Book review: The Roots of Romanticism

I’ve been getting interested in the Romantic movement recently. I’d started to dimly sense its enormous influence on later thought, but I had only a hazy idea of the details. So I picked up Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism to get a better understanding.

I chose this book in particular because I love Berlin’s style. The book was originally a series of lectures, given to an audience in Washington, DC in 1965 and broadcast to BBC radio. It’s not just a transcription, it’s been cleaned up to be more text-like, but still has an enjoyably conversational feel. I’m going to start with a couple of long quotes from the first chapter, ‘In Search of a Definition’, both to give a sense of that style and to set up the central question:

Suppose you were travelling about Western Europe, say in the 1820s, and suppose you spoke, in France, to the avant-garde young men who were friends of Victor Hugo, Hugolâtres. Suppose you went to Germany and spoke there to the people who had once been visited by Madame de Staël, who had interpreted the German soul to the French. Suppose you had met the Schlegel brothers, who were great theorists of romanticism, or one or two of the friends of Goethe in Weimar, such as the fabulist and poet Tieck, or other persons connected with the romantic movement, and their followers in the universities, students, young men, painters, sculptors, who were deeply influenced by the work of these poets, these dramatists, these critics. Suppose you had spoken in England to someone who had been influenced by, say, Coleridge, or above all by Byron – anyone influenced by Byron, whether in England or France or Italy, or beyond the Rhine, or beyond the Elbe.

These weird new scenes had a baffling mishmash of surface concerns — mysticism, poetry, folklore, free will — and the detailed content of any one scene often outright contradicted that of the others. But somehow at the base of it all was a correlated aesthetic sense:

Suppose you had spoken to these persons. You would have found that their ideal of life was approximately of the following kind. The values to which they attached the highest importance were such values as integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to some ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying. You would have found that they were not primarily interested in knowledge, or in the advance of science, not interested in political power, not interested in happiness, not interested, above all, in adjustment to life, in finding your place in society, in living at peace with your government, even in loyalty to your king, or to your republic. You would have found that common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts. You would have found that they believed in the necessity of fighting for your beliefs to the last breath in your body, and you would have found that they believed in the value of martyrdom as such, no matter what the martyrdom was martyrdom for. You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and something vulgar about it.

That’s not your father’s Enlightenment values. Where did all this come from? Is it just a loose cluster of attitudes to life, or does it hold together in some deeper way?

The Romantic bag of ideas

Understanding this better is not a purely academic exercise for me. This doesn’t feel like a dead movement that I’m learning about out of mild historical curiosity. The whole wider culture seems to be stuck in a pendulum swing towards romantic-inspired ideas. I’m reminded of a Slate Star Codex review of The Black Swan, which talks about the previous swing of the pendulum. Taleb’s book was published in 2007, during a wave of enthusiasm for New Atheism, cognitive biases, I Fucking Love Science and the like:

… it seems like the “moment” for books about rationality came and passed around 2010. Maybe it’s because the relevant science has slowed down – who is doing Kahneman-level work anymore? Maybe it’s because people spent about eight years seeing if knowing about cognitive biases made them more successful at anything, noticed it didn’t, and stopped caring. But reading The Black Swan really does feel like looking back to another era when the public briefly became enraptured by human rationality, and then, after learning a few cool principles, said “whatever” and moved on.

This is all passé now, irrationalism is in, and we’re all supposed to be trading meme stonks or something. (I started writing this at the peak of… whatever the GameStop thing was… and only just remembered to come back and finish it.) There’s a resurgence of fascination with mysticism, with conspiracy theories, with the ontology-blurring effects of psychedelics. This is all vaguely Romanticism-tinged, in the same way that the 2007 zeitgeist was Enlightenment-tinged. It looks suspiciously like we collectively had enough of the Enlightenment bag of ideas and automatically reached out for the other standard-issue bag of ideas that western philosophy has helpfully put within grabbing range.

