publisher colophon

I make three surprising and related claims. An important strand of Romanticism: 1) embraced and championed the idea of second nature (the formative importance of traditions, customs, and practices); 2) espoused progressive democracy, which included political, economic, and social justice; and 3) understood an intimate connection between (1) and (2). I focus on British Romanticism, especially on the early work of William Wordsworth. In the conclusion, I show that this argument about Romanticism and second nature has broad implications for contemporary democratic society.

What is the relation between democracy and second nature? What, that is, is the relation between a form of government that places a premium on a people shaping their shared destiny and a people who have been shaped by their past inheritance—an assortment of traditions, customs, perspectives, and practices? Does democracy fundamentally seek to escape custom and practice—the oppressive yoke of tradition—or does it, in fact, depend on a cultural inheritance, a second nature?

In many standard accounts, Romanticism frees itself from the encumbrance of tradition and discipline and thereby soars, unshackled, to the lofty heights of subjective expression, unrestrained imagination, and self-creation.1 In this view, tradition, habits, and practice (the stuff of religion and of oppressive social and political authority) are enemies of Romantic liberty and creativity (the stuff of modern autonomy and democracy). Yet in other accounts, Romanticism romanticizes (in the [End Page 89] bad sense of the term) national traditions and "the homeland," appealing to blood and soil—ancestry and geography—and thereby promotes antidemocratic forms of society and government.2 In this article, I offer still another account of Romanticism—a Romanticism that honored both tradition and liberty, both second nature and progressive democracy.

I make three surprising and related claims. These claims hinge on an important strand of Romanticism, which I call radical Romanticism, that: 1) embraced and championed the idea of second nature (the formative importance of traditions, customs, and practices); 2) espoused progressive democracy, which included political, economic, and social justice; and 3) understood an intimate connection between (1) and (2).3 I mainly focus on British Romanticism, and especially on the early work of William Wordsworth. My overall argument is that if we discount the role of tradition, custom, and practice in the work of radical Romantics, we fail to see the matter and manner—the culture or second nature, including memory, stories, and ideals—by which many Romantic authors conceived of and pursued their progressive sociopolitical aspirations. We fail to grasp the fundamental moral psychology that animated much Romantic thinking about such matters as the formation of the self, sources of moral authority, and the human relation to the social and natural world.

In contrast, when our narratives become more subtle, when we become aware of the salient role played by second nature in radical Romanticism, we find ourselves in a better position to grasp Romantic efforts to establish a democratic culture: a responsive democracy embodied by its citizens and embedded in its lands. The early Wordsworth and Coleridge did not understand democracy chiefly as a set of formal political institutions but rather as a progressive culture or spiritual ethos that included the thought, skills, practices, dispositions, and emotions of diverse citizens. These authors, among others, held that that the cultivation of rationality is a deeply embodied, cultural endeavor that seeks to nurture individuals and communities in the context of dynamic social and natural environments. They maintained that progressive political principles, such as those of William Godwin, require more than abstract assent; they require the cultivation of humane taste, politically robust emotions, and a truly democratic second nature.4

In this view, an aesthetic project, such as the Romantic poem, is an institution, potentially as powerful as the church, capable of shaping and training individuals and communities in the ways of liberty and justice. The well-crafted poem or work of art is the fourth estate: felicitous power [End Page 90] outside official state, clerical, and economic power. It is the embodiment of Edmund Burke's philosophical anthropology—highlighting the formative role of traditions, practices, and virtues—but now put in the service of a radical democratic vision.

As I show in the conclusion, this argument about Romanticism and second nature has broad implications for contemporary democratic society. Progressive democratic thought and practice, I argue, are not only compatible with the ways of tradition, habit, and custom—with second nature—they require them. A progressive democracy, in other words, needs its own distinct form of second nature, and the dynamic democratic mandate to reform is supported by that second nature.


Wordsworth's authorship, especially his early work, can be understood as a form of democratic practice.5 Part of that practice entailed offering portraits of democratic character. He limned detailed accounts of the character that emerges from an individual's relation to place and showed how that character is shaped by, and how it expresses itself in, a wide range of public and personal events—events that were often entwined.6 Wordsworth's verse can be understood as conveying a democratic ethos insofar as it reveals the everyday, common human dignity that cleaves to fellow citizens' actions and beliefs. Wordsworth's central characters are often located at the periphery of society—the impoverished, the homeless, the disabled, the beggar, the wounded soldier. Wordsworth vividly portrayed these characters, and in his portraits we see and feel not only their hopes and fears, their achievements and losses, but also our own. We glimpse their humanity and, in turn, discover our own. We sense the fullness of the person who is, or should be, the recipient of democratic rights; the one who is, or should be, protected by the state from such harms as exploitation by the wealthy and powerful; the one who is, or should be, seen as a person of worth and a fellow citizen.

