Romanticism, German

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC094-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

4. Ethics

The Romantic ethic is best understood in terms of a response to the classical question of the highest good, to the problem of the supreme value of life. The Romantics saw the highest good as Bildung, loosely translatable as education or personal development. Theirs was an ethic of self-realization, which stressed the development not only of one’s individuality but also of all one’s characteristic human traits. This view of the highest good should be seen as a reaction against the two prevalent views in the late eighteenth century: hedonism and the Kantian-Fichtean ethic. According to the hedonists, the highest good is pleasure, while according to Kant and Fichte it is happiness in accord with virtue.

The Romantics rejected pleasure as the highest good because it would not develop those powers characteristic of our humanity and individuality. Their critique of hedonism is most apparent in their indictment of the philistines, those who devote themselves to a life of comfort and security at the expense of the real self.

The Romantics saw two fundamental difficulties for the Kantian ethic. First, Kant and Fichte had stressed reason at the expense of sensibility, ignoring how our senses are just as much a part of our humanity and just as in need of cultivation and development. It is not simply a purely rational being who acts morally but the whole individual who does their duty not contrary to but from their inclination. Second, by emphasizing action according to universal laws, Kant and Fichte had failed to see the importance of individuality.

The fundamental ethical value for the Romantics was love, which they believed should be the basis of social life and the heart of personal development. They pitted their ethic of love against the egoism of modern society, and the abstract and artificial commands of the Kantian-Fichtean ethic. They saw no conflict between the demands of love and individualism: the individual could become a unique whole only in virtue of love, which is the source of all personal development. Love rather than law was the chief social bond, holding that the state could become secure only through ties of affection and brotherhood.

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