I wanted to get a better idea of what’s in the bag. It’s not all awful, any more than the Enlightenment bag was awful. There are some deep and important ideas that aren’t in the Enlightenment bag, which is one of the things that makes it so compelling. But it’s not the sort of stuff I want to uncritically load my brain up with.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked into current issues, though. This post is just about taking a look at what’s in the bag. I’ll give a brief summary of some of the main preoccupations of the movement, at least as told by Berlin. I’ll finish with Berlin’s answer to the question of what ties these ideas together.

First, though, I’ve got a couple of reservations about this book which I want to flag before I start. The first is to do with the style. Berlin has this witty, urbane midcentury style which I love – I could read piles of this stuff. It’s not a romantic style at all… it’s not dry or technical either, there’s a bit of warmth to it, but it’s very controlled, there’s a bit of ironic distance, none of the GIANT OUTPOURING OF EMOTION I associate with romanticism. To be honest, I’m much more comfortable with this – I don’t quite get romanticism deep down – but it still makes me suspicious that someone who writes in this style is also going to not quite get it, and miss some of the point. Still, I’m actually willing to read this, and I probably would not read a whole load of romantic rhapsodising.

The second reservation is that I have no idea how accurate any of this is! These are popular talks, and Berlin hardly quotes any primary sources at all, and I certainly haven’t gone and looked any up. He’s an entertaining speaker, but it’s all a little bit too fluent, and I’m suspicious that the entertainment comes at the expense of getting the details correct.

With that massive disclaimer, let’s go on to look at the bag of ideas. Berlin covers the following:

  • Particularism: a fascination with specific details for their own sake, and a distrust of big abstract theories

  • Expressionism: works of art should express the nature of the artist, rather than communicate objective truths

  • The importance of the will and of imposing this will on the world through authentic expression, both on an an individual level and at the scale of nations

  • The grounding of knowledge in action, rather than disinterested inquiry

  • Emphasis on symbolism and mythic understanding

  • An understanding that ordered, rational knowledge only accounts for a small part of experience, and that there are huge murky unexplained depths beneath. Nostalgia and paranoia as hidden creatures in these depths.

I’ll go through these in turn.

Particularism and expressionism

Berlin starts by talking about early influences on romanticism. One key character in this section is someone I’d never heard of, Johann Georg Hamann. From what I can quickly make out from the Berlin book and his Wikipedia article he was mainly notable as a kind of superspreader of the ideas of his time. He introduced Rousseau’s work to Kant, translated Hume into German, influenced Goethe and Hegel. His own work was mostly fragmentary and unfinished, but a recurring theme was a deep suspicion of generalisations, concepts and categories:

What they left out, of necessity, because they were general, was that which was unique, that which was particular, that which was the specific property of this particular man, or this particular thing. And that alone was of interest, according to Hamann. If you wished to read a book, you were not interested in what this book had in common with many other books. If you looked at a picture, you did not wish to know what principles had gone into the making of this picture, principles which had also gone into the making of a thousand other pictures in a thousand other ages by a thousand different painters. You wished to react directly, to the specific message, to the specific reality, which looking at this picture, reading this book, speaking to this man, praying to this god would convey to you.

Hamann’s protégé Johann Herder shared this fascination with picturesque detail:

Herder is the father, the ancestor, of all those travellers, all those amateurs, who go round the world ferreting out all kinds of forgotten forms of life, delighting in everything that is peculiar, everything that is odd, everything that is native, everything that is untouched.

This led him towards an expressionist view of the nature of art. Enlightenment thinkers had expected theories of aesthetic beauty to converge on shared, objective properties of the artwork:

.. what everyone agreed about was that the value of a work of art consisted in the properties which it had, its being what it was – beautiful, symmetrical, shapely, whatever it might be. A silver bowl was beautiful because it was a beautiful bowl, because it had the properties of being beautiful, however that is defined. This had nothing to do with who made it, and it had nothing to do with why it was made.

For Herder, art instead expressed the idiosyncratic attitude towards life of the individual artist. There was no need for these individual attitudes to converge, and indeed the attitudes of different artists can be mutually contradictory. The important thing is for each artist to express their own nature to the fullest extent that they can.