To portray the dignity of the common people was a radical act. Wordsworth, of course, was not alone in supporting the formal, democratic equality of the people. But he was rather singular in his championing of a spiritual democracy: a supportive culture that promoted the social equality—the mutual humanity—of the people, all the people, including the "lowly." He was committed, then, not only to political but also to cultural transformation, and he doubted whether the former was possible in the absence of the latter. [End Page 91]

As I discuss later, Wordsworth's suspicion of the abstract—of things and ideas not rooted in the concreteness of time and space—accounts for his eventual frustration with the abstract and impersonal nature of Godwin's political philosophy. This suspicion also reveals Wordsworth's proximity to Burke. In his "Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont," Burke wrote, "You have theories enough concerning the rights of men. … It is with man in the concrete, it is with common human life and human actions you are to be concerned."7 Wordsworth's complaint about Godwin's abstract rationalism resembles Burke's critique of the French Revolution's faith in the Temple of Reason. Unlike Godwin, and like Burke, Wordsworth did not disdain the inevitable role of social traditions, habits, practices, and institutions. He did not spurn the idea of communities and individuals being rooted concretely in time and place. Not surprising, then, in Wordsworth's verse and Burke's prose we find much reference to experience and history, to tradition and lived practice.

In this regard, Wordsworth stood opposed to Godwin and alongside Burke. Wordsworth shared with Burke the conviction that places inexorably shape communities and their members. Unlike Burke, however, Wordsworth also held that the reverse is true: that the people shape a place. True, Burke did believe that some of the people, namely the elite, have or should have the power to shape and guide their communities. But Burke would not ascribe such agency to the common people—to the "unthinking public."8 In contrast, the early Wordsworth believed in and conveyed the agency of the people and their capacity to engage wisely with their environments. He also exposed the formidable, sociopolitical—but sometimes natural—obstacles to such agency.

A challenge of mine is to demonstrate that those who champion tradition and place are not necessarily Burkean in their politics. Burke had many virtues, and we do great harm when we cast him as a conservative, reactionary straw figure. Nonetheless, he was no democrat. One of my tasks is to bring together the ways of tradition and place with the ways of progressive democracy. The work of the early Wordsworth is central to my case.


Three features of Wordsworth's work would seem to challenge my portrait of him as a progressive, democratic poet. His work, many assert, is preoccupied with: 1) the sublime or picturesque; 2) the inward; and 3) second nature. Together, these three features supposedly paint [End Page 92] the picture of a politically conservative poet, not a progressive one: Wordsworth the escapist poet of the sublime, the apolitical poet of interiority, and the establishmentarian poet of second nature. I am focusing here on the third feature, endeavoring to show that Wordsworth's attention to second nature is consistent with my portrait of him as a democratic poet. However, I wish at least to note that while the first two features do indeed characterize aspects of Wordsworth's work, when properly understood they in fact support—rather than refute—my progressive portrait of Wordsworth. Allegedly, his poetry encourages us to dodge pressing social and political issues by losing ourselves in the distant landscape or the inward recess. Yet Wordsworth in fact wrote not chiefly about sublime vistas but about poignant human encounters and events that brought attention to the experiences of war, farming, displacement, urbanization, over- and underemployment, water and air pollution, and oppressive political and religious authorities and institutions. Furthermore, he wrote about interiority not as an escape into private subjectivity but as a place of personal strength and renewal—often for the sake of social justice and reform.

I now turn to my main topic—Wordsworth and second nature. His association with second nature frequently leads readers to assume that he should be viewed as Wordsworth the conservative Burkean poet of custom, habit, and tradition. Contrary to this view, I show that Wordsworth's commitment to the importance of second nature is not per se a commitment to political conservatism. Indeed, the early Wordsworth sought to bring together second nature and progressive politics.

