Classic And Romantic
by Irving Babbitt
The words classic and romantic, we are often told, cannot be defined at all, and even if they could be defined, some would add, we should not be much profited. But this inability or unwillingness to define may itself turn out to be only one aspect of a movement that from Rousseau to Bergson has sought to discredit the analytical intellect—what Wordsworth calls "the false secondary power by which we multiply distinctions." However, those who are with Socrates rather than with Rousseau or Wordsworth in this matter, will insist on the importance of definition, especially in a chaotic era like the present; for nothing is more characteristic of such an era than its irresponsible use of general terms. Now to measure up to the Socratic standard, a definition must not be abstract and metaphysical, but experimental; it must not, that is, reflect our opinion of what a word should mean, but what it actually has meant. Mathematicians may be free at times to frame their own definitions, but in the case of words like classic and romantic, that have been used innumerable times, and used not in one but in many countries, such a method is inadmissible. One must keep one's eye on actual usage. One should indeed allow for a certain amount of freakishness in this usage. Beaumarchais, for example, makes classic synonymous with barbaric. One may disregard an occasional aberration of this kind, but if one can find only confusion and inconsistency in all the main uses of words like classic and romantic, the only procedure for those who speak or write in order to be understood is to banish the words from their vocabulary.
Now to define in a Socratic way two things are necessary: one must learn to see a common element in things that are apparently different and also to discriminate between things that are apparently similar. A Newton, to take the familiar instance of the former process, saw a common element in the fall of an apple and the motion of a planet; and one may perhaps without being a literary Newton discover a common element in all the main uses of the word romantic as well as in all the main uses of the word classic; though some of the things to which the word romantic in particular has been applied seem, it must be admitted, at least as far apart as the fall of an apple and the motion of a planet. The first step is to perceive the something that connects two or more of these things apparently so diverse, and then it may be found necessary to refer this unifying trait itself back to something still more general, and so on until we arrive, not indeed at anything absolute—the absolute will always elude us—but at what Goethe calls the original or underlying phenomenon (Urphanomen). A fruitful source of false definition is to take as primary in a more or less closely allied group of facts what is actually secondary—for example, to fix upon the return to the Middle Ages as the central fact in romanticism, whereas this return is only symptomatic; it is very far from being the original phenomenon. Confused and incomplete definitions of romanticism have indeed just that origin—they seek to put at the centre something that though romantic is not central but peripheral, and so the whole subject is thrown out of perspective.
My plan then is to determine to the best of my ability, in connection with a brief historical survey, the common element in the various uses of the words classic and romantic; and then, having thus disposed of the similarities, to turn to the second part of the art of defining and deal, also historically, with the differences. For my subject is not romanticism in general, but only a particular type of romanticism, and this type of romanticism needs to be seen as a recoil, not from classicism in general, but from a particular type of classicism.
The word romantic when traced historically is found to go back to the old French roman of which still elder forms are romans and romant. These and similar formations derive ultimately from the mediaeval Latin adverb romanice. Roman and like words meant originally the various vernaculars derived from Latin, just as the French still speak of these vernaculars as les langues romanes; and then the word roman came to be applied to tales written in the various vernaculars, especially in old French. Now with what features of these tales were people most struck? The reply to this question is found in a passage of a fifteenth-century Latin manuscript: "From the reading of certain romantics, that is, books of poetry composed in French on military deeds which are for the most part fictitious." Here the term romantic is applied to books that we should still call romantic and for the very same reason, namely, because of the predominance in these books of the element of fiction over reality.
In general a thing is romantic when, as Aristotle would say, it is wonderful rather than probable; in other words, when it violates the normal sequence of cause and effect in favor of adventure. Here is the fundamental contrast between the words classic and romantic which meets us at the outset and in some form or other persists in all the uses of the word down to the present day. A thing is romantic when it is strange, unexpected, intense, superlative, extreme, unique, etc. A thing is classical, on the other hand, when it is not unique, but representative of a class. In this sense medical men may speak correctly of a classic case of typhoid fever, or a classic case of hysteria. One is even justified in speaking of a classic example of romanticism. By an easy extension of meaning a thing is classical when it belongs to a high class or to the best class.
The type of romanticism referred to in the fifteenth-century manuscript was, it will be observed, the spontaneous product of the popular imagination of the Middle Ages. We may go further and say that the uncultivated human imagination in all times and places is romantic in the same way. It hungers for the thrilling and the marvellous and is, in short, incurably melodramatic. All students of the past know how, when the popular imagination is left free to work on actual historical characters and events, it quickly introduces into these characters and events the themes of universal folk-lore, and makes a ruthless sacrifice of reality to the love of melodramatic surprise. For example, the original nucleus of historical fact has almost disappeared in the lurid melodramatic tale "Les quatre fils Aymon," which has continued, as presented in the "Bibliotheque Bleue," to appeal to the French peasant down to our own times. Those who look with alarm on recent attacks upon romanticism should therefore be comforted. All children, nearly all women and the vast majority of men always have been, are and probably always will be romantic. This is true even of a classical period like the second half of the seventeenth century in France. Boileau is supposed to have killed the vogue of the interminable romances of the early seventeenth century which themselves continue the spirit of the mediaeval romances. But recent investigations have shown that the vogue of these romances continued until well on into the eighteenth century. They influenced the imagination of Rousseau, the great modern romancer.
