Romanticism understands the non-rational needs and nature of the human condition. Schopenhauer is well-known for criticizing Aristotle’s formulation of Man as “Rational Animal.” Man has reason, says Schopenhauer, but rationality isn’t his defining quality. Desire, instead, is the main aspect of human nature and experience, and most of life is built upon either attempting to satisfy, ignore or come to terms with these desires and feelings which are the core of the human condition.
Though everyone has some potential for intelligence, in general human beings are driven more by the need for love than knowledge. And this is all for the better, for while skeptical and anti-realist arguments shows Man will never know reality with absolute knowledge and certainty, we can know love and give love. Also love influences us phenomologically in a way knowledge never could. The feelings are so strong in many philosophers understanding of humanity that in the case of Freud he writes that the very purpose of civilization is to create borders, and boundaries around love because it is so intense.
The Stoics seemingly are in-effect Romantics who have given up on love. They consider dispassionate virtue and forbearance to be the main traits we should focus on, and are not like the Enlightenment figures who focus on the use of reason to cure the ills of human civilization. The ills they wish to cure are the supposed ills of desire – not civilization’s external dilemmas. We all know the joys and pains of love, but real love, if it is a form of aesthetics is a form of appreciation of a thing for its own sake rather than simply how it relates to us. Art is meant to arouse in us the very same feelings as we experience in our lives – though when done well it does it by honing in on the essence of the meaning or substance of these feelings. This is why characters in great art can seem more “real” than those we interact with in a mundane way in our daily lives. Aesthetics is a disinterested “non-Ego” approach to the world, but not a dispassionate view of the world. Art can do many things, and create passions in us for moral and personal development is one of them.
In regards to Romanticism’s criticisms of the Enlightenment project – that depends on what those criticisms are and how they are directed. If they are criticizing the Enlightenment project of using science, reason and public policy to alleviate suffering then they are clearly mistaken for what they are doing is moving from sentimental appreciation of the emotional realm of human existence and moving into anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism. If they are criticizing the idea that reason alone can solve all of our problems and “complete” people, make them feel whole and give them personal purpose etc. then they are rightly seeing a flaw in those who appreciate knowledge as something which in theory is superior to the tender feelings.
The core of humanity has not changed in several millennia if it ever has. We all want love and the feeling our lives are of purpose to others. We all want kindness and the strength to give kindness without expecting it in return. We all want to be good people. But many of us at-least at-times if not generally, because human beings are capable of moral corruption (some could say that moral corruption is the norm – which is true to some degree) lose our way and give up on that which will really make us happy and complete people – loving others for their sake and not our own.
In the Sunset Limited Mr. White informs the suicidal man Prof. Black that the only reason why an alcoholic is motivated to pursue drink is because he cannot or simply believes he cannot have what he truly wants. Mr. White says that what he truly wants is to be loved by God, and though I disagree with the specifics of his answer, I agree with the rest of his formulation. People often pursue sensual desires because they believe they cannot have what they truly want which is love, the feeling of goodness and compassion which comes through love and attention to others as opposed to us. Romanticism is one of the philosophies that understands the connection between feelings and moral goodness. Morality in our motivations are not determined by reason but by compassion or the good will. Reason can help us deliberate but it can never give us the normative values that the sentiments provide.
Both in terms of our own lives and our service to others we are determined by our emotional states primarily or foundationally and not by the states of our knowledge. Knowledge can guide us and teach us but never command us – only goodness compels us in a way which makes our hearts loyal to others and the best in ourselves. Only the feelings move the soul and erase the pain of this life; one can know one is cared for without feeling loved, and this predicament is why it is so important to be patient and open-hearted, for at any moment there could be love coming towards us that we cannot emotionally grasp, just as Man is in a position where there are things happening in this Universe that he has no access to.
Ancient biologists thought that the brain only served the purpose of cooling the blood – and in terms of our emotional states they were completely right. Sometimes our hearts run away with us and we become either impulsive or jaded and defeatist. But much of this life involves patience and calm acceptance of the present – even appreciation if we become wise enough. And though we are capable (if fate allows) of appreciating almost any theoretical position or time in our lives, even one that would have us in the depths of despair when absolutely nothing has been altered save our state of mind, we must learn to be calm and kind to ourselves; having our hearts open but not bleeding out in disappointment of not having something we desire.
As I said, true love is love for the things sake rather than whether or not that which we love satisfies any feelings of longing we have. One form of being Stoic then is not to remove love from the heart but simply to use the mind to cool the blood in our bodies and learn to feel our love more calmly and clearly. The Stoics, as I said, advise that we should be free from desire – but according to our formulation to be free from desire is not to be free from love. Through this interpretation, the Cynics, Stoics, Buddhists and others are not telling not to love, but simply to remember what the nature of our affection is – it is selfless and beautiful, and to be carried away with fantasy is to confuse love and longing, or love and selfish desires. The Cynics tell us to live according to our nature, and to love is one of the most fundamental traits of human nature.