Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Philosophy of the Shelley Circle

Penned upon the 16th of May, 2007

See? Nice new scarf!I was very kindly asked to speak today, before a class on the history of western metaphysics, by one of my lecturers and someone whose work has been enormously influential to me, Dr Freya Mathews. It’s rather thrilling to be the one wearing the little clippy radio microphone for the first time! I’ve reproduced my speaking notes below, with most of the spelling errors intact. I’m very grateful to Freya for the opportunity, and for convincing me to take it – thank you, Freya! I also wore my favourite grey suit with a nice new scarf – I reproduce these here too. For now, I am going to put my head down and listen to my neighbour play the piano.

The Romantic Movement, in its broadest conception, took place in some of the Eighteenth and much of the Nineteenth centuries, all across Europe and the Americas, in the fields of literature, music, visual art, philosophy, science and politics. It’s difficult, then, to identify any universal Romantic idea! What commonality existed was in reaction to the Enlightenment and the spread of Newtonian science: a reaffirmation of the importance of what was not empirically quantifiable; the properties which affect the heart as well as the mind. My own field, such as it is, is the English writers, particularly the Shelley Circle, as well as certain French Romantics, so I shall attempt to summarise their ideas.

The Shelley Circle were those poets, novelists and journalists who centred around Percy and Mary Shelley in the early nineteenth century. The group was notorious for its lack of propriety; Lord Byron, for instance, is remembered as a mad, ferocious womaniser, surrounded by rumours of homosexual and incestuous affairs. Rumours will be what rumours will be, but these artists created a body of work which is both beautiful and revolutionary in its content. They addressed the excesses of the Newtonian worldview, as manifested in the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the mechanisation of industry and the growth of mass urban centres, swelling with the poor forced from their land or their trades.

They made the essential distinction, here, between that which has the potential to aid humanity, and that which does. The enshrinement of rationality and progress as chief among virtues had allowed advances in science and technology, but also allowed these to be implemented in a manner to create the greatest benefit for those who owned them and them alone; impoverishing those who were not given a share, such as those villagers who relied upon common lands for grazing and forage – common lands which were abolished in the belief of the supremacy of private property – and those artisans who found their roles supplanted by the new machines. Byron, a Scotch baron and entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, renounced his class interests and spoke in defence of those workers who defied the law and attacked the new system – I quote from “An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill�

The rascals, perhaps, may betake them to robbing,
The dogs to be sure have got nothing to eat–
So if we can hang them for breaking a bobbin,
‘Twill save all the Government’s money and meat:
Men are more easily made than machinery–
Stockings fetch better prices than lives–
Gibbets on Sherwood will heighten the scenery,
Showing how Commerce, how Liberty thrives!

Seeing how this leading ideology was flawed, how its tools of economic and scientific freedom and progress became ends in themselves, at the expense of human life, they sought a better and truer worldview, one which would reaffirm the bonds between people, would bring the human good again to the forefront. Kant, we recall, had argued that moral action must always treat people as ends, never as means – the Romantics wanted to cement this as a part of human experience. Love was one bond, and a compelling one if you’ve felt it, for how could you cruelly use someone who you felt love for? This is, of course, a fundamental tenet of Christianity, and the poet William Blake – who was not a member of the Circle, he kept very much to himself, but his ideas ring true with theirs – articulated a very radical Christianity to these ends. Shall Jerusalem be built here, among these dark satanic mills; he asked – the textile mills, the locus of industrialisation. He also took up Kant’s call to discover the noumenon, to recognise the Infinite outside of perception: “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite� – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He denied Kant’s argument, though, that reason was a gateway to the noumenon and to morality. He rather argued that reason is the product of our experiences, the “ration of what we have already known� and “is not the same that it shall be when we know more.� Once, through our intuition, we have discovered the Infinite, then our conception of the world – including space, time and the categories – shall be changed. Incidentally, if you’re interested in Blake, as well as his own work, I’d recommend the 70s horror film Jacob’s Ladder. Classic of the genre.