Let's start with the basics. What exactly do I mean by second nature and what is its relation to nature? By second nature, I refer to the process and condition of our acquiring dispositions, habits, practices, beliefs, and perspectives that become so thoroughly internalized that they seem "natural"—that is, innate—to us. Our first nature, then, might be understood as a set of capacities and dispositions with which we are born; our second nature, in contrast, is a formative process and a product of our experience of living over time, often in a particular geographical location. By means of this formative process, our capacities and dispositions develop and our habits, practices, and beliefs are forged. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Burke, and Wordsworth all endorsed this concept of second nature. All three also understood nature as the universal order of things (in other contexts, it could also refer, in their view, to the natural world or the world free from humanity). [End Page 93]

Nature, for these three authors, supported, undercut, or was neutral toward an acquired second nature. Rousseau typically held that the second nature of the modern, affluent, urban European was at odds with nature and that second nature needed to be critiqued and brought more closely into alignment with nature. His romanticized view of Native Americans, his character Julie, and his "European Solitaire" all exemplified, in his view, a relatively natural second nature or natural sociability. Burke, in contrast, typically held that second nature was an apt, particularized expression of nature. Barring disruptive events such as the French Revolution, a people's second nature tended to arise organically, that is, naturally from its time and place. Wordsworth, in contrast to both Rousseau and Burke, typically held that nature itself is dynamic and that second nature, while often trustworthy, needed to be subject to critique and transformation. Much of his early work was dedicated to cultivating—to helping along—a democratic second nature among his fellow citizens. Although Rousseau, Burke, and Wordsworth had different views on the relation between nature and second nature, all three acknowledged the dominance and power of second nature in the life of the individual and society.

Some commentators, such as James Chandler and David Bromwich, argue convincingly that Wordsworth was greatly influenced by Burke's notion of second nature. No commentators that I know of argue that Wordsworth was influenced by Rousseau's notion of second nature. Indeed, most never associate the idea of second nature with Rousseau; many, in fact, juxtapose Rousseau's confidence in nature to Burke's confidence in second nature. Chandler specifically argues that Wordsworth moved away from Rousseau's nature to Burke's second nature around the year 1798.9 My account is different. From the start of his writing career, Wordsworth had an elective affinity for the very idea of second nature, whether or not he had ever read Burke's treatises and essays that employ it. His early verse, "An Evening Walk" or "Salisbury Plain," for example, intimates his future emphasis on how place—a land, a community, and the stories that they mutually produce—inform its inhabitants' emotions, dispositions, beliefs, habits, and actions. Early on, then, Wordsworth was sympathetic to the view that an array of past emotions, events, and dispositions fuses with a place, commingling with nature and informing a robust second nature in its inhabitants. One could even argue that Wordsworth, having been orphaned and displaced at a young age, was keenly aware of the loss of place, and that this experience of loss directed his later attention to a sense of home [End Page 94] and place—what it is to be attached to a place, to care for a place, and to have a place contribute to one's identity.10

In addition to his natural affinity for the general features of Burke's notion of second nature, Wordsworth was also attracted to and influenced by Rousseau. This began at least by 1791, when Wordsworth was radicalized in France and became familiar with the Rousseau of the French Revolution. That Rousseau—the revolutionaries' interpretation of Rousseau—was a champion of "Nature" and "Reason," not of second nature. Around this time Wordsworth most likely read Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke, of course, opposed the revolutionaries' Rousseau, specifically his support for democracy and his (alleged) faith in reason and theory divorced from history and experience. And the early Wordsworth opposed Burke, as seen in his Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff. The "letter" was as much a reply to Burke as it was to the bishop, and it was informed by Rousseau as much as by Thomas Paine. Still, in spite of Wordsworth's attraction to Rousseau, his Letter, which is his only explicit treatment of Burke during this time, is mute on the topic of second nature. He did oppose blind, oppressive custom, slavish obedience to "dead parchment," and thwarting inquiry into the establishment of liberty and equality. But such opposition is not in itself a challenge to the concept of second nature. And indeed, unlike other progressive thinkers, Wordsworth chose not to criticize Burke on that which already had such a foundation in his own thought, namely, the powerful and potentially beneficial role of second nature.

Wordsworth learned much from his fellow radical republicans, lessons that he never entirely forgot. He learned of the political implications that flow from having one's sympathies aligned with "the people," specifically with the disenfranchised and disempowered. This commitment to "the people" is a pervasive feature of Rousseau's authorship, and not just of the revolutionaries' caricature of him. Yet as the revolution became more violent and as Wordsworth's sympathies with it became more equivocal, Wordsworth entered a personally difficult period during which he arguably produced his best work. Much of his verse in this period can be characterized as bringing together second nature—with its emphasis on tradition, customs, and place—with the progressive political ideals of Rousseau and the French Revolution. Later in life, Wordsworth maintained an emphasis on second nature but abandoned much of his early radicalism, though he retained important lessons and perspectives from his republican days. He remained, for example, a critic of unbridled capitalism and of those modern ways of commerce [End Page 95] and manufacturing that were devastating communities, personal dignity, and the environment.