But to return to the history of the word romantic. The first printed examples of the word in any modern tongue are, it would seem, to be found in English. The Oxford Dictionary cites the following from F. Greville's "Life of Sidney" (written before 1628, published in 1652): "Doe not his Arcadian romantics live after him?"—meaning apparently ideas or features suggestive of romance. Of extreme interest is the use of the word in Evelyn's "Diary" (3 August, 1654): "Were Sir Guy's grot improved as it might be, it were capable of being made a most romantic and pleasant place." The word is not only used in a favorable sense, but it is applied to nature; and it is this use of the word in connection with outer nature that French and German literatures are going to derive later from England. Among the early English uses of the word romantic may be noted: "There happened this extraordinary case—one of the most romantique that ever I heard in my life and could not have believed," etc. "Most other authors that I ever read either have wild romantic tales wherein they strain Love and Honor to that ridiculous height that it becomes burlesque," etc. The word becomes fairly common by the year 1700 and thousands of examples could be collected from English writers in the eighteenth century. Here are two early eighteenth-century instances:
The gentleman I am married to made love to me in rapture but it was the rapture of a Christian and a man of Honor, not a romantic hero or a whining coxcomb.
Whether the charmer sinner it or saint it If folly grow romantick I must paint it
The early French and German uses of the word romantic seem to derive from England. One important point is to be noted as to France. Before using the word romantique the French used the word romanesque in the sense of wild, unusual, adventurous—especially in matters of sentiment, and they have continued to employ romanesque alongside romantique, which is now practically used only of the romantic school. A great deal of confusion is thus avoided into which we fall in English from having only the one word romantic, which must do duty for both romantique and romanesque. An example of romantique is found in French as early as 1675; but the word owed its vogue practically to the anglomania that set in about the middle of the eighteenth century. The first very influential French example of the word is appropriately found in Rousseau in the Fifth Promenade (1777): "The shores of the Lake of Bienne are more wild and romantic than those of the Lake of Geneva." The word romantique was fashionable in France especially as applied to scenery from about the year 1785, but without any thought as yet of applying it to a literary school.
In Germany the word romantisch as an equivalent of the French romanesque and modern German romanhaft, appears at the end of the seventeenth century and plainly as a borrowing from the French. Heidigger, a Swiss, used it several times in his "Mythoscopia romantica," an attack on romances and the wild and vain imaginings they engender. According to Heidigger the only resource against romanticism in this sense is religion. In Germany as in France the association of romantic with natural scenery comes from England, especially from the imitations and translations of Thomson's "Seasons."
In the second half of the eighteenth century the increasingly favorable use of words like Gothic and enthusiastic as well as the emergence of words like sentimental and picturesque are among the symptoms of a new movement, and the fortunes of the word romantic were more or less bound up with this movement. Still, apart from its application to natural scenery, the word is as yet far from having acquired a favorable connotation if we are to believe an essay by John Foster on the "Application of the Epithet Romantic" (1805). Foster's point of view is not unlike that of Heidigger. Romantic, he says, had come to be used as a term of vague abuse, whereas it can be used rightly only of the ascendancy of imagination over judgment, and is therefore synonymous with such words as wild, visionary, extravagant. "A man possessing so strong a judgment and so subordinate a fancy as Dean Swift would hardly have been made romantic … if he had studied all the books in Don Quixote's library." It is not, Foster admits, a sign of high endowment for a youth to be too coldly judicial, too deaf to the blandishments of imaginative illusion. Yet in general a man should strive to bring his imagination under the control of sound reason. But how is it possible thus to prevail against the deceits of fancy? Right knowing, he asserts very un-Socratically, is not enough to ensure right doing. At this point Foster changes from the tone of a literary essay to that of a sermon, and, maintaining a thesis somewhat similar to that of Pascal in the seventeenth century and Heidigger in the eighteenth, he concludes that a man's imagination will run away with his judgment or reason unless he have the aid of divine grace.