Beauty was another force which these writers thought might override self-interest and provide and essential, shared truth. John Keats, in his Ode to a Grecian Urn;

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

That is all ye need to know – Keats defied Positivism and instead described what he called ‘negative capability’ – “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.� The ability to accept that some things may not be quantifiable, that rational knowledge alone does not make a good life. The journalist Leigh Hunt agreed with this sentiment in his On The Realities of the Imagination: “Our faculty, such as it is, is rather instinctive than reasoning; rather physical than metaphysical; rather sentient because it loves much, than because it knows much; rather calculated by a certain retention of boyhood, and by its wanderings in the green places of thought, to light upon a piece of the old golden world, than to tire ourselves, and conclude it unattainable, by too wide and scientific a search.� ‘We do not blind our eyes with looking upon the sun in the heavens. We believe it to be there, but we find its light upon earth also; and we would lead humanity, if we could, out of misery and coldness into the shine of it.� You see, he proposes that the ultimate purpose of human endeavour should not be to know all, but to let knowledge benefit all. “The great object of humanity is to enrich everybody. If it is a task destined not to succeed, it is a good one from its very nature; and fulfils at least a glad destiny of its own. To look upon it austerely is in reality the reverse of austerity. It is only such an impatience of the want of pleasure as leads us to grudge it in others; and this impatience itself, if the sufferer knew how to use it, is but another impulse, in the general yearning, towards an equal wealth of enjoyment.� Expressions such as this should not be taken as isolated – these writers were very much radical liberals and socialists, and inspired later thinkers such as Marx.

As well as drawing upon intuitive elements of human nature which they hoped could temper the individualist and materialist, the Romantics revived the idea of an organicism in the natural order which would give us a new definition of self – as well as echoing past thinkers such as Spinoza, this was heralded today’s ecological philosophy. I quote again from Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Third Canto.

Is it not better, then, to be alone,
And love Earth only for its earthly sake?
By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone,
Or the pure bosom of its nursing lake,
Which feeds it as a mother who doth make
A fair but froward infant her own care,
Kissing its cries away as these awake —
Is it not better thus our lives to wear,
Than join the crushing crowd, doom’d to inflict or bear?

I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture: I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky — the peak — the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle — and not in vain.

Byron, I think, was a deeply confused and conflicted man, who recognized the need to challenged the established order but who suffered keenly from its derision as a result, never sure whether to stand by his ideals or concede and compromise – a parallel is found in the life of the Buddha Guatama, though of course their ideas are quite different. Here he argues that our environment shapes us, defines who we are. To live coterminous with the natural order is to be part of a system of beauty and harmony, but to live in the cities is to be trapped in a cycle of paining others for one’s own material pleasure, to one’s degradation, over, and over. Incidentally, to live with Byron was to live with nature – Shelley records his surprise at staying with Byron and meeting monkeys in the corridors and peacocks on the stairway. The big softie.

These Romantics, I think, were by no means opponents of science or knowledge – though they did sometimes suggest limits on its reach, and always insisted that they should serve human life, and not vice versa. They admired those who truly sought to enlighten the masses, to bring life closer to the ideal it always seeks for. Prometheus became the icon for this, the Greek Titan who steals the secret of fire from the jealous gods and brings it to the humans below, and is punished – Byron again:

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind.

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Commentary upon “The Philosophy of the Shelley Circle”

  1. Meaghan was heard to remark,

    Upon the 20th of May, 2007 at 5:30 pm,

    Bugger! Looks like I missed a great lecture.

  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 21st of May, 2007 at 2:55 pm,

    Thank you! In fact, it was recorded for other campusses (campesinos?), though I have absolutely no idea how to access that recording.

  3. rosy zanghi was heard to remark,

    Upon the 23rd of May, 2007 at 7:31 am,

    commentary upon “love’s philosophy”

Further remarks are not permitted.