In my account, then, Wordsworth was Burkean (with respect to second nature) before reading Burke's Reflections (though Burke surely augmented his own notion of second nature). Moreover, he was never entirely comfortable with the revolutionaries' Rousseau, that is, with the philosophe who inspired the Temple of Reason. Society, for Wordsworth, is far too complicated and organic to be based on anything like a simplistic account of rational assent to a social contract. A society's stability and vitality spring from customs, practices, perspectives, and memories that are rooted in a place and lodged in the hearts and minds of its citizens. So, like Burke, Wordsworth came to believe that society could not be based on "reason" or abstract theories (a position that is in fact close to Rousseau's actual view, unlike that of the revolutionaries' Rousseau). Yet unlike Burke, this Wordsworth of the 1790s and early 1800s would not put his trust in the ruling elites. Wordsworth trusted and championed a different way. He retained Rousseau's commitment to "the people" and to the revolutionary ideals of liberty, community, and equality. Wordsworth's way, especially in the mid-1790s, was to bring together the philosophical anthropology of second nature with the political perspectives of progressive democracy. He championed, at least implicitly, what I am calling a democratic second nature.

"Democratic second nature" would surely have been an oxymoron for Burke. In his view, democracy, with its leveling aspirations, undermines the established, ruling hierarchies that have organically emerged over time and that bring stability to society. Democracy spawns a self-interested form of individualism that destroys generous, life-giving traditions, customs, and habits. Democracy, an experiment inspired by perilous, abstract theory, would eventually erase our second nature and thereby render us exposed and vulnerable, bereft of moral and social instincts, aid, and protection. For Wordsworth, in contrast, democracy is not an abstract theory bereft of lived experience. In the Lake District, for example, he perceived traditions and habits that supported the dignity and respect of individuals.

This normative view—to encourage one to see the humanity in each neighbor and citizen, including the beggar, the insane, and the destitute—had roots in his local culture. That same culture, of course, also endorsed many antidemocratic practices and beliefs. But with imagination and his own moral wherewithal, Wordsworth championed and fashioned a distinctively democratic vision. Also, he understood [End Page 96] that democracy required novel political developments. Democracy was not simply a hermeneutical selection and then affirmation of assorted, local democratic manners but rather it was a transformation of social and political manners and institutions. Nonetheless, basic democratic sensibilities, such as those supporting dignity and social equality among neighbors and citizens, had a basis in culture: in traditions, customs, and habits—in a democratic second nature.

Chandler has written an excellent book on Wordsworth and Burke in relation to second nature. His detailed historical and literary investigations have established a definitive case for the central role of second nature in Wordsworth's verse. Chandler cogently challenges the more traditional interpretation of Wordsworth. This traditional interpretation is associated with M. H. Abrams, and is nicely summarized in Abrams's claim that Wordsworth's "prime opponent-power is 'custom'—what Wordsworth in the Prelude repeatedly condemns as 'habit.'"11 In contrast to Abrams, Chandler claims that by 1798 Wordsworth had embraced Burke's notion of second nature and his conservatism and, moreover, had rejected Rousseau's emphasis on innate human "nature" and the quest for first principles. "Custom" and "habit," then, were not Wordsworth's "opponents" but his allies. But allied to what? Custom and habit enlisted to what ends? They were conservative ends, in Chandler's account. Yet what Chandler means by "conservative" is not always clear. Moreover, he sets up a systematic opposition between Rousseau and Burke, leading him to present a rather narrow view of Rousseau. These two interpretive shortcomings are related, for in order to convince us that Wordsworth embraced Burke's second nature, Chandler argues that Wordsworth rejected the entirety of Rousseau's progressive politics. In other words, in Chandler's view, Wordsworth must forswear Rousseau in order to endorse Burke.

