University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
collapse sectionIII. 
ROMANTICISM(ca. 1780-ca. 1830)
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 

(ca. 1780-ca. 1830)

Common prudence, if not necessity, dictates consid-
eration of the problem of romanticism before attempt-
ing to define or describe it. For the problem, as Arthur
Lovejoy pointed out years ago, is a thorny one. In view
of the many and conflicting conceptions of romanticism
among historians and critics, what if anything can be
stated positively about it? Do the facts themselves
reveal a genuine “movement,” reasonably well unified
and of European scope, which peaked in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and which,
because it is identifiable, can then be held responsible
for a variety of intellectual and even political progeny
in the modern world? Lovejoy, as is well known, came
down hard on the skeptical side. “The word 'roman-
tic',” he pointed out, “has come to mean so many things
that, by itself, it means nothing” (Lovejoy, 1924). He
therefore recommended learning to use the word in
the plural. There was a “plurality of Romanticisms”
but no “one fundamental 'Romantic' idea.” Somewhat
ambiguously, he was willing to speak of “a Romantic
period” between 1780 and 1830, but not of a romantic

This was and still is a useful caveat. The evidence
is clear that there were important differences between
“the romantic School” which arose in Germany in the
1790's and English and French romanticisms of the
same period. Within each century, moreover, the na-
ture of romanticism changes subtly from one genera-
tion to the next. “Late” German romanticism, for
example, was more nativist, and more fascinated by
the occult and supernatural, than the earlier phase
which was closer in spirit to “classical” Weimar. In
France the gap was even more marked between the
“conservative” generation of Chateaubriand and the
émigrés, and that of the liberal Victor Hugo who him-
self underwent a considerable change of heart, both
politically and religiously, after 1830. The word “ro
mantic,” though lately come into vogue, patently did
not function as a rallying cry since it signified too many
different things (e.g., “anticlassical” to Friedrich
Schlegel, but merely “contemporary” to Stendhal), and
besides, not all the persons generally designated as
romantics in today's textbooks were conscious of being
or called themselves romantics. Romanticism was
probably at its most self-conscious in the Berlin-Jena
coterie, led by Schlegel among others, which
propagated the term and eventually drew fire from
Goethe. But to my knowledge neither Coleridge nor
Wordsworth ever adopted the label. Save for some
highly informal salons as in Berlin, or later on in the
cénacles of Paris or in esoteric groups like the
“Nazarenes” in Rome, romanticism had no institutional
organization, and certainly no single great publishing
venture comparable to the Encyclopédie of the eigh-
teenth century, even within one country. It had no cen-
tral doctrine, nor even so loose an authority as the Bible
during the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, how could
it have had, seeing that the romantics, if such they
may be called, prided themselves on their individuality.

If carried to the extreme this caveat would indeed
dictate a pluralistic and even nominalistic inter-
pretation. But we do not need go so far, for, as René
Wellek and some others believe, not only was there
a romantic movement of European-wide scope but
failure to identify it would mean to miss some of the
salient features of nineteenth- and even twentieth-
century culture. Naturally, this affirmation must stand
or fall on the evidence. However, one or two
methodological comments should help to clarify it.
First of all, it is important not to cavil at the word
itself. “Romanticism” may not be just the right word
to describe certain profound changes in Weltan-
which did in fact take place during the
period in question. But what word would serve better,
especially since tradition has by now, for better or
worse, sanctioned its use and furthermore associated
it with at least some widely shared assumptions and
ideas. Lovejoy, it seems to me, sometimes comes very
close to conceding this point despite his insistence on
pluralism. Second, we need to remind ourselves that
the problem of romanticism is by no means unique.
How does it differ, except perhaps in greater com-
plexity, from a host of similar historiographical
problems—from, for instance, the problem of the
Renaissance, or the Reformation, or even the Enlight-
enment? The romantic movement is, frankly, an ideal
type. But so are most other “movements” in history,
especially when considered broadly and transcending
provincial boundaries. The historian describes their
“ideal” characteristics knowing perfectly well they
cannot be found anywhere or all together in a perfectly


pure state. But I fail to see how he could do otherwise.
Without doing so he could never get much beyond
talking about individuals or narrowly circumscribed
schools or groups. He could never talk about the
Renaissance, and we should be the poorer for it.

