John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Rationalists or Romantics?

The Enlightenment gave us the idea that utopia was within our grasp, but it rejected any transcendent source of ethics or morality. So, while most folks agreed upon the destination, few could agree upon the proper route. Some suggested more power and less education for the masses. Some suggested less power and more education for the masses. Perhaps we needed greater division among the classes. Perhaps we needed to eliminate the class system altogether.

Maybe the problem was rationalism itself. The idea that we're all part of one big machine can be stifling. That's what the romantics said. All this stuff about cause and effect, maybe the universe is less like a machine and more like a living organism.

Both the romantics and the rationalists agreed that there's nothing "out there" -- no truth to be found that isn't already contained in our universe -- in ourselves, really. There is no external source of knowledge, purpose or ethics. They just disagreed over whether those things were to be found in our heads (rationalists) or in our hearts (romantics).

These two sides kept pointing fingers at each other throughout most of the 19th Century. Rationalists cheered at every new invention (and there were lots of them -- the cotton gin, the steamboat, the telegraph -- this was, after all, the age of the Industrial Revolution), saying we were getting closer to the perfect world. Romantics would take people by the hand and walk them through a slum in New York City or London and point to the polution and poverty, the squalor and lack of education (carefully avoiding to point at the opium den where they may have slept the night before). Then, the romantics might produce a new book of poetry or show you some new form of painting as evidence that their path was THE PATH to true enlightenment and heaven on earth.

As the philosophical battles raged, utopian communities began to pop up here and there. And, no sooner had they drawn up charters and covenants than they would be torn apart by some internal strife. Someone failed to work as hard as the rest. Or someone stole something. Or someone thought we were going to share everything -- including spouses.

Many of the romantics gave up and joined the rationalists. They found out that you can actually write decent poetry about factories and the nobility of man as an inventor.

And then a bomb was dropped. More literally, lots of bombs were dropped all over the incubator of the Enlightenment. All of Europe was at war, and it was a war like had never been seen before, fought with all the sophistication of modern inventions. It was a war that didn't just wipe out battlefields but left cities themselves in ruins.

Turns out humans aren't very good at creating a brave new world after all, but we're really good at wrecking the one we've got.

Don't you think that at some point in time someone's got to pick their head up and realize, the problem's not with the route but with the destination?