Chandler claims, "Insofar as we regard Burke's thought as the epitome of political conservatism in this period [the mid-1790s], Wordsworth's major work, his programmatic poetry of second nature, is conservative from the start" (SN, p. xviii). But, again, conservative in what sense? If by "conservative" Chandler means something like self-consciously working within a historically fashioned social inheritance, within historically situated ideals, customs, beliefs, institutions, and practices, then there are good reasons to assent to the claim that "Wordsworth's major work … is conservative from the start." We can call this epistemological conservatism. But if by "conservative" Chandler means political conservatism, namely, self-consciously promoting the privilege of the wealthy and elite [End Page 97] classes, established social hierarchies, and the disenfranchisement of the commoners, then we have good reasons to disagree with Chandler's claim. Chandler tends to conflate these two distinct forms of "conservatism." Nevertheless, on occasion he does make it clear that by conservatism he has in mind political conservatism. He writes, for example, "If we understand 'conservative' to mean ideological proximity to Burke, then the visionary and experimental writing for which Wordsworth is revered, his program for poetry, is from its very inception impelled by powerfully conservative motives" (SN, p. 32; emphasis added).

If this charge of political conservatism were directed at the later Wordsworth—say the Wordsworth of the 1812 and forward—I would agree, though with some reservations. But Chandler claims that political conservatism marks the "very inception" of Wordsworth's "program for poetry." This misplaced charge, I believe, emerges in part because Chandler does not disambiguate epistemological and political conservatism. I suspect that Chandler, like Burke, would think of "democratic second nature" as an oxymoron. In Chandler's view, if Wordsworth accepts Burke's epistemological conservatism (or what could be called his philosophical anthropology), then he must necessarily accept his political views as well, thereby renouncing his earlier commitment to Rousseauean democratic perspectives.

Moreover, in order to tell the story of Wordsworth turning his back on Rousseau to travel with Burke, Chandler exaggerates the opposition between Rousseau and Burke. For example, when Wordsworth in the Prelude mocks a faith in "rules and theories so precise" such that we no longer use our own eyes, our own experience, to see our way forward, Chandler interprets this as Wordsworth's championing Burke over Rousseau (SN, p. 106). But Godwin, not Rousseau, is the more likely figure of ridicule here. Likewise, lest we believe that Rousseau's educational views had an enduring influence on Wordsworth, Chandler labors, unsuccessfully in my view, to show that Wordsworth in fact distanced himself from Rousseau's Emile (SN, pp. 108–14). Chandler's narrative of Wordsworth's move from Rousseau to Burke requires, apparently, that Wordsworth renounce any and all influence by Rousseau.

Yet Rousseau's lasting influence on Wordsworth seems indisputable. The celebration of "nature" and "the natural world"; educational theories that promote "free range" children; an emphasis on experiential learning as opposed to narrow academic learning; a premium on subjectivity and the importance of nurturing sense and sensibility in the context of community and the natural world; a trust in local manners [End Page 98] and customs; a commitment to the view that "men who no not wear fine clothes can feel deeply"—these are but some of the Rousseauean perspectives that would become Wordsworth's. Rather than choosing between Rousseau and Burke, Wordsworth brought together aspects of Burke's concept of second nature with aspects of Rousseau's thought, including his democratic faith in "the people."


Closely related to the concept of "second nature" are "taste" and "place," and unsurprisingly these terms play significant roles in Wordsworth's work. Wordsworth employed the term "taste" to refer to our capacity to experience the world normatively. When one's taste has been suitably cultivated, one will see—will experience sensually—the beauty and truth of a situation, or the lack thereof. Tasteful judgment, in most cases, is immediate. Yet this should not imply that taste has no relation to moral reason or reasonableness. Rather, moral reasonableness itself can be cultivated and become "second nature." Taste is a dynamic normative sensibility, capable of marshaling justifications should they be required. Its judgments are informed over time by numerous experiences in various spheres. Taste is similar to what Aristotle's phronimos exhibits when the morally wise grasps, without the aid of a utilitarian calculus or deontological rule, the morally appropriate course of action for a given situation. Unlike a utilitarian approach that assumes all goods can be assigned a utility value and thereby be compared, and unlike a deontological approach that assumes all situations can be navigated by a categorical imperative, Wordsworth understood taste as producing spontaneous judgments among incommensurate goods and situations.

One's taste is nurtured by place—understood geographically, culturally, and socioeconomically. This proposition links Wordsworth back to Burke and forward to Michel Foucault. Like Burke, Wordsworth held that one's capacity for civic affections and duties have their root in one's local attachments and education, broadly understood. A local sense of place is an indispensable step toward a more universal one. For Wordsworth, the local is where democracy and economy have a human face—in daily activities, close to home. Without strong attachments to local communities, one's wider civic existence risks becoming abstract and hollow. Yet like Foucault, Wordsworth also grasped that the discipline and practices that are rooted in a place can inflict harm. For example, in the poems "Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned," [End Page 99] Wordsworth disclosed how a prevailing local culture's emphasis on industry, book learning, and scientific "dissection" make it difficult for one to engage in such counterpractices as nonutilitarian "wise passiveness," experiential learning, and contemplating the interconnectedness of things. In this case, the "local culture" is most likely the academic culture of such places as Cambridge University.

