The German Romantic Philosophers (3 of 5)

With Jacobi we found a scathing attack against the rationality of the Enlightenment. He found it sickly, believing instead we should stick to our emotions and our faith. The theme of faith, of intuition, will appear several more times, the former appearing in Fichte. Similarly, Jacobi popularized the idea of activity over speculation. This we shall see in Fichte as well. In this post we will look at Romanticism from an aesthetic and metaphysical position.

Unknown-6.jpegOne of the greatest aesthetes of the Romantic period, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) was a prolific writer, his On the Aesthetic Education of Man a series of letters that explain his views on art, on society, and on how the two must be put together, which we will be assessing. Continuing the tripartite tradition of the human mind, inspired by Plato and inspiring Freud, Schiller said there were three drives that actively shaped the mind. The first drive was the sense-drive, the Stofftrieb. Like Freud’s Id, the Stofftrieb is primordial, the one inherent at birth which seeks out the material and is instinctive. This drive is uncivilized, but it seeks out change; it seeks out its place in time. As follows, the sense-drive looks for the limited, that which is finite, that which is subject to change. In contrast the form-drive, the Formtrieb, Freud’s superego, is rational and assumes a moral position. “It insists on truth and on the right.”[1] It gives us obligations; it binds us to reason, to logic. Unlike the sense-drive, the Formtrieb desires the infinite, that which is intemporal. While the Stofftrieb is practical, the Formtrieb is recondite and obscured. Out of necessity, though, both drives cannot peacefully coexist, so there must exist a third drive, a drive that will balance them out: the play-drive, or Spieltrieb–Freud’s ego. Without this fundamental drive, humans would lack a sense of beauty. The Spieltrieb is the aesthetic sense that allows us to recognize, rationalize, and emotionalize beauty. Further, it balances out the opposing two drives, since “it will… annul all constraint too, and set man free both physically and mentally.”[2] By “play,” in play-drive, Schiller refers to pure activity, not just games. Because the play-drive is the ultimate drive, the most coveted of them, it removes all limitations from the person, allowing for them to actualize themselves, to express themselves. If beauty is to exist, Schiller maintains, there must be balance, for balance is the key to beauty. Lamenting the good ole’ days, Schiller explained that Greece was exemplary for its balance, both in its art, captured in sculptures, pottery, and paintings, and in its humanity–the perfect balance between individualism and collectivism, rationality and passion. Greek culture was united, in that there was a perfect blend of mind, sense, and intellect, which Schiller thought was paramount. Modernity, contrariwise, he felt was divided, with no clear trajectory, either in art or in humanity. Time, in Schiller’s thought, is flux. Like Heraclitus, Schiller believed time was just present moment after present moment, a continuous stream that always flowed. From there Schiller develops the balance between Stofftrieb and Formtrieb. On the surface the two drives prove to be opposing forces, but they are not, reasons Schiller, because where sense does not require the principles of form, form does not require the sensation of sense; therefore, they do not cancel each other out; rather, they limit each other, so as to prevent Unknown-8.jpegone from dominating the other, thereby maintaining an equilibrium. Were the sense-drive to dominate, it would result in hedonism, turning the person into pure force, rendering us a part of time; were the form-drive to dominate, our moral duty would be corrupted, our “selves” reduced to mere objects to be acted upon. The Stofftrieb receives, and the Formtrieb creates. Schiller also identifies different classes of artists: the naïve poet, who accepts and represents nature as it is, and the sentimental poet, who seeks nature as an ideal. There are three more divisions thereafter: the poet who is repelled from life is satirical; the poet who believes the ideal cannot be found is elegiac; and the poet who thinks the ideal present is idyllic. Aesthetics are the basis of Schiller’s system, and he suggests existentialist themes, as will Fichte. “The external world is known only as man constructs an image of it for himself,”[3] he writes, suggesting the phenomenal world is relative, implying we see the world how we choose. And in the following quote he sets up the idea that, when we embrace our sense of art, we can shape our life–we can choose who we become:

By means of aesthetic culture,… the personal worth [of man], or his dignity,… remains completely indeterminate;… he is henceforth enabled… to make of himself what he will–that the freedom to be what he ought to be is completely restored to him.[4]

Unknown-7.jpegAt last we arrive at the most influential philosopher of Romanticism: Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). In Fichte we find a turning point in Modern philosophy, his metaphysics a divergence from his predecessor Kant towards future systems of thought. An amusing anecdote about Fichte–which can be found in pretty much every book in which he is mentioned–recounts how, upon publishing his first book, An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), his name was not put on the book, leading readers to think the book was written by Kant, a follow-up critique on religion; but once Fichte’s name was revealed, he rose meteorically, although his image was tarnished by his beliefs about God as supplying us with our moral sense and by his contentious personality. Fichte begins by identifying philosophy as the Wissenschaftslehre, basically calling it the science of sciences, as it provided the basis for all other studies. Many books tend to complicate Fichte’s metaphysics, leaving the readers confused, so I will try my best to simplify and make the summary as concise, readable, and comprehensible as possible. His system is founded upon three starting principles. The first principle states that there is a pure–or transcendental, in Husserlian terminology–ego, or self. What is most important to understand about this Absolute ego is that it is objective; it is the highest form of self, and this means it cannot be known. When I say I am doing an action, the “I” represents my self, but there is still an “I” that, while I know that it exists, cannot be identified. This is what Fichte calls the first principle of philosophy. It, like Descartes’ Cogito, is the starting point of philosophy, insofar as without it, nothing else can be known for certain; therefore, we must start with the fact that there exists a pure ego. Another misconception is the idea that the Absolute ego is an entity, something that exists; the transcendental ego is, like Schiller’s Spieltrieb, pure activity, tathandlung. It is not; instead it does. Peter Watson writes, “On this account, Fichte portrays the self as: ‘It wills, alters, carves up the world both in thought and in action, in accordance with its own concepts and categories.’”[5] Fichte was an admirer of Kant, so this principle is clearly reminiscent of Kant’s idea that the mind actively conceives and shapes the world according to its categories. The second principle is as follows: “The ego posits itself and in doing so posits the non-ego.”[6] At this point Fichtean metaphysics gets incredibly confusing with its talk of “pure egos,” normal “egos,” and “non-egos.” The above quote, simplified, states: the pure ego (the higher, objective self) sends out the ego (the self of which we are aware, of which we can speak) and a non-ego, which I will explain presently. “The ‘I,’ the ‘self’ in that sense of the word, is not the same as ‘me,’”[7] writes Isaiah Berlin. What Berlin is saying is that there are two understandings of the self: the pure ego (who we are) and the ego (who can be acted upon, who can be talked about). If someone hits me, they hit my ego, my subjective self, but not my pure ego, my objective self. Now to the non-ego. The non-ego, simply put, is the world; the non-ego is nature. Without the non-ego, we are just bodies with nothing to interact with–we are just selves. As we explained with Jacobi, the self can only be known through resistance. Black is only black if compared to white; cold only cold if compared to hot; and night only night if compared to day; therefore, the ego is only the ego if compared to that which is not the ego: reality, the physical world.

I became aware of myself, not as an element in some larger pattern but in the clash of the not-self, the Anstoss (Anstoß), the deadly impact of collision with dead matter, which I must resist and subjugate to my free creative design.[8]