This sort of ideal type, it should be understood, has
a firm basis in reality. It represents the historian's
generalizations from the evidence before him: an
observed consensus, the common denominator he
detects in the midst of diversity. In the case of a move-
ment in ideas this consensus is most easily discovered
in what the individuals involved were all against. What
they were all for is harder to get at. But it may not
be so difficult if one remembers that the area of agree-
ment is never so much in consciously formulated con-
ceptions (where there is usually wide difference of
opinion) as in certain preconceptions, i.e., deeply felt
aversions and psychological needs. One of the exciting
things about the romantic consensus is that it came
about with a minimum of international “influence.”
There were influences, of course, as of Rousseau on
nearly all the Germans, Kant on Coleridge as well as
his own countrymen, Herder and Walter Scott on
French historiography, for example. But the big story
is that the various wings of the romantic movement
developed largely independently of one another, out
of native impulses, but also—otherwise there would
be no consensus—in reaction against a body of ideas
common in certain respects to them all.

John Stuart Mill, no romantic himself but a sympa-
thetic and informed observer, put his finger unerringly
on what the European romantics disliked. Romanti-
cism, he said in an essay on Armand Carrel (1837),
represented a reaction “against the narrownesses of the
eighteenth century.” Though he was speaking there
primarily of literature, it is clear from what follows
and from other essays, conspicuously the famous one
on Coleridge, that he thought of it as a revolt against
narrowness on many fronts, in philosophy and science,
in historical and political thought, as well as in poetry
and the drama. “Fractional,” “partial,” “insignificant,”
“poor,” were among the adjectives Thomas Carlyle
employed in his essay on Diderot (1833); he denounced
“Diderot's habitual world” as “a half-world, distorted
into looking like a whole.” The reference in both cases
was, of course, to the European Enlightenment which
by then had become a stereotype, and partly also a
caricature. The romantics thought that world too nar-
row because of its addiction to geometric thinking and
the allied doctrine of neo-classicism, or else to Lockean
empiricism. The geometric spirit, though meta-
physically bold, tried to subject all life to reason and
thus to mechanize and demean it. Neo-classicism, simi-
larly ambitious in seeking out Nature's ideal patterns,
imposed universal and iron rules on art and the artist.
Empiricism offended for the opposite reason, because
it was too skeptical, because it severely limited human
knowledge to the sense world of appearances. Newton
became an arch-symbol of this narrowness. Opinions
about Newton varied, of course, even among the ro-
mantics (one thinks of Saint-Simon who preached a
Cult of Newton), but William Blake's depiction of him
was quite typical. Blake did not see in Newton the
great imaginative genius celebrated by Alexander
Pope. On the contrary, he demoted him to the material
world, making him look downward as though trying
to fathom the world by means of a pair of compasses,
i.e., by measurement and “reason” alone (Newton, Tate
Gallery, London [1795]).

A word more about origins would seem advisable
at this point in order to avoid misunderstanding. Mill's
favorite words—“reaction” and “revolt”—are only
approximately correct. Mill viewed the history of ideas
as a perpetual oscillation between extremes. One mode
of thought, inevitably developed to excess sooner or
later, provoked its opposite. Thus, “the eighteenth
century” set on foot the romantic movement. The
latter, however, must also be seen as growing out of,
and not merely reacting against the Enlightenment. In
any case it would not have been the same without it.
It owed something to British empiricism's attack on
rationalism, something to certain philosophes like
Diderot, who though devoted to the Enlightenment
nevertheless developed some decidedly un-philosophe
notions about nature and the arts. It owed something
to the French Revolution which inspired a whole gen-
eration of French romantics, especially after 1830. The
Enlightenment also left its mark in less obvious ways.
Surely the religious heterodoxy of many of the roman-
tics, including pastor Schleiermacher himself, traces
back in part to doubts sown by the philosophes. And
what of the idea of progress? Did it not enhance the
romantic sense of the infinite?

