Berlin on Romanticism

Writing about the work of Isaiah Berlin is an extremely difficult process. The thought is so diffuse (though only very rarely anything less than pellucid), the arguments so close, the range of reference so wide, and above all the generosity of spirit, the endless qualification and perception of alternative views, mean that any attempt at precis tends to the absurdly reductive; reduces a wealth of intellect and ideas to a poverty. Berlin is just a consistent delight – charming, entrancing, and always thought-provoking. Nonetheless the act of attempting to write about him, however doomed to failure, helps in trying to fix in my mind some of the main points which he makes. While, as I have said, this is in a way a crude reductionism, an insult to the richness of thought, such is the necessary course which the intellectual pygmy must take when confronted with such a writer (this is not some false modesty or self-disparagement – while I quite like those qualities, there are actually not that many writers who make me feel like an intellectual pygmy – but Berlin is high on the list, if not at the head of it).

So with these qualifications I proceed to The Roots of Romanticism which is actually a transcription of the Mellon lectures given by Berlin in 1965 and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Britain in 1966. The subject of the birth, meaning, history and nature of Romanticism and the ways in which it affected Western history was one which fascinated Berlin, and he continued to work on a book on the subject until his death in 1997 according to Henry Hardy, his faithful editor, in the Preface; sadly it was never to be completed. Berlin takes as his starting-point that ‘the romantic movement was….a gigantic and radical transformation, after which nothing was ever the same’ – is this a valid claim? he asks. His response is that it is; that between about 1760 and 1830 there was ‘a great break in European consciousness’. At its heart was an attachment to a new set of values around integrity, sincerity, dedication to an ideal which are to be valued not for the nature of the ideal, but for the dedication in itself. Berlin gives a couple of examples of this. In the 16thc no Catholic would have respected a Protestant for the sincerity of their beliefs (or vice versa) – they would have held that, because their opponent’s beliefs were wrong, so that opponent deserved death in this world and eternal damnation in the next. Or, more specifically, he considers the difference in Voltaire’s and Carlyle’s position on Muhammad : for Voltaire, Muhammad is a ‘superstitious, cruel and fanatical monster’ opposed to all the values Voltaire held important – toleration, justice, truth, civilisation; for Carlyle (in On Heroes) Muhammad is ‘ a fiery mass of Life cast up from the great bosom of Nature herself’ – Carlyle is not in the least interested in the truths of the Koran, but he admires his Muhammad as an elemental force, a phenomenon. The truth or otherwise of any belief is irrelevant – as Carlyle argues elsewhere in the same book ‘Dante’s sublime Catholicism…has to be torn asunder by a Luther; Shakespeare’s noble feudalism has to end in a French revolution’ – movements last their time and must be replaced by earth-shattering events : what matters is that the men who make the events are sincere – sincerity is the great test [Berlin manages to capture Carlyle’s thought with unerring accuracy and clarity in a couple of pages; I note the connection of this version of historical change to that which appears – in a much milder form – in Scott’s historical novels; there is also something of Marx’s “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” – not of course that Marx would allow such a role to individuals in this process]. One of the consequences of this line of thought is that there are collisions between sets of values which are irreconcilable but without making either set ‘bad’ or ‘good’; Berlin cites Hegel talking of the collision of ‘good with good’. What matters are not the values but the dedication to them [I should point out that in all of this I am attempting to reproduce Berlin’s arguments – any of my own comments will be, like this, in [] – my precis is not necessarily meant to imply acceptance!]. Berlin proceeds to ask what Romanticism actually was and goes through an astonishing number of descriptions and definitions culled from a wide range of sources, ending by asking whether the term has any meaning at all, or whether classification and naming matter? He answers in the positive to both questions. Without definitions and generalisations ‘it is impossible to trace the course of human history’ and he believes he can offer some answer as to what the fundamentals of Romanticism – this great ‘transformation of Western consciousness’ – really were [and that after all – with all his qualifications and broadmindedness – is what the lectures really set out to do].

