The Romantic Era vs. The Enlightenment: The Ultimate Antithesis When we think back to the romantic era and the enlightenment, we create images of old philosophers and writers in the glow of a lamp trekking the way to the beliefs we rely on now by the edge of their pen. The noted people who started the ideals of America such as Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau promoted equality for men, the free market, and that fact that we are created by our experiences. Perhaps we imagine those who blew our minds with novels like Walden, and Frankenstein by bringing in revolutionary themes through revolutionary genres.
Although the 18th and 19th century and the notable people of the era may seem so distant in our past, we owe so much to the metaphysical journey they endured and the ideals we highly rely on. The reality is that even though both periods had an impactful impression on history; they have more differences than similarities and the romantic era is the antithesis of the enlightenment due to their belief in the way to find truth in the world, their outlook on society and the individual, and the way they went about their work and life.
Before I dive into the differences of the two eras, there are a few similarities between them. The first is that the purpose of both of the eras was to discover the meaning of the world that they lived in. The world was open for endless possibilities to discover what we are here for and what we should fight for and the enlightenment and romanticism highlighted the point of what humans are here for, but just in different streams of discovering them: reason and emotion. Both fought against different stigmas, but the one they agreed on was religion.
They both argued against the “dogmatic religious doctrines”(Murfin and Ray). They seemed to both encompass that churches were filled with the utmost tyranny in the fundamentals of their stances. The enlightenment saw it as a time to “humanize religion” (Murfin and Ray). Which then we would realize that god created humans, so through reason we should also praise the creations he made and we will praise him through finding ourselves rather than trying to find ourselves through a priest.
They also saw it as a time to embrace deism and follow the lord through “reason and experience rather than revelation”(Murfin and Ray). Although enlightenment thinkers were against the church in almost every way, romantics were not as enraged by the issue, but many “were drawn to [the] religious imagery” rather than have the “fierce battles with it [as] Voltaire had fought”(Brians). Henceforth, both wanted to find out more of the world, but just through different ways and they both were against the forced oppression of the church on individuals, but still had different opinions inside of that main theme.
The substantial difference between the romantic era and the enlightenment is the way they go about getting their information. The enlightenment strove as “the Age of Reason” where they relied heavily on “ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded upon principles of human reason”(Bristow). Whereas the romantic era oppositely believed that “imagination is superior to reason”(“Introduction to Romanticism”). The foundation of the enlightenment was created by Rene Descartes’ through his “famous method of doubt”(Bristow).
The people involved in the enlightenment desired a world where we doubted everything and tested every assumption and used logic to decipher our problems. On the other hand, romantics believe that emotion is the way to uncover the truths of the world. They tended to write about things that evoked emotion and feeling such as the Gothic works that wanted to make the audience have a sense of terror and suspense. The enlightenment period was against this type of literature and they viewed it as “crude or even barbaric”(Murfin and Ray).
Unlike the writers of the romantic era who preached for creativity in literature and poetry, the enlightenment thinkers had a point to their writing to fight against the slavery of their society such as censorship, taxes that benefited the upper class, but were paid by the middle class and a lot of other social issues pertaining to the church. Therefore, since the enlightenment was based off of reason and there literature was aimed to fix the perils of society and the romantic era seeked to achieve emphasis on feelings and creating literature that was thrilling and filled with imagination.
The start of the enlightenment was sparked by the desire to change the way we viewed the world, and create an ideal society, but they did not believe in utopias either. Authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued over the social contract to fight for the fact that “people are equal, and framed the social contract as a means of furthering equality and freedom”(Murfin and Ray). The majority of the enlightenment thinkers wanted equality to prevail over our society.
They wanted each part of the society to thrive including the government, which Baron de Montesquieu wanted the government to adopt a set of individual branches of government that would enable a “system of checks and balances”(Murfin and Ray). This initiative was to keep the government as corrupt free as possible, and this is what we later adopted in the United States. A goal of the enlightenment was also to strengthen the economy, Adam Smith proposed laissez-faire economics; it positions the “existence of an invisible guiding hand in free markets”(Murfin and Ray).
The basic premise of the enlightenment was to enhance society to then enhance the individual. On the other hand, the beginning of the romantic period was not to form a perfect society, but to become excellent individuals. People were beginning to grow tired of the set social classes and being stuck into a mass group; people now desired to be seen as an individual for personal strengths. They saw “self-analysis especially constructive” and they believed it would lead to personal development(Murfin and Ray).
Rather than rely on society to enhance their lives like the enlightenment thinkers believed, they thought “that people are good by nature but corrupted by civilization”(Murfin and Ray). They thought it was more beneficial to be alone and reflect on the world we live in especially through nature. When the world was so focused on the industrial revolution and depleting the world’s natural resources, romantics began to believe that “to muse by a stream, to view a thundering waterfall or even confront a rolling desert could be morally improving”(Brians).
The major example of this is the book Walden where the author experiences nature first hand and is able to become a self reliant person echoing the theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thus, the enlightenment was interested in contributing to society and creating a better government and economy whereas the romantic era focused on the individual and the love of nature. Enlightenment thinkers used reason to continue advancing in science and technology; they believed that nothing should get in the way of scientific advancements.
For example, Newton was able to reason and uncover formulas and theories of the natural science behind our world using the “principles of reason of acquiring knowledge” that was discovered through the enlightenment(Bristow). Contrasting the enlightenment, the romantics “recognized the potential [of the] scientific developments[, but] they also felt undervalued by a world increasingly fixated on progress”(Murfin and Ray).
Both groups saw the importance of scientific advancements, but romantics believed that we should not be lessened to only that. Consequently, the romantic era is the antithesis to the enlightenment because of the contrast between emotion and reason, the difference on their views of the individual and society, and one sides view of nature and the other on science and advancements. Besides the fact of them being opposites they also play a large role in the life we live today.
The ideals of he enlightenment greatly impacted the creation of United States by arguing for equality, separation of powers, and a free market without tyranny. The notable people who asserted this such as John Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire then influenced the minds of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine with the prominent ideals we value in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The romantic era has continued to influence our affection towards nature and our fascination with imagination.