Saturday, October 29, 2022

Romantic Heroes: Ameliorating the Dark Side of Capitalism


Edmund Burke MP. Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, c. 1769


The rapid spread of the science-based Enlightenment (c1687-c1804) across Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a cause of much dismay to the reigning monarchies of the time. The source of their anxiety, the philosophes,  were propagating a radical new
range of ideas "centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and constitutional government."

The conservative reaction to such ideas was to declare the power of nature and the primacy of god as the controlling force in the universe. This hierarchical relationship justified the chain of hierarchical order and authority on earth
that "connected subjects to rulers and to god" thereby revalidating feudal society and monarchy. On an individual level, emotions and spirituality were asserted to be more important than science and reason.

This early reaction to the Enlightenment, i.e., the emphasis on capricious feeling or overwhelmed emotions ('the inflamed passions') as described in the works of the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797), and later in the Romanticist (c1790s-c1850) movement, turned culture into a burden on society. This is because, from the idea of the cathartic terror of nature, to the Byronic romantic hero, and on to the superheroes of today, Romanticism has diverted people away from real change and real working-class heroes.

The Romanticist escape to Utopia, the remote, the exotic, and the unknown, is in stark contrast with the real lives of past leaders of communitarian movements who suffered, struggled, and died for real social change. Now we live in stark, dark times, surrounded by media that is saturated with the Romanticist gloop of horror, terror, fantasy, science fiction, romantic egoism, etc., that threatens to slow society down and trap us into infinite and endless imagination to the detriment of any progressive forms of social consciousness and societal change.


Edmund Burke's sublime: "by the contagion of our passions"

Edmund Burke set out a new way of looking at nature not as a 'demonstration of order but an invitation of reverence'. For example, this reverence can be seen in the language used by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) in his book The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Goethe wrote: 'From the forbidding mountain range across the barren plain untrodden by the foot of man, to the end of the unknown seas, the spirit of the Eternal Creator can be felt rejoicing over every grain of dust' [1] emphasising the fearful, the mysterious and the unsure.

This new emphasis on reverence for the Creator and fear of nature was a reaction to the Enlightenment desire to refocus society on man and an understanding of nature. In the writing of the Enlightenment philosophes, Nature was given meaning in relation to man, not abstracted into the anger of a revengeful god. For Diderot,

"a picture of high mountains, ancient forests and immense ruins evoked episodes of classical or religious history. The roar of an invisible torrent led him to speculate on human calamities. Everything in nature was referred to man in society: 'Man is born for society ... put a man in a forest and he will become ferocious.' For Rousseau, man only reached his highest insights when alone and humbled by the savage force of nature. Both were alike in their search for natural spontaneity, but what turned one towards society drove the other into solitude." [2]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) had also rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment philosophes (the development of knowledge and the intellect), "in favor of a form of nonrational, spiritual "enlightenment" centered on the "holy and beneficent" inner voice of conscience engraved on our hearts by God." [3]


Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1766 portrait of Rousseau
wearing an Armenian papakha and costume, Allan Ramsay

Thus, Rousseau moved "away from the Enlightenment's reliance on empiricism, reason, and knowledge towards a stress on the active nature of the mind and the inner spiritual life of the individual''. By doing this, "he helped to launch what would eventually develop into a full-blown revolt against the rationalism and intellectualism of the eighteenth century in the name of religion, emotion, imagination, and the heart, themes central to the thought of the Romantic period that Rousseau helped to inspire." [4]

Burke developed the concept of the sublime (great, elevated, or lofty thought or language) in his book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin Of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Burke changed the emphasis from description to drama, especially in his emphasis on passionate language to 'inflame the heart'. He writes:

“We yield to sympathy what we refuse to description. The truth is, all verbal description, merely as naked description, though never so exact, conveys so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described, that it could scarcely have the smallest effect, if the speaker did not call in to his aid those modes of speech that mark a strong and lively feeling in himself. Then, by the contagion of our passions, we catch a fire already kindled in another, which probably might never have been struck out by the object described.” [5]

Thus, the power of rhetoric (using 'modes of speech' combined with 'strong and lively feeling', 'we catch a fire already kindled in another') takes over from reality itself: "The influence of most things on our passions is not so much from the things themselves, as from our opinions concerning them; and these again depend very much on the opinions of other men, conveyed for the most part by words only." [6]

In this way the passions of men can be inflamed by a strong use of imaginative rhetoric. As reason is secondary, the implications of such behaviour, such an idea, on a mass scale (passions creating a wildfire across nations) can later be seen in the wars of the twentieth century (nation set against nation in WWI, Hitler's strident speeches of WWII).

Also, to overemphasise the passions diminished the role of reason and rationalisation in individual acts. For example, as Diderot claimed, "it is wrong to attribute the crimes of men to their passions: it is their false judgements which are at fault. The passions always inspire us rightly, for they inspire us only with the desire for happiness. It is the mind that misleads us and makes us take false roads." [7]

Romantic heroes: "misery in his heart"

If we combine Burke's "ideas of pain, and danger," with Rousseau's "inner voice of conscience engraved on our hearts" we can see the beginnings of the construction of the Romantic hero in pursuit of his/her own passions, and who can be described

"A romantic hero is an exceptional and often mysterious person, usually in exceptional circumstances. The collision of external events is transferred to the inner world of the hero, in whose soul there is a struggle of contradictions. As a result of this kind of reproduction, romanticism has extremely highlighted the value of the personality, inexhaustible in their inner depths, revealing its unique inner world."

The characteristics of the Romantic hero tend to emphasise someone who has
been "rejected by society and has themselves at the center of their own existence", with various combinations of introspection, wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.



The Lord Byron FRS. Portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813

The Byronic hero was popularised in Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1818) with the passions emphasied as "misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". A solitary figure and resigned to suffering which was reflected in the trials and tribulations of Byron's own life and death in Italy and Greece.

The Romantic hero can be seen as an individualist who suffers from psychological traumas associated with alienation from society and life itself.

Working class heroes: "complaints of the hungry proletariat"

As with the Romantic movement, the Romantic hero was a reaction to the new bourgeois social order as the ancien regime's control and rule through aristocracy and monarchy diminished. The rediscovered and popularised collectivist ideologies of republicanism, democracy and socialism took to the stage and soon gathered momentum.

As Otto Grotewohl noted in 1948: "Romanticism sought models in the dark mysticism of the Middle Ages and viewed with complete contempt not only democracy and revolution but also the emancipation of the people".

And although many of the romantics fled to the mountains or the sea to escape burgeoning capitalism, Pyotr Semyonovich Kogan wrote that "inevitably even in the work of such a poet as Hugo, the noise of the street and the complaints of the hungry proletariat burst in and drowned out the gloomy sounds of medieval organs and the tender songs of Oriental odalisques."

Kogan criticises the Romantic interest in melancholic music and the other-worldly exoticism of Orientalism. As the practical materialism (science-based) of the proletariat excluded Romanticism (irrationalism), the anti-social individualism of the Romantics was replaced with the collectivism of the working classes.

The many aspects of the working class condition e.g. hunger, loneliness, alienation, poverty, joblessness, depression or lacking in health care (some aspects actually glorified in the Romantic hero) are reversed in the common aim of working-class solidarity and activism. While the Romantic hero looked to the past, the working class looked to the future.

The characteristics of the working class hero (positive, conscious, rational, philanthropic) starkly contrasted with the idea of the highly individualistic, alienated Romantic hero (negative, anti-conscious, irrational, misanthropic).

The male and female working class heroes given to us by history are ordinary people who rose above their living and social conditions to create a better world for all, fighting for better wages and working conditions, birth control and health services for both workers and migrants. Some

"Mother Jones (1837 – 1930) Mary ‘Mother’ Jones was a trade union activist who helped to organise strikes to campaign for better pay and conditions for workers. She was an organiser for “The Knights of Labor” and the American Mine Workers Union. She sought to enforce child labour laws. Referred to as ‘the most dangerous women in America’ she revelled in her cause to liberate the working class of America.



Mother Jones, American labor activist.


Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) Sanger was a member of the New York Socialist Party and supported striking workers in the early 1910s. She published her first articles on birth control in a socialist magazine. After the First World War, she concentrated on promoting birth control and allowed her socialist policies to elapse.

Aneurin Bevan (1897–1960) Bevan was the son of a miner and left school at the age of 13 to work in the mines himself. He became active in local union politics and rose in the Labour Movement to become a key figure of the Party. After the 1945 election, he set up the new National Health Service, which offered universal health care.

Walter Reuther (1907 – 1970) Reuther was an influential trade union leader who took on the major car firms and gained recognition for unions. Under his leadership, UAW became a major force, gaining substantial concessions from car companies. For his campaign to win workers rights, he was beaten up by Ford’s men and subject to two assassination attempts.

Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993) Chavez was the son of Latino-immigrants and started life working for very low wages as an agricultural labourer. He became an American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. Chavez sought to create better working conditions for migrant farm workers."

Modern romantics: From Ziggy Stardust to Harry Potter

There are many contemporary working-class heroes that we don't hear about as the mass media will inevitably exclude anyone that opposes the current global dominance of neo-liberal ideology. What is promoted in mass culture is the abstracted, alienated, other-worldly characters such as superheroes: bourgeois heroes, guilt-ridden for not carrying out the claims of universality of their class (liberté, égalité, fraternité), that can only try to ameliorate the down side of capitalism: the proliferation of criminality (Batman in Gotham City, Superman in Metropolis).

The Romantic heroes of today have not changed much from those of the nineteenth century. They still have the same aloof characteristics of difference, alienation, and disillusionment with the same desires:

"A longing for home and a longing for what is far off - these are the feelings by which the romantics are torn hither and thither; they miss the near-at-hand, suffer from their isolation from men, but, at the same time they avoid the other men and seek zealously for the remote, the exotic and the unknown. They suffer from their estrangement from the world, but they also accept and desire it. Thus Novalis defines romantic poetry as the "the art of appearing strange in an attractive way, the art of making a subject remote and yet familiar and pleasant," and he asserts that everything becomes romantic and poetic, "if one removes it in a distance," that everything can be romanticized, if one "gives a mysterious appearance to the ordinary, the dignity of the unknown to the familiar and an infinite significance to the finite."" [8]

David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust at Newcastle City Hall in 1972.


The 'art of appearing strange in an attractive way' has not diminished. From Ziggy Stardust to Harry Potter, our modern-day Romantic heroes are also superheroes, so wide is their fame and following. Their alienation is now represented in science fiction and magic, 'remote and yet familiar and pleasant', as far away as possible from any form of collectivist ideology and solidarity. As Hauser writes:

"The escape to Utopia and the fairy tale, to the unconscious and the fantastic, the uncanny and the mysterious, to childhood and nature, to dreams and madness, were all disguised and more or less sublimated forms of the same feeling, of the same yearning for irresponsibility and a life free from suffering and frustration - all attempts to escape into that chaos and anarchy against which the classicism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had fought at times with alarm and anger, at others with grace and wit, but always with the same determination." [9]


Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The forces of reason and science - Classicism and the Enlightenment - opposed the attempted escapism of the day into 'chaos and anarchy'. While the determination of the philosophes to fight against darkness and irrationalism may have been a losing battle (with the eventual rise of Romanticism), it was not a completely lost battle as many of the reforms advocated by the philosophes are societal norms today, as the Enlightenment reshaped the ways people understood issues such as liberty, equality, and individual rights.

However, the role of the 'passions' (the heart over the head), the emphasis on emotion over reasoned thinking (which played such a huge role in the development of Romanticism) is still a worrying issue given the domination of Romanticism as the main ideology in the globalised culture of today. One could argue that the Romantic hero cannot exist without media attention, while the working-class hero must continue to organise deprived of it.


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.  He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).


[1] The Enlightenment by Norman Hampson (Penguin, 1990) p206

[2] The Enlightenment by Norman Hampson (Penguin, 1990) p206

[3] Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment by Graeme Garrard (State Uni. of NY Press, 2003) p84

[4] Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment by Graeme Garrard (State Uni. of NY Press, 2003) p84

[5] The Enlightenment by Norman Hampson (Penguin, 1990) p204

[6] The Enlightenment by Norman Hampson (Penguin, 1990) p204

[7] The Enlightenment by Norman Hampson (Penguin, 1990) p192

[8] The Social History of Art, V3, by Arnold Hauser (Vintage, 1958) p174/5

[9] The Social History of Art, V3, by Arnold Hauser (Vintage, 1958) p174/5




Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Radical Enlightenment: The Role of Science in the Battle Between Christianity and Pantheism


The French Academy of Sciences was established in 1666.

"Lest we forget, the birth of modern physics and cosmology was achieved by Galileo, Kepler and Newton breaking free not from the close confining prison of faith (all three were believing Christians, of one sort or another) but from the enormous burden of the millennial authority of Aristotelian science. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a revival of Hellenistic science but its final defeat."
(David Bentley Hart)


We are all familiar with the Enlightenment (late 1600s to early 1800s), not least because we studied it in our history books in school. We also learned that before the Enlightenment - which brought about the gradual re-introduction of science into society - there were the medieval universities of philosophy, known as Scholasticism, that dominated education in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. What we don't hear much about is the transition between the two, how science came to dominate thinking, who was involved, and what was there before. The study of early science texts in the monastic schools contrasted with the superstitious and pantheistic thinking of ordinary people in the form of religious and political dissidents who also advocated early forms of communitarian ideology. The Scientific Revolution (1543-1687), carried out by people such as Nicolaus Copernicus(1473–1543), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), Isaac Newton(1642–1727), etc., changed the way people thought about nature and created a profound crisis for the church, and the scientists themselves who had to figure out the role of god in this new way thinking, as well as deal with the dissidents who saw in the new science the basis for a democratic and socialist organisation of society itself. The legacy of the Enlightenment today, then, is the two traditions of liberal christianity and science on the one hand, and materialist pantheism, republicanism and socialism on the other. Both sides incorporated science as part of their ideology, but used it for very different ends.

The only known image of Toland

"He was an assertor of Liberty
A lover of all sorts of Learning
A speaker of Truth
But no man’s follower, or dependant"

(John Toland's self-composed epitaph emphasised his lifelong devotion to freedom,
knowledge, and individualism; a distinctly humanist approach to living.)


From earliest times monasticism employed scientific learning to further the life of the monks and their understanding of the bible. Science was important for time-keeping and seasonal rites. Astronomy was particularly important for Christmas and the calculation of Easter dates each year. With the emergence of medieval universities in the 12th century much emphasis was laid on the rediscovered Aristotle and other scientific Greek thinkers. The monks even used the dialectical method in their discussions, a Greek method for establishing the truth through reasoned argumentation.

Dialectics were later on to become an important part of Marxist analysis of history in place of the determinism of the bible, whereby different opposing forces produce a revolutionary change after a long period of evolution, as opposed to the fixed aspect of god's creation since the beginning of time, as described in the book of Genesis, for example. However, the dialectic was used in Scholasticism to reconcile Christian theology with scientific philosophy, not to further the ends of science itself.

In a way it could be argued that the church was endeavouring to combat the rising new interest in science as it posed a threat to the basics of church thinking and teaching. The rise of Aristotelian ideas and their interpretation by the medieval Andalusian philosopher Averroes generated controversies in Christendom that led to the Catholic Church taking steps to deal with their implications, with Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) laying down an an acceptable interpretation of Aristotle, and the condemnation of Averroist doctrines in 1270 and 1277.

Thirteen propositions were listed as false and heretical, some related to Averroes' doctrine of the soul and others directed against Aristotle's theory of God as a passive unmoved mover. For example, the propositions "That human acts are not ruled by the providence of God", "That the world is eternal", and "That there was never a first human" had obvious signs of influence from scientific investigation and threatened basic tenets of Christian theology.

Moreover, Averroes argued that "scriptural text should be interpreted allegorically if it appeared to contradict conclusions reached by reason and philosophy."  The motive of Scholasticism then was to bring reason to the support of faith by using argumentation to silence all doubt and questioning while, at the same time, maintaining that faith was more important than reason.

On a political level Thomas Aquinas' ideas reflected the hierarchical thinking of the church in that he considered "monarchy is the best form of government, because a monarch does not have to form compromises with other persons. Aquinas, however, held that monarchy in only a very specific sense was the best form of government - only when the king was virtuous is it the best form; otherwise if the monarch is vicious it is the worst kind." Yet, "unless an agreement of all persons involved can be reached, a tyrant must be tolerated, as otherwise the political situation could deteriorate into anarchy, which would be even worse than tyranny."

John Toland (1670–1722), the Irish rationalist philosopher, threw a spanner into the works when he suggested in his book, Christianity Not Mysterious (which was ordered to be burnt), that "the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries; rather, all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles", i.e., Natural Law - the "system of right or justice held to be common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society." In this case, the rules set by the Church.

From a political perspective Toland took a pantheistic approach to religion, the idea that god was 'immanent' or 'in' nature and not ruling over nature. Therefore, if nature had no need of hierarchy, then man had no need either. Toland believed that there was no need for hierarchy in the church or the state, "bishops and kings, in other words, were as bad as each other, and monarchy had no God-given sanction as a form of government."  

Portrait of Newton at 46 by Godfrey Kneller, 1689

The Scientific Revolution

"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."
(Galileo Galilei)

By the early 18th century the new science and mechanical philosophy initiated by the Scientific Revolution had profoundly changed society as "developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology (including human anatomy) and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature." An ideological battle developed between Christian philosophers like Leibniz who tried "to locate the origin of force in a vast spiritual universe, and ultimately therefore in God" [1] and the Newtonians who believed in a "divine presence operated as an immaterial "aether" that offered no resistance to bodies, but could move them through the force of gravitation", that is, an immanent or omnipresent god that was simply a part of nature.

Out of this influence of Newton there arose Enlightenment Deism, the idea that the universe is "a vast machine, created and set in motion by a creator being that continues to operate according to natural law without any divine intervention". Deism would allow the scientists to continue doing science without the fear of excommunication from the Church, worried about the implications of mechanical philosophy on God's role in the universe. Leibniz, critical of this theological sleight of hand, quipped: "God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion."

Deism emphasized the concept of natural theology (that is, God's existence is revealed through nature). Therefore, "Enlightenment Deism consisted of two philosophical assertions: (1) reason, along with features of the natural world, is a valid source of religious knowledge, and (2) revelation is not a valid source of religious knowledge." In practice this meant the rejection of (1) all books (including the Bible) that claimed to contain divine revelation (2) the incomprehensible notion of the Trinity and other religious "mysteries", and (3) reports of miracles, prophecies, etc. Thus, as Margaret C. Jacob writes:

"The new mechanical philosophy banished spiritual agencies, inherent tendencies, and anima from the universe. In their place were put explanations based upon those natural properties capable of mathematical calculation. Nature had to be observed and experienced, and wherever possible given mathematical expression. The physical universe became a place with spatial dimensions within which bodies moved at measurable speeds. Bodies moved one another by impulse, that is, my pushing one another and to explanations of the natural world based upon impulse we commonly ascribe the term 'mechanical'." [2]

For Leibniz though, this was political, as he perceived the new naturalistic and materialistic explanations of the universe were being used by 'politically dangerous men' to "disestablish churches and weaken the power of kings and courts." [3]

The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition.
Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari, Campo de' Fiori, Rome.

Pantheism and Materialism

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

(Lollard priest John Ball)

Of course, Toland's pantheism, Aquinas's fear of anarchy, and Leibniz's dread of politically dangerous men were all rooted in an awareness of "popular heresy and social protest coming from the lower orders of society." [4] There were rumblings of dissent associated with radical groups steeped in centuries of paganism that had never been fully overcome by Christian theology. Pantheistic ideas could be found in animistic beliefs and tribal religions globally "as an expression of unity with the divine, specifically in beliefs that have no central polytheist or monotheist personas." The idea of a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god was not recognised. The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) popularised pantheism in the West through his book Ethics along with the earlier Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), an Italian friar who evangelized about a transcendent and infinite God, but was eventually burned at the stake in 1600 by the Roman Inquisition. As Jacob noted:

"The pantheistic materialism of seventeenth-century radicals owed its origin to the magical and naturalistic view of the universe which Christian churchmen and theologians had laboured for centuries to defeat. At the heart of this natural philosophy lay the notion that nature is a sufficient explanation or cause for the existence and workings of man and his physical environment. In other words, the separation of God from Creation, creature from creator, of matter from spirit, so basic to Christian orthodoxy and such a powerful justification for social hierarchy and even for absolute monarchy,  crumbles in the face of animistic and naturalistic explanations. God does not create ex nihilo; nature simply is and all people (and their environment) are part of this greater All." [5]

Indeed, the earlier pagan religious practices had co-existed with Christianity, many of which the church had co-opted but the worship of saints (and Mary) almost seemed almost like the continuation of polytheism. As Christopher Scott Thompson writes:

"Paganism in this broader sense did not end with the Christian conversion, because it was never limited to “organized religion” in the first place. Regular people all over Europe continued to leave offerings for the fairies and the dead many centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. They didn’t think of themselves as “pagans” in any formal sense, but they still thought of the world around them as being filled with spirits and their daily spiritual practices reflected this worldview. They still believed in local fairy queens and fairy kings, entities that would have been understood as gods before the Christian conversion. They also retained a semi-polytheistic worldview in the veneration of saints, many of which were not recognized as saints officially by the church and a few of which were originally pre-Christian gods."

Furthermore, the radical peasants used elements of paganism and and communitarian ideas in the bible to underpin their struggle against oppression by kings, queens, landowners and the aristocracy:

"Peasants resisting feudalism sometimes turned to this tradition of magic and spirit worship for aid against their oppressors. For instance, Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie documents how folk beliefs about fairy kings and the malevolent dead were used by magic practitioners in 17th century Scotland to curse feudal landowners. [...] These practices existed alongside organized religion yet distinct from it, before the Christian conversion and after it. People cultivated relationships with the spirits of nature, the dead and other entities for help with their practical daily problems — including how to effectively resist oppression."

In England, for example, the radicals organised in groups such as the Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Muggletonians, Familists and Quakers, some of whom believed that the "Scripture foretold of a democratic order where property would be redistributed" [6], for example, in Acts 2:  

"42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need."

Woodcut from a Levellers document by William Everard

Materialism reflected the pagan, pantheistic worldview, as it "holds matter to be the fundamental substance in nature, and all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions" (The idea that man created god, in stark contrast to the idealist view that god created man). This materialism was eventually combined with the aforementioned dialectics to form the basis of Marxian philosophy and change radical group ideology from pantheistic communitarianism to atheistic socialism. Thus, the non-hierarchical aspect of pantheism found its natural home in radical communitarian thought which was rejected by conservative forces, as Jacob states:

"At every turn they rejected mechanistic explanations that hinged upon the power of matter unassisted by spiritual forces separate from the natural order. To their mind, scientific materialism, whether mechanistic or pantheistic in its inclination, justified atheism, social levelling, political disorder, in short the turning of 'the world upside down'." [7]

The desire to turn 'the world upside down' was exhibited most famously by the religious and political dissidents known as the Diggers. They put their ideas into practice when they took over some common land in Surrey:

"The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on St George's Hill, Weybridge near Cobham, Surrey at a time when harvests were bad and food prices high. Sanders reported that they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." They intended to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. They claimed that their number would be several thousand within ten days. "It is feared they have some design in hand.""

Their leader, Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer, political philosopher, and activist. The radical nature of the Diggers' ideology is demonstrated in the difference between the Diggers and the Levellers, as, while the Levellers sought to "level the laws" (while maintaining the right to the ownership of real property), Winstanley sought "to level the ownership of real property itself, which is why he and his followers called themselves "True Levellers"."

Winstanley underpinned this radical ideology in combined passages from the bible and pantheist thinking in his writings:

"In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another. And the Reason is this, Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him, for the same Anoynting that ruled in the Son of man, teacheth him all things... And so selfish imaginations taking possession of the Five Sences, and ruling as King in the room of Reason therein, and working with Covetousnesse, did set up one man to teach and rule over another; and thereby the Spirit was killed, and man was brought into bondage, and became a greater Slave to such of his own kind, then the Beasts of the field were to him."

The Diggers were harassed on St George's Hill by organised gangs. They endured beatings and an arson attack on one of their communal houses. They were taken to court (but not allowed to speak in their own defence) and when they lost their case they had to leave the land or risk the army moving in and evicting them. Other Digger colonies were set up around different parts of England as their influence spread. Winstanley had to flee but continued to advocate the redistribution of land.


While ultimately the Digger movement failed, the Enlightenment developed out of the Scientific Revolution as the 17th century bequeathed two contradictory traditions to the future. On the one hand there was the predominant "moderate and liberal Christianity wedded to the new science and supportive of strong monarchy within a constitutional framework" while, on the other hand, a republican tradition "in conformity with a pantheistic and materialistic understanding of nature." [8] Two opposing traditions that are very much to the fore in politics today.

[1] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.27
[2] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.2
[3] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.31
[4] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.3
[5] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.3/4
[6] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.43
[7] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.45
[8] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (A Cornerstone Book, 2006), p.36

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.