Romanticism, German

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC094-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2020, from

3. Aestheticism

Early German Romanticism has often been understood as an aesthetic or literary movement. The Romantics indeed saw art as the highest form of human experience and self-expression, making it their instrument for the education and redemption of humanity. Romantic art had a definite objective, set by the Romantics’ social and political agenda to restore the unity with the self, society and nature that had been destroyed by modernity. In this regard, the Romantics were deeply influenced by Schiller’s programme for the aesthetic education of humankind, which gives primacy to art as the means to restore humanity to wholeness.

The early Romantic aesthetic, especially as defined by Friedrich Schlegel, has its origins in Schiller’s reflections on naïve and sentimental poetry. According to Schiller, the poetry of the ancients was naïve because it simply and directly imitated nature; naïve poetry thus reflected the ancients’ harmony with the world around them. The poetry of the moderns, however, is sentimental because it expresses a sentiment or feeling: the longing to return to that unity with nature that had once been given to the ancients.

Schlegel believed that Romantic poetry should adopt some of the characteristics which Schiller had attributed to sentimental poetry. It should be free of all the constraints of classicism, allowing the poet to express the freedom characteristic of modernity; but it should above all express the feeling and longing of the poet, the striving to return to unity with the self, society and nature.

Novalis’ definition of Romantic art should also be understood in the same context. The aim of the artist, Novalis wrote, is to romanticize the world, to see the infinite in the finite, the extraordinary in the common place, the wonderful in the banal. Here again the mission of Romantic art was to restore unity: its purpose was to restore the magic, mystery and beauty of nature that had been lost with the growth of science and technology.

Romantic aestheticism has often been dismissed as quixotic, because it seems to exaggerate the power of art to motivate human action and to reform morals. But the Romantic faith in art should not be understood simply as a claim about the influence of the arts, and still less as a claim about their autonomy. Rather, Romantic aestheticism is based on the classical equation of the good with the beautiful. The Romantics believe that beauty should have a central role in culture because they think that beauty is involved in all forms of perfection, whether individual, social or political. The Romantic ideal of a self-realized person, of the ideal society and of the perfect state is that they should be aesthetic wholes. Hence the aim of the Romantic was not only to produce good poems, plays and novels, but first and foremost to make the individual, society and the state into works of art.

Citing this article:
Beiser, Frederick. Aestheticism. Romanticism, German, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC094-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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