We live in a romantic age. We tend to live for experience, beauty, happiness, fulfillment and so on. That appears to be the controlling motive of many people’s lives. This philosophy yields itself well to a bit of skepticism, relativism, or pragmatism about truth. If we can’t know truth or if it doesn’t exist, we can make truth into a wax-nose, bending it every which-way we desire.
The romantic thinkers of the past came to similar conclusions as many today. The 18th century Romanticists developed a philosophy about individual experience, beauty, art, heroism and so on. They were an extension of the skeptical philosophers like Kant and Hume who doubted that anything non-physical (moral norms, beauty, ethics, God and so on) could be known with any reasonable confidence. Romantic philosophy focused more on human experience and the pursuit of human fulfillment.
Yet the old Romanticists had something we do not have today. They believed in truth, though they were skeptical about how clearly one could know it. They pursued truth which they believed they could experience in beauty. Thus the poet Keats said “truth is beauty and beauty truth.” Today, many are a bit double-minded about whether there is real truth or beauty. In our best moments, we seem to believe truth and beauty are real. But then we relegate them into our private lives. It would seem to be intolerant to proclaim our truths in public.
But where does our obsession with pleasure and beauty to the exclusion of truth lead? Our forebears were often concerned with the stability of society and the family, while we are more concerned with our own self-expression. Life is like art to be painted and continually experienced. History, on this view, is just the endless repetition of people seeking meaningful experience. The sociologist Robert Bellah called this philosophy of life “expressive individualism.” And one wonders where this obsession with self is going. As Bellah himself asked, can a society continue to flourish if everybody’s end is ultimately himself?