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Book review: The Roots of Romanticism, by Isaiah Berlin

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In 1965 Berlin gave a series of six lectures on romanticism at The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. He spoke with notes but no script. This volume has been edited by Henry Hardy, using transcripts as well as BBC recordings of the lectures, which gives the text an unusual degree of freshness and informality. Berlin had hoped to use the material as the basis for a full-length book but this didn't happen. The title of this compilation was chosen by Hardy.

'Romanticism' is notoriously difficult to define (a bit like 'religion') and Berlin explains at the outset that he isn't going to try. But, whatever it is, it's certainly important.

The importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world. It seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to me in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it (p.1).


Before reading this book I had a vague idea that romanticism originated in England, with poets like Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and Berlin agrees that this is what most historians tell us; but he ascribes the primary role to Germany, and the book is mainly although not exclusively concerned with German writers.

Romanticism was a reaction to the values of the Enlightenment, with which France is particularly associated. We think of France in the late eighteenth century as characterised by reason, rejection of religion, and the advance of science—all of which culminated, perhaps unexpectedly, in the turmoil of the Revolution. Germany, meanwhile, was very different. While France was a unified, centralised and powerful state, Germany was split up into hundreds of small principalities and was, in consequence, relatively weak. Huge numbers of Germans had been killed by foreign troops, including those of France, in the Thirty Years War; nothing on this scale had been seen in Europe before. 'The truth about the Germans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that they constitute a somewhat backward province' (p.34).

There was also a class division between Germany and France, Most of the prominent German writers—Lessing, Kant, Herder, Schelling, Schiller, Hölderlin—were lower middle-class, whereas nearly all the French radicals were upper-class, and many from the nobility. Hence a social chasm existed between the German intellectuals and the French; when Herder came to Paris in the 1770s he was unable to meet any of the French cultural elite.

Against this background there developed in Germany a religious mood, the pietist movement, which Berlin sees as the root of romanticism. Pietism was a branch of Lutheranism and consisted in closely studying the Bible and attending to man's relation to God. So we get an emphasis on spirituality and contempt for learning. 'What occurred was a kind of retreat in depth.'

Why pietism should have lead to romanticism isn't immediately obvious, but Berlin thinks it was largely due to one man, of whom most people today probably haven't even heard: Hamann.

My reason for introducing the obscure figure of Johann Georg Hamann is that I believe him to have been the first person to declare war upon the Enlightenment in the most open, violent and complete fashion. Nevertheless, he was not entirely alone in this, even in his own lifetime (p. 46).


Hamann was born in obscurity and lived a dissolute life for a time, but when he was at the point of suicide he had a religious revelation and became a writer. He was not successful at this either—Berlin describes his style as unreadable—yet for some reason he had a very strong influence on a number of other writers who did have a profound influence in Europe, including Herder, Goethe, and Kierkegaard.

Hamann's fundamental doctrine … was that God was not a geometer, not a mathematician, but a poet; that there was something blasphemous in attempting to foist upon God our own human, logical schemes (p.48).


Yet another writer who appears in association with Hamann is Immanuel Kant, who was Hamann's neighbour and friend. I hadn't thought of Kant as a figure in the romantic movement and in fact he hated it, yet Berlin identifies him as one of the fathers of the movement, because of his 'virtual intoxication' with the idea of human freedom. For this reason he welcomed the French Revolution (likewise the American Revolution), and even the Terror did not lead him to revise his view completely.

This indicates the passion with which this normally very conventional, very obedient, very tidy, old-fashioned, somewhat provincial East Prussian professor nevertheless regarded this great liberating chapter in the history of the human race, the self-assertion of human beings against huge idols as he thought of them, standing over against them. … He is not normally thought of in these terms, but there is no doubt that his moral philosophy is firmly founded upon this anti-authoritarian principle (p.77).


Although Berlin concentrates mainly on literature, he also looks at music and painting and even economics. It is here that, for me, what he has to say resonates most strongly with our present situation. The Revolution showed people that they had been paying too much attention to the upper portion of society—economists, psychologists, moralists, writers—intellectuals of every kind; but these were merely the tip of 'some huge iceberg of which a vast section was sunk below 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 (p.110).


Indeed.

This is a short book but a rich one, brimming with ideas and extremely readable. It has certainly very considerably changed how I think about the romantic movement. For me, at any rate, its great merit is that it has introduced me to a range of German writers who were previously little more than names to me. It also let me see Kant in a new way. Encouragement to further exploration comes in the shape of a reference section at the end, although Hardy warns us that identifying sources for this 'most effervescent of historians' is no easy task.

27-08-2018
%T The Roots of Romanticism
%A Berlin, Isaiah
%I Vjntage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 9781446496923
%P 148pp
%K literature, art history
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