The roots of a great movement in opinion are always
multiple and complex. Romanticism was not at all, I
think, the ally of any particular social class, or, except
locally, a “conservative reaction” as has often been
claimed. On the other hand, there is no question that
political events deepened some facets of romantic
sensibility, particularly in Germany during and after
the War of Liberation. The romantic movement might
be compared to a mighty river into which flowed scores
of tributary streams, some of them commencing far
back in time, others more recently. A list of these
streams would include, in addition to those already
mentioned, the individualism of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries of which romantic individualism
might be considered the climax; Pietism in seventeenth-


century Germany and the quarrel between Rubénistes
and Poussinistes in seventeenth-century France; the
growth of “sentimentalism” everywhere in eighteenth-
century Europe; the Sturm und Drang of Goethe's
Weimar which in some though not all respects is hardly
distinguishable from early German romanticism itself;
the new German Idealism. Toward the close of the
eighteenth century all these streams had contributed
to form the romantic movement. If the latter had any
“beginning,” doubtless it should be looked for in newly
discovered and perhaps still somewhat vague tastes and
aspirations; only at its height did it become acutely
conscious of itself in art and philosophy. Individual
thinkers therefore played the role not so much of
initiators as implementers of the new tastes. The search
for pioneers and precursors, and for the “influence”
of one writer or artist on another, seems to me fruitless
and footless unless it takes into account the many, and
not merely the few, the elite, who were swept up in
the romantic torrent. Nevertheless, certain individuals
do stand out as important catalytic agents. Such, for
example, was Rousseau, the Rousseau of the Nouvelle
and Émile which nearly everybody read. Such Goethe (for all that he called romanticism a “sick-
ness”); Herder for his new views of history; and
Immanuel Kant whom Schlegel called the new Moses
and whose writings Coleridge said “invigorated” his
understanding more than any other work. Kant was
particularly important for showing the limits of reason
(Verstand) yet at the same time postulating strongly
the existence of “transcendental ideas.” It is important,
however, to distinguish the main river from the tribu-
taries. Fundamentally, the romantic movement was just
what Mill said it was, a reaction against a certain
“narrow” kind of thinking epitomized by the “scien-
tific” Enlightenment.

It is not so easy to say what it stood for. “Onto-
logical,” “conservative,” “religious,” “concrete and
historical,” “poetical” says Mill of its constructive
“doctrine” (Mill, “Coleridge,” 1840), but he was think-
ing of romanticism primarily in one country, and
consequently not all his adjectives apply equally well
to all. Considered more broadly romanticism might
better be said to have centered in several quite marked
predispositions: an emphasis on particularity or indi-
viduality, and a sense of the infinite and the irrational
component in human life. These predispositions pro-
vide the key (Wordsworth would say “the prelude”)
to romantic ideas about “Man, Nature, and Society.”
Without the key, the ideas—i.e., romantic answers to
the perennial questions of human life: the sort of ques-
tions Wordsworth set out to explore in his philosophical
poem The Excursion—must often seem hopelessly in
conflict and to lead into a maze without end.

Since the romantic mind did not quite center in
“Man,” it makes sense perhaps to turn first to romantic
ideas about God and Nature. Here the sense of the
infinite is particularly clear. “The Infinite,” said
Carlyle, “is more sure than any other fact.” To be sure,
this sense could take secular as well as religious forms,
as we shall see. But it lent itself particularly well to
the romantic search for a religious reality beyond reach
of reason or sensible experience. “True religion,” said
Schleiermacher in his famous definition, “is sense and
taste for the Infinite (das Unendliche).” He also
described it as “expansive soaring in the Whole and
the Inexhaustible” (Reden über die Religion, 1799).

It was widely believed that the world had lost its
religious bearings during the Enlightenment and that
men needed to recover them if there were ever again
to be heroes and great works of imagination. In “the
Unbelieving Century” God had become nonexistent or
peripheral and bound by rational categories. Carlyle
vividly describes this feeling of loss in his chapter on
“The Everlasting No” in Sartor Resartus (1833-34),
that great source book for romantic views on God and
religion. His Professor Teufelsdröckh tells there of the
spiritual crisis he went through (obviously owing to
the corrosive effect of Enlightenment skepticism): how,
as “the spirit of Inquiry” took possession of him, he
had moved from doubt to disbelief, and consequently
was shut out from hope. At best, he thought, there
might be “an absentee God,” sitting idle since the first
Sabbath and looking at the Universe from outside it.