Usually, however, Wordsworth worried about the harm that flows when "outside" industrial practices and forms of discipline—such as those that come with wage labor and the establishment of a rural proletariat—destroy the practices, habits, and traditions that had emerged over time in a place. To battle such invasive forces, Wordsworth understood that one must not only seek to protect local practices but must seek to cultivate strong, broad, civic practices rooted in democratic manners and processes. So while Wordsworth was indeed a champion of local democracies informed by their distinctive geographies and cultures, he, along with Coleridge, also maintained the necessity of cultivating broad republican sensibilities. This federated vision would place Wordsworth in sharp opposition to Napoleon's centralized vision. Britain's moral and political strength, for Wordsworth, sprang from local streams feeding a broad, civic river.

Wordsworth desired that his art would both express and nurture something like a civic or democratic second nature. On the one hand, he frequently claimed that his life and poetry were nurtured by the place and taste in which he was raised. An interlaced weave of geography and culture—a spiritual inheritance of rocks and stones, manners and habits—had shaped his life and poetry. His art, then, was an expression of his second nature. Yet on the other hand, his art sought to nurture in readers a distinctive form of a democratic second nature. He sought, in other words, to cultivate a robust democratic taste in his readers. Yet it is important to note that whether Wordsworth was expressing or nurturing a second nature, this activity was not simply a process of mirroring or replicating some static, received set of habits, beliefs, and practices. Wordsworth held that one must, to some extent, choose one's inheritance and critically engage with it. In his view, there is always a transactional relation between inheritor and inheritance. Neither remains static. And so Wordsworth actively fashioned his inheritance even as he was fashioned by it. This active participation in one's inheritance was a goal he set for his readers as well.

We can think of Wordsworth's poetry, then, as the result of an active relation between inheritor and inheritance: as the labor of a dynamic [End Page 100] second nature. The potentially dynamic character of second nature is worth emphasizing, since second nature is often associated with conservatism, that is, with a fixed and stable status quo. Yet second nature is acquired over time and it is potentially responsive to changes in culture, geography, and the human imagination. And responsiveness itself—the work of reflection and critical inquiry—is a trait and capacity supported by a democratic second nature. Responsiveness, critical inquiry, and second nature pull together in radical Romanticism. In Wordsworth's poetry, certainly in the Lyrical Ballads and the Prelude, we see attempts to bring together Burke's emphasis on tradition and custom with Godwin's and Paine's emphases on reason and principles. Wordsworth was suspicious of both reason divorced from experience and experience detached from reason (critical, reflective thought). Like Burke, Wordsworth came to distrust abstract theories that hovered free of history or experience. Yet like Godwin and Paine, Wordsworth valued critical reflection and reasoned principles.

In the Prelude, for example, Wordsworth mocked the idea of reason severed from time and place:

How Glorious!—in self-knowledge and self-ruleTo look through all the frailties of the world,And, with a resolute mastery shaking offThe accidents of nature, time, and place,That make up the weak being of the past,Build social freedom on its only basis:The freedom of the individual mind,Which, to the blind restraint of general laws Superior, magisterially adoptsOne guide—the light of circumstances, flashedUpon an independent intellect.12

This passage, surely taking aim at Godwin's rationalism, lampoons the idea that public well-being and freedom can be achieved by means of a rationality detached from experience—from tradition, history, and local practices and conditions ("accidents of nature, time, and place"). Yet, wanting to be charitable toward Godwin and others who put their hope in "human Reason's naked self" (TP, p. 402, 10:817), Wordsworth went on to claim that many have come, for good reason, to distrust tradition and practice because of the way these have been conceived by conservatives who refuse to reform customs and laws even when circumstances (such as unjust practices and policies) clearly dictate that change is [End Page 101] needed. He noted that the French Revolution, in spite of its flaws, had nonetheless lifted "a veil" and "a shock had then been given/To old opinions." Yet many, in the name of "ancient institutions," refused to acknowledge what the revolution had revealed: the sight of human suffering and need for change (TP, p. 404, 10:849–63). Here Wordsworth was no longer taking aim at Godwin but rather at Burke and all other traditionalists who had given "tradition" and "second nature" a bad name.

