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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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It may seem rather paradoxical to tie the adjective
“political” to the designation of a literary school. In-
deed, the label “romantic” has been known to desig-
nate in an oscillating manner the most diverse tenden-
cies, for example, romantic traditionalism, romantic
humanitarianism, and romantic nationalism. Thus in
England romantic poetry, marked for a long time by
the struggle of the nation against revolutionary and
imperial France, tended with Coleridge to affirm na-
tional traditions and religious mysticism in protest
against the rationalistic individualism of liberal
thought. However, in the second romantic generation,
with Byron, Keats, and Shelley, there appeared a feel-
ing of moral rebellion against the traditional order and
its conventional lies and privileges; whence the nu-
merous declarations of generous emotion, of lofty sar-
casm, or of aesthetic detachment, and whence the
appeal to the ideals of liberty and justice. In France,
Chateaubriand, who was not a political theoretician
and whose dilettantism was often denounced, contrib-
uted nonetheless to giving French traditionalism its
style by prominently parading the political virtues of
loyalty and honor, and a certain form of freedom
having nothing in common with any egalitarian level-
ling. His idea of freedom was inseparable from the
institutions of the old regime to which, despite every-
thing, he did not believe it possible to return. It was
to this cult of the past, strengthened by historical
studies, that Lamartine, Vigny, and Hugo—all while
they were young—were attached; their cult of the past
undoubtedly contrasted with the classicism which had
been indulgent towards the revolutionary ideology.
But, towards 1830, most of the romantic writers turned
to a sort of humanitarian socialism which, along with
Lamennais, lamented as pitiful the sufferings of the
poor and the oppression of subject nations; later it was
the nation of the “people” which was to be the basis
of Michelet's political philosophy, hostile to a Church
which stood in the way of social emancipation and
progress. Consequently, associated with the idea of the
power of the people and its justice, there developed,
during the first half of the nineteenth century in
France, a romanticism of the barricades. In Italy,
without rejecting the religious principles to which it
remained attached, romanticism aspired to utilize for
its own ends the liberal principles that had come out
of the French Revolution; by appealing to past tradi-
tions a political spirit was reawakened in the thought
of Manzoni and Silvio Pellico, who declared themselves
liberals, nationalists, and Catholics all at the same time.

It was, however, only in Germany that, despite a
certain hesitancy and wavering, romanticism was
defined as a body of political doctrine to which most
writers of this school, from Novalis to Eichendorff,
remained faithful. Romanticism in Germany, therefore,
cannot be considered only from the viewpoint of
literary criticism or of philosophy of science, for it was
also a “politics” located at the very heart of the
European counterrevolutionary movement.

For political romanticism cannot be dissociated from
the group of movements created in Europe by the fear
of revolutionary ideology. To explain this fact would
be unthinkable without taking into account Edmund
Burke's work, Reflections on the Revolution in France
(1790), which contrasted the proud geometry of the
rationalists against the background of the ancestral
wisdom of the English constitution. Furthermore, we
must recall that at the same time Joseph de Maistre
and L. G. A. de Bonald provided the émigrés with a
philosophy of Restoration which attacked the claims
of universal reason by defending the original unique-
ness of each notion and culture; denied the theory of
the social contract by affirming the superior excellence
of human ties; and opposed the idea of the unlimited
progress of the human spirit by praising the superiority
of historical tradition. It was, indeed, in 1816 that the
Swiss Karl Ludwig von Haller began the publication
of Restauration der Staatswissenschaft... (Restoration
of Political Philosophy
) in which, basing the State on
private relations and Natural Law, he tried to preserve
the patriarchal society of the old regime. However,
none of these writers was connected in any way with

German political romanticism has to be related to
the philosophical environment in which it arose. As
pupils of Fichte, whose Theory of Knowledge (Wissen-
1794) they had read, the romantics,
immersed in his theory of the Ego as an omnipotent
demiurge and boundless principle of creation, emerged
with the conviction that destiny belongs to those supe-
rior individuals who have known how to impose the
law of their intellect on the external world. No moral-
ity, religion, or limiting rule could be suitable for such
personalities: the romantic poet treats the universe in
any way he pleases; through his irony, he makes the
universe an ephemeral creation of his genius. Never-
theless the romantics recognized that this personality
of the genius cannot truly be formed and developed
except by contact with other men; hence, they recom-
mended association with their fellow-beings, “recipro-
cal meditation,” and a “common philosophy” as the
highest obligation of life, seeing in this “sociability”
the essential element of culture. Individuals, they
thought, can attain their complete fulfilment only by
trying to unite. As a result, their concern with estab-


lishing “guilds” of superior minds, a kind of spiritual
“freemasonry,” emerges. And they defined these forms
of sociability not only as social gatherings but also in
the form of friendship and love; this love was envisaged
as an effort to comprehend through the beloved inter-
mediary the reality of the universe. It is well known
how prominent a place this idealization of social rela-
tions has occupied in romantic literature, for example,
in the poetry of Novalis or F. H. Jacobi's Woldemar
(1779), or in the novel, like Friedrich Schlegel's Lu-

This idealization was the principal feature in the
development of the social, political, or economic
thought of the romantics. They quickly broke away
from the conception of human relations held by the
thinkers of the Enlightenment, whom the romantics
later accused of reasoning in the abstract about people
assumed to be reasonable by nature and inspired with
their own conventional ideals of liberty and equality.
Anxious, on the one hand, to establish rules for a gen-
uine “human symphony,” the romantics, on the other
hand, accentuated every possible kind of relationship
which put the individual under obligation to the group.

