by ProfDave, ©2022
(May 24, 2022) — The age of reason was followed by the age of ideology in the 19th century. For the most part, the state had given up the effort to suppress religious diversity. Religious dissent had gained a measure of toleration and legality in most places. Religion was still important but was no longer acutely controversial. It was no longer necessary to die for one’s faith. Now ideology took its place. Ideas still have consequences.
What is an ideology? It is a secular system of ideas about life and society, a manner of thinking characteristic of a class or an individual. Ideologies were popularized into broad international movements. They became secular religions expressed in culture, politics, social institutions and sometimes violence – individual and organized. They became things to die for.
Let me attempt to discuss some major 19th century ideologies in pairs: Rationalism and Romanticism, Liberalism and Conservatism, Nationalism, Marxism and Darwinism. In somewhat different forms, they are still with us.
Rationalism and Romanticism. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution concluded that all questions could be solved by reason, objective investigation, and free debate. On a general level, it reacted against tradition and authority. For example, Descartes’ method of radical doubt demanded that no assumptions be accepted. British Empiricists, Hobbes and Locke, regarded anything that was not based on sense data as nonsense. (Sorry for the pun – I think that was actually Hume). Kant took reason over the edge. He argued that we know nothing in itself, but only perceptions, which our minds organize according to a priori categories (such as time, space, cause and effect). In other words, scientific knowledge itself was not real. With Kant, rationalism reached its limits. In his Practical Reason, he went on to say we must rely on conscience and intuition.
Rationalism was expressed in art, literature and music by a scientific spirit. The artist sought the rules and principles of the perfect form. Even religion strove for creedal precision and accuracy.
At the end of the century, rationalism made a come-back in logical positivism, historicism and modernism.
From about 1770-1830 a reaction set in, which we call Romanticism. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in France and Switzerland, wrote of natural freedom and goodness, in revolt against the strictures of society. Goethe, in Germany, wrote of feelings and passion. His Sorrows of the Young Werther, about a self-tortured young man, was an epoch-making sensation, but we know his Faust better. Passion wins out over cold reason. Shakespeare was also a hero of this movement. His plays and sonnets were widely translated. In England, you have William Wordsworth and the “Lake Poets,” who wrote of nature, sentiment, and intuition. In religion, the pietists with their spiritual journals, John Wesley and his religion of the “warm heart,” and – belatedly – the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement (John Henry Newman, Keble, Pusey, Henry Manning) reflected the romantic spirit. Compare a Mozart symphony with Beethoven’s 3rd – Eroica. Good story: Eroica, or the hero,was written to honor Napoleon, but then he invaded Austria and Beethoven took his name off his symphony.
Romanticism revolted – rather passionately – against classicism in the name of self-expression, originality, and relativism. It reacted against the 18th century French aristocratic culture of hyper-refinement in the name of nationalism. It turned back to nature and the common man. It was a reaction against rationalism in the name of emotion, sentiment, faith, intuition, introspection, and genius. It was a reaction against the Renaissance and the scientific revolution and a rediscovered of all things medieval. Finally, many romantics objected to bourgeois morality in the name of individualism, self-expression, passion, spontaneity, and virtù.
A variation of Romanticism that lingered through the century in England was Victorianism. It is characterized by sentimentality and moralism. Later generations criticized the concern for respectability over against “the great unwashed,” but the lasting impact of the Wesley revivals in the “Evangelical Conscience” led to enumerable reforms of conditions during the industrial revolution and beyond. For example: the abolition of slavery, protection of childhood and womanhood, and factory reforms.
Liberalism and Conservatism. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” became the slogan of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. John Locke, and others, emphasized reason, natural law, popular sovereignty and the idea of a social contract enforceable between government and people. Liberty meant no artificial or arbitrary restraints on economic or political activity, and usually religious toleration. Equality meant no special social privileges should be recognized. Fraternity meant “the people,” in aggregate, take action, make constitutions, laws, and wars.
There were other varieties or factors in liberalism. Neo-humanism’s highest value was the development of the human self, often against concepts of natural law. Liberty, equality, and fraternity were simply prerequisites for the fullest development of the human spirit in the “brotherhood of man.” Some thought this development could be assisted by state intervention. The Newtonian world-view also contributed a general faith in reason and fascination with science to liberal thought.
Liberalism was expressed in three action programs: bureaucratic, academic, and radical. Bureaucratic reformers (such as the Prussian state) sought to modernize society, neo-humanist style, from above. In Rousseau’s terms, people could be “forced to be free” by enlightened despots. Their economic policies ranged from lasses faire to state capitalism.
Professors, journalists, and businessmen worked for liberal measures in a more academic way. Utilitarianism, developed by Jeremy Bentham offered theoretical solutions to social issues, through the “calculus of utility”- the greatest good for the greatest number. Others advocated constitutionalism within a state of law rather than the arbitrary will of the monarch. They advocated mixed constitutions, with checks and balances, but they advocated from within the system.