Berlin starts this process by examining the three fundamental propositions of the Enlightenment on which  the ‘whole Western tradition rested’ –

  1. ‘That all genuine questions can be answered’. If a question cannot be answered it is not a question. It may very well be that we don’t know the answer, but either that is because we haven’t found it, or because only God knows and it is beyond the reach of man. But there is an answer.
  2. All answers are knowable – they can be learnt or discovered [of course this doesn’t apply to the ‘only God knows’ answers but I think Berlin only put that in because he wants to sustain a link – which may not be sustainable – between the Enlightenment and the main Christian tradition – personally I think the argument is stronger if you leave God out of it as many 18thC thinkers would do]
  3. All answers ‘must be compatible with one another, because, if they are not compatible, then chaos will result’.

Berlin says that the peculiar Enlightenment ‘twist’ on these propositions was to say that the answers were not to be obtained by either revelation or tradition or dogma but by ‘the correct use of reason’ [which does in fact leave God out of it]. Of course there was enormous disagreement as to the nature of the answers but not as to the existence of answers. From this, Enlightenment thinkers moved to another position – ‘that virtue consists ultimately in knowledge’ ; if we have the right knowledge then we will know how to live the best lives. Skipping, as usual, many interesting digressions – in particular into the theory of aesthetics in the 18thC and the slight cracks made by Montesquieu and Hume in these patterns of thought – we move to the start of attack which in Berlin’s view came from the Germans. He provides a fascinating historical analysis of why this should have been so : Germany’s political weakness, the devastation of the 30 Years War, Lutheranism, the retreat to pietism with its stress on the individual and the suffering individual soul’s relationship to God – a retreat from the world – here is a wonderful Berlin passage on spiritual retreat…

.’This was a very grand form of sour grapes. If you cannot obtain from the world that which you really desire, you must teach yourself not to want it. If you cannot get what you want you must teach yourself to want what you can get. This is a very frequent form of spiritual retreat in-depth, into a kind of inner citadel, in which you try to lock yourself up against all the fearful ills of the world.’

Zinzendorf, a leader within the Moravian Brotherhood, said ‘Whoso wishes to grasp God with his intellect becomes an atheist’ – a reflection of Luther’s claim that reason is a whore. Berlin also contrasts the class position of the German thinkers – all were either humbly born or lower-middle class, with the exception of Goethe (rich bourgeois) and a couple of minor figures, with that of the French virtually all of whom came from the aristocracy, the gentry or the rich – only Diderot and Rousseau were exceptions. For the Germans the French salons were artificial, mannered, soulless. There was an  ‘enormous ditch’ between the Germans and French.

The figure whom Berlin identifies as beginning the ‘whole romantic process’ is Johann Georg Hamann the son of a Königsberg bath-keeper. Hamann experienced a religious experience after a career of gambling and drinking, returned to Königsberg and started writing ‘in a style which has proved  from that day to this unreadable’ – admired by Herder, Goethe, Kierkegaard. Berlin says that if you read Hamann very carefully – ‘which I really do not recommend’ [!] – you can discern his fundamental arguments. This is that all general propositions are extremely suspect; if you want to know what a man is like the only way is by communicating with him. General propositions leave out the uniqueness of men and things. The sciences might have a place but they said nothing about what men ultimately wanted, which was to create, to make – and if this led to war and struggle, then that was a part of life. He was ‘against scientists, bureaucrats, persons who made things tidy’. For Hamann ‘ creation was a most ineffable, indescribable, unanalysable personal act, by which a human being laid his stamp on nature, allowed his will to soar, spoke his word, uttered that which was within him and would not brook any kind of obstacle.’ The entire Enlightenment structure merely got in the way of creativity; Berlin quotes Hamann ‘What is this highly praised reason, with its universality, infallibility, overweeningness, certainty, self-evidence? It is a stuffed dummy which the howling superstition of unreason has endowed with divine attributes‘ [one wonders if Hamann was one of those German thinkers whom Carlyle had read?]

However the two men whom Berlin believes to have been the ‘true fathers of romanticism’ were Herder and  Kant – the former sympathetic to the movement the latter ‘acutely hostile’, but still, ironically, advancing it. Berlin considers Herder’s influence to have been immense but concentrates on 3 of his ideas….