It was the social “organism” which became the
predominant element of the romantics' way of reflec-
tion. Henceforth, the State was no longer to be con-
sidered as a “machine” or artificial creation of the
legislator limiting the State to police functions; instead
it would be considered as a “living creature” or “orga-
nism” growing and developing like a plant according
to its own laws, without enabling the statesman to
amend it by means of fallaciously conceived consti-
tutions. It would be this living collective society—a
“macro-anthropos”—whose universal spirit would
direct the energies of individuals and lead them to
participate in a common task. Since social contracts
were useless, in the eyes of the romantics, with respect
to maintaining the social structure, the result was that
the State would impose itself on its citizens through
sentiments of devotion, faith, and love which it would
instigate. Henceforth social distinctions would have to
be established on the ideas of hierarchy and obedience,
and thus on the privileged relationships of man to man.
The romantic idea of the State was to make no appeal
to fear or utility, or the sovereignty of the law, but
did so for the mystic communion of subjects on a
common faith with respect to the “beloved person,”
or loyalty to the monarch.

This conception was defined for the first time by
Novalis in 1798 in the periodical Annals of the Prussian
on the occasion of the accession to the
throne by Frederick-William III of Prussia and Queen
Louise. The ideas and the vocabulary which Novalis
used on this occasion were drawn, on the one hand,
from the physical philosophers' conceptions of “Na-
ture,” then being systematized by the young Schelling;
and, on the other hand, from the pietists' secret
assemblies. In these assemblies for several years, all
over Germany, a silent war was being waged against
the philosophy of the Enlightenment and against the
French Revolution which was depicted in pietist circles
as a “conspiracy of Enlighteners.” But this inter-
pretation of the idea of the State was soon to become
the common property of all the romantics. It is found
in Schleiermacher's Monologues (1800), in the Philo-
sophical Lectures
delivered in Cologne by Friedrich
Schlegel (1804-06), and especially in Adam Müller's
Elements of the Art of Politics (1808). Müller saw the
State as “the totality of human affairs.” He wrote that
“... the State is not simply a factory or a farm or
an insurance company or an industrial company. It is
not an artificial organization; it is not a human inven-
tion meant for the utility or pleasure of citizens; outside
of the state there exists nothing for the citizen.”

A political philosophy was developed around this
theory of the State which opposed the legacy of French
revolutionary thought in all particulars. The romantics
opposed the conviction that institutions are susceptible
to progress on the basis of their historical view which
would place the golden age of humanity in the past.
According to them, the most profound wisdom
flourished in the centuries of the Middle Ages; they
readily opposed the modern theory of the social con-
tract by their vindication of feudal attachments, espe-
cially of chivalry, to which August-Wilhelm Schlegel
dedicated his first works; and they thought that their
ideal was realized in the court of the Holy Roman
Empire for whose restoration they hoped, and whose
impressive organization they supported against the
leveling and destructive universalism which was the
outcome of the Napoleonic conquest. Their admiration
of medieval institutions led them to deduce that the
Estates (Stände), not individuals, should be represented
beside the sovereign. Finally, since all forms of liberal-
ism, as well as the industrial civilization (which was
coming into existence on the continent) were hostile
to them, they opposed the free play of business trans-
actions and exchanges; they hoped for the return of
the corporative regime on the economic plane, and
they vindicated land ownership which they considered
as “sacrosanct” because it bound the landowner ir-
revocably to the soil he cultivated as an inalienable

As for religion, the romantics indicated their sympa-
thies for Catholicism, because in their eyes, it consti-
tuted an ecumenical order; condemning the Reforma-
tion for having broken Christian unity, they hoped for
the restoration of that unity in the form of a “visible


church,” as a symbol of its universal mission. “Chris-
tianity,” wrote Novalis in his famous essay of 1800,
Christenheit oder Europa, “must be revived and make
itself efficacious again. Once again, without regard for
national borders, it must set up a visible church which
should receive any person who was in need of the
supernatural, and which would strive to become the
mediator between the old and the new world.” It was
to this Catholicism, recognized as an efficacious anti-
dote to revolutionary ideology, that Adam Müller was
converted in 1805 in Vienna, and Friedrich Schlegel
in 1808 in Cologne; their conversions were followed
by those of many of their friends.