How, then, to recover a living faith? Some romantics
never succeeded in doing so, and their failure was
doubtless a source, in some individuals, of melancholy.
Others, however, like Teufelsdröckh-Carlyle, did
rediscover God, but in new and strange places. It is
true, then, that the romantic movement sparked a
religious revival, but false to think of it as a simple
return to orthodoxy. Even those who, like the Roman
Catholic refugees and converts, flocked back to their
ancestral altars found new and romantic reasons for
doing so. Actually, romantic religiosity luxuriated in
a great many forms, including some purely private
religions like the bizarre mythology invented by
William Blake. If these forms had anything in common,
it was in the tendency to bring God back “inside” the
Universe and to find him in the human heart and
nature. In other words, the romantics emphasized the
immanence rather than the transcendence of God.

This was true even of an apologist for Catholicism
like the Vicomte de Chateaubriand. In the Génie du
(1802), called the “Bible of romanti-
cism,” he avoided the traditional kinds of rational
“proofs” which Voltaire had found so easy to demolish,
and somewhat in the manner of Rousseau's Savoyard


Vicar rediscovered religion through his tears, through
passion (Chateaubriand defined religion as “a passion”),
through the beauty and sense of awe aroused in the
beholder by the presence of God in nature and Gothic
churches. A parallel view is observable in Schleier-
macher who changed the course of Protestant theology.
He too, though more especially in his early utterances
when he was closely associated with the Berlin roman-
tic group, shifted the emphasis from rational exegesis
and doctrine to individual experience or feeling. It was
preeminently in “feeling,” he thought, that is, in a
precognitive experience, that the individual en-
countered the Infinite, now brought within the soul
itself. Schleiermacher's “Theology of Feeling” thus
united the romantic sense of the infinite and romantic
individuality. Each individual experienced God in his
own unique way, as did every positive religion of the
world though Schleiermacher still thought Christianity

But the romantics also characteristically found God
in nature, not all of them, of course, not Vigny or
Byron, not even Blake, but certainly an impressive
number. These “natural supernaturalists,” revolting
against the Newtonian machine, sought to make nature
a home in which man could once again live and feel
close to God, and thus solve the problem of dualism
which had plagued thinking men since the time of
Descartes. The impetus to this new way of thinking
about nature came from, among others, Rousseau
whom the contemplation of nature could send into
mystical ecstasies (as in Les rêveries du promeneur
1776-78); Goethe who in his morphological
studies was always trying to discover the original and
inner principle of things, the invisible in the visible;
Spinoza, or rather Spinoza seen through Jacobi's and
Herder's eyes, who seemed to teach a God immanent
in nature, indeed in all existence, as a life-force. The
logical extension of such thinking was a new religion
of nature, appropriately called by Carlyle—who at this
point again summarizes a large body of romantic
opinion—“Natural Supernaturalism.” Natural Super-
naturalism, rather than outworn “Church-clothes,”
provided Teufelsdröckh with his answer to the “Ever-
lasting No.” It meant raising the natural to the super-
natural rather than the reverse process which had
characterized the materialism of the Enlightenment.
This line of thought had previously been worked out
much more subtly by the philosopher Schelling, whose
Naturphilosophie was much admired by Goethe and
Coleridge. It was exemplified poetically by Words-
worth, and by romantic landscape painters like
Constable in England and David Caspar Friedrich in