Second nature, then, is subject to assessment and revision. But critique of this kind is neither disembodied nor wholesale, as if one could step outside of one's self and world and put to doubt everything at once. Sounding remarkably similar to Wittgenstein in On Certainty, Wordsworth described the futility and ultimately the despair in his own past attempts to drag "all passions, notions, shapes of faith / Like culprits to the bar, suspiciously" (TP, p. 406, 10:889–90). But this should not suggest that recovery from global doubt and its attending despair are to arrive by means of a blind affirmation of tradition and custom. Recovery from paralyzing doubt comes, rather, from "a power/That is the very quality and shape and image of right reason" and the "intellectual ey"' (TP, pp. 438, 440; 12:24–26, 57; emphasis added). "Right reason" and the "intellectual eye" refer to judgments, evaluations, and critiques that are informed by one's embeddedness in the social and natural world. They reflect experience even as they reflect on experience. Second nature, properly acquired, is a deposit of past insight and wisdom that, with the aid of "right reason" and the "intellectual eye," is constantly negotiating new circumstances and revising itself in response to them.

My larger argument, here, is that second nature (as a type of philosophical anthropology) and critique (as a normative and valued social practice) are not incompatible. Theorists of second nature can acknowledge the roles of both social formation and moral autonomy, depicting moral autonomy as the cultivated capacity to reflect critically on one's culture, history, and circumstance. Human character and action, in this view, are understood to be as much a matter of social formation as of self-legislation. We do not have to choose between them. Located at the intersection of Burke's organicism and Kant's autonomy (as well as Paine's and Godwin's autonomy), Wordsworth offered complex, nonreductive accounts of an embedded agency: depictions of human action that resisted both social determinism and atomistic autonomy. In time, however, liberal democratic theorists became increasingly dismissive of, and even hostile toward, "second nature." Kant and deontology (as well as forms of utilitarianism) trumped Burke and second nature. [End Page 102]

No doubt, the triumph of Kant over Burke is in part due to Burke's political conservatism. I have tried here to untether second nature from political conservatism and, in the process, to reconstruct a concept of second nature that places a premium on critique. Such a reconstruction helps to justify speaking of a democratic second nature, a notion found in Wordsworth and subsequently received and transformed by such American Romantics as Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Terry Tempest Williams, and Wendell Berry. Rather than viewing democracy as a threat to the acquired wisdom and shared views and practices that second nature grants, these authors maintain that second nature, when suitably cultivated, can provide moral traditions, customs, and practices that further the aims of a flourishing, progressive democracy. Pace Burke, democratic virtues, values, and practices, far from undoing social order, are its most promising grounds.


This argument about Wordsworth and second nature has broad implications for contemporary democratic society. It suggests that progressive democratic thought and practice are not only compatible with the ways of tradition, habit, and custom but require them. For some time now, I have been interested in models and defenses of democratic institutions that do not rely exclusively on either 1) appeals to rational choice or market efficiency models, often purportedly derived from principles of universal, deliberative human rationality; or 2) political arguments based on natural reason or any other anchors in an ahistorical moral reality. My interest, rather, is in exploring models that describe democratic society as a social, cultural achievement, and recognize that its protection and development require attention to its social, cultural basis.

This should not imply that I am not committed to principled approaches that generate arguments about how to achieve a progressive, flourishing society. I would be greatly dismayed if my focus on the sociohistorical nature of our political and moral beliefs and practices were to suggest that I am discounting principled arguments. I am not attempting to reduce political theory to sociology, moral deliberation to historical inquiry, or social criticism to social manipulation. I am, rather, bringing attention to the sociohistorical character of our democratic beliefs, practices, and institutions as well as of the normative principles that we commonly bring to debates and conversations about how best to establish a just, flourishing society. [End Page 103]

When we acknowledge the sociohistorical nature of democratic achievements such as human rights, rule of law, consent of the people, and the celebration of diversity, we acknowledge the fragility of these achievements. These achievements are not written and secured in a foundation of transcendent stone. Sociocultural forces erected them and can just as easily bring them down. Even the most basic democratic achievements cannot be taken for granted. This should make us vigilant, especially if we hold that there are some things that no one, anywhere, at any time, should need to worry about happening to them. Alas, this vigilance will always be timely. Many of us had once assumed, for example, that the United States had unequivocally foresworn the use of torture and was a world leader in efforts to eradicate torture everywhere. Torture, however, has made a comeback, in spite of laws that prohibit it. In the absence of a sociocultural base to support just laws, laws can be interpreted or amended or ignored in unjust ways. If a society—its beliefs and practices, traditions and cultures, its second nature—does not support a normative principle, or supports it ambivalently, the principle is vulnerable.