Nationalism and the will

Herder applied these ideas at the group level as well as the individual. Groups of people enmeshed in a similar way of life would naturally share certain attitudes, and these would be reflected in their art:

If a folk song speaks to you, they said, it is because the people who made it were Germans like yourself, and they spoke to you, who belong with them in the same society; and because they were Germans they used particular nuances, they used particular successions of sounds, they used particular words which, being in some way connected, and swimming on the great tide of words and symbols and experience upon which all Germans swim, have something peculiar to say to certain persons which they cannot say to certain other persons. The Portuguese cannot understand the inwardness of a German song as a German can, and a German cannot understand the inwardness of a Portuguese song, and the very fact that there is such a thing as inwardness at all in these songs is an argument for supposing that these are not simply objects like objects in nature, which do not speak; they are artefacts, that is to say, something which a man has made for the purpose of communicating with another man.

This is a sort of nationalism, and influenced later, much more damaging kinds. Knowing what came later, it’s easy to read this as an argument for hereditary racial differences, but Herder’s version is a culturally transmitted gestalt:

Herder does not use the criterion of blood, and he does not use the criterion of race. He talks about the nation, but the German word Nation in the eighteenth century did not have the connotation of ‘nation’ in the nineteenth. He speaks of language as a bond, and he speaks of soil as a bond, and the thesis, roughly speaking, is this: That which people who belong to the same group have in common is more directly responsible for their being as they are than that which they have in common with others in other places. To wit, the way in which, let us say, a German rises and sits down, the way in which he dances, the way in which he legislates, his handwriting and his poetry and his music, the way in which he combs his hair and the way in which he philosophises all have some impalpable common gestalt.

Most importantly, Herder isn’t interested in demonstrating the superiority of any of these national groups. Berlin describes Herder rather endearingly as "the father, the ancestor, of all those travellers, all those amateurs, who go round the world ferreting out all kinds of forgotten forms of life, delighting in everything that is peculiar, everything that is odd, everything that is native, everything that is untouched":

Herder is one of those not very many thinkers in the world who really do absolutely adore things for being what they are, and do not condemn them for not being something else. For Herder everything is delightful. He is delighted by Babylon and he is delighted by Assyria, he is delighted by India and he is delighted by Egypt. He thinks well of the Greeks, he thinks well of the Middle Ages, he thinks well of the eighteenth century, he thinks well of almost everything except the immediate environment of his own time and place. If there is anything which Herder dislikes it is the elimination of one culture by another. He does not like Julius Caesar because Julius Caesar trampled on a lot of Asiatic cultures, and we shall now not know what the Cappadocians were really after. He does not like the Crusades, because the Crusades damaged the Byzantines, or the Arabs, and these cultures have every right to the richest and fullest self-expression, without the trampling feet of a lot of imperialist knights. He disliked every form of violence, coercion and the swallowing of one culture by another, because he wants everything to be what it is as much as it possibly can.

Unfortunately the next person to take up this idea of national identity was Johann Fichte. Fichte was a philosopher following in the tradition of Kant. Kant himself was very much not a romantic:

He disliked everything that was rhapsodical or confused in any respect. He liked logic and he liked rigour. He regarded those who objected to these qualities as simply mentally indolent. He said that logic and rigour were difficult exercises of the human mind, and that it was customary for those who found these things too difficult to invent objections of a different type.

Still, Kant influenced romantic thinking through his ideas on human freedom.

One of the propositions about which he was convinced was that every man as such is aware of the difference between, on the one hand, inclinations, desires, passions, which pull at him from outside, which are part of his emotional or sensitive or empirical nature; and on the other hand the notion of duty, of obligation to do what is right, which often came into conflict with desire for pleasure and with inclination.

In the case of Kant it became an obsessive central principle. Man is man, for Kant, only because he chooses. The difference between man and the rest of nature, whether animal or inanimate or vegetable, is that other things are under the law of causality, other things follow rigorously some kind of foreordained schema of cause and effect, whereas man is free to choose what he wishes.

Fichte had some variant on Kant’s ideas about freedom and the will – I’m unaware of the details but it certainly seems to involve getting very excited about it:

‘At the mere mention of the name freedom’, says Fichte, ‘my heart opens and flowers, while at the word necessity it contracts painfully.’