It is worth noting parenthetically that despite this
quasi-pantheism the romantic movement was not nec-
essarily antiscientific. It was opposed to a certain kind
of mechanical science and split down the middle as
to whether mechanical inventions beautified or uglified
life. But not a few romantics, Schelling, for example,
who became secretary of the Academy of Sciences at
Munich, and Maine de Biran who admired the physicist
Ampère, eagerly followed the latest developments in
science, while some undoubtedly contributed positively
to the advancement of science by their bold specula-
tions especially in biology and the psychology of the
unconscious. One thinks again of Schelling who
postulated a natura naturans, a creative, dynamic,
evolutionary nature which achieved its “goal” in man
himself; or of Dr. Carus or Gottfried-Heinrich von
Schubert, Schelling's colleague at the University of
Erlangen and translator of Erasmus Darwin, who in-
vestigated the symbolic language of dreams or, as he
so graphically put it, “the night-side of science.” Much
as the romantics exalted art and the artist, they showed
little disposition to think in terms of “two cultures,”
to pit art against science unless it was mechanical
science. On the contrary, there was a marked tendency
to romanticize science, as Balzac did in his novel The
Quest of the Absolute.
Novalis, himself an amateur
scientist as well as a great poet, thought of science
as a gateway to the Infinite. Some of Victor Hugo's
poems also repay reading on this point. Hugo became
a sort of poet laureate of science, glorifying it as a
great adventure into the unknown and penetrating the
mystery of nature.

We have said that the romantic movement did not
quite center in Man, and this remark requires some
comment as we turn now from romantic ideas of God
and Nature to those concerning man himself. The truth
of the remark can be gauged by comparing romanti-
cism with “classical” humanism. In the latter, man,
though not necessarily unaware of wider cosmic forces,
was free to set purposes for himself and, to a large
degree, make his own fate. The romantics, however,
commonly saw man in the context of great cosmic and
historical movements which enveloped him in an
“infinity” greater than himself. Man is simply not the
measure in romantic landscape painting, or in the new
type of “English” garden (not geometrized nor ordered
by human hand as in “classical” gardens), or in those
gigantic philosophies of history projected by a Herder,
Hegel, or even Michelet.

Nevertheless, by comparison with the Enlightenment
the romantics greatly enhanced man's capabilities.
Enlightenment anthropology seemed intolerably nar-
row to them, belittling man, accenting, as Wordsworth
said, the “inferior faculties” and thus denying him
access to “principles of truth.” For the wider vision


of reality they yearned for they obviously needed far
greater candle power than Locke could provide, an
image of man less passive and banal than Condillac's
statue man. Hence, the romantics countered with a
conception of knowledge emphasizing man's activity
and creativity. This theory, derived partly from the
new German Idealism, posited a special “faculty” of
the human mind, superior to the discursive reason, and
variously labelled (depending somewhat on the refer-
ence, whether to artistic theory, philosophy, or reli-
gion) “Reason,” “Imagination,” “intuition,” “feeling,”
“faith,” “the illative sense,” etc. The names are legion,
but what the romantics were trying to say about man
comes out clearly enough in the famous distinction,
made early by Jacobi and Kant and developed by
Coleridge, between Reason and Understanding
(Vernunft and Verstand). The latter, obviously associ-
ated with Locke and Hume, could merely apprehend
appearances. In Schopenhauer's metaphor it was like
a man who goes round and round a castle sketching
the facade and never finding an entrance. “Reason,”
on the other hand, was the source of transcendental
ideas, “the organ of the super-sensuous” as Coleridge
called it, able to discern “invisible realities or spiritual
objects” (The Friend, 1809). As is well known,
Coleridge also distinguished sharply between the use
of “Imagination” and “Fancy” by the poet, the latter
being able only to copy and embellish past examples,
the former, however, possessing an “esemplastic
power” to see things as a whole and to bring new
worlds to life, by creation and invention. The imagina-
tion, as depicted by the romantics, was obviously
something more than human. The same immanentism
is observable in romantic man as in “nature.” The
human imagination was the vessel through which the
Infinite or Eternal expressed and became conscious of
itself. Hence, Blake, Shelley, and others could speak
of man as “the Divine Image.” Human creativity was
patently not considered to be an entirely conscious
process. Indeed, there were those who thought that
man touched reality more deeply, because removed
entirely from sense perceptions, in dreams and ecstasy
than in the waking state. Most of these strands of
thought are brought together in Schelling's doctrine
of artistic genius. The creative artist was the ideal
Romantic Man. According to Schelling, he presented
in his work, “as if instinctively, apart from what he
has put into it with obvious intent, an infinity which
no finite understanding can fully unfold” (System des
transzendentalen Idealismus,
1800). Aesthetic intuition
thus involved both conscious and unconscious activity,
drawing upon a power-not-itself, and combining the
real and ideal.

