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5.0 out of 5 stars Romantic Imagination, 30 July 2011
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Neutral "Phil" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 (Cambridge Studies in Romanticism) (Hardcover)
Although the Romantic Movement is generally considered to have begun with the publication in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, its origins lie in the rejection of Kant's moral philosophy with its twin pillars of Rationalism and Will. Romanticism evoked nostalgia, elevating usage and custom as legitimate sources of aesthetical expression. It characterised imagination, rather than reason, as the means of interpreting nature as a system of symbols. Romanticism itself was influenced by the American and French revolutions. The American Revolution of 1776 successfully challenged traditional economic, political and social values, the French Revolution of 1789 overthrew them. While the former was led by Deists the latter was decidedly secular, anti-clerical and riddled with atheistic doctrines leading to a systematic attempt to de-Christianise French society.

Atheism in British society was usually implied rather than stated as in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733) in which he declared, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." Explicit atheism based on the materialist concept of reality - which can be traced to the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet Llucretius - grew during the eighteenth century. D'Holbach's System of Nature (1770) became known as the "Bible of Atheism" arguing that religion was a barrier to human progress. Sade and La Mettire advocated the pursuit of unlimited and uninhibited pleasure as the reason for human existence. Adopting the pleasure principle would liberate mankind from social oppression including that of the Roman Catholic Church which was integrated into the French political establishment. The historian David Hume, who attacked the reality of miracles, was known as "The Great Atheist". Intellectual attacks on religion were supplemented by evidence from the exploration of foreign lands that the institutionalised church was not the only source of religious belief. In addition, eighteenth century thinkers began to question the validity of the theology of the "Great Chain of Being" and sought to replace it with the materialistic "inevitability of progress".

The Romantic Movement was linked to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Liberal thinkers saw the events of 1789 as ushering in a new age of progress but were disillusioned by the Reign of Terror and the emergence of Napoleon. Rousseau embodied the "new man", supposedly superior to what had gone before and instrumental in creating new social systems powered by what the future could be, rather than stultified by what had happened in the past. As old idols fell Romanticism tried to replace them with its own art forms. It encouraged the revival of ancient traditions, recognised indigenous cultures, contributed to the rise of nationalism and attacked organised religion. Priestman's objective was "to explore the links between the development of explicit atheism in the period 1780-1830 and the simultaneous emergence of much important new poetry." He suggests that non-religious dissent, broadly defined as freethought, involved active participation in the events of the day rather than being on the outside looking in.

Politics, religion and social change were interwined in eighteenth century England in a variety of ways. John Wesley's Methodism, which emphasised faith instead of good works, was too emotional for the Anglican church but attracted many young university students as did Unitarianism. Both objected to the Test Acts which required them to attest to belief in the 39 articles of the Church of England in order to be awarded a degree. Economic and social changes introduced by the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the Enclosure Acts, depopulated and impoverised the countryside adding to the development of an urban proletariat. Lyrical Ballads evoked a not-to-distant past which itself became idealised. In common with Rousseau Wordsworth considered human perfection had been thwarted by society. Wordsworth expressed the response to the French Revolution when he wrote, " Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven!" Wordsworth's generation, it seemed, were destined to become masters of the universe.

They attacked religion because they believed there was something better. Robert Owen's utopian socialist society, Saint-Simon's Positivism and Comte's religion of humanity, were amongst contemporary ideas which rejected organised theistic religion in favour of experimental forms of social organisation. They combined various strands of freethought including a revivial of interest in classical religion, the absorption of oriental pantheism and the creation of an artifical form of paganism in order to lampoon Christian doctrine, practice and views on sexual expression. For some, science was the religion of truth. Richard Carlile's pamphlet "An Address to Men of Science " (1821) called upon them "to Stand Forward and Vindicate the Truth from the Foul Grasp of Superstition". The replacement of the latter through education was "the only sure Prelude to Universal Peace and Harmony among the Human Race". Carlile became associated with Robert Taylor, commonly known as The Devil's Chaplain, both being sentenced to prison for blasphemy. Almost two hundred years later the debate still rages.

In many ways contemporary atheism is characterised by a failure to move beyond its eighteenth century materialist position, expressed in Wordsworth's poem about the French Revolution which referred to:

the very world, which is the world,
Of all of us,--the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

Priestman concludes that "the possibility of atheism was an opportunity to make sense of the world in purely human terms, in ways hitherto thought unimaginable." It provided the Owenite Frances Wright with ammunition for her American speaking tour, described by a New York paper as "a singular melange of politics and impiety, eloquence and irreligion, bold invective and electioneering slang." Romanticism could never be divorced from its historical context, including the politics of the day. Priestman has reminded readers of that fact. Five stars for an excellent contribution to literary history.
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