The Roots of Romanticism

Willem de Kooning, Pirate (Untitled II), 1981


Commentary on the book by Isaiah Berlin.

“Who were these people who so celebrated the power of will, who so hated the fixed nature of reality and who believed in these storms, in these indomitable, unbridgeable chasms, in these flows impossible to organize? […] The only explanation I have ever been able to discover comes from the effort to find out who these people were especially in Germany” (Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, P. 195).

It is an involuntary book that tackles a decisive issue. Involuntary, as a result of the posthumous edition of the lectures given by Isaiah Berlin at the “AW Mellon Conferences on Fine Arts”, at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, between March and April 1965, and recorded by the BBC. Today, recordings are available in many libraries and some can be heard online. Decisive, because it deals with one of the most influential philosophical pillars of Western history over the last 200 years.

The organization of the book was in charge of the disciple, friend and British editor Henry Hardy. As long as he could, however, the author was against the publication of the research that he thought was in progress and demanded differentiated treatment to become a book, as attested by the information in the philological preface with which Hardy opens the transcription and edition of the conferences, but also from of some of the letters on the subject published as an appendix.

We know that, to a large extent, the tradition of historiographically based studies that the University of Oxford still adopts today, and where Berlin studied and was a professor, plays a decisive role in the constitution of a certain type of intellectual performance. Isaiah Berlin is part of that restricted circle of intellectuals who speak in writing, that is, whose thought is organized in such a way that, when enunciated, whether as a class, or as a lecture, or in debates, the result fulfills almost all the requirements most demanding of editions prepared for publication.

Isaiah Berlin had already been researching romanticism since, at least, his Political Ideas in the Romantic Age [Political ideas in the romantic era, in the translation edited by Companhia das Letras], from 1951, a study composed for another series of lectures at the Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania. Reflecting, above all, from the political ideas of Helvetius, Condorcet, Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Schelling and Fichte, between 1760 and 1830, and on the reach of romantic ideas. The Roots of Romanticism therefore presents strong indications of having been the result of the research that the author undertook in advance preparation for the 1952 conferences.

The interest in the subject, if it were necessary to justify it, is made explicit by the author in many passages of the text. I highlight one of the most central: “the romantic movement […] is not just a movement that involves the arts, not just an artistic movement, but perhaps the first moment, certainly in the history of the West, in which the arts dominated many aspects of life […] Many current phenomena – nationalism, existentialism, admiration for great men, admiration for impersonal institutions, democracy, totalitarianism – are profoundly affected by the rise of romanticism. […] I hope to show that this revolution is the deepest and most enduring of all the changes in Western life, no less comprehensive than the three great revolutions whose impact is unquestioned – the industrial in England, the political in France and the social and economic one in Russia – with which, in fact, the movement I am concerned with connects at all levels”. [P. 12-15]

Berlin's exhibition is divided into six parts: 1. In search of a definition; 2. The first attack on the Enlightenment; 3. The true fathers of romanticism; 4. The restrained romantics; 5. The unbridled romanticism; 6. Lasting effects.

Berlin translates the complexity of facing the question for the definition of romanticism by resorting to a detailed exposition on the “history of the transformations of consciousness”. To conclude that each conscience corresponds to a dominant model of thought, which is configured as an additional difficulty in the attempt to understand moments whose conscience was different from the one under which we live in the present. These models, warns the author, “begin as liberators and end up in some kind of despotism”. [P. 25]

Being imperceptible, these models operate as a kind of imagination conditioning when we place ourselves in the position of examiners of cultures and times different from ours, causing, among other effects, what another historian, François Hartog, called presentism. The central thesis of this investigation is that “the romantic movement was such a gigantic and radical transformation that nothing was the same after it”. [P. 28] It is, therefore, a matter of guaranteeing a margin of reflection from which it is possible to get rid of the teleologically current impressions, for example, that even Plato would manifest in many passages a kind of romanticism avant-la-letter.

Summoning the authority of Stendhal, Goethe, Nietzsche, Sismondi, Friedrich von Gentz, the French Young Romantics, Heine, the Marxists, Ruskin, Taine, Friedrich Schlegel, Ferdinand Brunetière, Baron Seillière, Irving Babbitt, Schlegel Brothers and Madame de Staël, Renan , Gaston Paris, Joseph Nadler, Eichendorff, Chateaubriand, Joseph Aynard, Middleton Murry and Georg Lukács, Berlin arrives at various hypotheses about what romanticism can be: tempestuous, epistemological, deviant, pathological, clinical, therapeutic, monstrous, revolutionary, religious , refuge, advocacy, critical, reactive, reformist, collectivist, individualist, primitivist, traditional, nostalgic, introspective, altruistic, counterrevolutionary type of pleasure.