  1. Expressionism. ‘Herder believed that one of the fundamental functions of human beings was to express, to speak, and therefore that whatever a man did expressed his full nature; and if it did not express his full nature it was because he maimed himself, or restrained himself, or laid some kind of leash upon his energies’. This has especial consequences in aesthetics because it moved away from the concept of any gulf between the artist and the artefact (painting, sculpture, poem. music etc.) they produced – now ‘A work of art is the voice of one man addressing himself to another man’. This is the ‘doctrine of art as communication’
  2. Herder developed this idea by saying that while some things are made by individuals, others, such as German folk-song, German laws, German morals, are made by groups. The world is what men have made of it and the German world has been constructed by other Germans – ‘The whole notion of being at home, or being cut off from one’s natural roots, the whole idea of roots…was largely invented by Herder’ (although there are anticipations in Vico). Herder did not use the criteria of nation or race, but he did say that people in certain place shared bonds – of language, of soil – which differentiated them from people in other places.
  3. Following from this came the conclusion that you should only judge a culture or time from the perspectives of that culture and time; ‘If you have to do that then you will grasp the fact that different ages had different ideals, and those ideals were each valid in its time and its place, and can be admired and appreciated by us now’. We have arrived at historical relativism.

Taken together these positions destroy the third axiom of the Enlightenment cited above, because they suggest that all conclusions are by no means compatible – there are no objectively true or better answers which can tell us how to live. [and the current Pope, engaged as I write – September 2010 – in a controversial visit to the UK, who is claimed as some sort of giant intellect, when in fact he spouts childish platitudes, likes to pretend that moral relativism is a very recent invention!]. ‘In this sense Herder is certainly one of the father of the romantic movement. That is to say, he is one of the fathers of the movement whose characteristics include the denial of ideals, the denial of harmony, the denial of the compatibility of ideals, whether in the sphere of action or in the sphere of thought.’

‘Kant hated romanticism’. He admired the sciences, logic, rigour: ‘Nevertheless, he is justly regarded as one of the fathers of Romanticism – in which there is a certain irony.’  How can this contradiction be explained?

  1. Because of Kant’s insistence on free will, which he thought was essential to morality. If you are predetermined – for whatever reason – to choose the good (or the bad), then there is no merit (or demerit) in doing so [this was a big problem for Mill and of course for many philosophers].
  2. Because his moral philosophy is ‘particularly rabid against any form of domination by one human being over another’. Berlin claims that before the late 18thC, and Kant in particular, the notion of exploitation as ‘an evil’ hardly existed. It was Kant who ‘secularised’ this idea and translated it into common European currency. For Kant ‘men are ends in themselves’ and values are values because they come from men…’A Value is made a value – at least a duty, a goal transcending desire and inclination, is so made – by human choice and not be some internal quality in itself, out there’ [my italics].
  3. Even more sinister for Kant than the enslavement of men by men, was the enslavement of men by nature. For him the problem of free-will is a ‘nightmarish dilemma’ . It is a problem which existed since the Stoics and continues to excise humanity today [and always will in my view]. Kant however was extreme in his rejection of determinist beliefs. This translated into his moral code. For Kant generosity is a vice because it is a sort of condescension [how influenced by Kant was Mill??]; pity is detestable quality because it implies superiority from one human to another.
  4. Behind the forgoing lies a revolutionary new view of ‘Nature’. Until Kant the attitude to nature, whatever it meant – and some scholars have counted some 200 meanings attached to the word in the 18thC alone – was that it was, on the whole, benevolent. For Kant this was rubbish. In Kant nature becomes ‘at worst an enemy, at best simply neutral stuff one moulds’.  It was on this basis that Kant approved the French Revolution because it gave all men a voice and individuated them. So this seemingly ‘very obedient, very tidy, old-fashioned, somewhat provincial East Prussian professor’ approved of revolution.
  5. ‘The only thing worth possessing is the unfettered will – this is the central proposition which Kant put on the map. And it was destined to have extremely revolutionary and subversive consequences which he could hardly have anticipated’.