In this quote Fichte explains that the ego cannot be known by looking at itself (“some larger pattern”), but rather when compared to the non-ego (“the not-self”), which is synonymous with nature (“dead matter”). In German, Anstoß (Anstoss) means “impetus,” or “kick-off,” and is extremely important to Fichte, as it denotes self-realization. When the ego recognizes itself through nature, through resistance, the Anstoß, the kick-off, occurs. Fichte writes in another work, “Who am I? Subject and object in one–the conscious being and that of which I am conscious.”[9] The subject is the ego, Unknown-9.jpegthe object the non-ego. A helpful way of thinking of the ego and non-ego is in terms of grammar: the subject is the one who acts, and the object is that which is acted upon; therefore, the ego acts on the non-ego. The self is nominative (“I”), and the non-ego is accusative (“me”). Fichte was accused of creating a system of subjective idealism, i.e., solipsism, by saying that the mind creates reality. He responded with his third and final principle, completing his dialectic. (It should be noted that the dialectic found in Hegel [thesis-antithesis-synthesis] was taken from Fichte’s writing.) In the third principle, the Absolute ego posits a finite ego and finite non-ego. This does not look much different from the second principle; all Fichte did was put a limitation on the ego and non-ego, which prevented him from falling into solipsism. The ego has a so-called productive power of imagination, says Fichte. This power allows the ego to experience the world, resulting in sensation, or empfindung. From this sensation we understand, creating concepts in the mind, then we make judgments, which commit those concepts to our thought.

[Fichte] proceeded to construct a system without any thing-in-itself, and therefore rejected the assumption of anything but what was our presentment pure and simple, making the knowing subject all in all, or at least making it produce everything from its own resources… he declared everything to be a priori.[10]

Unknown-11.jpegKant’s idea of the noumenal thing-in-itself was rejected by Fichte, who, as seen in Schopenhauer’s quote above, completely removed it in favor of the ego’s creation of the world. Schopenhauer criticized this movement in Fichte’s thought because he posited that everything comes from the mind. Whereas Kant’s ego shaped the world, Fichte’s ego created it. When Schopenhauer denounces Fichte for making “everything… a priori,” he is referring to the fact that Fichte, borrowing from Kant, said that the mind has innate categories; that is to say, the mind will automatically make sense of the natural world, or the non-ego, by nature. For example, scientific laws, according to Fichte, are not discovered and applied but are already prefigured and thus applied. We do not see objects fall and declare it the work of gravity; the concept of gravity is already hardwired into our minds, actively shaping, actively influencing our conceptions. “Knowledge is not in us, rather we are in knowledge.”[11] Therefore, knowledge of the world is within us; we understand the world inherently. Later in his thought, Fichte shifted from knowledge to faith in The Vocation of Man, which we will be exploring next.

Knowledge is not this organ: no knowledge can be its own foundation, its own proof; every knowledge presupposes a higher knowledge on which it is founded,… it is faith,… because only through this view can we fulfill our vocation.[12]

This skeptical idea of knowledge, which we will see later with Schlegel, expresses an infinite regress, so far as knowledge always builds on other knowledge, infinitely, until we reach a first principle, in Fichte’s case the pure ego. Once more we see a parallel with Jacobi in that faith is necessary to find truth. We now move to Fichte’s ethical and political theory. Fichte dedicated himself to creating a system of transcendental idealism rather than dogmatism, the belief that there is another world, a noumenal world, because the latter, he thought, introduced atheism (which he was ironically accused of), determinism, and materialism. The medial was of paramount concern for Fichte, for he, like Kant, wanted to find a way to justify free will in an apparently deterministic world. Fichte and Herder are credited as the great fathers of German nationalism, as we explored in the previous post. From 1807 to 1808, Fichte gave a series of orations called the “Addresses to the German Nation” after the reign of Napoleon to persuade the German people to unite, to rejoice in their common greatness. Another work of his, on the Closed Commercial State (1800), he wrote of the ideal state, incorporating trade with foreign nations, surpluses of food so the nation was well fed, a division of labor, and a social contract. Almost prophetically he wrote:

Until the existing culture of every age shall have been diffused over the whole inhabited globe, and our species becomes capable of the most unlimited inter-communication with itself,… then, without further interruption,… humanity shall move onward to a higher culture.[13]