Many despaired, others gave up and cursed in the face of so much variety and even in the face of so many contradictions. But Berlin, however, did not share these views, for him "the only sensible way to approach it [romanticism], or at least the only way I have found it useful to date, is by the slow and patient historical method: examining the beginning of the century. 18, reflect on what the situation was at the time and then consider, one by one, what factors shook it and what combination or confluence of elements caused what seems to me to be the greatest transformation of consciousness in the West”. [P. 47]

The century XVIII is fundamentally marked by the gradual consolidation of the Enlightenment. According to Berlin, this epistemological moment is characterized above all by basically three propositions: 1. Authentic questions can always be answered; 2. All answers to these questions are knowable and communicable; 3. All answers are necessarily compatible with each other. With dogma, tradition, individual self-examination and revelation rejected a priori, the only acceptable way, we know, was reason. The position, in short, was that virtue consists in knowing. Although, as Berlin opportunely recalls, “the Enlightenment was not a uniform movement in which all members believed almost the same things”. [P. 53]

Montesquieu and Hume were among those who “cracked that rather smooth and presumptuous wall” of the Enlightenment. Respectively, theses on the universality of truths and on the necessary harmony of the connections between them were cracked. “Not everything is the same everywhere [...], there are no obligations, only probabilities”. [P. 65]

According to Berlin, however, the hardest blow to the Enlightenment would come from Pietist Germany. Derived from Lutheranism, pietism consisted mainly of an emphasis on the spiritual life, on faith, to the detriment of the work of learning and reason. This reformist manifestation is “really the root of romanticism”. [P. 69] The propagation of this recollection by “a large number of socially crushed and politically miserable human beings” [idem] produced a literature of a personal, emotional nature, a refusal of the excesses of intellectualism and culture. Reason – as the quote became famous – came to be seen as a prostitute to be avoided. For Berlin, “all of this was the product of wounded national sensibility [by the French], of a terrible national humiliation, […] this is the root of the romantic movement on the part of the Germans”. [P. 71]

Berlin considers Johann Georg Hamann to be the first great, if obscure, figure of romanticism in Germany. The son of a caretaker of the public baths in the city of Königsberg, Hamman's ideas exerted considerable influence on Herder, Goethe and Kierkgaard. According to his doctrine, Hume was right to maintain that without an act of faith almost all of life's experiences would be compromised. There is one momentum vital whose disruption by the deviations of reason compromises all of humanity's potential for achievement, whose main goal, for him, was the richest possible expression of all human faculties.

The Enlightenment, therefore, appeared as a lethal doctrine, offering “a pale substitute for man's creative energies [...], a kind of artificial toy, a lifeless model, without any relation to the human being”. [P. 77] In Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit [From my life: poetry and truth], Goethe synthesized Hamann's position when he wrote: “everything that a man undertakes […] must spring from his unified powers; every separation must be rejected.” [P. 79]

Johann Gottfried von Herder and Immanuel Kant occupy, however, a central position as “the true fathers of romanticism”. Herder is thematized here, above all, as the author of an extraordinary doctrine based on three main notions: 1. The notion of expressionism; 2. The notion of belonging; 3. The notion of incompatibility, of irreconcilability between true ideals. The first concerns expression as a fundamental condition of humanity; the second is founded on the recognition that every man belongs to a place, where he has his roots; the third refuses the idea of ​​a definitive answer to the question “how to live?”, given the multiplicity of true answers that are possible and irreconcilable with each other. “In this sense, Herder is certainly one of the fathers of the Romantic movement, [...] whose characteristic attributes include the denial of unity, the denial of harmony, the denial of the compatibility of ideals, both in the sphere of action and in the sphere of thought”. [P. 108]

We could perhaps ask why not Rousseau, as some historians of ideas tend to point out? Berlin assesses that Rousseau, even though he has serious disagreements with the encyclopedists, does not abandon many of their assumptions, above all, although nuanced, his ideas appealed to a certain hope in reason. “What Rousseau and the other encyclopaedists wanted to do was the same thing, although perhaps they differed in methods”. [P. 92] The storm and the impetus necessary to understand the connection with the type of violence of the romantic passions could, according to Berlin, only come from the Germans.

“Kant hated romanticism” [p. 111], combined the essence of what he most abhorred: Swarming [exaltation and fanaticism, but also dispersion and delirium], however, according to Berlin, indirectly Kant was one of the main responsible for romanticism and, therefore, can also be considered one of its precursors. It is Kant's moral philosophy, however, the basic core of this thesis: the defense of freedom, of the conscience of the duty to do what must be done, the non-transferable human condition of the decision, therefore of the free will, of the autonomy, of the responsibility of moral subjects, heteronomy as an evil to be fought, the constitution of values, the falsity of determinism and the vehement rejection of all paternalism. Schiller and Fichte were the two most famous followers and, therefore, equally propagators of Kantian-inspired romanticism until, at least, the outbreak of what Berlin calls “unbridled romanticism”.

For Friedrich Schlegel, it was Die Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre [The foundation of the entire Doctrine of science], by Fichte, the French Revolution and Goethe's famous novel, Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship [The Learning Years of Wilhelm Meister], the most central political, moral and aesthetic factors that inspired the Romantic movement.

Although the editor did not find the original reference in Fichte's work, Berlin quotes: "At the mere mention of the word freedom, my heart opens and blossoms, while the word necessity causes it to contract painfully". Fichte adopts the Kantian moral primacy of the exaltation of freedom, of the prerogative of action, of the human will over nature, of knowledge converted into an instrument of this realization, whose centrality is founded on the primacy of the subject permanently summoned to action and who thus performs his own freedom. It is important to remember that for Fichte the “I” is even a type of suprapersonal entity, like a nation, for example.