Berlin says that the ‘most vivid and most interesting’ version of Kant’s doctrine which appeared in the late 18thC was in the work of Friedrich Schiller. It was in the extension of Kant’s thought to the realm of tragedy that Schiller is at his most characteristic. His position is that ‘helpless suffering’, the unavoidable, is not tragic; it is an object of ‘horror, pity, and perhaps disgust’. The only truly tragic thing is resistance: resistance by man to whatever oppresses him. ‘The purpose of art, the purpose at least of dramatic art, which is concerned with human beings, is to show human beings behaving in a manner which is most human’. Schiller rejected Kant in so far as he thought it limiting. Schiller says that for a man to be free he ‘must stand above both duty and nature and be able to choose either’. In Corneille’s version of Medea, when Medea kills her children Schiller does not approve the action, but he does say it is heroic because it defies nature [‘the maternal instinct’ – of course Schiller’s definition of ‘nature’ is here problematic but one can see what he means]. In Schiller we see the ‘the beginning of that famous doctrine of the great sinner and the superfluous man’ which played a role in 19thC art. The superfluous man is so because he possesses a superior morality to those around him, and has no opportunity for asserting it due to the ‘fearful opposition offered by the philistines’. The ‘superfluous man’ was particularly influential in Russian literature [Berlin cites Turgenev’s superfluous men but I think the kind of definition offered here is a little simplistic; Turgenev’s attitudes are complex]. Schiller’s doctrines found artistic expression in The Robbers, a play of the early 1780’s, where the wronged hero becomes head of a robber gang which commits acts of murder and pillage and arson, before finally he surrenders and brings about his own execution. This hero, Karl Moor, is a genuinely romantic hero; the romantic hero, Berlin claims, emerges in Germany sometime between the late 1760s and early 1780s. Compare Karl Moor to Moliere’s Misanthrope – Alceste. Alceste is, if anything, comical – he is not a hero. But by 1780 ‘such a figure is not faintly ridiculous, he is satanic’.

Schiller’s philosophy was that man goes through 3 stages. The first is ‘Notstaat’ – a state governed by necessity; the Hobbesian jungle.  The second state for Schiller is ‘Vernunfstaat’: this is the ‘rational state’ where men adopt very rigid principles. It is the state of Kantian commandments. But Schiller believed in the possibility of a third state, which existed in some Golden Age, when passion and reason, liberty and necessity, were not divided. The only was to get back to this is by converting the necessity of obeying rules ‘into some kind of almost instinctive, perfectly free, harmonious, spontaneous, natural operation’. People, and artists in particular, need to invent their own ideals and rules; they must generate them themselves. This is another key Romantic idea [which relates back to the concept that there is not an answer to be found in some authority for any problem]. To reassert our humanity we must invent our own ideals.

The third figure whom Berlin considers in his chapter/lecture entitled ‘The Restrained Romantics’ is Fichte. Fichte was another philosopher disciple of Kant, who had a passionate attachment to freedom – ‘At the mere mention of the name of freedom my heart opens and flowers, while at the word necessity it contracts painfully’ he wrote. Fichte believed in action: ‘Life begins with action. Knowledge is an instrument…………simply an instrument provided by nature for the purpose of effective life, of action’. Experience is determined by action ‘I am not determined by ends, ends are determined by me.’ Culture is no deterrent to violence because culture depends on knowledge and knowledge is fundamentally powerless. Fichte extended this theory from the individual to the nation and ended as a ‘rabid German patriot and nationalist’. In fact he ended as a war-monger. It was the insistence on freedom, first for the individual then by extension the nation, which comes out of ‘the sober pages of Kant’ which transmuted into a ‘half-metaphysical,half-religious’ belief in action and self-creation at the expense of everything else (including other nations) : Kant repudiated this ‘with the greatest possible vehemence and indignation’, but it was have to an enormous effect on German politics, morals, art, verse and the later on the French and the English.

At this point because this entry is becoming ludicrously long I have decided that I will now stop. I will come back to the last two lectures at a later date, on an individual basis.


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