The radicals, in 19th century Europe, were the democrats and the revolutionaries – outside the system. They believed in popular sovereignty without compromise and hated aristocracy in all its forms. They were an international movement for world revolution against tyranny.
In opposition to liberalism were conservatives of three varieties: feudal, idealistic, and romantic. Feudal conservatives were conservative because of their social origins. They were aristocrats and it was a matter of self-preservation. They opposed bureaucratic absolutism on behalf of ancient liberties and privileges. Idealists were conservative through enlightenment realpolitik. They stood for reason, stability, and the natural order. Liberty should be balanced by authority, freedom by order, responsibility and orthodoxy. Prince Metternich held to a static worldview. Hegel, on the other hand, held to a dynamic worldview. What exists is natural law, determined historically by the self-realization of the state, the volksgeist (the spirit of the people) embodied in the state.
Romantic conservatives based their conservativism on feeling, sentiment, and reverence for the past. In religion, many returned to Roman Catholicism. They held an organic and corporate theory of society as an almost medieval network of contractual relationships. Edmund Burke is perhaps the best example. He held to a historical law view of the social contract. In his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) he argued that liberty was an entailed inheritance that we draw from our ancestors. The reason of one generation is too limited to meddle with the cumulative wisdom of the centuries. Society was a transcendent organism. It was sacred. Man was not good, but evil, and would destroy himself if left without restraint. Constitutions were not created, but discovered – by evolution, not revolution.
Nationalism, as we know it, was the invention of the 19th century. Nationalism is a sentiment or loyalty to an identity beyond the local area based on common experiences, institutions, or myths. The Middle Ages saw very little trans-local feeling beyond xenophobia. In the early modern period, nation states developed as geographic units with strong central governments and defined borders. Hobbes, in his Behemoth, treated the state as an aggregate of individuals. Rousseau spoke of the nation as the embodiment of “the general will.” Johann Herder defined human culture in terms of national conditions. He began collecting folk songs and dialects. For Hegel, the nation was the embodiment of the Volksgeist – a peoples’ spirit.
Nationalism could be either liberal or conservative. Was the nation dynamic or static? Was it superior or inferior to the individual? Conservatives saw the nation as a static entity, connected with the past. Liberals saw it as dynamic, an ideal longing to become.
Revolutionary France was, of course, the great example of liberal nationalism. The frenetic exaltation of la patrie, the National Assembly expressing the general will, and the levee en masse – the nation at arms – the National Guard of citizen soldiers drafted from all walks of life and whipped into a frenzy. All Europe watched in awe or horror. And most of Europe imitated.
In central Europe it worked both ways. Revolutionary puppet governments were set up, revolutionary laws enacted, and revolutionary troops marched through after the French example. On the other hand, the French occupation provoked a reaction of local patriotism and national liberation. People discovered that they were Germans, Italians, or whatever, and must choose either national unity or disintegration. Liberal nationalism became an international movement. The English poet Byron died fighting for Greek nationalism. A volume of Longfellow is full of translations of patriotic poems of multiple nations. Europe was to be appreciated as a bouquet of flowers – each with its own hue and fragrance – not a plate of cabbage. The movement became politicized as the century went on.
But nationalism could also be conservative when the spirit of the nation was attached to a particular state, dynasty, heritage, or myth. Conservatives fought to suppress and contain nationalism as a subversive force for most of the century. Multinational empires like Russia, Austria, and Turkey saw clearly that nationalism could tear them apart. Monarchs feared the specter of 1789 unleashed again. Then in the 1860’s Otto von Bismarck, Camillo de Cavour and Louis Napoleon arose to co-opt nationalism in the service of the state.
Romantic nationalism was a special case. Romantics saw the nation as a mythic entity transcending rulers and institutions. This was particularly applicable in central and eastern Europe. At first it was not a political, but a cultural thing – and popular culture at that. Like Herder, collecting art, folk tales, traditional costumes, dances, and music. They loved the distinctiveness of old Europe in contrast to French cosmopolitan culture – and yet it was an international movement. Later the movement became darker and angrier and more political in Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism, and Zionism, seeking to transform boundaries and powers to conform to folk, blood, and soil.
Socialism and Darwinism came later in the century. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) has been mentioned several times already. He wrote his Phenomenology of Spirit in 1806. He was inspired by Napoleon and the philosophical currents of his times. He believed that the basic stuff of reality was ideas. What we see in the universe and in history is the constant development of the Absolute. Everything fit into a dialectical determinism. Every idea (or thesis) generated its own antithesis. History was the story of conflict. The conflict of thesis and antithesis led inevitably to a synthesis which, in turn, generated its own antithesis and on and on. This applied to the spirit of a nation (volksgeist) or of an age (zeitgeist). The scientific application of the dialectical method to history led to what we call historicism. If you knew what the thesis and the synthesis were, you could fill in the antithesis. Hegel influenced both Marx and (I think) Darwin.