When Foster wrote his essay there was no question as yet in England of a romantic school. Before considering how the word came to be applied to a particular movement we need first to bring out more fully certain broad conflicts of tendency during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, conflicts that are not sufficiently revealed by the occasional uses during this period of the word romantic. In the contrast Foster established between judgment and imagination he is merely following a long series of neo-classical critics and this contrast not only seemed to him and these critics, but still seems to many, the essential contrast between classicism and romanticism. We shall be helped in understanding how judgment (or reason) and imagination came thus to be sharply contrasted if we consider briefly the changes in the meaning of the word wit during the neo-classical period, and also if we recollect that the contrast between judgment and imagination is closely related to the contrast the French are so fond of establishing between the general sense (le sens commun) and the private sense or sense of the individual (le sens propre).
In the sixteenth century prime emphasis was put not upon common sense, but upon wit or conceit or ingenuity (in the sense of quickness of imagination). The typical Elizabethan strove to excel less by judgment than by invention, by "high-flying liberty of conceit"; like Falstaff he would have a brain "apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes." Wit at this time, it should be remembered, was synonymous not only with imagination but with intellect (in opposition to will). The result of the worship of wit in this twofold sense was a sort of intellectual romanticism. Though its origins are no doubt mediaeval, it differs from the ordinary romanticism of the Middle Ages to which I have already referred in being thus concerned with thought rather than with action. Towards the end of the Renaissance and in the early seventeenth century especially, people were ready to pursue the strange and surprising thought even at the risk of getting too far away from the workings of the normal mind. Hence the "points" and "conceits" that spread, as Lowell put it, like a "cutaneous eruption" over the face of Europe; hence the Gongorists, and Cultists, the Marinists and Euphuists, the precieux and the "metaphysical" poets. And then came the inevitable swing away from all this fantasticality towards common sense. A demand arose for something that was less rare and "precious" and more representative.
This struggle between the general sense and the sense of the individual stands out with special clearness in France. A model was gradually worked out by aid of the classics, especially the Latin classics, as to what man should be. Those who were in the main movement of the time elaborated a great convention, that is they came together about certain things. They condemned in the name of their convention those who were too indulgent of their private sense, in other words, too eccentric in their imaginings. A Theophile, for example, fell into disesteem for refusing to restrain his imagination, for asserting the type of "spontaneity" that would have won him favor in any romantic period.
The swing away from intellectual romanticism can also be traced in the changes that took place in the meaning of the word wit in both France and England. One of the main tasks of the French critics of the seventeenth century and of English critics, largely under the lead of the French, was to distinguish between true and false wit. The work that would have been complimented a little earlier as "witty" and "conceited" is now censured as fantastic and far-fetched, as lacking in judicial control over the imagination, and therefore in general appeal. The movement away from the sense of the individual towards common sense goes on steadily from the time of Malherbe to that of Boileau. Balzac attacks Ronsard for his individualistic excess, especially for his audacity in inventing words without reference to usage. Balzac himself is attacked by Boileau for his affectation, for his straining to say things differently from other people. In so far his wit was not true but false. La Bruyere, in substantial accord with Boileau, defines false wit as wit which is lacking in good sense and judgment and "in which the imagination has too large a share."
What the metaphysical poets in England understood by wit, according to Dr. Johnson, was the pursuit of their thoughts to their last ramifications, and in this pursuit of the singular and the novel they lost the "grandeur of generality." This imaginative quest of rarity led to the same recoil as in France, to a demand for common sense and judgment. The opposite extreme from the metaphysical excess is reached when the element of invention is eliminated entirely from wit and it is reduced, as it is by Pope, to rendering happily the general sense—
What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed
Dr. Johnson says that the decisive change in the meaning of the word wit took place about the time of Cowley. Important evidences of this change and also of the new tendency to depreciate the imagination is also found in certain passages of Hobbes. Hobbes identifies the imagination with the memory of outer images and so looks on it as "decaying sense." "They who observe similitudes," he remarks elsewhere, making a distinction that was to be developed by Locke and accepted by Addison, "in case they be such as are but rarely observed by others are said to have a good wit; by which, in this occasion, is meant a good fancy" (wit has here the older meaning). "But they who distinguish and observe differences," he continues, "are said to have a good judgment. Fancy without the help of judgment is not worthy of commendation, whereas judgment is commended for itself without the help of fancy. Indeed without steadiness and direction to some end, a great fancy is one kind of madness." "Judgment without fancy," he concludes, "is wit" (this anticipates the extreme neo-classical use of the word wit), "but fancy without judgment, not."
Dryden betrays the influence of Hobbes when he says of the period of incubation of his "Rival Ladies": "Fancy was yet in its first work, moving the sleeping images of things towards the light, there to be distinguished and either chosen or rejected by judgment." Fancy or imagination (the words were still synonymous), as conceived by the English neo-classicists, often shows a strange vivacity for a faculty that is after all only "decaying sense." "Fancy without judgment," says Dryden, "is a hot-mouthed jade without a curb." "Fancy," writes Rymer in a similar vein, "leaps and frisks, and away she's gone; whilst reason rattles the chain and follows after." The following lines of Mulgrave are typical of the neo-classical notion of the relation between fancy and judgment:
As all is dullness when the Fancy's bad,
So without Judgment, Fancy is but mad.