Romantic Man thus contrasts rather sharply with the
Rational Man of the Enlightenment or the “classical”
tradition. He was at once more many-sided and more
complicated. In him “reason” was not preeminent
(though he was not necessarily antirational; cf. the
Savoyard Vicar) but took orders from the deepest
feelings or intuitions. Few romantics would have
disagreed with Coleridge's opinion “that deep thinking
is attainable only by a man of deep feeling.” And
because of this emphasis on “feeling” they also insisted
on man's individuality and freedom of will. In his
monologues Schleiermacher tells how he revolted
against the notion, still strong in Kant and Fichte, of
a “universal reason,” the same in all men. It finally
dawned upon him—he calls it his “highest intui-
tion”—“that each man is meant to represent humanity
in his own way, combining its elements uniquely.” This
is a typical romantic statement, and it applied equally
to that individualist par excellence, the genius, who
communicated the voice of the Infinite in unique and
inimitable works of art. No description of Romantic
Man would be complete without also taking into ac-
count the important role played by the will. As
denizens of the phenomenal world men might be sub-
ject to a sort of necessity. However, there was also
the noumenal world, as Kant said, in which they freely
proposed and strove after their own goals, endlessly
like Goethe's Faust. Faust is a very romantic figure,
not in his transcendentalism which he gives up as
unattainable, but in his titanism, his restless striving,
his will to wring an ever wider meaning from life. This
emphasis on will is reminiscent of Schopenhauer's
philosophy which, however, was pessimistic and sug-
gests still another side to romantic anthropology. The
romantics were also acutely aware of a “night-side,”
of an anxious and troubled human nature, of forces
hidden in man which could tear him and his world
apart. In other words, the unconscious cut two ways.
It could lead man to a higher purpose but it could
also let loose the demonic in and around him, as is
made clear, for example, in Schopenhauer's The World
as Will and Idea
(1818) which depicts a blind human
will achieving only unhappiness, or in the frightful
monsters and phantoms released in Francisco Goya's
later work, notably in some of his Caprichos and Pro-
in which reason has abandoned man altogether.

Romantic ideas about Society and the State can be
understood only in the light of this complex image of
Man. Of course, there was no specifically romantic
politics. A romantic could almost equally well be a
conservative, liberal, socialist, or even anarchist. There
was, however, a “social romanticism” in the sense of
certain identifiable attitudes. For instance, there is no
romantic who, if he thought at all about the subject,
did not object to a mechanical conception of the state


(as indeed he objected to a mechanical “nature”).
Edmund Burke, though himself a political conservative,
therefore voiced a common “romantic” attitude when
in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) he
attacked the revolutionaries as mere theorists who
thought they could treat politics as though it were a
“geometrical demonstration,” without reference to
human nature or history. If it was to achieve its end,
it should be adjusted, he had said, “not to human
reasonings, but to human nature; of which reason is
but a part, and by no means the greatest part.”

Against this abstract theorizing the romantics usually
put up some sort of organic theory emphasizing men's
emotional ties to a historically growing community and
its institutions. This preference for Gemeinschaft was
no doubt partly a reflection of revolutionary times
which made only too clear the need for order and
tradition. However, it also antedated the French Rev-
olution in the cogitations of Rousseau and Burke (not
so opposed to each other politically as the latter liked
to think) and Herder. Emphasis on community did not
constitute a negation of romantic individuality as might
be supposed. In the area of social thought the latter
found outlet, not so much in the doctrine of individual
“rights” (by its nature abstract and general, i.e., apply-
ing equally to all mankind) as in a growing awareness
of the differences between peoples and nations, and
in the belief that the national community, and perhaps
also the State, was necessary to the full development
of each individual's personality. Significantly, the one
theorist of the Enlightenment revered by Burke was
Montesquieu who understood that laws could not be
the same everywhere but must be adapted to the par-
ticular environment and experience of a people. At
the same time Burke (to be followed in England by
Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott) was writing about the
uniqueness of the English constitution and the sweet-
ness of a man's natal soil, Herder was expounding his
conception of the Volksgeist in Germany. Each Volk
or people, he believed, came to have its own peculiar
Geist, exhibited preeminently in its religion, language,
and literature. This nationalism, cultural only in
Herder, developed strong political overtones during
the War of Liberation and possibly contributed in the
long run to German racist and “fascist” thought.