So far as Fichte’s ethical theory is concerned, he placed great importance on the conscience as the force that allows us to carry out our individual duties. “Conscience is the immediate awareness of a particular obligation,”[14] he says. That little voice in our heads, that gut feeling, which tells us if something is right or wrong is our conscience. Fichte says we must adhere to this voice every time, since it has a moral sense. To be an ethical person, he says, “Act always according to your best convictions of your duty or Act according to your conscience.”[15] We individuals, when faced with a situation that endangers us naturally, as in hunger, and spiritually, as in duty, must always satisfy our spiritual above our natural needs, to the extent that our spiritual, moral obligations are of Unknown-12.jpegutmost importance. Freedom is equated with law–moral law, that is–in Fichte’s view. Jacobi, Fichte, and Schelling are surprisingly existential for their time, perhaps inspiring future existentialists such as Kierkegaard, who happened to attend several of Fichte’s lectures and was a student of Schelling, and Jean-Paul Sartre; the latter in particular seems to have been influenced by the following meditations on freedom from Fichte: “I am wholly my creation.”[16] This is an audacious quote, and he thus explains it: “My whole mode of thought, and the cultivation that my understanding receives, as well as the objects to which I direct it, depend entirely on myself.”[17] This quote is oft-cited when speaking of Fichte, occurring most often in the form of “My philosophy depends on what kind of Man I am.”[18] By this Fichte means we shape the world and we act according to who we are and what we choose to do–very Sartrean. One may think back to Fichte’s metaphysics and ask, Why is there a non-ego? Fichte explains: “From the necessity of action proceeds the consciousness of the actual world; and not the reverse way,”[19] and “my world is the object and sphere of my duties, and absolutely nothing more.”[20] In short, the ego requires activity and somewhere to act, so it posits the non-ego; and because the non-ego is nature, it means the ego has somewhere to act as a moral agent. Lastly, Fichte addresses the problem of other minds and how we ought to act toward others:

But the voice of my conscious thus speaks: “Whatever these beings may be in and for themselves, you shall act towards them as self-existent, free, substantive beings, wholly independent of you. Assume it as already known that they can give you a purpose to their own being wholly by themselves, and quite independently of you; never interrupt the accomplishment of this purpose but rather further it to the utmost of your power. Honor their freedom, lovingly take up their purposes as if they were your own.”[20]


[1] Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato, p. 420
[2] Id., p. 424
[3] Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, p. 313
[4] Adams, op. cit., p. 427
[5] Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud, p. 610
[6] Marías, History of Philosophy, p. 310
[7] Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, p. 108
[8] Watson, op. cit., p. 610
[9] Beardsley, The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, p. 492
[10] Bax, Philosophy of Schopenhauer, p. 195
[11] Marías, op. cit., p. 312
[12] Beardsley, op. cit., pp. 495-6
[13] Id., pp. 508-9
[14] Fichte, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 4, pp. 173-4
[15] Id., p. 59
[16] Beardsley, op. cit., p. 497
[17] Ibid.
[18] Watson, op. cit., p. 611
[19] Beardsley, op. cit., p. 500
[20] Ibid.
[21] Id., p. 499

For further reading:
The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Nietzsche by Lawrence Cahoone (2010)
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud
 by Peter Watson (2006)

The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche by Monroe Beardsley (1992)
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
 by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy
Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)
The Passion of the Western Mind 
by Richard Tarnas (1993)
The Story of Civilization 
Vol. 11 by Will Durant (1967)
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Critical Theory Since Plato
by Hazard Adams (1971)
Philosophy of Schopenhauer
by Belfort Bax (1949)
The Roots of Romanticism 
by Isaiah Berlin (1999)

History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Story of Philosophy by Brian Magee (1998)



The German Romantic Philosophers (2 of 5)

As we have seen, Romanticism was a revolt against the rational, ordered view of the world, an outlook championed by the Enlightenment, particularly in France. The Germans responded vehemently with their own revolution, inspiring a surge in faith, in the visceral, the emotional. Intuition was favored above knowledge, perception above conception, passion above reason. Part two shall analyze the first two figures of German Romanticism, Jacobi and Herder, the former in favor of faith, the latter nationalism.

