Edward Rothstein, while reviewing for the WSJ an exhibit, “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860” at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven writes:
What are we to make of Romanticism? More important, what has Romanticism made of us? The West’s major historical eras should not really be labeled B.C. and A.D., but B.R. and A.R.: Before Romanticism and After.
Do you want to know about the nature of the modern state? It came into being in the 19th century. How about concert halls, symphony orchestras, natural history museums, even restaurants? Primarily creations of the Romantic era. What about the idea that childhood is a remarkable stage of life (“Apparell’d in celestial light”—Wordsworth)? Or that living “closer to Nature” makes you both more innocent and more authentic? Or that artists are prophets and art is self-expression? What about realizing that biological species evolve? Or that a political revolution can be carried out in the name of “rights”? What about thinking of society itself as a corrupting force, abetted by technology and commerce? Even a certain kind of self-conscious individualism came into being.
Now, there are probably many who would disagree with some of Rothstein’s opinions, that the idea, for example, that childhood is a remarkable stage of life (Wordsworth’s “Apparell’d in celestial light”), or that living “closer to Nature” makes you both more innocent and more authentic, with these assertions and others that these ideas were products of 19th c. Romanticism, as revealed in the work of the writers and artists of that period.
But the 19th. century didn’t discover these ideas, or invent them, at least not in the way that it invented the concert hall, the natural history museum, and the symphony orchestra. They were there at earlier times, in the works of earlier writers and artists. However, a real product of the 19th century, and not at all a discovery of the Romantics, was the theory of evolution. Evolution was, of course, anything but romantic. Evolution was and still is all too real.
In fact, rather than replacing BC and AD, by what is essentially the same pair, BCE and CE, the same because both make use of the birth of Jesus Christ as the starting point, or replacing them by Rothstein’s own BR and AR (before and after Rothstein), I would propose that we adopt universally another pairing, BD and AD, that is for the time periods before and after Darwin.
That moment in our history, the date of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, is a real beginning, appropriate to be used by all the world’s peoples, not just for a single people, as Christians in the case of BC and AD. It was in the 19th century that people began to realize, as Rothstein notes, that biological species including homo sapiens are not static but have evolved over eons of time and continue to evolve.
Not all people, helas! because there are still too many, especially in the United States, who don’t recognize and accept what Darwin revealed, the fact that homo sapiens is just one species among millions of living creatures, no different from the mountain gorilla and the drywood termite (living here in Tampa in the walls of my home) in having evolved like us during thousands of millions of years from much simpler life forms.