He combined his conception of freedom with Herder’s strand of nationalism to get a much more virulent, aggressive kind, involving the struggle of nations to become free:

Gradually, after Napoleon’s invasions and the general rise of nationalist sentiment in Germany, Fichte began thinking that perhaps what Herder said of human beings was true, that a man was made a man by other men, that a man was made a man by education, by language… So, gradually, he moved from the notion of the individual as an empirical human being in space to the notion of the individual as something larger, say a nation, say a class, say a sect. Once you move to that, then it becomes its business to act, it becomes its business to be free, and for a nation to be free means to be free of other nations, and if other nations obstruct it, it must make war…

So Fichte ends as a rabid German patriot and nationalist. If we are a free nation, if we are a great creator engaged upon creating those great values which in fact history has imposed upon us, because we happen not to have been corrupted by the great decadence which has fallen upon the Latin nations; if we happen to be younger, healthier, more vigorous than those decadent peoples (and here Francophobia emerges again) who are nothing but the debris of what was once no doubt a fine Roman civilisation – if that is what we are, then we must be free at the expense of no matter what, and therefore, since the world cannot be half slave and half free, we must conquer the others, and absorb them into our texture.

The grounding of knowledge in action

Fichte’s emphasis on action in the world also shows up in his view of knowledge:

Life does not begin with disinterested contemplation of nature or of objects. Life begins with action. Knowledge is an instrument, as afterwards William James and Bergson and many others were to repeat; knowledge is simply an instrument provided by nature for the purpose of effective life, of action; knowledge is knowing how to survive, knowing what to do, knowing how to be, knowing how to adapt things to our use, knowing, in other words, how to live (and what to do in order not to perish), in some unawakened, semi-instinctive fashion.

… Because I live in a certain way, things appear to me in a certain fashion: the world of a composer is different from the world of a butcher; the world of a man in the seventeenth century is different from the world of a man in the twelfth century. There may be certain things which are common, but there are more things, or more important things at any rate, which, for him, are not.

I like this a lot, and it’s fascinating to see an earlier version of ideas that crop up later in the Pragmatists and then also in Heidegger and Wittgenstein. It certainly adds important ideas that Enlightenment views of detached inquiry were missing. But then the world-spirit stuff starts coming in. It starts well, with a sort of Merleau-Ponty-like thing about being constrained by the body…

Fichte began by talking about individuals, then he asked himself what an individual was, how one could become a perfectly free individual. One obviously cannot become perfectly free so long as one is a three-dimensional object in space, because nature confines one in a thousand ways.

… but then quickly descends into whatever this is:

Therefore the only perfectly free being is something larger than man, it is something internal – although I cannot force my body, I can force my spirit. Spirit for Fichte is not the spirit of an individual man, but something which is common to many men, and it is common to many men because each individual spirit is imperfect, because it is to some extent hemmed in and confined by the particular body which it inhabits. But if you ask what pure spirit is, pure spirit is some kind of transcendent entity (rather like God), a central fire of which we are all individual sparks – a mystical notion which goes back at least to Boehme.


I wrote a short notebook post last year where I compared two types of symbolism: conventions like ‘red means stop’, which have been carefully pruned to have one and only one meaning, and ‘poetic’, ‘mythic’ symbolism like the medieval rose, with thick multilayered meanings.

I got this from McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, but it turns out that he got it from The Roots of Romanticism and I didn’t notice at the time. Berlin lays out the same distinction. It’s this second, poetic type that’s important to the romantics:

Symbolism is central in all romantic thought: that has always been noticed by all critics of the movement. Let me try to make it as clear as I am able, although I do not claim to understand it entirely, because, as Schelling very rightly says, romanticism is truly a wild wood, a labyrinth in which the only guiding thread is the will and the mood of a poet….

There are two kinds of symbols, to put it at its very simplest. There are conventional symbols and symbols of a somewhat different kind. Conventional symbols offer no difficulty… Red and green traffic lights mean what they mean by convention.

… But there are obviously symbols not quite of this kind… if you ask, for example, in what sense a national flag waving in the wind, which arouses emotions in people’s breasts, is a symbol, or in what sense the Marseillaise is a symbol… the answer will be that what these things symbolise is literally not expressible in any other way.

