Ideal humanity found its reflection in Enlightenment culture’s theoretical blueprints, which sketched out the rational organization of state, society, economy, and indeed of everything human. The fulfillment of such inspired imaginings might be attempted, top down, through “enlightened despotism,” but it could also be sought, bottom up, through national and social-political revolution, as in the American colonies in 1776 and France in 1789. It was a view that, in conservative or moderate form, imagined an enlightened human elite managing the affairs of popular masses who were still (or perhaps forever) unqualified for self-determination. Ideologically dressed as democratic egalitarianism, it could envision the attainment by “all men,” and perhaps by all people, of rationally informed voice and political participation.
Crucial was its pursuit of “enlightened reform” as a rational and emancipatory end in itself and as a snowballing venture that would cleanse and perfect every corner of human life. Adam Smith’s prescription of market freedom as people’s entry-ticket to such shares of earthly felicity as their talents and energy justified found a strong echo in late eighteenth-century Germany, when the government-driven economic strategies of the “state-building realists” began to lose their transformative power and plausibility. Above all, this life perspective assumed rational mastery of the world by enlightened individuals, whether elites or everyone. Reason would dissolve all superstitious mysteries. All expressions of human life, including those of emotion and aesthetic response, would gain illumination through rational analysis. Art, given proper form, would enrich and edify the enlightened mind. Science and technology would switch on ever more real-life lights.
This mentality survived as nineteenth- and twentieth-century rationalist liberalism or progressivism – but only on the condition that it linked itself to one or another doctrine of communalism. For even if rational individuals are the prime actors in life’s drama, the question must arise: in what social setting do they exert themselves? In eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany, the answer was, at first, the reforming power-state, guided by enlightened genius (whether the ruler’s or the ruling bureaucracy’s). But German nationalism’s emergence raised the possibility of “the German people” or Volk itself attaining rational felicity by its own actions within a self-determining German nation. This was the vision, above all, of liberal nationalism. Later, Marxism – the invention of a Hegelian-educated German born in the Rhineland in 1818 – would substitute proletariat for “bourgeois nation,” though in the end it proved unrealistic to pretend that “the worker has no fatherland.”
The fourth discernible world-view may be called the “Romantic-historicist” temperament. Though it might respect “Enlightenment utopianism,” it could not adopt its secular faith, for the Romantic vision valorized the mysteries, natural and human, that Enlightenment reason hoped to dispel or harness. And the historicist vision showed that cultural particularism outweighed human universals, and that all things human passed, including the “age of Reason” itself. The best refuge, therefore, was the historically evolving national culture out of which each individual emerged.