Romantic Pantheism

In Hegel’s version of the significative attempt to preserve structured order in this new situation, the personal God was seemingly only nominally preserved in some late defensive writings for quite extra-systematic purposes, and the unifying idea on which alone the structuring depended was never conceived as transcendent in the first place. As merely one of the many expressions of a Hermetically conceived immanence, Hegel’s new articulate cataphaticism was doomed already for such intrinsic reasons to fail in a much more obvious way in this regard. From the beginning, the Right Hegelians, or at least the so-called “speculative theists”, saw the need for, and called for, a metaphysical supplementation.

But quite apart from these reasons, Hegelianism was also fated to a considerable extent to become submerged in the forces unleashed by the industrial and political revolutions. Since their classicism had been mixed up with modern rationalism ever since Descartes, the refined defenders of the hitherto dominant, French-inspired culture were often unable, even as they were forced in the face of the historical development of the nineteenth century – in which France itself took a leading part – to turn towards a stricter and more traditionalist classicism, to see the partial truths of the new German criticism of Enlightenment thought. But they did see its untruths.

In the new darkness brought on by the pantheistic revolution, all cows must, in the eyes of the French critics, perforce turn black. There could no longer be any well-grounded distinctions, any proper discernment. Everything flowed, everything was becoming, everything was relative. Since the unity and totality knew itself only through the infinite forms of the chaotic dispersion, the whole noisy confusion of the energies let loose by the Revolution must be accepted, indeed enthusiastically welcomed, embraced by Cosmic Love. Predictably, the demons were already at large, in art and literature as well as on the battlefield. Moral discrimination became impossible. Since transcendence was denied, there was not even in principle the possibility of an accessible vantage-point, or even one accepted as a mere necessary regulative idea, from which to make judgements.

Thought became so vague that contradictions could no longer be identified as such; the limited and the well-defined were dismissed as superficiality. There could be no well-grounded choices between different alternatives, all ideas had the same worth, truth was infinite and all-comprehensive, the mandatory tolerance could be based only on relativism. Criticism was lost, as was selection, refinement, and style. The differentiational perspective from which true and false, good and evil, beauty and ugliness could once be distinguished, at least to some extent, at least for the purpose of general orientation, had been absorbed in the process of the closed immanent totality.

In this pseudo-divine carnival, where the crassest material forces – both of the captains of industry and of the Enlightenment machinery of the state – advanced more ruthlessly than ever behind the shifting veils of neoclassicism, neohumanism, idealism, and romantic reverie and picturesqueness, it was the unstable Ego of individualism, rather than the person, that flourished, and that alone could flourish. For all his self-assertive, neoteric expressionism, the romantic individual moves from narcissism, via cosmic, subjective ego-inflation, to objective self-annihilation in the larger pantheistic whole in any of its manifestations.

Such self-actualization, drawing out the utmost nihilistic consequences of the self-creation of the Renaissance individualists, was sheer illusion, since there simply was no self to actualize. In a world closed upon itself and without ontic logos, the only values there could be were those posited by the individual, and such positing was what was expected of the new historical Heroes. Yet they pathetically failed to perform the expected Deeds, dragged down by the unacknowledged, constitutive imperfection of their human nature, devoid of grace.

The moral ambiguity of the new individual-cosmic self-actualization was glaring; with ethical dualism rejected along with metaphysical dualism, the new autonomy did not stop short of the Satanic. The only enemy, the only remaining evil was that which represented or was perceived as representing the resistance to the new pantheism itself, to the Righteous Goodness of the Human-Divine Ego and Nature: the conventional order of the establishment, the Church, the remnants of the ancien régime. The enemy’s scruples were only expressions of its false morality, and having been so repressed and deformed by this enemy, the Beautiful Soul had the right to go beyond its narrow conventions, to challenge them, if necessary by violent means. Only though releasing the demonic, the criminal, the perverted, the diseased, was it possible, under the present circumstances, to find the true self.

Or rather, to become one with the newly conceived whole. The underlying drive was the age-old one of the problematic forms of esotericism and monistic mysticism: to simply become God. But not only did failure produce disillusion; God was also redefined even beyond the undifferentiated oneness. The Beautiful Souls and Geniuses were lost in erotic intoxication with feelings, in the identification with the resurgent dark, irrational side of reality which the human fiat of modern rationalism had never managed to suppress; they were consumed by the Dionysian urge for ecstatic self-annihilation, for final extinction. At the peak of the absolute freedom, of “authentic” self-expression, of self-exaltation, they turned towards dissolution and destruction of an individual self which was in reality weak and sickly. What it really desired was ultimate ecstatic identification with nature/God, the erotic Mother-Goddess, the All-Ego, the irrational, arbitrary, nihilistic Will of the world-process, the empty oneness, the Void, Nothingness, Death. And a similar impulse was often found to underlie the new kind of search for identification with the Nation, the People, the State.

This, needless to say, is not the whole truth about this historical period. But the neglected fact is that its other truths, and not least its genuinely personalist ones, can be neither properly understood nor preserved or reappropriated unless these general truths about romantic pantheism are understood. The individualism it produced was often the shallowest thing. [For a few of the very many aspects and expressions of this, see Gerald N. Izenberg, Impossible Individuality: Romanticism, Revolution, and the Origin of Modern Selfhood, 1787-1802 (1992), which, however, is far from the fuller and deeper historical understanding of the pantheistic revolution.]

1 Response to “Romantic Pantheism”

  1. 1 Swedish Dissident February 25, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Very perceptive text – it seems that “we all” are, in one way or another, ontologically and epistemologically engulfed by romantic pantheism, particularly its lower forms and expressions, which have accelerated during late modernity, and, so to speak, left few valuable things in return, The lack of transcendence and its substitute – all-embracing radical immanence – may not necessarily lead to dionysic egoism and rapture, but there is always a risk involved when this general world-view permeates large segments of a civilization (or several civilizations).

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)



All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi