The period of Enlightenment was a time when human advancements relied on truth and progress, relying on your own opinions to guide you to the ultimate pleasure that life can offer. The general theme for what it is to be enlightened is to solely trust your own definitions of the world around you, without having the bias of others impact you. It was implied that the government’s job was to protect these human rights of independence. As with every movement however, there are people who oppose its ideas and strive to prove their weaknesses. Philosophers like Kant and Rousseau helped bridge the gap from disenchantment of Enlightenment to Romanticism in the Victorian era, eventually dissolving the fundamental goals of Enlightenment by the time we enter Modernism in the twentieth century. By the time Europe enters the twentieth century, it does not witness the erosion of Enlightenment ideals but anti-Enlightenment ideals, since Enlightenment itself has been long dead.
The transition to Romanticism can be seen in the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust where he disposes of reason and rationality for emotions. This point of relieving oneself from the drawbacks of reason is also stressed by Immanuel Kant in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”. He states that in order to reach Enlightenment, “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters”(1), is needed. This freedom to reason is controlled by higher powers than the common people, which brings all progress to a halt. This in turn leads to people looking elsewhere for something to fulfill their goals and wishes in life when what they currently are aspiring to becomes too difficult.
Jean Jacques Rousseau also plays an important role in the extinction of Enlightenment ideals with his Social Contract. He opens up his proposal for new order of society with, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”(3). Rousseau argues that the main goal of society was to protect the “sovereign”, its people and their general will. The aim of the state was to provide sound laws for the sovereign as they hope to accomplish a common good. These thoughts and ideas formed a premise for many actions that took place throughout the French Revolution, as it identified that the government was falling apart and whats steps would have to be taken to set a new one in its place. All around Europe, we see individuals saying, “to hell with reason!” and discussing their feelings instead. We then get the stoner-like rhetoric of the Victorian era, where rational Enlightenment theories on what a moral life should consist of gave way to people proclaiming that you should live your life however you wish, provided that it is moral.
As to how this ties into the 20th century, because moral worth was suddenly ascribed to doing what you felt was true to yourself, people had to wonder why they felt a duty to their nation. It was not because your own country is the most efficiently governed and rationally based, but because it’s our destiny! The citizens feel and know it. Thus we have reached nationalism, where not only do you accept your country, you love it, and if you don’t love it, then you’re a traitor to your people. Not only do you live in your country, you are the embodiment of your country. Someone from the time might have said the following: All throughout history, examples of our greatness abound, and it is so… romantic?… to think about that. Our poetry is the best, our architecture is the best, our culture is the best and thus, in a way, our beloved country is actually superior to every other country on Earth. I know it because I feel it. So by not loving your country, you fail to live up to our country’s greatness.
Then the 19th century consists of each European country trying to prove to the others that they are the greatest. The fierce military, scientific and industrial rivalries are all products of nationalist rhetoric.
Then in the 20th century, we just get even more nationalism. Not only are Germans the greatest people in the world, blessed with superior genes, but they are so superior that the inferior peoples are holding us back and must be exterminated in order for the German nation to reach its full potential.