To bring attention, then, to the relation between democracy and second nature is to bring warning as well as hope. For that which has been made can also be remade, enhanced, and fortified. By acknowledging democratic forms of life that support just institutions, we can purposefully attend to and cultivate this dynamic second nature in order to strengthen and further such achievements as human rights and social justice, and combat such democratic threats as white supremacy, misogyny, and Islamophobia. Our hope and our duty, as Wordsworth understood it, is the cultivation of a robust cultural democracy—a democratic second nature.

Mark S. Cladis
Brown University


1. Isaiah Berlin, for example, claims that in Romanticism we find "a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness." Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 96. See also Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 2; Alfredo De Paz, "Innovation and Modernity," Literary Criticism: Romanticism, ed. Marshall Brown (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 29–48.

2. Some Romantics supported the concept that a people's multigenerational relationship with a region entitled them to political control of it; Byron, for example, supported the Greek War of Independence for this reason. Yet other forms of Romantic nationalism were dangerously exclusionary; Nazi Germany, for example, can legitimately be viewed as a form of Romantic nationalism.

3. By Romanticism, I refer to the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century artistic, literary, philosophical, religious, and political movement; I also refer to a current, implicit, and pervasive cultural framework that has its roots in the Romantic era. The manners and interpretations of Romanticism, of course, are legion. In my case, I have interrogated a selection of Romantic materials and constructed my own portrait of Romanticism for the sake of advancing progressive democratic aims. I call this portrait radical Romanticism. I acknowledge that my selection of material is itself a constructive exercise, yet I also believe that I maintain fidelity to my sources. Radical Romanticism, then, refers to my critical, constructive engagement with select voices of Romanticism.

4. See William Wordsworth, "Essay on Morals," Wordsworth: Selected Prose, ed. John O. Hayden (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), pp. 104–6; for example, Wordsworth claimed, "I know no book or system of moral philosophy written with sufficient power to melt into our affections, to incorporate itself with the blood and vital juices of our minds, and thence to have any influence worth our notice in forming those habits of which I am speaking. … These bald and naked reasonings are impotent over our habits; they cannot form them; from the same cause they are equally powerless in regulating our judgments concerning the value of men and things. They contain no picture of human life" (p. 105). Wordsworth's suspicion of the abstract—of things and ideas not rooted in the concreteness of time and space—accounts for his eventual frustration with the abstract and impersonal nature of Godwin's political philosophy.


In this article, I mainly focus on the early Wordsworth (his work in the 1790s and up to approximately 1805). There is a well-entrenched account of the trajectory of Wordsworth's poetry and political persuasion. When he was young, his poetry was original and vibrant and his political beliefs were democratic and progressive. As he aged, his poetry became staid and his politics conservative. There is much debate about exactly when his apostasy occurred, though most agree it took place sometime between 1798 and 1806. Some, like Jerome McGann, push the date so far back that it is unclear whether Wordsworth ever had progressive political beliefs; see Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Others, such as White, doubt if there ever was a change of heart (see William Hale White, An Examination of the Charge of Apostasy Against Wordsworth [London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1898]).

If one is, like me, mostly interested in Wordsworth's early poetry and its political, religious, and environmental dimensions, then the relevance of when or whether he committed apostasy is not entirely clear. I will say, however, that eventually Wordsworth did become more conservative in his political beliefs and practices. This transition is a long, complicated path. It is not a straight line from left to right. And he never denied his earlier, revolutionary commitment and enthusiasm. Indeed, it is preserved for all to see in the final, 1850 version of the Prelude. Throughout his lifetime, he championed the dignity of the commoner and criticized the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution and its laissez-faire economics. Still, the validity of the portrait of Wordsworth's eventual conservative turn—Wordsworth the Tory, the member of the Church of England, the Distributor of Stamps and supporter of the second Lord Lonsdale—is undeniable.

6. By place, I refer to the manners, customs, and ideals of a place but also to the place itself, that is, to its physicality.

7. Edmund Burke, "Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont," On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters, ed. David Bromwich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 410.

8. See Burke, "Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont," p. 414.

9. James K. Chandler, Wordsworth's Second Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. xviii; hereafter abbreviated SN.

10. For a convincing argument supporting this, see Lucy Newlyn, William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in Each Other' (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

11. M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1973), p. 379.

12. William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (1805; repr., New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), p. 402, book 10:819–29; hereafter abbreviated TP and cited by page number, book, and line number.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.