, they should be allowed to: regardless of its effects on the society itself. Thus, the individual is simultaneously an integral component of society, but also transcends such mean concerns when it is necessary for the individual to exercise their powers of reason, imagination, logic and creation.

The writers of the the Enlightenment and Romantic period defined the individual as the reasoning and logical self which interacts with the larger external world, and the powers they attributed to their creation were immense, but they tempered the powers of the individual with the power and mystery of nature. This individualistic view of the self replaced the mean collectivism of European society and formed the foundation of modern perceptions of the individual.

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