Romanticism, German

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

5. Politics

The early Romantics came of age in the 1790s, a decade dominated by the French Revolution. Not surprisingly, their social and political ideals were formed in the crucible of that epochal event. At first they celebrated the Revolution as the dawn of a new age, embracing the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. As moderate republicans they believed that an ideal constitution should be a mixture of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. They became progressively disillusioned with the Revolution, however, when they fully realized its cultural implications, and were horrified by the egoism, materialism and anomie of modern French civil society, which seemed to leave no place for community and spiritual values.

Because of its reaction against modernity, it would seem that Romanticism was, or at least became, an essentially conservative movement. Some of the Romantics were indeed eager to preserve some traditional aspects of European society, such as guilds and monarchy, because they saw these as a source of community and as a bulwark against materialism. Some looked back with nostalgia upon the society of the Middle Ages, which was more devoted to communal and spiritual values.

It is necessary, however, to place the Romantics’ traditionalism in the context of their general social and political values. What they especially wished to maintain in traditional society was its pluralistic structure, its autonomous guilds and local corporations. They valued such a pluralistic structure chiefly because they saw it as a safeguard of liberty and a bulwark against tyranny. They were critical of all forms of political centralization and absolutism, whether it came from a revolutionary dictator or an absolute prince. In this regard they were moderates, as critical of the ancien régime as of the Revolution in France.

For all their disillusionment with modernity, the early Romantics endorsed one of its fundamental values: freedom of the individual. They never ceased to embrace this ideal, seeking to liberate the individual from all forms of oppression, whether political, social or cultural, so that people could fully realize and develop their individuality. Friedrich Schlegel, Humboldt and Schleiermacher were early champions of sexual liberation, of the right to divorce and to love without marriage. The main political problem for the young Romantics was how to square the freedom of individuality with the need for community. Their solution was a pluralistic society, whose autonomous groups would provide for community while serving as a defence of liberty.

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