What was the influence of political romanticism in
Napoleonic Germany? In placing the accent on the
monarchical idea as well as on the privileges of the
feudal governing classes, the romantics appeared to be
the best defenders of the established order. This ex-
plains why they were so favorably received at the court
in Vienna, which portrayed itself as the champion of
legitimacy; it also explains the utilization which was
made of their doctrine in Prussian aristocratic circles
against the reforms of Hardenberg. In this respect the
role played by Adam Müller, whose career was favored
by his friend Friedrich von Gentz, was essential. But
in standing up against revolutionary and imperial
France, romanticism also took on a national character;
and one of Schlegel's major preoccupations was to
create that patriotic poetry which could galvanize
enthusiasm against the “Usurper” and his supporters.

This nationalistic aspect of the romantic movement
found support in the endeavors of the Heidelberg
school, gathered around the poets Arnim and Brentano,
to restore the literary national past, to revive folklore,
to define in the name of the people (Volkstum) a certain
ethnic community or relationship cemented by lan-
guage, costumes, beliefs, legal traditions, and popular
morality. And when the great tests of the wars of
deliverance were to come, it would be the duty of one
man of this group, Joseph Görres, to make his journal,
The Mercury of the Rhine, the rostrum in which would
be discussed the reorganization of Germany, conceived
as embracing all the Germanic language countries.
Thus the concept of the Reich as a nation was restored,
and before this Görres thought that the dualism of the
great German powers would bow.

Tied to the idea of nationalism, political romanticism
would not be without influence on the theater of
Kleist, as well as on the nationalist diatribes of Arndt
and Jahn. Nevertheless, after the fall of Napoleon, it
was not the intention of Metternich, who had been
barely affected by the romantic movement, to allow
a political situation to develop which would leap to
the unification of the great states of Central Europe.
Political romanticism had then to fall back on a purely
conservative attitude, whose principal goal was to
combat, in the Austrian state as well as in the Catholic
states of southern Germany, tendencies which were
favorable to the Enlightenment, and in particular, the
last vestiges of Josephist legislation. It was around the
Redemptorist Hofbauer in Vienna that the romantic
circle was concentrated, and there Friedrich Schlegel
and Adam Müller published their last works in the
review Concordia (1820-23). Schlegel defined what he
meant by “Christian politics,” in which he opposed
both the practice of absolutism and modern liberalism.

The same effort was to be attempted in the court
of the king of Bavaria, Louis I, at the new university
of Munich. Here the most remarkable personality was
the philosopher Franz von Baader, who, developing
the ideas of the romantics on society and on economics,
announced (precursor of Marx) that there was an
accumulation of capital in a few hands; he insisted on
the necessity of the representation of the proletariat,
whose role in modern society he discerned and of
whose rights the Catholic Church, according to him,
was the natural defender. As a result of the develop-
ment of an industrial civilization and the rise of
liberalism, political romanticism was more and more
reduced to a defensive position. It is in the writings
of the poet Josef von Eichendorff, around 1830, that
the swan song of romanticism was heard.

Victim of the raillery of Heine and of the writers
of “Young Germany,” political romanticism was soon
to fall into oblivion. Somewhat later, a Viennese
economist, Othmar Spann, was to attempt to redeem
the writings of Adam Müller, precursor of Friedrich
List. The Nazis borrowed many ideas from Müller, and
they talked about his subject as “German sociology,”
the restorer of a sense of the “organic” community.
In fact, political romanticism was out of joint with the
times. This monumental effort, at times perspicacious,
too often sophisticated and purely speculative, an
expression of the rancors and the terrors of a society
haunted by the revolutionary spectre, searched
desperately in the memory of a glorious past for a way
to authorize the survival of its customs and privileges.


The principal texts have been reproduced in German by
J. Baxa, Gesellschaft und Staat im Spiegel deutscher
(Jena, 1924); in English by H. S. Reiss, The Politi-
cal Thought of the German Romantics 1793-1815
1955); in French by J. Droz, Le romantisme politique en
(Paris, 1963).

About political romanticism, besides the analyses of F.
Meinecke in Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat (Munich,
1909), cf. P. Kluckhohn, Persönlichkeit und Gemeinschaft:


Studien zur Staatsauffassung der deutschen Romantik (Halle,
1925); Crane Brinton, Political Ideas of the English Roman-
(Oxford, 1926); and J. Droz, Le Romantisme allemand
et l'État: Résistance et collaboration dans l'Allemagne
(Paris, 1966). The best detailed study is by
R. Aris, Die Staatslehre Adam Müllers und ihr Verhältnis
zur deutschen Romantik
(Tübingen, 1929).


[See also Enlightenment; Counter-Enlightenment; Genius;
Hierarchy; Nationalism; Organicism; Pietism; Revolution;
Socialism; State.]