Reason is that substantial, useful part
Which gains the Head, while t' other wins the Heart
The opposition established by the neo-classicist in passages of this kind is too mechanical. Fancy and judgment do not seem to cooperate but to war with one another. In case of doubt the neo-classicist is always ready to sacrifice fancy to the "substantial, useful part," and so he seems too negative and cool and prosaic in his reason, and this is because his reason is so largely a protest against a previous romantic excess. What had been considered genius in the time of the "metaphysicals" had too often turned out to be only oddity. With this warning before them men kept their eyes fixed very closely on the model of normal human nature that had been set up, and imitated it very literally and timorously. A man was haunted by the fear that he might be "monstrous," and so, as Rymer put it, "satisfy nobody's maggot but his own." Correctness thus became a sort of tyranny. We suffer to the present day from this neo-classical failure to work out a sound conception of the imagination in its relation to good sense. Because the neo-classicist held the imagination lightly as compared with good sense the romantic rebels, were led to hold good sense lightly as compared with imagination. The romantic view in short is too much the neo-classical view turned upside down; and, as Sainte-Beuve says, nothing resembles a hollow so much as a swelling.
Because the classicism against which romanticism rebelled was inadequate it does not follow that every type of classicism suffers from a similar inadequacy. The great movement away from imaginative unrestraint towards regularity and good sense took place in the main under French auspices. In general the French have been the chief exponents of the classic spirit in modern times. They themselves feel this so strongly that a certain group in France has of late years inclined to use interchangeably the words classicist and nationalist. But this is a grave confusion, for if the classic spirit is anything at all it is in its essence not local and national, but universal and human. To be sure, any particular manifestation of classicism will of necessity contain elements that are less universal, elements that reflect merely a certain person or persons, or a certain age and country. This is a truth that we scarcely need to have preached to us; for with the growth of the historical method we have come to fix our attention almost exclusively on these local and relative elements. The complete critic will accept the historical method but be on his guard against its excess. He will see an element in man that is set above the local and the relative; he will learn to detect this abiding element through all the flux of circumstance; in Platonic language, he will perceive the One in the Many.
Formerly, it must be admitted, critics were not historical enough. They took to be of the essence of classicism what was merely its local coloring, especially the coloring it received from the French of the seventeenth century. If we wish to distinguish between essence and accident in the classic spirit we must get behind the French of the seventeenth century, behind the Italians of the sixteenth century who laid the foundations of neo-classical theory, behind the Romans who were the immediate models of most neo-classicists, to the source of classicism in Greece. Even in Greece the classic spirit is very much implicated in the local and the relative, yet in the life of no other people perhaps does what is universal in man shine forth more clearly from what is only local and relative. We still need, therefore, to return to Greece, not merely for the best practice, but for the best theory of classicism; for this is still found in spite of all its obscurities and incompleteness in the Poetics of Aristotle. If we have recourse to this treatise, however, it must be on condition that we do not, like the critics of the Renaissance, deal with it in an abstract and dogmatic way (the form of the treatise it must be confessed gave them no slight encouragement), but in a spirit akin to Aristotle's own as revealed in the total body of his writings—a spirit that is at its best positive and experimental.
Aristotle not only deals positively and experimentally with the natural order and with man so far as he is a part of this order, but he deals in a similar fashion with a side of man that the modern positivist often overlooks. Like all the great Greeks Aristotle recognizes that man is the creature of two laws: he has an ordinary or natural self of impulse and desire and a human self that is known practically as a power of control over impulse and desire. If man is to become human he must not let impulse and desire run wild, but must oppose to everything excessive in his ordinary self, whether in thought or deed or emotion, the law of measure. This insistence on restraint and proportion is rightly taken to be of the essence not merely of the Greek spirit but of the classical spirit in general. The norm or standard that is to set bounds to the ordinary self is got at by different types of classicists in different ways and described variously: for example, as the human law, or the better self, or reason (a word to be discussed more fully later), or nature. Thus when Boileau says, "Let nature be your only study," he does not mean outer nature, nor again the nature of this or that individual, but representative human nature. Having decided what is normal either for man or some particular class of men the classicist takes this normal "nature" for his model and proceeds to imitate it. Whatever accords with the model he has thus set up he pronounces natural or probable, whatever on the other hand departs too far from what he conceives to be the normal type or the normal sequence of cause and effect he holds to be "improbable" and unnatural or even, if it attains an extreme of abnormality, "monstrous." Whatever in conduct or character is duly restrained and proportionate with reference to the model is said to observe decorum. Probability and decorum are identical in some of their aspects and closely related in all. To recapitulate, a general nature, a core of normal experience, is affirmed by all classicists. From this central affirmation derives the doctrine of imitation, and from imitation in turn the doctrines of probability and decorum.