Schelling's philosophy that interests Berlin is that called mystical vitalism, whereby nature, the unconscious will, offers man the stages of development of consciousness. From the rocky formations passing through the earth, through the plants, through the insects, through the animals until arriving at the man, “the will become conscious of itself” [p. 151], but whose full realization is in God. The function of the artist, as a representative of this maximum possible degree of self-consciousness to which humanity can reach, is “to delve into the dark and unconscious forces that move within him and to bring them to consciousness through the most anguished and violent internal struggle”. ”. [P. 152] Since the work of art is analogous to life, and even if the artist is often unaware of it, he imprints, when performing them, the powers of nature: power, strength, energy and vitality. "So that the work has an invigorating effect on the man who beholds it." [P. 153]

The French Revolution conceived “the explosion of national feeling” [p. 166], founded on the perspective of progress, universal pacification, perfectibility under the command of reason, but, we know, the shot backfired and violence, political terror, the irrationality of the crowds and the opportunism of the leaders of the occasion changed the course of attention and thought. For Berlin, “the French Revolution stimulated in the minds and imaginations of people, and not only in Germany, [...] an effect exactly the opposite of what it intended. […] After all, after her, most French people were neither free, nor equal, nor especially fraternal”. [P. 167]. The idea of ​​a conspiracy of the “ignored part of reality” took the proscenium of the reflection on the reasons for the failure of the libertarian postulates of the doctrines of the philosophers.

O wilhelm meister de Goethe was admired by the romantics for two basic but significant reasons: 1. For being the account of the formation of a genius; 2. For conceiving the course of drastic transitions in the novelistic narrative and, therefore, breaking with the classic forms. It is already noticeable the emphasis of these highlights on the perspective of freedom and rupture, which, warns Berlin, could even contradict the author himself, since he viewed these romantics with reservations as “uprooted bohemians and people with a wild life” . [P. 169] Goethe, at the end of his life, would declare: “Romanticism is illness, classicism is health”.

Romanticism fought the thesis that “virtue is knowledge”. It is not a question of knowing values, but rather of conceiving them. “The universe is however you decide to make it” [p. 180], this, according to Berlin, is the philosophy of Fichte and also of Schelling. Romanticism also rejected the thesis that there would be a prior structure of things in the face of which humanity should adapt. “[…] trying to see things as submissive to some intellectualization, some kind of plan, trying to work out a set of rules, or laws, or a formula is a form of self-indulgence and, in the end, a suicidal stupidity”. [P. 182] The way out for the romantics would be in the myths, for being capable of embracing the obscure, something inarticulable, irrational, inexpressible.

Art is a privileged way to evoke symbols, elaborate myths. Hamlet, Don Quixote, auspicious, for example, were converted into powerful sources of myths read in the romantic way. As Berlin writes about the fact that Don Giovanni, by Mozart, has become a great myth despite its author and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte: “they were very far from thinking about putting on stage one of the great symbols of the spiritual existence of the Earth. But in sec. 19 this was the attitude taken towards Don Giovanni”. [P. 186]

“What can we say we owe to Romanticism?” [P. 216] In politics, the possibility of cult of personalities, of exaltation and enthusiasm for leaders, but, although contradictory (and perhaps for this very reason), the celebration of democracy by the idea of ​​mutual collaboration, because it is complementary, in the constitution of the nation. In law, the idea of ​​constitutive conflict at the origin of plurality, freedom and incompatibility between many possible and practicable points of view is reconfigured, together with the need to operate in order to achieve a permanently provisional and unstable balance in respect for individualities.

In the economy, economic liberalism prevails, betting on initiatives freed from State control. In historical theories, "the great German historical school tries to trace historical evolution in terms of obscure unconscious factors, which intertwine in inexplicable ways of all kinds." [P. 189] In epistemology, any unified and mainly ruled response to human affairs is rejected, even more so those that intend to correspond to strict, linear and even apprehensible rationalities.

By unveiling, therefore, the roots of romanticism, Berlin offers the reader a kind of genealogy of many of the current ideas and ideals, which often seem to be eternal truths. The birth certificate of romanticism, in turn, produced a series of consequences, as can be seen in Berlin, which directly affected the configurations of thought from, above all, the 19th century onwards. XNUMX, and remain in vogue even today. When we are awakened to the historicity of the constitution of this ideological atmosphere, we can, with luck, perceive both the scope of its determinations and the validity period of its theses. Without that, we run the risk of perpetuating abstractions or obsessions with a point of view that is as totalitarian and merely proselytistic as it is mistaken and blatantly teleological, even intending by the expedient to be recognized, at best, before as critical.

*Denilson Cordeiro Professor at the Department of Philosophy at Unifesp.

Originally published in the electronic magazine Electric fish


Isaiah Berlin. The Roots of Romanticism. Translation: Isa Mara Lando. São Paulo, Three stars, 256 pages.



See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table