The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts)

The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts)

by Isaiah Berlin

ISBN: 9780691156200

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/History & Criticism, Nonfiction/Philosophy

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Sample Chapter


In Search of a Definition

I might be expected to begin, or to attempt to begin, with some kind of definition of Romanticism, or at least some generalisation, in order to make clear what it is that I mean by it. I do not propose to walk into that particular trap. The eminent and wise Professor Northrop Frye points out that whenever anyone embarks on a generalisation on the subject of Romanticism, even something so innocuous, for example, as to say that a new attitude sprang up among English poets towards nature – in Wordsworth and Coleridge, let us say, as against Racine and Pope – somebody will always be found who will produce countervailing evidence from the writings of Homer, Kalidasa, pre-Muslim Arabian epics, medieval Spanish verse – and finally Racine and Pope themselves. For this reason I do not propose to generalise, but to convey in some other way what it is that I think Romanticism to be.

Indeed, the literature on Romanticism is larger than Romanticism itself, and the literature defining what it is that the literature on Romanticism is concerned with is quite large in its turn. There is a kind of inverted pyramid. It is a dangerous and a confused subject, in which many have lost, I will not say their senses, but at any rate their sense of direction. It is like that dark cave described by Virgil, where all the footsteps lead in one direction; or the cave of Polyphemus – those who enter it never seem to emerge again. It is therefore with some trepidation that I embark upon the subject.

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.

The history not only of thought, but of consciousness, opinion, action too, of morals, politics, aesthetics, is to a large degree a history of dominant models. Whenever you look at any particular civilisation, you will find that its most characteristic writings and other cultural products reflect a particular pattern of life which those who are responsible for these writings – or paint these paintings, or produce these particular pieces of music – are dominated by. And in order to identify a civilisation, in order to explain what kind of civilisation it is, in order to understand the world in which men of this sort thought and felt and acted, it is important to try, so far as possible, to isolate the dominant pattern which that culture obeys. Consider, for instance, Greek philosophy or Greek literature of the classical age. If you read, say, the philosophy of Plato, you will find that he is dominated by a geometrical or mathematical model. It is clear that his thought operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible conclusions; that it is possible to attain to this kind of absolute wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world, and if only we can attain to this absolute knowledge, of which geometry, indeed mathematics in general, is the nearest example, the most perfect paradigm, we can organise our lives in terms of this knowledge, in terms of these truths, once and for all, in a static manner, needing no further change; and then all suffering, all doubt, all ignorance, all forms of human vice and folly can be expected to disappear from the earth.

This notion that there is somewhere a perfect vision, and that it needs only a certain kind of severe discipline, or a certain kind of method, to attain to this truth, which is analogous, at any rate, to the cold and isolated truths of mathematics – this notion then affects a great many other thinkers in the post-Platonic age: certainly the Renaissance, which had similar ideas, certainly thinkers like Spinoza, thinkers in the eighteenth century, thinkers in the nineteenth century too, who believed it possible to attain to some kind of, if not absolute, at any rate nearly absolute knowledge, and in terms of this to tidy the world up, to create some kind of rational order, in which tragedy, vice and stupidity, which have caused so much destruction in the past, can at last be avoided by the use of carefully acquired information and the application to it of universally intelligible reason.

This is one kind of model – I offer it simply as an example. These models invariably begin by liberating people from error, from confusion, from some kind of unintelligible world which they seek to explain to themselves by means of a model; but they almost invariably end by enslaving those very same people, by failing to explain the whole of experience. They begin as liberators and end in some sort of despotism.

Let us look at another example – a parallel culture, that of the Bible, that of the Jews at a comparable period. You will find a totally different model dominating, a totally different set of ideas, which would have been unintelligible to the Greeks. The notion from which both Judaism and Christianity to a large degree sprang is the notion of family life, the relations of father and son, perhaps the relations of members of a tribe to one another. Such fundamental relationships – in terms of which nature and life are explained – as the love of children for their father, the brotherhood of man, forgiveness, commands issued by a superior to an inferior, the sense of duty, transgression, sin and therefore the need to atone for it – this whole complex of qualities, in terms of which the whole of the universe is explained by those who created the Bible, and by those who were to a large extent influenced by it, would have been totally unintelligible to the Greeks.

Consider a perfectly familiar psalm, where the psalmist says that 'When Israel went out of Egypt [...] the sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs', and the earth is ordered to 'Tremble [...] at the presence of the Lord.' This would have been totally unintelligible to Plato or to Aristotle, because the whole notion of a world which reacts personally to the orders of the Lord, the idea that all relationships, both animate and inanimate, must be interpreted in terms of the relations of human beings, or at any rate in terms of the relations of personalities, in one case divine, in the other case human, is very remote from the Greek conception of what a God was and what his relations were to mankind. Hence the absence among the Greeks of the notion of obligation, hence the absence of the notion of duty, which it is so difficult for people to grasp who read the Greeks through spectacles partly affected by the Jews.

Let me try to convey how strange different models can be, because this is important simply in tracing the history of these transformations of consciousness. Considerable revolutions have occurred in the general outlook of mankind which it is sometimes difficult to retrace, because we swallow them as if they were familiar. Giambattista Vico – the Italian thinker who flourished at the beginning of the eighteenth century, if a man who was totally poor and neglected may be said to have flourished – was perhaps the first to draw our attention to the strangeness of ancient cultures. He points out, for example, that in the quotation 'Jovis omnia plena' ('Everything is full of Jove'), which is the end of a perfectly familiar Latin hexameter, somethi(Continues…)

Excerpted from "The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts)" by Isaiah Berlin. Copyright © 2013 by Isaiah Berlin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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