Socialism was primarily a response to industrialization, but there were other responses. Romantics turning back to nature and the natural life, or tried to revive the medieval guilds, or conducted violent attacks on machines and factories. People who did that were called Luddites – it is an interesting story. Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarians advocated a realistic acceptance of the new conditions, coupled with rational adjustments, the principle of utility and the calculus of happiness – “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Socialists sought a new system of social and material equality, informed by the industrial and the revolutionary experience of their time. There were many kinds of socialists: a mixture of Christian conscience, Hegelian idealism, utilitarianism and materialism. Some sought solutions in trade unions, others in cooperative experiments, some in utopian schemes. For example, Robert Owen, a British industrialist, set up model factory towns in England and America, where workers were lavishly cared for. Only he could make it work, and only for short periods. In France, Saint-Simon taught that competition robbed everyone, and Louis Blanc tried to set up state workshops for the unemployed.
Further to the left were the Anarchists. Joseph Proudhon, in What is Property? called all private ownership robbery. The state would have to be destroyed so that a new society would emerge. Later Anarchists took to terrorism and murdered eleven heads of state (including US President McKinley) in the decade before World War I.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were both Germans who fled Germany just before the Revolution of 1848 and settled in England. They brought together vehement materialism and atheism, the revolutionary experience, observation of industrial conditions in Manchester, England, and Hegel’s dialectic – stood on its head. Instead of ideas or spirits, they saw the foundation of society in economic relationships. Politics and ideas were mere superstructure. Religion was an illusion to make the masses content with their lot. By “scientific” dialectic, they could see that the thesis of capital and the antithesis of labor were on a collision course. Eventually there would be so few rich capitalists and so many miserable workers that . . . bang! Revolution would take place! An inevitable conflagration would bring about the synthesis of a classless society. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
At the height of the industrial revolution with its zest for competition and of Hegel’s historicism, appeared Charles Darwin (1809-82), The Origin of the Species 1859 and The Descent of Man 1871. Was it a coincidence that he put the history into natural history? The scientific revolution had given us a vast world machine, static, and governed by the immutable, eternal laws of its Creator. Darwin replaced the exquisite harmony of design with “nature red in tooth and claw” governed by chance and “the survival of the fittest.” Evolution represented not so much a new theory as a new paradigm for the explanation of nature – secular and materialistic. Now nature itself became dialectical.
It is not our place here to debate the scientific and philosophical merits of Darwin’s theory. A storm of controversy followed – and continues to this day. Suffice it to say that it has become the reigning orthodoxy and organizing principle of modern biology. It also gave to atheism an intellectual respectability it had never before enjoyed by sketching a plausible material explanation for the existence of what had hitherto been called creation.
What interests us is the spillover of Darwin’s paradigm into Social Darwinism. Some thinkers, like Herbert Spencer, saw conflict as the basis of human society and history as well as biology. War and not peace was the normal condition of the cosmos. Tribes and races and classes were in competition. War was a necessary part of the evolutionary struggle. As a few hundred Brits put thousands of Indians to flight, it was easy to assume Anglo Saxon superiority. The strong had the right to rule the weak. There was talk of a nationalism of blood. Racial thinking – not quite the same as racism – became respectable as anthropologists and phrenologists spread out through the world measuring skulls and femurs in order to sort peoples into races and sub-races by physical characteristics. (Don’t worry, modern genetics shows that there is only one race of mankind – with hardly perceptible regional variation). This kind of thinking justified the capitalist and the imperialist in their superiority over the masses and the natives, respectively. The eugenics movement proposed that inferior individuals and minorities be sterilized. Later Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed a coming übermensch – a super-race.
There are other styles and ideologies, of course, in the realm of arts and culture and in philosophy. But these I have mentioned have been the most politically significant.
Have you seen any of these ideologies in the 20th century? How about the 21st? Our ways of thinking have certainly “evolved” over the generations, and new issues have emerged, but many contemporary attitudes have their origins in the 19th century. How much does your worldview owe to these ideologies?
Think About It
- Why do you think ideology replaced religion as a political and international force in the 19th century?
- What role did the Industrial Revolution play in the rise of ideology?
- How did Romanticism modify other ideologies of the 19th century?
- How much does your worldview owe to these ideologies?
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1958.
Barzun, Jacques. Classic, Romantic and Modern. Garden City: Doubleday, 1961 edn.
———-. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. Garden City: Doubleday, 1958 edn.
Hughes, H. Stuart. Consciousness and Society. New York: Random House, 1958.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. (1848)
Mosse, George L. The Culture of Western Europe. New York: Rand McNally, 1961.
Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations (1776)
Williams, Raymond. Culture & Society; 1780-1950. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.