The Enlightenment & Romanticism

Anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, calls Paganism the perfect religion for the “romantic rationalist.” Neo-Paganism has its roots in both the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement. Both these historical movements had special attitudes toward religion and rationality, women and nature, individualism and community. These differing attitudes blend together in a unique way in Neo-Paganism.

"The Ancient of Days" by William Blake

“The Ancient of Days” by William Blake

Religion and Rationality

According to historian, Ronald Hutton, the Enlightenment …

“set up an antithesis between Christianity and other patriar­chal monotheisms and the religions of nature that had preceded them, and regarded the triumph of the for­mer as a disaster. It identified alienation as the central problem facing the human self, and a return to nature as a rediscovery of true humanity. It also blamed that aliena­tion at least partly upon authoritarian and hierar­chical structures, which denied the autonomy of the indi­vidual and self-worth. It aimed to abolish or universal­ize the priesthood, it recognized no scripture, and it located the source of truth in the human being. It did so, moreover, by turning to pagan Greek and Roman texts for inspiration and example.”

This could almost be a description of Neo-Paganism today.

According to religious studies scholar, Philip Davis, in The Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality (1999), Enlightenment thinkers believed …

“that there was a natural order in the universe that could be discovered and grasped by the rigorous application of human intelligence. This natural order, once fully under­stood, would provide the blueprint for an ideal human soci­ety.”

The first step in this process was to wipe the slate clean of reli­gious dogma and any social structures that did not survive a thor­oughly rationalist critique. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the authority of the church, its hierarchy and its creeds, in favor of the free exercise of reason. They especially rejected the doc­trine of original sin in favor of a belief that human beings could perfect society without God. Similarly, Neo-Pagans reject much of institutionalized religion and especially the Christian notion that humanity and the world are fallen. In its attitude toward institutional religions, especially Christianity, Neo-Paganism is an Enlightenment religion.

However, Hutton also points out that the Enlightenment associ­ated religious enthusiasm with folly and tyranny, and viewed the only reasonable alternatives to Christianity to be athe­ism or a vague and impersonal deism. It also classed all the religions of the ancient Near East with Christianity as erroneous and despotic, attitudes that are clearly foreign to Neo-Pagans.

Enlightenment materialism denied the relevance, and even the reality, of the spiritual dimension. The Romantic Movement was a reaction to this, and reaffirmed the spiritual dimension. According to Davis, the Romantics “sought to re-enchant the world as a whole by asserting the immanence of the divine, its constant presence in the earth and in human beings.” Romanti­cism was …

“a reaction against rationalism with its arid, abstract gener­alities. The stereotypical Romantic prized instead the depths of feeling and dramatic experiences that seemed to give vibrancy and excitement to life. … Romanti­cism represented the claims of the heart, soul, and blood over the intellect. … In the place of cold, ana­lytic reason, Romantics reveled in their emotions and re­garded dramatic experiences as the real color and pur­pose of life. In place of dead materialism, they sought the ‘life-force’ and the heights and depths of the spirit.”

Romanticism represented the claims of the heart and soul over the intellect.

Hutton explains that “the characteristic language of a commit­ted modern paganism has its direct origin in German Ro­manticism” and its British following. Like Romanticism, Neo-Paganism is a reaction to both the overemphasis on transcend­ence in Christianity and the reductionist materialism of the Enlightenment. Neo-Pagans believe the that solution to the social and spiritual problems created by the belief in a trans­cendent deity is not a complete rejection of divinity, but rather a relocation of divinity in the natural world and in the human be­ing, body and soul.

Women and Nature

The Enlightenment gave birth to the feminist movement, includ­ing the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. Enlightenment thinkers regarded both men and women as unique individuals, and not primarily as stereo­typed members of two distinct genders. This led to the belief that women should have equal access to the law and the same educa­tional and other opportunities as men. The influence of the femi­nist movement on Neo-Paganism cannot be overstated. In its rejection of Christianity and patriarchy, Neo-Paganism is very much an Enlightenment religion.

According to Davis, in contrast to the Enlightenment, the Romantic attitude toward women’s rights …

“moved away from the establishment of equality among in­dividuals of both sexes, and highlighted instead the differ­ences between males and females as biological groups. Now the liberation of women came to mean the cel­ebration and empowerment of everything that could be regarded as distinctively female, over and against what was considered essentially male. The stereotypical view of the female as emotional, intuitive, and instinc­tively loving coincided so well with the basic values of Ro­manticism that women were idealized to the point of worship among some Romantics.”

According to Hutton, Romanticism exalted the natural and the irrational, “qualities that had conventionally been both feared and characterized as feminine.” It emphasized the beauty and sublimity of those things that had traditionally been devalued by Christianity: woman, nature, earth, darkness, night, intoxica­tion, the unconscious, imagination, sensation, and the passions.

