A force beyond reason

The Roots of Romanticism
May 28, 1999

Peter Mudford reflects on Romanticism, Reason and Reality.

During his lifetime Isaiah Berlin refused to allow the publication of these lectures, given at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1965 under the title "Sources of Romantic Thought". Some believe this transcript, edited by Henry Hardy, should have remained unpublished. They are mistaken.

Many, like myself, have never forgotten the broadcast of the lectures by the BBC the following year and have waited eagerly for the opportunity to reconsider them without the rapidity of Berlin's delivery, which was always allegro con brio . Berlin's unscripted "performance" (recaptured on the CD of the final lecture that accompanies the book) dazzled because of the way in which the "enchanted loom" of his mind brought together so many different strands of thought and wove them into a unified and questioning vision of the 20th century.

On the way, Berlin was by no means always accurate, preferring, in an 18th-century manner, to improvise his quotations, or to give the character of what an author said rather than what he actually wrote. Since Berlin was sometimes more true to the spirit than the letter, in a way which has become unfashionable, his editor sensibly has decided to be light-handed in his corrections, but has provided the sources for many of the quotations.

One reason that prevented Berlin from publishing these lectures was that he continued to work for a further ten years on the notes for a book that he intended to be a synthesis of all his reading and thought about romanticism. As his editor assures us: "Not so much as a sentence of the intended work was ever written." While this may be regretted, The Roots of Romanticism represents what Berlin did best at the height of his powers. The compression of the lecture where, as he admitted, many ideas and pathways had to remain unexplored, created an explosive relationship between his historical research and his commitment to the problems and values of our own time. A more encyclopedic account of romanticism - of the kind attempted by Irving Babbitt in 1919 and, more recently, by Georges Gusdorf in four volumes from 1982-1985 - might well have dimmed the Promethean fire of this book.

Born into a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, and moving to Moscow in 1917 where he witnessed the Russian Revolution, Berlin's life and thought was shaped by his abhorrence of violence in the pursuit of political goals. His knowledge of Marx, on whom his first book and several essays were written, his profound knowledge of Russian culture, as well as his involvement with British intelligence in the second world war and the establishment of Israel in 1948, meant that his intellectual concerns were inseparable from what was happening in the public world. In these essays as in others, like "Two concepts of liberty", "The originality of Machiavelli", and "The Counter-Enlightenment", his interest in reassessing the thinkers of the past was directed towards understanding the present. "The interest of romanticism is not simply historical," he wrote. "A great many phenomena of the present day - nationalism, existentialism ... democracy, totalitarianism - are profoundly affected by the rise of romanticism, which enters them all." Here, as in his 1960 lecture, "The Romantic movement: a crisis in the history of modern thought", Berlin identifies two traditions which have shaped Western European consciousness. The first derives from Plato and Aristotle, and is summarised in the idea that "virtue is knowledge": all genuine questions can be answered, all answers are knowable, can be learnt and taught, and are compatible with one another. It is a view that inspires and motivates a great deal of inquiry, whether in relation to the origins of the universe, the human genome project, racism, crime, or the environment. The more we know, the more we shall in principle be capable of improving the quality of human life (or at least not destroying the planet).

According to Berlin, the blow that romanticism struck against this view - and in so doing transformed "the lives and thought of the western world" - first came in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. It arose from the assertion that things did not have a structure that was given and could be discovered. Romanticism "blew up" the given and substituted for it a world of perpetual change and transformation, "out of which someone with a powerful will can mould, if only temporarily, anything he pleases". What one individual, class or nation willed was not necessarily compatible with what others willed. What was good for one was not necessarily compatible with what was good for another. No absolute truth existed; there was a plurality of ideals. The universe, including human life, was a process of "perpetual forward creation", and "all schemas, all generalisations, all patterns imposed upon it, are forms of distortion". This was close to the heart of romanticism, as Berlin saw it.

In the pre-romantic tradition, it would be "unintelligible" to judge a man by the sincerity of his motives (a Christian would not respect a man for the sincerity with which he held his beliefs, or vice versa). Voltaire depicts Muhammad as "a superstitious, cruel and fanatical monster,who crushes all efforts at freedom, at justice, at reason". Carlyle, writing a century later, sees him as "a man of blazing sincerity and power, and therefore to be admired". As a consequence of romanticism, commitment, sincerity, acting in good faith whatever the consequences, came to be regarded by many as praiseworthy. The morality of motive became as important as the morality of consequence.

In this transformation of values, art and artists had for the first time deeply affected Western European consciousness. In blowing up the given, they started from an aesthetic viewpoint which spread out and caused a change in opinion, action, morals, politics and ethics, "of greater significance than any other in the 19th and 20th centuries". We are all heirs of a world that has nearly been destroyed, and yet may be, by individuals who have attempted to will their world into existence: for example, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. "We owe to romanticism the view that a unified answer in human affairs is likely to be ruinous, that if you really believe that there is one single solution to all human ills, and that you must impose this solution at no matter what cost, you are likely to become a violent and despotic tyrant in the name of your solution, because your desire to remove all obstacles to it will end by destroying the creatures for whose benefit you offer the solution."

The importance of this book is twofold. In the first place, there is the range of Berlin's knowledge, which enables him to write with clarity and illumination about figures as much discussed as Rousseau, Voltaire, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Schiller, and Schopenhauer, and with equal discrimination about J. G. Hamann and the German pietists, Vico, Herder and Fichte. His purpose is to draw out their significance in the development of Western European consciousness. His book is a profound, if often tantalising, contribution to an understanding of the West's culture. Incidentally, it reveals how much knowledge is needed to make cultural studies, which have recently become fashionable in most universities, a valuable pursuit.

Its second importance lies in the vision of the argument, and its implications for our own time. These essays pose questions about political judgement and about academic research. Is the often-repeated phrase in academic papers, "What I want to argue is this", a claim by the writer to impose his or her will on a territory that would otherwise have no structure, or a claim that the paper is another piece in a vast jigsaw puzzle to which there is a discoverable structure? According to Berlin, we are "children of both worlds", and we move uneasily between them. "We are still members of some kind of unified tradition, but the field within which we now oscillate freely, the amount of allowance we make, is far greater than it has ever been before."

This is a book that would be as salutary a read for prime ministers and presidents as for those who see themselves as cultural critics. Berlin's writing exemplifies the need for understanding and tolerance in the face of the plurality of human needs and aspirations, and the incompatibility of human ideals. But there is also a more reticent awareness, born of romanticism, that what can be articulated, made clear and rational is like the tip of a huge iceberg driven by some vast impersonal force, which can neither be investigated nor deflected. Even the most rational and enlightened among us can never be free of those dark forces.

Peter Mudford is reader in modern English literature, Birkbeck College, London.

The Roots of Romanticism

Author - Isaiah Berlin
ISBN - 0 7011 6868 4
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 171

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