The Europe that emerged after the Napoleonic wars was an unsettled one. The French and Industrial revolutions had caused profound changes in men’s outlook, and had broadened the political horizon. The ancient regime would never again be seen as the only possible form of government. A new economy and society were in the process of being created.
This was a period in which many nascent ideologies jostled for space. Although the orchestrators of the ‘Concert of Europe’ strove to re-establish order and stability, a single way of thinking could no longer prevail. This was an age that saw the expansion of political participation, and the emergence of public opinion. The rapid growth of population and spread of industrialization (albeit unevenly), gave rise to new groups that clamoured to be heard.
The settlements of 1815 were made with a view to preventing a further outbreak of revolution. The aim of the victorious allies was to preserve the political division of Europe into dynastic states. The European map was redrawn, with no concern for the aspirations of the people. The old institutions of monarchy, aristocracy and church were seen as most suitable for the preservation of order. This period has been baldly characterized as Eighteenth versus Nineteenth centuries, Ancient regime versus Industrialism, Aristocracy versus Middle class, and Enlightenment versus Romanticism.
Isaiah Berlin argues that the origin of Romanticism has 3 basic roots which enabled rational men to testify themselves against moral and political values. These are a) doctrine of freedom in the philosophy of Kant, b) the individualism and anti-universalism that attained to fame with Herder and c) the interpretation of life in terms of aesthetic models of early Romantic writers from Germany.
The essence of Romanticism is hard to capture. It is a sweeping term dealing with the profound shift in Western attitudes to art and human creativity that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its chief emphasis was on freedom of individual self-expression, with spontaneity and originality replacing the decorous imitation of classical models favored previously. As a political influence it was closely bound to ‘revolutionary’ beliefs like nationalism as well as conservative ones.
According to George Mosse, the Enlightenment was not sufficiently aware of man’s need for a faith. The Industrial Revolution, which created a radical break with past modes of life, the resultant social transformations led to a spiritual void, a feeling of alienation. This helps explain both the religious revivals of the early 19th century, as well as the spread of romantic worldviews. Romanticism itself was foreshadowed by the ‘pre-Romanticism’ which stressed the primacy of feeling over reason. The post-Napoleonic generation was a disillusioned one. Consequently, the movements of Pietism and Methodism gained momentum. Pietistic thought influenced Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Kant etc.
Romanticism and Industrialism had to be reconciled – in practice, very few wanted to retreat into a more primitive, pre-industrial age. Technology and the factory came to be regarded as superficial – nature and the nation were seen as timeless and real.
The Romantic focus on nature and its beauty led to a kind of idealization of those who lived closest to it. This reflects the disenchantment with industrial urbanism. The cult of the Middle Ages, starting as a literary movement, became an idealized program for the future. Romanticism, as linked to conservatism, tended towards ideas of government outside parliament.
In France, Romanticism was closely tied to monarchism and the Catholic Church- not surprisingly, as the revolution had stood for the rationalism and skepticism abhorred by the romantics. But the restored regime proved hostile to Romantic thought. The French Academy favored a return to pre-Revolutionary classicism, and issued a proclamation against the ‘romantic sect’. The new philosophies of conservatism, while deriving the source of royal, aristocratic power variously from God, nature or history were grounded in a denial of the doctrines that held that sovereign power lay with the people, and that reason alone could build a new society. The unpopularity of the Napoleonic Empire gave rise to a hatred of all things French, including the ordered rationality of the Enlightenment.
In Germany (and elsewhere) Romanticism came to be closely tied up with nationalism. It began as a literary movement – the collection of folk ballads, which were seen as a means of historical self-identification for a nation. The ideas of Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) went a long way towards inspiring cultural nationalism in Europe. He rejected the absolute criteria of progress as put forward by the Enlightenment. He propounded the idea of the ‘Volk’ – community bound by ties of common knowledge, historical memory, habit and tradition. Herder gave nationalism an aesthetic, historical and linguistic dimension, which made the nation an organism-separate from any temporary form of political organization. Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) equated national consciousness with folk spirit. This German search for a distinct national identity arose partly from a reaction against the Napoleonic Empire, and the resultant desire to be rid of French cultural, linguistic and ideological hegemony.
A recurring dilemma was the need to reconcile the Romantic desire for personal freedom with the fear of isolation. Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) concluded that self-realization was possible only through unity and integration with the nation. The Romantic approach to individualism was thus paradoxical.
Romanticism has been called the swan song of the European aristocracy. This implies that it was the ideology of the newly emergent industrial middle class. This is problematic, as no group of ideas can be exclusively claimed by a single class. Most Romantics – poets, artists and writers -came from the uppermost social strata. The idealized view of ‘the masses’ or the ‘volk’ implies a distance from them. Romanticism was essentially an upper-class trend.
As a political trend, Romanticism was most clearly manifested as idealism (whether reactionary or revolutionary). It challenged the individualism of the liberal credo by reminding men of deeper irrational forces, which determined fate. In an age of political, social and economic upheaval, Romanticism was a cast of the mind, seeking refuge in emotions, imagination and nature.
It is interesting to note that while the continent of Europe was in a state of unrest, her influence around the globe was expanding. Imperialist rule in Asia and Africa was strengthening. Ironically, the primitivism of the Romantics, and the idea of cultures as unique and equal had no place in colonial policies. Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, whose dignity and freedom were favorably contrasted with the disorientation of the overcultivated citizen, remained a mere ideal for urban Europe. That the natives of the colonies, with their peculiar languages and culture, constituted as valid a ‘volk’ as the Germans or the Slavs, never occurred to the colonial administrators, and every attempt was made to westernize the colonies. Politics won, in the end, over Romanticism.