“Where Enlightenment thought rejected images associ­ated with the primitive, the feminine and nature in an at­tempt to free humanity from the bonds of superstition and natural catastrophe, romanticists reified these im­ages and reconfigured them as authentic, sublime and liber­ating from the tyranny of industrialism and scien­tific rationality.”

Later, this reification of the feminine and nature became a cen­tral component of Neo-Paganism.

Davis explains that, in the Romantic view, “it is the quintessen­tially and characteristically female that needs libera­tion and that the world itself requires for its welfare, not the per­sonal uniqueness of individual women.” The contrast of the Enlightenment and Romantic attitudes toward women is re­flected in the contrast between equality feminism and difference feminism, respectively. Both kinds of feminism can be found in Neo-Paganism, and the tension between these two continues to be felt today.

Like the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers, Neo-Pagans advocate a return to nature and to a pagan past in order to cure humanity’s social and spiritual ills. However, Neo-Pagans’ concep­tion of nature resembles more that of the Romantics than the Enlightenment thinkers.

“In keeping with the Enlightenment, Romanticism looked to nature rather than to super-natural revelation as the ultimate source of truth. For the Romantics how­ever, nature was not just a physical mechanism gov­erned by rational laws that could be discovered and adapted to the human social order. Rather, nature was wild and free, colorful and dramatic; it was life itself in all its splendor and horror. Some Romantics regarded civili­zation itself as artificial, a human deviation from the true and natural way. …

“The Romantics progressively broke with the Enlighten­ment conception of a static nature about which one could find objective truth and control as a means of pro­gressing human nature. Romantic thought transformed the conception of nature from a static mechanism … to na­ture existing as a ‘dynamic, diverse cosmos in a con­stant state of becoming.’”

Neo-Pagans followed the Romantics in viewing nature as a liv­ing organism, rather than a mechanism.

"Wanderer above the sea of fog" by Caspar David Friedrich

“Wanderer above the sea of fog” by Caspar David Friedrich

Individual and Community

The Romantic attitude toward the individual is even more compli­cated. On the one hand, “Romanticism represented the evolution of Enlightenment individualism into a more extreme form, a virtual narcissism,” explains Davis. “Romantics often cultivated a devotion to the uniqueness of inner self and of per­sonal experience.” This expressed itself in the belief “that explor­ing and expressing the self was the same thing as discovering God.” This concept was later taken up by Carl Jung and had a profound influence on the Neo-Pagan understanding of the relation­ship between humanity and divinity.

On the other hand, in place of the rationally organized state of the Enlightenment, Romantics advocated a return to what Da­vis calls “the organic community of shared blood, language, and ethnicity.” Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers “dissolved the intangible bonds of community by means of their skepticism to­wards the traditional institutions of family, church, and state,” the Romantics, in response, sought the “supposedly deeper uni­ties of blood, ethnic kinship, and the affinities of shared lan­guage and culture.” Davis describes one of the great paradoxes of Romanticism as …

“its ability to combine and stimulate both narcissism and tribalism. Romantics proclaimed the invaluable unique­ness of individual experience; Romantics also hymned the overriding claims of biological and cultural communi­ties, the groups to which people belong by na­ture (not by rational choice).”

Like the Romantics, Neo-Pagans have a mixed attitude toward individualism and community. Early pagan revivalist move­ments were deeply nationalistic. While some forms of contempo­rary Paganism and Heathenry continue to be ethni­cized, most Neo-Pagans have rejected ethnicity as part of spiritual­ity. The reason is two-fold. First, ethnic paganism is now inextricably associated with the Nazis and their crimes against humanity. Second, Neo-Paganism was born in the United States, where ethnic ties have become less significant over the decades. While many European forms of Paganism are ethnic, American Neo-Paganism is not.

Neo-Paganism today is highly individualistic. This is evi­dent in the growth of “solitaries” and “self-initiations,” as well as the difficult-to-define category of internet spirituality, which can be considered both individualistic and communal, in a spe­cial sense.

Neo-Pagans have adopted the Enlightenment privileging of individual authority over institutional authority. What organiza­tion does exist among Neo-Pagans does tend to be decentral­ized. Note, however, that for Neo-Pagans the authority of the individual is not rooted in individual reason, as it was for Enlight­enment thinkers, but in individual experience, and so it more closely resembles the attitude of the Romantics. Like the Romantics, Neo-Pagans do tend to place a high value on commu­nity. But unlike the Romantics, the American Neo-Pagan community is a community, not of blood or language, but of choice. As Loleta Collins has observed in her Master’s thesis, “A Coming Home: Neo-Paganism and the Search for Community” (2002), Neo-Pagans do have communities, but they are first and foremost communities of individuals.

Updated 2019

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