But though all classicists are alike in insisting on nature, imitation, probability and decorum, they differ widely, as I have already intimated, in what they understand by these terms. Let us consider first what Aristotle and the Greeks understand by them. The first point to observe is that according to Aristotle one is to get his general nature not on authority or second hand, but is to disengage it directly for himself from the jumble of particulars that he has before his eyes. He is not, says Aristotle, to imitate things as they are, but as they ought to be. Thus conceived imitation is a creative act. Through all the welter of the actual one penetrates to the real and so succeeds without ceasing to be individual in suggesting the universal. Poetry that is imitative in this sense is, according to Aristotle, more "serious" and "philosophical" than history. History deals merely with what has happened, whereas poetry deals with what may happen according to probability or necessity. Poetry, that is, does not portray life literally but extricates the deeper or ideal truth from the flux of circumstance. One may add with Sydney that if poetry is thus superior to history in being more serious and philosophical it resembles history and is superior to philosophy in being concrete.
The One that the great poet or artist perceives in the Many and that gives to his work its high seriousness is not a fixed absolute. In general the model that the highly serious man imitates and that keeps his ordinary self within the bounds of decorum is not to be taken as anything finite, as anything that can be formulated once for all. This point is important for on it hinges every right distinction not merely between the classic and the romantic, but between the classic and the pseudo-classic. Romanticism has claimed for itself a monopoly of imagination and infinitude, but on closer examination, as I hope to show later, this claim, at least so far as genuine classicism is concerned, will be found to be quite unjustified. For the present it is enough to say that true classicism does not rest on the observance of rules or the imitation of models but on an immediate insight into the universal. Aristotle is especially admirable in the account he gives of this insight and of the way it may manifest itself in art and literature. One may be rightly imitative, he says, and so have access to a superior truth and give others access to it only by being a master of illusion. Though the great poet "breathes immortal air," though he sees behind the shows of sense a world of more abiding relationships, he can convey his vision not directly but only imaginatively. Aristotle, one should observe, does not establish any hard and fast opposition between judgment and imagination, an opposition that pervades not only the neo-classical movement but also the romantic revolt from it. He simply affirms a supersensuous order which one can perceive only with the help of fiction. The best art, says Goethe in the true spirit of Aristotle, gives us the "illusion of a higher reality." This has the advantage of being experimental. It is merely a statement of what one feels in the presence of a great painting, let us say, or in reading a great poem.
After this attempt to define briefly with the help of the Greeks the classical spirit in its essence we should be prepared to understand more clearly the way in which this spirit was modified in neo-classical times, especially in France. The first thing that strikes one about the classicism of this period is that it does not rest on immediate perception like that of the Greeks but on outer authority. The merely dogmatic and traditional classicist gave a somewhat un-Greek meaning to the doctrines of nature and imitation. Why imitate nature directly, said Scaliger, when we have in Virgil a second nature? Imitation thus came to mean the imitation of certain outer models and the following of rules based on these models. Now it is well that one who aims at excellence in any field should begin by a thorough assimilation of the achievements of his great predecessors in this field. Unfortunately the neo-classical theorist tended to impose a multitude of precepts that were based on what was external rather than on what was vital in the practice of his models. In so far the lesson of form that the great ancients can always teach any one who approaches them in the right spirit degenerated into formalism. This formalistic turn given to the doctrine of imitation was felt from the outset to be a menace to originality; to be incompatible, and everything hinges at last on this point, with the spontaneity of the imagination. There was an important reaction headed by men like Boileau, within the neo-classical movement itself, against the oppression of the intuitive side of human nature by mere dogma and authority, above all against the notion that "regularity" is in itself any guarantee of literary excellence. A school of rules was succeeded by a school of taste. Yet even to the end the neo-classicist was too prone to reject as unnatural or even monstrous everything that did not fit into one of the traditional pigeon-holes. One must grant, indeed, that much noble work was achieved under the neo-classical dispensation, work that shows a genuine insight into the universal, but it is none the less evident that the view of the imagination held during this period has a formalistic taint.
