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The comet theory of life

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Where has romanticism gone today? I am not speaking of the sappy and overly sentimental modern conception of the word, but rather in the literary sense of a general outlook upon life. This outlook embraces strong, passionate emotions, the value of individual creativity and a love for the useless, fleeting, yet ultimately beautiful things in life. Some condemn romantics as being foolhardy idealists with no concern for the practical realities of life. However, the romantic is capable of great action within the world, and is indeed spurred towards such action by his strength of feeling. Romanticism, far from being a weak philosophy of mere dreamers, caused the great poet Lord Byron to throw his fortunes, and ultimately his life, into the Greek War of Independence- despite being no more a Greek than a soldier. His death was not an absurd, rash and foolish decision; it was the culmination of a life well spent clasping life by its very fiber.

The romantic emphasis upon strong emotions and passions is the inherent strength of the movement. Modern existence’s complexity is diametrically opposed to romanticism, and seems to have throttled the movement to the brink of its very death. The societal need to sustain this complex civilization has produced increasingly sterile generations focused upon merely climbing the modern “cursus honorum.” People subordinate the vibrancy and potential of their humanity to a commonplace existence of fulfilling requirements so as to advance towards the next step in the quest for the success. The contemporary understanding of success is hollow. Many people spend their entire lives wasting away in a safe, mediocre existence and never take time to savor the fiery passion of life. Our existence is full of emotion and feeling. Life is immediate. For all I know, a comet could hit me within the next minute, and my existence could be snuffed out like a candle. Unpredictability is the only certainty in the course of human affairs. Shall I face death burning in the embers of life, or suppressed by the stagnation of perpetual preparation? I should like to take the former.

The aforementioned is an affirmation of existence and a solution to the misery born from the discord between the inborn vivacity of the individual and the timorous yoke society placed upon him. The romantic focus on the human potential produces a pleasing life. A person finds harmony by living in accord with his internal drive to live out the innate exuberance of his passions. It must be noted that a wise person must be able to discriminate between the nobler passions and the baser ones.

A person cannot entirely give in to his passions – particularly the harmful or unethical ones – but a rational decision to embrace life in all its brilliance and wonder leads a person to happiness. If a person should live the best and most full life he possibly can, then he would conquer the transient nature of existence that so terrifies many. The fleeting nature of things means nothing if one is focused most upon the very moment she is in and appreciates its beauty and tragedy. That is not to say that one should live without any abandon and think nothing of the future, but rather that the emphasis should be on the here and now. Hesitation to live leads but to regrets. No one wants to turn out like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. The calculated risk-adverse nature of our society paralyzes.

A love for the useless, pleasant things in life is also characteristic of romantics. A disproportionate concern with utility reveals to strong a focus on the future, one that should be abandoned. Such a focus betrays a servile dedication to fulfilling society’s desire to control the human spirit. Romanticism is a celebration of the individual, but this does not mean that romantics are self-centered egotists. Concern for others is a very romantic concept, as compassion and selflessness are two of the most moving, noble and powerful of human emotions. The true romantic is not an individualist in the sense of caring nothing for the plight of others. A person of spirit must furthermore cultivate a balance between the useful and pleasant. To live without any attention to the useful is obviously an impossible way of life; to live without anything of the pleasant is to live a mundane existence best fitted to a machine.

Ultimately, it is the beautiful and pleasant that we should seek by using objects of utility to aid us in this quest. As the romantic poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ian Ronderos is a senior majoring in the Classics with a supplementary major in Ancient Greek and Roman Civilizations. Having retired from the College Republicans and adopting independent politics, he has entered the private life of peaceful contemplation. Ronderos can be contacted at irondero@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.