This second type of symbol feels inexhaustible; the more shades of meaning you extricate, the more you find. This is why they preoccupied the romantics, who were fascinated by the abundance and surplus of the world.

Nostalgia and paranoia

Berlin then talks about how this inexhaustibility leads to ‘two quite interesting and obsessive phenomena which are then very present both in nineteenth- and in twentieth-century thought and feeling.’ The first is nostalgia, the yearning for past meaning slipping from our fingers:

The nostalgia is due to the fact that, since the infinite cannot be exhausted, and since we are seeking to embrace it, nothing that we do will ever satisfy us.

… Your relation to the universe is inexpressible. This is the agony, this is the problem. This is the unending Sehnsucht, this is the yearning, this is the reason why we must go to distant countries, this is why we seek for exotic examples, this is why we travel in the East and write novels about the past, this is why we indulge in all manner of fantasies.

Then there is a darker version of this obsession, where the deep submerged currents of the world are out to get us.

There is an optimistic version of romanticism in which what the romantics feel is that by going forward, by expanding our nature, by destroying the obstacles in our path, whatever they may be… we are liberating ourselves more and more and allowing our infinite nature to soar to greater and greater heights and become wider, deeper, freer, more vital, more like the divinity towards which it strives. But there is another, more pessimistic version of this, which obsesses the twentieth century to some extent. There is a notion that although we individuals seek to liberate ourselves, yet the universe is not to be tamed in this easy fashion. There is something behind, there is something in the dark depths of the unconscious, or of history; there is something, at any rate, not seized by us which frustrates our dearest wishes.

This paranoia shows up in attempts to understand the consequences of the French Revolution, where the world had avenged itself on all the Enlightenment bluechecks who had tried to tame it with reason:

… what the Revolution led everybody to suspect was that perhaps not enough was known: the doctrines of the French philosophes, which were supposedly a blueprint for the alteration of society in any desired direction, had in fact proved inadequate. Therefore, although the upper portion of human social life was visible – to economists, psychologists, moralists, writers, students, every kind of scholar and observer of the facts – that portion was merely the tip of some huge iceberg of which a vast section was sunk beneath the ocean. This invisible section had been taken for granted a little too blandly, and had therefore avenged itself by producing all kinds of exceedingly unexpected consequences.

This paranoia can inspire great art, or take ‘all kinds of other, sometimes much cruder, forms’:

It takes the form, for example, of looking for all kinds of conspiracies in history. People begin to think that perhaps history is formed by forces over which we have no control. Someone is at the back of it all: perhaps the Jesuits, perhaps the Jews, perhaps the Freemasons.

I said I wasn’t going to explicitly link any of this back to Current Year, but at this point the echoes are not subtle. I’ll move on quickly to the final section, where I talk about how Berlin ties these disparate ideas together.

Comfort with contradiction

I can’t resist quoting one more chunk from the introductory chapter, an inspired prose poem on the wild variety of Romantic life and thought:

It is extreme nature mysticism, and extreme anti-naturalist aestheticism. It is energy, force, will, life, étalage du moi; it is also self-torture, self-annihilation, suicide. It is the primitive, the unsophisticated, the bosom of nature, green fields, cow-bells, murmuring brooks, the infinite blue sky. No less, however, it is also dandyism, the desire to dress up, red waistcoats, green wigs, blue hair, which the followers of people like Gérard de Nerval wore in Paris at a certain period. It is the lobster which Nerval led about on a string in the streets of Paris. It is wild exhibitionism, eccentricity, it is the battle of Ernani, it is ennui, it is taedium vitae, it is the death of Sardanopolis, whether painted by Delacroix, or written about by Berlioz or Byron. It is the convulsion of great empires, wars, slaughter and the crashing of worlds.

It’s a lot of other things besides. (There’s like a page more of this on either side… I have to stop somewhere.) What’s the connection between them?

Berlin makes the case that it’s precisely this comfort with contradiction that’s new in Romantic thought. The Romantics are free from the oppressive need to make any sort of consistent global sense out of their experience, so they can layer together as many weird ideas as they like.