This taint in neo-classicism is due not merely to its dogmatic and mechanical way of dealing with the doctrine of imitation but also to the fact that it had to reconcile classical with Christian dogma; and the two antiquities, classical and Christian, if interpreted vitally and in the spirit, were in many respects divergent and in some respects contradictory. The general outcome of the attempts at reconciliation made by the literary casuists of Italy and France was that Christianity should have a monopoly of truth and classicism a monopoly of fiction. For the true classicist, it will be remembered, the two things are inseparable—he gets at his truth through a veil of fiction. Many of the neo-classicists came to conceive of art as many romanticists were to conceive of it later as a sort of irresponsible game or play, but they were, it must be confessed, very inferior to the romanticists in the spontaneity of their fiction. They went for this fiction as for everything else to the models, and this meant in practice that they employed the pagan myths, not as imaginative symbols of a higher reality—it is still possible to employ them in that way—but merely in Boileau's phrase as "traditional ornaments" (ornements recus). The neo-classicist to be sure might so employ his "fiction" as to inculcate a moral; in that case he is only too likely to give us instead of the living symbol, dead allegory; instead of high seriousness, its caricature, didacticism. The traditional stock of fiction became at last so intolerably trite as to be rejected even by some of the late neo-classicists. "The rejection and contempt of fiction," said Dr. Johnson (who indulged in it himself on occasion) "is rational and manly." But to reject fiction in the larger sense is to miss the true driving power in human nature—the imagination. Before concluding, however, that Dr. Johnson had no notion of the role of the imagination one should read his attack on the theory of the three unities which was later to be turned to account by the romanticists.
Now the three unities may be defended on an entirely legitimate ground—on the ground namely that they make for concentration, a prime virtue in the drama; but the grounds on which they were actually imposed on the drama, especially in connection with the Quarrel of the Cid, illustrate the corruption of another main classical doctrine, that of probability or verisimilitude. In his dealings with probability as in his dealings with imitation, the neo-classical formalist did not allow sufficiently for the element of illusion. What he required from the drama in the name of probability was not the "illusion of a higher reality," but strict logic or even literal deception. He was not capable of a poetic faith, not willing to suspend his disbelief on passing from the world of ordinary fact to the world of artistic creation. Goethe was thinking especially of the neo-classical French when he said: "As for the French, they will always be arrested by their reason. They do not recognize that the imagination has its own laws which are and always must be problematic for the reason."
It was also largely under French influence that the doctrine of decorum, which touches probability at many points, was turned aside from its true meaning. Decorum is in a way the peculiar doctrine of the classicist, is in Milton's phrase "the grand masterpiece to observe." The doctrines of the universal and the imitation of the universal go deeper indeed than decorum, so much deeper that they are shared by classicism with religion. The man who aspires to live religiously must no less than the humanist look to some model set above his ordinary self and imitate it. But though the classicist at his best meditates, he does not, like the seeker after religious perfection, see in meditation an end in itself but rather a support for the mediatory virtues, the virtues of the man who would live to the best advantage in this world rather than renounce it; and these virtues may be said to be summed up in decorum. For the best type of Greek humanist, a Sophocles let us say, decorum was a vital and immediate thing. But there enters into decorum even from the time of the Alexandrian Greeks, and still more into French neo-classical decorum, a marked element of artificiality. The all-roundness and fine symmetry, the poise and dignity that come from working within the bounds of the human law, were taken to be the privilege not of man in general but of a special social class. Take for instance verbal decorum: the French neo-classicists assumed that if the speech of poetry is to be noble and highly serious it must coincide with the speech of the aristocracy. As Nisard puts it, they confused nobility of language with the language of the nobility. Decorum was thus more or less merged with etiquette, so that the standards of the stage and of literature in general came to coincide, as Rousseau complains, with those of the drawing-room. More than anything else this narrowing of decorum marks the decline from the classic to the pseudo-classic, from form to formalism.
While condemning pseudo-decorum one should remember that even a Greek would have seen something paradoxical in a poem like Goethe's "Hermann und Dorothea" and its attempt to invest with epic grandeur the affairs of villagers and peasants. After all, dignity and elevation and especially the opportunity for important action, which is the point on which the classicist puts prime emphasis, are normally though not invariably associated with a high rather than with a mean social estate. In general one should insist that the decorum worked out under French auspices was far from being merely artificial. The French gentleman (honnete homme) of the seventeenth century often showed a moderation and freedom from over-emphasis, an exquisite tact and urbanity that did not fall too far short of his immediate model, Horace, and related him to the all-round man of the Greeks. To be sure an ascetic Christian like Pascal sees in decorum a disguise of one's ordinary self rather than a real curb upon it, and feels that the gap is not sufficiently wide between even the best type of the man of the world and the mere worldling. One needs, however, to be very austere to disdain the art of living that has been fostered by decorum from the Greeks down. Something of this art of living survives even in a Chesterfield, who falls far short of the best type of French gentleman and reminds one very remotely indeed of a Pericles. Chesterfield's half-jesting definition of decorum as the art of combining the useful appearances of virtue with the solid satisfactions of vice points the way to its ultimate corruption. Talleyrand, who marks perhaps this last stage, was defined by Napoleon as "a silk stocking filled with mud." In some of its late exemplars decorum had actually become, as Rousseau complains, the "mask of hypocrisy" and the "varnish of vice."
