Tuesday, 10 November 2009

HCJ Lecture - Romanticism and Rousseau

Romanticism is an artistic and intellectual movement that originates from Europe in the late XVIIIth century. This movement can be defined as a response against the Enlightenment, as it is totally focused on the individual, passion, irrational, contrary to the Enlightenment which is all about science and reason. Romanticist artists/ writers often reused some ancient myths in their work, like Mary Shelley in Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

To sum up quickly the story - because I'm sure many of you already know about it - a scientist called Victor Frankenstein created a human being using pieces of corpses he somehow stuck together (Shelley didn't give any scientific details, which was convenient in two respects: she was a romantic author, therefore against the rise of science, and then she probably didn't know enough about human anatomy to describe in details the creation of the Monster). The creature was born. When Frankenstein realised that his creation wasn't like he expected him to be, he abandoned him. On his own, the creature learnt how to survive in a world where he would scare everybody or provoke mockery. Because of the reaction of society, the creature became a monster and a murderer. At the end of the novel, the monster kills Frankenstein's wife to be, just before the wedding. In one aspect, Victor Frankenstein is the perfect romantic hero (rather anti-hero): although he was a scientist, he was also passionate, obsessed by the idea of creating a new life using another method than the traditional one. Once he realised what he did, he rejected his creation with hatred. Feelings like passion, love, hatred, fear are very important in the novel.
There is also a reference to the Prometheus myth in the novel. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals. Zeus punished him for his crime, he chained him to a rock on a mountain peak while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day. In Frankenstein, the scientist took God's role creating a human being, he was then punished by his own creation.At the very end of the novel, Frankenstein was exhausted, unhappy, depressed and he finally died. One of the messages in Shelley's novel is that science is dangerous, people shouldn't try to be God, because it will lead them to despair, unhappiness and death.
Another important topic in romanticism and Rousseau's work is the state of nature. Rousseau believed that people used to live without government, and contrary to Hobbes' beliefs there wasn't any chaos or anarchy. According to Rousseau, the state of nature is nothing more than a state of animal. The society has deprived people from their freedom, and it has built inequalities between them. Hence Rousseau wrote the Social Contract in which he explained his ideal form of government "which defends and protects with all the common force". He wanted a direct democracy, a country lead by the general will, and not only the will of the upper-class. If people obey the laws, they're only obeying themselves as everybody contributes to the general will. This form of government is in Rousseau's opinion the only one that can provide freedom and equality for everybody, and if someone does not obey the law, he will be "forced to be free".

It seems that Rousseau's ideas had a great influence on the French Revolution and on the law text written after it.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen ( D├ęclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen) seems to have been written by Rousseau himself:
" 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents. "
Rousseau's work had a great impact upon the ideas of the French revolution. To cut a (very very) long story short, the French Revolution originated from the Enlightenment/ Romanticism ideas about freedom, equality and citizenship. France was still governed by a King of divine right, Louis XVII, and there were great inequalities. More than 90 per cent of the population was poor, suffered from starvation, diseases etc. On the 14th July 1789, Parisiens took the Bastille - which is now the symbol of the French revolution. The revolution brought a new form of government: the King of divine right was beheaded.


Chris Horrie said...

Prometheus is a key figure in the Romantic movement - eg Beethoven. Beethoven and his music - especially his opera - is the key artefact of the romantic movement.

JargonJoker said...

Very insightful blog, with an especially helpful and pertinent inclusion of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen - I know little about this and from reading it I can see a lot within it that makes sense, in my opinion.
The external knowledge you give in your blogs is always a pleasure to read through.

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