This is a huge departure from Enlightenment thought, which expected coherent theories:

There are three propositions, if we may boil it down to that, which are, as it were, the three legs upon which the whole Western tradition rested. They are not confined to the Enlightenment, although the Enlightenment offered a particular version of them, transformed them in a particular manner. The three principles are roughly these. First, that all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question. We may not know what the answer is, but someone else will.

The second proposition is that all these answers are knowable, that they can be discovered by means which can be learnt and taught to other persons…

The third proposition is that all the answers must be compatible with one another, because, if they are not compatible, then chaos will result.

Viewed through this lens, the ideas of the previous section come together as a way of navigating life without any absolute set of rules to act as a guide. Particularism is popular because details matter more than unreliable theories. Expressivism, because the important thing is to make something personally meaningful from the fragments available to you. Action is vital because there is no ultimate theory detached from individual understanding, so everyone must navigate as well as they can from their current starting point, enmeshed in the local culture. Fixed axioms are unavailable, but symbols can still work as potent ordering principles, natural clustering points in the web of meanings. And paranoia is a natural response to the other, inconsistent strands that never be completely assimilated and that may come to harm you.

There is a collision here of what Hegel afterwards called ‘good with good’. It is due not to error, but to some kind of conflict of an unavoidable kind, of loose elements wandering about the earth, of values which cannot be reconciled. What matters is that people should dedicate themselves to these values with all that is in them.

This makes a lot of sense to me, but there are still things that I’m confused by. This inconsistent patchwork somehow had to be built on top of a Christian worldview, with all the ultimate grounding in God’s truth that that implies. This was some time before the deeper collapse of systems of meaning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so I would expect some sort of counterbalancing pull towards coherence, and I didn’t get a sense of how that worked from Berlin’s book. I maybe got a glimpse of them with Fichte’s talk about the world-spirit as a transcendent entity, ‘a central fire of which we are all individual sparks’. So maybe there was some nod to consistency at this inaccessible universal level, but an understanding that individual people or nations couldn’t achieve it?

Maybe this unravelling of systems of meaning started earlier than I imagined? I recently came across the following quote:

Thus all round, the intellectual lightships had broken from their moorings, and it was a then a new and trying experience. The present generation which has grown up in an open spiritual ocean, which has got used to it and has learned to swim for itself, will never know what it was to find the lights all drifting, the compasses all awry, and nothing left to steer by except the stars.

This comes from the historian and novelist James Anthony Froude, writing about his own crisis of faith. I was surprised to learn that this was in the 1840s, not say the 1890s. So at least some of the breakdown was happening quite early.

Of course, I’m relying on a secondary source, so another option is that Berlin was writing a long way into the process of fragmentation and so maybe he reads more of this into the Romantics than was actually there. Still, it does look like a lot of resources for navigating groundlessness were available in Western culture earlier than I realised. It makes sense that we’d be reaching for this bag of ideas in times as weird as these.

Note: This review started as a series of three newsletter entries in a kind of lazy quotes-and-notes format. I wanted to have a more polished single post that I could refer back to, and that turned out to be more work than I expected. I ended up changing the structure quite a lot, shifting from following the chronological order of events to focusing more on major ideas of the movement, which has come at the expense of covering the people involved in as much detail. So if you’re really interested, and can stand a few weird tangents about Philip Pullman’s influences and the sinking of the Titanic, the newsletter versions could be worth a look too.

2 thoughts on “Book review: The Roots of Romanticism

  1. Brian Marick (@marick) August 5, 2021 / 11:24 pm

    I think Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” may be interesting to you. It’s (somewhat) about the collision between Romanticism and a certain English upper class variant of the Enlightenment. I had considered Stoppard too twee before, but Arcadia was discussed on the Alzabo Soup podcast ( and I listened to a version of the play and listened to the podcast, and they won me over.


  2. Brian Marick (@marick) August 5, 2021 / 11:27 pm

    I left out the “why”. Stoppard shows the transition between not-Romanticism and Romanticism, with the frame story being a natural STEM geek discovering that both classical culture and classical physics are inadequate.


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