However that may be, it is evident that romanticism
could as easily lend itself to a political messianism, not
so much to planning as to dreaming of a future age
of gold characterized by universal justice and freedom,
and achieved by a passionate outburst of human love
or pity. Burke, of course, would have deplored this
sort of utopian thinking. But it broke out all over,
particularly in France after 1830 when romantic
literary and social revolt at last joined hands. There
Saint-Simonians and Fourierists, as well as liberals like
Hugo and the historian Michelet, had visions of infinite
social improvement, and pledged themselves to relieve
the suffering of les misérables caused by the Industrial
Revolution. These mixed romantic feelings about past
and future often blended, as in the social thought of
those two great romantic nationalists Jules Michelet
and Giuseppe Mazzini. Both men owed a considerable
debt to Herder. Both preached in perfervid language
a “religion” of the fatherland, resurrecting its particu-
lar past and prophesying its special mission for the
future: i.e., France to spread the gospel of Liberty,
Italy to reincarnate the spirit of Rome, and thus make
the world better.

These ideas about politics and society provide a
natural bridge to their ideas about history. It is obvious
from the above that most romantics, even those who
like Victor Hugo looked to the future, had a strongly
developed historical sense. In other words, the roman-
tic movement contributed powerfully to, though it did
not invent, what came to be known later as “histori-
cism.” Historicism, as Friedrich Meinecke defines it,
rests on the twin concepts of temporal individuality
(both of epochs and peoples) and development. Thus,
it represented another facet of the romantic revolt
against the generalizing tendencies of the Enlighten-
ment. Certain words of David Hume provide the per-
fect foil for the new attitude. (Despite his empiricism
Hume often lapsed into generalist language.) “It is
universally acknowledged,” he had said in An Enquiry
concerning Human Understanding
(1748), “that there
is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all
nations and ages, and that human nature remains still
the same in its principles and operations” (Sec. VIII,
Part I). This was emphatically not the way Herder or
Burke thought about history. Herder compared history
to a tree which throws out a great variety of branches,
and is forever renewing itself; also to a chain each link
of which is necessary to an unbroken succession. Like
Herder the romantic could not only respect but
frequently empathize with past epochs which were
very different yet out of which his own had grown.
This empathy, notably with the Middle Ages, did not
necessarily lead to better history writing. Novalis, for
instance, projected his own dreams of innocence and
unity into the Middle Ages, which he glorified in his
Christenheit und Europa (1799). On the other hand,
impressive studies of the Norman Conquest, the Dukes
of Burgundy, the Crusades, etc. by “romantic”
historians such as Augustin Thierry, Barante, and
Michaud laid the ground for the revival of medieval
historical scholarship. Romantic historicism, it should
be noted, commonly explained history by the operation
of “spiritual” as opposed to material forces. A divine


purpose unfolds in history as in nature for Burke and
Herder. Heroes are “called” to perform prodigies
(Carlyle), nations to carry out sublime missions. In
Hegel Spirit becomes increasingly conscious of itself
in both nations and “World-Historical Individuals.” For
Michelet Le Peuple alone possessed the spirit of love
and self-sacrifice which would enable France to achieve
hers and mankind's destiny.

Most of these romantic philosophies of history were
wildly optimistic. However, there was another side to
the movement, already hinted at, which was the re-
verse of optimistic. This was the Byronic side which
was expressive of melancholy, agony, disenchantment,
unfulfilled longing, and even, on occasion, rebellion—
rebellion, not only against society but also the universe,
as in Byron's Cain. How important was this Welt-
It was much more than a pose. German
literature was saturated with it long before Byron. It
reached philosophic expression in Schopenhauer, and
in Leopardi (despite “classical” tastes, surely a roman-
tic at least in such Canti as L'Infinito and La Ginestra).
It dominated the thought of French romantics like
Alfred de Vigny and Alfred de Musset, the latter an
admirer of Byron, and was reflected in the painting
of Eugène Delacroix (Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1822).
Musset called it la maladie du siècle and ascribed its
vogue to the times in which young Frenchmen lived
following the Revolution and Empire, between two
worlds, between a past forever destroyed and a future
but dimly guessed (La confession d'un enfant du siècle,
1836). No wonder they were melancholy. “Je suis venu
trop tard
”... too late to believe, as in a past age of
innocence and illusion.

