Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. The early Romantic agenda
Early German Romanticism grew out of a disillusionment with some of the fundamental tendencies of modernity, more specifically the growth of science and technology, the division of labour, and a competitive market economy. For the Romantics, these tendencies had created the fundamental malaise of modern culture: alienation or disenchantment. There were three facets to this alienation: that people had become divided from themselves, from others and from nature. Each facet was the result of one of the tendencies of modernity. People became divided from themselves because of the increasing division of labour, which forced them to ignore their inner selves for the demands of productive labour, and which made them neglect the diverse sides of their humanity to specialize in one activity. They became divided from others because they had to compete in the market place rather than cooperate with them in a community. And they became divided from nature because the sciences treated it as an object to be dominated and controlled instead of a realm of beauty, mystery and magic (see Alienation).
The Romantics’ reaction to modernity has to be placed within the context of their general philosophy of history. They see history, along the lines of the Biblical myth, as a drama of innocence, fall and redemption. Kant and Schiller had shown how this myth could be rationalized and secularized in explaining moral development; the Romantics duly followed this lead, applying the myth to all history. Innocence consists in unity with oneself, others and nature; the fall starts with division and alienation; and redemption consists in re-achieving unity after division. The present modern epoch is the depth of the fall. The task of the modern human is to achieve redemption by recovering unity with the self, others and nature.
The Romantics saw the rise of modernity as tragic, as the inevitable product not just of capitalism but of civilization. They looked back with nostalgia to earlier cultures, such as those of ancient Greece and the High Middle Ages, which enjoyed much greater unity. But their pessimism was also tempered by the optimism of their utopian belief that it was still possible for modern humans to approach redemption, even if they could not achieve it. If people directed their energies in the right direction, they would be able to recreate through reason that unity with the self, nature and society given to earlier humans through nature.
Hence the Romantic agenda sought to heal the wounds of modernity: to restore unity with the self, with others and with nature. They wanted everybody to become a whole person again, so that each realizes their unique individuality and all their distinctively human characteristics. They championed a community based on love and cooperation, rather than a society torn by self-interest and competition. And, finally, they hoped to restore the beauty, magic and mystery of nature in the aftermath of the ravages of science and technology.
Beiser, Frederick. The early Romantic agenda. Romanticism, German, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC094-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/romanticism-german/v-1/sections/the-early-romantic-agenda.
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