One should not however, like Rousseau and the romanticists, judge of decorum by what it degenerated into. Every doctrine of genuine worth is disciplinary and men in the mass do not desire discipline. "Most men," says Aristotle, "would rather live in a disorderly than in a sober manner." But most men do not admit any such preference—that would be crude and inartistic. They incline rather to substitute for the reality of discipline some art of going through the motions. Every great doctrine is thus in constant peril of passing over into some hollow semblance or even, it may be, into some mere caricature of itself. When one wishes therefore to determine the nature of decorum one should think of a Milton, let us say, and not of a Talleyrand or even of a Chesterfield.
Milton imitated the models, like any other neo-classicist, but his imitation was not, in Joubert's phrase, that of one book by another book, but of one soul by another soul. His decorum is therefore imaginative; and it is the privilege of the imagination to give the sense of spaciousness and infinitude. On the other hand, the unimaginative way in which many of the neo-classicists held their main tenets—nature, imitation, probability, decorum—narrowed unduly the scope of the human spirit and appeared to close the gates of the future. "Art and diligence have now done their best," says Dr. Johnson of the versification of Pope, "and what shall be added will be the effort of tedious toil and needless curiosity." Nothing is more perilous than thus to seem to confine man in some pinfold; there is something in him that refuses to acquiesce in any position as final; he is in Nietzsche's phrase the being who must always surpass himself. The attempt to oppose external and mechanical barriers to the freedom of the spirit will create in the long run an atmosphere of stuffiness and smugness, and nothing is more intolerable than smugness. Men were guillotined in the French Revolution, as Bagehot suggests, simply because either they or their ancestors had been smug. Inert acceptance of tradition and routine will be met sooner or later by the cry of Faust: Hinaus ins Freie!
Before considering the value of the method chosen by Rousseau and the romanticists for breaking up the "tiresome old heavens" and escaping from smugness and stuffiness, one should note that the lack of originality and genius which they lamented in the eighteenth century—especially in that part of it known as the Enlightenment—was not due entirely to pseudo-classic formalism. At least two other main currents entered into the Enlightenment: first the empirical and utilitarian current that goes back to Francis Bacon, and some would say to Roger Bacon; and secondly the rationalistic current that goes back to Descartes. English empiricism gained international vogue in the philosophy of Locke, and Locke denies any supersensuous element in human nature to which one may have access with the aid of the imagination or in any other way. Locke's method of precise naturalistic observation is in itself legitimate; for man is plainly subject to the natural law. What is not truly empirical is to bring the whole of human nature under this law. One can do this only by piecing out precise observation and experiment with dogmatic rationalism. One side of Locke may therefore be properly associated with the father of modern rationalists, Descartes. The attempt of the rationalist to lock up life in some set of formulae produces in the imaginative man a feeling of oppression. He gasps for light and air. The very tracing of cause and effect and in general the use of the analytical faculties—and this is to fly to the opposite extreme—came to be condemned by the romanticists as inimical to the imagination. Not only do they make endless attacks on Locke, but at times they assail even Newton for having mechanized life, though Newton's comparison of himself to a child picking up pebbles on the seashore would seem to show that he had experienced "the feeling infinite."
The elaboration of science into a closed system with the aid of logic and pure mathematics is as a matter of fact to be associated with Descartes rather than with Newton. Neither Newton nor Descartes, one scarcely needs add, wished to subject man entirely to the natural law and the nexus of physical causes; they were not in short determinists. Yet the superficial rationalism of the Enlightenment was in the main of Cartesian origin. This Cartesian influence ramifies in so many directions and is related at so many points to the literary movement, and there has been so much confusion about this relationship, that we need to pause here to make a few distinctions.
