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Romanticism, Rhetoric and the Search for the Sublime, 2nd Edition
A Neo-Romantic Theory
By Craig R. Smith
The picture at the end of this blog is of me sitting on a log surrounded by a carpet of bluebells in a forest in Sussex, England. I’m on the property of a couple for whom I would perform a wedding ceremony. The mother of the bride owns “Old Manor”, which was first built in 1496 in Warham, the hometown of Percy Shelley’s mother. At the time, it struck me that these 100 acres constituted a rare enclave in a world that was trying to survive global warming. That’s when I got the idea for my book on the Romantic Era. What if, I thought, the rhetorical theories of the Romantic Era could be resurrected and reinforced for use in the battle for the planet? After all, the Romantics were the first environmentalists. They condemned the Industrial Revolution and saw God’s design in nature, which inspired the sublime and needed to be protected.
By the time I started writing the book, it was clear that the science and rationalism of ecological activists had not broken through to the public to warn about the dangers of global warming. Instead, many people sought comfort in cable channels and social media that reinforced their disbelief in the impending ecological disaster. Various industries that produced or relied on fossil fuels continued to debunk global warming to protect their vested interests.
Unlike current scientists, the Romantics believed that emotional appeals were the key to breaking through to the public. Borrowing from Scottish philosopher David Hume, they concluded that most people make decisions based on emotion and sensual intuition, and only after this do they rationalize their decisions with evidence and argument. That’s why Percy Shelley, to whom I devote a chapter in the book, developed the “rhetorical poem” to campaign for the Romantic agenda. For example, his “Queen Mab” transforms a young woman into a “spirit,” who then is taken on a sublime journey over the beauties of the planet to learn about spirituality and how it can achieve a better world. Shelley wrote “The Mask of Anarchy” in response to a massacre by British troops at a massive protest in Manchester. The field was renamed Peterloo in honor of the martyrdom of St. Peter and the British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. In the poem, Shelley condemns the leadership of Britain, comparing it to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. The last of the four is the king himself trampling the common people under the hooves of his mount. Presaging Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Shelley argues for passive resistance. He was in exile in Italy at the time of the massacre; nonetheless, his poem became a charismatic document in the fight for political reform, which was finally achieved in 1832. Like many Romantics, Shelley suffered a tragic death at sea in 1822, which only increased his appeal.
When I began to research the development of the Romantic Era, I found that its roots took me back to a distant starting point: the writing of St. Augustine in the Fifth Century. Augustine founded the two prongs of philosophical thinking that would dominate the ensuing centuries. The Scholastic Movement was based on interpreting the Bible correctly to ground the truth. The Humanist Movement, on the other hand, retrieved the ancient wisdom of the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, who had been abandoned by church leaders because they and other ancients were pagan. These figures were particularly helpful in constructing Augustine’s theory of rhetoric, which would help priests defend the faith, and to instruct and move their parishioners. While the Scholastics would build a logical chain to God, the Humanists would focus on the study of humankind.
Because of its reliance on reason, the Scholastic Movement would evolve into the Enlightenment, adding scientific observation and experimentation along the way. In this way, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Galileo, and Rene Descartes contributed to the Scholastic School. In reaction, the Humanists used observation to study human nature and inspired some of the most significant figures leading up to the Renaissance, such as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. During the Renaissance itself, the Humanists were dominated by such figures and Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vico and Machiavelli.
As I demonstrate in the second edition of my text, links to the Romantic Movement were varied. They start with the sturm und drang (storm and stress) thread in German writing that produced Goethe, Schilling and Schiller. Such English Romantics as Wordsworth and Coleridge experienced this movement when they travel in Germany and hiked its mountains. The movement then spread across Europe to Russia, influencing the works of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
Another link was the evolution of several important thinkers who abandoned the Enlightenment for Romantic thinking. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that humans should return to nature, where they were uncorrupted by civilization, and that rulers should serve the people and not the other way around. We have seen how David Hume believed that the passions rule humanity. Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, argued that the cultivation of taste was achieved by embracing the beautiful within nature. The sublime, which overwhelms its audience, could be achieved by painting word pictures of dramatic events in nature. Religion was the foundation of an organic state.
Thus, what started as simple exploration of the rhetorical theory of the Romantics became a long retrieval of the past. The next step in my quest was to examine leading exemplars of Romanticism. In the musical realm, I begin with Beethoven’s development of Romantic music and move into Wagner’s radical transformation of it, whilst also reviewing Brahms’s synthesis with the classical past. With regard to painting, I focus on Turner’s use of light and Constable’s portraits of nature. The studies of the great Romantic orators include Fox and Robespierre. These case studies lead into a careful examination of the rhetorical theories of Hugh Blair and Thomas De Quincy, who show us how to create the beautiful and the sublime in public address.
The final step in the journey was to incorporate effective rhetorical strategies into a Neo-Romantic theory for our own time. And so, I explore Walter Fisher’s narrative theory based on his assumption that humans are story tellers. I incorporate such existentialists as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger to move us from the unexamined, reactive life to a meditative, transcendent and meaningful existence. I conclude with my own explorations of how spirituality enhances charisma.
In this second edition of the book, I try to demonstrate that we owe a great debt to the past and that it can help us preserve the present for future generations. We can achieve that goal by turning to a Neo-Romantic rhetoric to make a better case to the public and the powers that be.
Dr Craig R. Smith has won the Ehninger Award for contributions to rhetorical theory and the Gronbeck Award for political communication, both from the National Communication Association, USA. He has won that organization’s Robert O’Neil Award three times for scholarly papers on freedom of expression. After completing a PhD at Pennsylvania State University, Dr Smith taught at San Diego State University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Alabama Birmingham, where he founded the Communication Studies Department. He also served as a full-time speechwriter for President Gerald Ford, as a consulting writer to George H. W. Bush, and as a consultant to CBS News for convention, election, and inaugural coverage. He served as founding President of the Freedom of Expression Foundation in Washington, DC from 1983 to 1988, before becoming a Full Professor at California State University, Long Beach, until he retired in 2015. He has published 23 books and over 65 scholarly articles.
Romanticism, Rhetoric and the Search for the Sublime, 2nd Edition: A Neo-Romantic Theory is available now at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 to redeem.