A note on the Enlightenment, Romanticism and science fiction

The heirs of Ben Franklin and those of Percy Shelley vie for the future.

Published June 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's been said that Western civilization has spent the last hundred years trying to resolve a deep cleavage in our culture -- a continuing struggle between the 18th century and the 19th, between prescriptions offered by the Enlightenment and those of the later Romantic movement. For generations, a vast majority of writers, artists and academics have sided with Romanticism, from Keats and Shelley to nearly every modern musician or movie star. Seizing every opportunity to extoll emotion and put down "cold" reason has become as natural as breathing. George Lucas expressed this reflex when he said, "I'd say the primary word for me is Romantic. I like the aesthetics of the Victorian age."

With nearly all of society's most expressive and persuasive voices raised on the Romantic side of this old struggle, it is a wonder that notions of cooperative progress and confident pragmatism survive at all. Even science fiction has grown much more cynical, with noir cyberpunk images replacing much of the can-do spirit of earlier tales. In how many popular films does a skillful nerd prevail over the romantic loner? Values like competence and egalitarian advancement are seldom defended in media. And yet they remain popular at a deep level -- perhaps out of gratitude for the real life-improvements wrought by people like Franklin, Edison and Salk -- and in part because citizens sense the underlying themes of inequality and egotism that drive so much of the Romantic movement.

Individualism is fine. (Both the Enlightenment and Romanticism prescribe it.) But many of us realize a stark truth -- that not everyone can be a king or rock star or handsome loner. The rest of us need fairness more than we need egomania. We rely daily on the amiable skill of countless strangers, rich in craft and diversity, who are fellow citizens of a civilization. They are more important to us than any Leader.

This contrast is distilled when Lucas says: "There's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled."

He has a point. I concede the great attraction of the image Lucas offers, while opposing it with all my power. Indeed, the 20th century has been a battleground between these two occidental visions of human life -- two great utopian idealisms. (Intellectuals of the Confucian East and pious South despise both Romanticism and Enlightenment as expressions of crazy Euro-American individualist egoism. But that's another story.)

I don't know which will prevail. Perhaps even a synthesis of the two! And yet, I feel I must point out that, for all their pseudoscientific rhetoric, both Nazism and communism were essentially Romantic movements. Most ideologies are. Their absence from a pragmatic, open-minded 21st century will be no great loss.

Here is another way of posing the issue. A great science-fiction author once said -- "Keep asking questions! The more irksome the better!"

Now who do you think would be more comfortable with that notion -- Percy Shelley or Ben Franklin?

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By David Brin

David Brin is an astrophysicist whose international best-selling novels include "Earth," and recently "Existence." " The Postman" was filmed in 1997. His nonfiction book about the information age - The Transparent Society - won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.  (http://www.davidbrin.com)

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