Perhaps what most strikes one in the philosophy of Descartes is its faith in logic and abstract reasoning and the closely allied processes of mathematical demonstration. Anything that is not susceptible of clear proof in this logical and almost mathematical sense is to be rejected. Now this Cartesian notion of clearness is fatal to a true classicism. The higher reality, the true classicist maintains, cannot be thus demonstrated; it can only be grasped, and then never completely, through a veil of imaginative illusion. Boileau is reported to have said that Descartes had cut the throat of poetry; and this charge is justified in so far as the Cartesian requires from poetry a merely logical clearness. This conception of clearness was also a menace to the classicism of the seventeenth century which rested in the final analysis not on logic but on tradition. This appeared very clearly in the early phases of the quarrel between ancients and moderns when literary Cartesians like Perrault and Fontenelle attacked classical dogma in the name of reason. In fact one may ask if any doctrine has ever appeared so fatal to every form of tradition—not merely literary but also religious and political—as Cartesianism. The rationalist of the eighteenth century was for dismissing as "prejudice" everything that could not give a clear account of itself in the Cartesian sense. This riot of abstract reasoning (la raison raisonnante) that prepared the way for the Revolution has been identified by Taine and others with the classic spirit. A more vicious confusion has seldom gained currency in criticism. It is true that the French have mixed a great deal of logic with their conception of the classic spirit, but that is because they have mixed a great deal of logic with everything. I have already mentioned their tendency to substitute a logical for an imaginative verisimilitude; and strenuously logical classicists may be found in France from Chapelain to Brunetiere. Yet the distinction that should keep us from confusing mere logic with the classic spirit was made by a Frenchman who was himself violently logical and also a great geometrician—Pascal. One should keep distinct, says Pascal, the esprit de geometrie and the esprit de finesse. The esprit de finesse is not, like the esprit de geometrie, abstract, but very concrete. So far as a man possesses the esprit de finesse he is enabled to judge correctly of the ordinary facts of life and of the relationships between man and man. But these judgments rest upon such a multitude of delicate perceptions that he is frequently unable to account for them logically. It is to intuitive good sense and not to the esprit de geometrie that the gentleman (honnete homme) of the neo-classical period owed his fine tact. Pascal himself finally took a stand against reason as understood both by the Cartesian and by the man of the world. Unaided reason he held is unable to prevail against the deceits of the imagination; it needs the support of intuition—an intuition that he identifies with grace, thus making it inseparable from the most austere form of Christianity. The "heart," he says, and this is the name he gives to intuition, "has reasons of which the reason knows nothing." A Plato or an Aristotle would not have understood this divorce between reason and intuition.
Pascal seems to get his insight only by flouting ordinary good sense. He identifies this insight with a type of theological dogma of which good sense was determined to be rid; and so it tended to get rid of the insight along with the dogma. Classical dogma also seemed at times to be in opposition to the intuitive good sense of the man of the world. The man of the world therefore often inclined to assail both the classical and the Christian tradition in the name of good sense, just as the Cartesian inclined to assail these traditions in the name of abstract reason. Perhaps the best exponent of anti-traditional good sense in the seventeenth century was Moliere. He vindicated nature, and by nature he still meant in the main normal human nature, from arbitrary constraints of every kind whether imposed by an ascetic Christianity or by a narrow and pedantic classicism. Unfortunately Moliere is too much on the side of the opposition. He does not seem to put his good sense into the service of some positive insight of his own. Good sense may be of many degrees according to the order of facts of which it has a correct perception. The order of facts in human nature that Moliere's good sense perceived is not the highest and so this good sense appears at times too ready to justify the bourgeois against the man who has less timid and conventional views. So at least Rousseau thought when he made his famous attack on Moliere. Rousseau assailed Moliere in the name of instinct as Pascal would have assailed him in the name of insight, and fought sense with sensibility. The hostility of Rousseau to Moliere, according to M. Faguet, is that of a romantic Bohemian to a philistine of genius. One hesitates to call Moliere a philistine, but one may at least grant M. Faguet that Moliere's good sense is not always sufficiently inspired.
I have been trying to build up a background that will make clear why the reason of the eighteenth century (whether we understand by reason logic or good sense) had come to be superficial and therefore oppressive to the imagination. It is only with reference to this "reason" that one can understand the romantic revolt. But neo-classical reason itself can be understood only with reference to its background—as a recoil namely from a previous romantic excess. This excess was manifested not only in the intellectual romanticism of which I have already spoken, but in the cult of the romantic deed that had flourished in the Middle Ages. This cult and the literature that reflected it continued to appeal, even to the cultivated, well on into the neo-classical period. It was therefore felt necessary to frame a definition of reason that should be a rebuke to the extravagance and improbability of the mediaeval romances. When men became conscious in the eighteenth century of the neo-classical meagerness on the imaginative side they began to look back with a certain envy to the free efflorescence of fiction in the Middle Ages. They began to ask themselves with Hurd whether the reason and correctness they had won were worth the sacrifice of a "world of fine fabling." We must not, however, like Heine and many others, look on the romantic movement as merely a return to the Middle Ages. We have seen that the men of the Middle Ages themselves understood by romance not simply their own kind of speech and writing in contrast with what was written in Latin, but a kind of writing in which the pursuit of strangeness and adventure predominated. This pursuit of strangeness and adventure will be found to predominate in all types of romanticism. The type of romanticism, however, which came in towards the end of the eighteenth century did not, even when professedly mediaeval, simply revert to the older types. It was primarily not a romanticism of thought or of action, the types we have encountered, but a romanticism of feeling. The beginnings of this emotional romanticism antedate considerably the application of the word romantic to a particular literary school.
End of Classic And Romantic by Irving Babbitt