Were there, then, after all at least two if not a
plurality of romanticisms? It is preferable to think of
several sides to the same movement. On the one hand,
the romantics aimed to recreate wonder in a world
become narrow and prosaic. At their most optimistic
they thought they might restore unity, and hence
meaning, to a civilization plagued by dualisms: the
unity of man, God, and nature, as in Schelling's
ambitious doctrine of identity. In these respects the
romantic movement might be said to constitute the
first great revolt against one kind of modernity—the
modernity represented by the scientific Enlightenment.

Yet the romantics themselves were very “modern”
in certain respects. They were aware, far more than
the philosophes, of living in a world of endless Becom-
ing. This was an intoxicating experience for those who
could connect up the Becoming with some sort of
Being even if it was not “orthodox.” But for those who
could find no Being either in heaven or on earth it
was a cruel experience. A drama like Cain (1821) has
a very modern ring about it. Cain speaks of an absurd
universe, of man's homelessness, of knowledge turning
to ashes in his mouth (“The tree was true, though
deadly”). Rather than submit meekly he rebels against
“the Omnipotent tyrant.” Meanwhile, Schopenhauer
was tearing off men's “masks” and revealing in their
unconscious minds a “will to live” which inflicted
suffering on itself and others. So the romantic move-
ment also prefigured another sort of modernity which
ripened fully only later in the worlds of Darwin, Freud,
and Sartre. Nietzsche thought of romanticism as a
shrivelled up thing, poor in vitality, retreating from
life. This is the last thing one ought to say of a move-
ment which pursued “infinity” and exalted the
“esemplastic power” of man. Nevertheless, it had
different sides which could give birth to very different
kinds of offspring.


Arthur O. Lovejoy's interpretation emerges clearly from
the articles reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas
(Baltimore, 1948), especially the one on “The Discrim-
ination of Romanticisms” of 1924. See also for general
interpretation J. Barzun, Romanticism and the Modern Ego
(Boston, 1943); W. J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic
(Cambridge, Mass., 1946); H. Fairchild, The Romantic Quest
(New York, 1931); W. T. Jones, The Romantic Syndrome (The
Hague, 1961); H. A. Korff, Humanismus und Romantik
(Leipzig, 1924); D. Mornet, Le romantisme en France au
XVIIIe siècle
(Paris, 1912); J. H. Randall, The Career of
Vol. II (New York, 1965); H. G. Schenk, The
Mind of the European Romantics
(London, 1966); F. Strich,
Deutsche Klassik und Romantik (Munich, 1928); R. Wellek,
“The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History,” Con-
cepts of Criticism
(New Haven, 1963), pp. 128-98. For some
of the special aspects of romantic thought discussed in
the text, see also R. Aris, History of Political Thought in
Germany from 1789 to 1815
(London, 1936); J. W. Beach,
The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry
(New York, 1936); A. Béguin, L'âme romantique et le rêve
(Paris, 1939); M. Bowra, The Romantic Imagination
(Cambridge, Mass., 1949); C. Brinton, The Political Ideas
of the English Romanticists
(London, 1926); M. Brion, Ro-
mantic Art
(New York, 1960); K. Clark, The Gothic Revival
(London, 1928); R. T. Clark, Herder (Berkeley, 1955); A.
Cobban, Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eight-
eenth Century
(London, 1929); H. Kohn, The Idea of
(New York, 1944); R. Picard, Le romantisme
(New York, 1944); A. M. Osborn, Rousseau and Burke
(London, 1940); J. L. Talmon, Romanticism and Revolt.
Europe 1815-1848
(London, 1967).


[See also Classicism; Enlightenment; Genius; Historicism;
Individualism; Infinity; Irrationalism; Nationalism; Nature;
Organicism; Progress; Romanticism in Literature;
Romanticism in Post-Kantian Philosophy;