On Romanticism

This article won’t be about the cultural relevance, history nor critique of Valentine’s day. For that you may need to go somewhere else. Instead, I want to talk about the spirit behind what makes the 14th of February so popular, and how, over the years it has come to be synonymous with an icon of something very interesting in human philosophy – Romanticism. This article will talk about it particularly in the context of human relationships.

Romanticism, as we know in mainstream philosophy, originated as a collective movement in what we identify as the Romance period, immediately following the Enlightenment era. In this period, a great number of artists, writers, playwrights and poets started emphasizing more on the value of individualism, virtue of pursuing our unleashed emotions and the primacy of subjectivity and aesthetics. Some scholars and historians speculate that this trend arose out of being somewhat frustrated with the then prevalent hardcore emphasis on Rationality, which the preceding era of thinkers had brought forth. Others opine that the Romantic thinkers and artists spoke largely against what was the norm in their society – rigid social rules and traditionally approved relationships commissioned by arranged marriages. It was their commonsense perspective that such arrangements were more like business agreements than union of human beings, each otherwise individually capable of expressing emotions and living through their own sets of imaginations. Thus commenced a series of countless reveries, stories and poems rebelling against the then status-quo of a hardhearted society that invited unforgiving consequences for any who dared to defy the norms. This is one reason why tragedy is such a recurring theme in any Romantic novel or drama, even to this day.

Rediscovery after rediscovery of Romantic virtues by many generations and cultures of people thereafter, made the theme a rather popular one among even the lay folk, let alone the nobility or aristocracy. Tragedy as a genre was (and still is) easier to grasp and had far greater entertainment value compared to art that dealt with other aspects of the human condition. It was, more importantly, relatable to anyone. Because people in general have the ability to fantasize about great stories of love, passion or courage complicated by unforeseen obstacles that leave the concerned individuals with only a few choices to overcome them – which could often times result in failure or even death. Much like in life, but somewhat exaggerated of course.

Romantic art forms often show us that what seems so achievable to us in near sight, can prove to become a gargantuan feat to accomplish – be it a love affair across the classes, enemy lines or taboo. These were able to spark deep emotions within readers or viewers in every generation and leave them in the end to freely interpret the experience in their own subjective ways. Romantic stories demanded readers or viewers to use less of their rational brains and instead to delve into a purely emotional experience. And Romantic themes could always be molded into different keys of social issues, which made them a timeless form of art and entertainment. Portrayals of near-impossible longings or courting of people being hindered by social restrictions or other random events can easily be accepted by people of any generation; as it’s only our human nature to be able to envision ourselves in a position of constant struggle which the characters in such stories are seen enduring. But an important yet often overlooked tenet of the Romantic movement was to bring about the feeling of empathy in people, and I personally think this is the most valuable aspect of all. For this reason, many people today who enjoy any form of art or literature, new or old, are in some ways Romantics themselves. Even if not in terms of human relationships, perhaps for some other vision which they have created for themselves, for example the virtues of Heroism and courage we can find in superhero comics or movies (But this is beyond the scope of this article today).

Where Romanticism may have done unintended damage in the modern era could be said to be in our individual psychologies and possibly even on our mental health. Influenced by generations upon generations of epic romantic stories of people going out of their way to please the ones they wish to court, I think many people have, at least in some sense, lost track of what the ethos of the romantic movement really was about. The core idea of Romanticism lies in the appreciation of our emotions, struggles and sufferings as human beings and their subjective or aesthetic portrayals, along with an emphasis on the value of empathy. Romanticism isn’t just about being extravagant in terms of action or finance for courtship purposes. It also isn’t about falling into self-justified emotional turmoil at the near-chance of failure in that regard. It’s also not just about relationship idealism, like the myth of finding the “perfect one”; although nowadays it’s a catchy theme for drawing out audiences to buy novels or to fill out movie theaters.

But unlike back in the 16th century, I think people today have a wide variety of philosophical as well as entertainment options from which they can choose – thanks to the internet of things and the technologies that we possess. If used cautiously and with direction, it could lead us into channels that could actually improve our skills or insight when it comes to dealing with people. Romantic ideals such as zealous emotions, if taken lightly in the form of subtle and harmless entertainment, could instead have positive effects. It could win us the admiration of those we love and perhaps even more people could be attracted to us for they could perceive us as being jovial or simply ‘fun’ to hang out with. I have to admit that this is a position I have come to conclude after much thinking over the years; when before, I used to shun Romantic ideals altogether. I used to call myself an anti-romantic, which was a radical position to take as I realize now in retrospect. I understand today, that if taken lightheartedly, it could help us attain psychological soundness or perhaps even help revive a sense of optimism in mildly straining relationships. The goal, it seems, is to not stick to the either extremes of this ideal. Most importantly, the Romantic philosophy’s insistence on the human quality of empathy has lead me to personally stress on it’s importance more than ever.

While some elements of Romanticism may be relevant for purposes of attracting mates or partners, other elements may foster in us undesired feelings of insufficiency or inadequacy. If not carefully understood or examined, Romantic ideals could instead lead us to fabricate this alternate reality where perfection actually exists, forgetting about the values of empathy which it teaches us, and in the end – to suffer the consequences of our bloated expectations not meeting the harsh nature of a somewhat frugal reality. This could then lead us into a slippery slope of emotional turmoil, full of unstable relationships, vindictiveness and hostilities – which may in effect package us into a kind of negative outlook or attitude for life. I think, if we are not vigilant, Romantic idealism can skew our perception of actual human psychology and human relationships, all towards certain detrimental effects.

Even in clinical psychology, we see this effect of exaggerated Romanticism in the form of what professionals call Borderline personality disorder or a similar one known as Histrionic personality disorder. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming an absolute causation pattern, just a linked observation. There’s evidence which suggest that other factors such as genes, development inside our mother’s womb and trauma experienced during childhood may play much significant roles for the same. But what can be said with certainty, is that based on our personality types and our sensitivities, we should probably weigh our abilities to grasp important lessons from Romantic stories or art. If we see ourselves either overtly attached or overtly detached, then perhaps an objective study of the Romantic philosophy could do us good. But this just remains my speculation at this moment.

And in this way, the 14th of February, is tied intimately (even if in a historically distorted way) as we all know, to the essence of the Romance era. It already is a global event, regardless of some pockets of local resistance it suffers in some places around the world  (which is kind of expected since it is basic human nature to be defensive at the advent of a newfangled cultural idea). And because of that, we should use it’s inevitably increasing popularity to spread awareness about especially the practical lessons of the Romantic spirit which it comes attached with, not just the superficial and oftentimes immature kind of materialism which we can witness today. And I think, as in any other philosophy, sticking to one extreme will not do our lives much justice. In my opinion, any human philosophy, if observed objectively, can give us much needed practical tools to better our lives and thus our general well-being, while simultaneously helping us identify with clarity, the negative aspects which may not be so useful in our everyday lives.

Art: Anonymous