Unknown-2.jpegFriedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) was a controversial figure, partly because he wrote several polemics, many of which sought to challenge the status quo established by the Enlightenment, and partly because of his fiery personality, the cause of many a bitter friendship (like the pantheism controversy), despite befriending several vanguards of the time. Recognized primarily as a polemicist, Jacobi was an obstinate critic of the Enlightenment. He saw the apotheosis of reason as distasteful, as reason was, in his view, subordinate to faith, an opinion held by a fellow Romantic and, at one time, friend, Johann Georg Hamann. Science, obtained by observation, supposedly based on reason, had its foundations built upon empiricism, thus making it not objective, as it is so advertised. Jacobi detested science, not only because it aided the Enlightenment in forming a logical theory of the universe, but because it deified the objective, the so-called “true reality.” In all reality, all the scientists were doing was watching phenomena through their senses, then turning those observations into laws, laws that put boundaries on the world, limiting it, depriving it of its beauty, supplanting faith with reason. This, Jacobi thought, led to nihilism, a term actually first used by Jacobi himself. The Enlightenment was nihilistic in that it was fatalistic–it condemned humanity, the entire universe, to a predetermined course, all of its occurrences explainable by scientific laws, thereby reducing all values to science. Immanuel Kant was one of the biggest influences on the German philosophers, on modernity, and at one point, on Jacobi; yet this did not last long, for Jacobi later criticized Kant, dismissing his theory of things-in-themselves, imputing Kant with creating a system of subjective idealism. Faith, as I have said, was central to Jacobi, and the definition of faith, in German glaube, caused some problems for Jacobi when it was interpreted in different ways. Hence Jacobi identified faith with both its traditional definition and with belief, since he felt both were necessary. Intuition was an experienced truth supported with faith, according to Jacobi. If we drop an object, it will fall. But just seeing this truth in action is not enough; we must also have faith in this empirical observation, because without it, there still exists doubt, uncertainty. Further, faith and feeling are superior to reason simply for the fact that reason is formed after sensation, after feeling. First we see the object drop, then we formulate the notion that there is an effect which draws the object downward. In order for faith to work, Jacobi invites us all to take a salto mortale, a leap of faith, a concept mistakenly contributed to Unknown-4.jpegKierkegaard. Faith is almost like a blind trust, for we must put our whole certainty into something, regardless of whether we are certain or not. This leap, then, signifies our trust in the world. This is the first principle upon which philosophy is based for Jacobi. Critiquing Kant, Jacobi wrote that the thing-in-itself, existing in the transcendental noumenal realm, cannot be grasped by reason, precisely as Kant said. If that is so, how can Kant be sure the things-in-themselves exist? Jacobi says that we know they exist not through reason, but through faith. Faith in the phenomenal world means faith in the noumenal world, it follows. Jacobi can hardly be called an Existentialist, but he did place emphasis on the person, rather than speculative metaphysics. In an idea we will further investigate with Fichte, Jacobi said there is an I and a Thou, in other words a subject and an object. Only through the object can the subject be known, for the subject, by resisting something outside of itself, is revealed. With too much emphasis on theory in philosophy, Jacobi turned to action, stating that we are identifiable through action; we are what we do.

Unknown-3.jpegWhile arguably one of the most influential Romantics yet also one of the most unheard of, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) has made a lasting contribution to civilization, not only as a philosopher, but as a historian, a debatable nationalist, a psychologist, and a linguistic theorist. Nationalism can be traced neither exactly nor accurately to Herder, but he definitely is responsible for a different type: Cultural nationalism. In his four-volume series Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-1791), Herder sets up the idea of a creative consciousness. This consciousness is a historical process, one that has shaped, shapes, and will shape society, its work seen throughout history. Creative consciousness is not exactly a forerunner of evolution, yet it is similar, inasmuch as it relates society to a species of some sort, constantly evolving, adapting, assimilating, progressing. As this consciousness progresses, cultures come and go, cultures being different groups of people sharing in common beliefs and practices. Every culture is unique from its contemporaries, exhibiting its own characteristics, the likes of which have never been seen before nor will be seen again. Cultures, therefore, are unique, and there exists no blueprint, no recognizable pattern, for them, as they cannot be predicted, so far as there is no objective framework on which they are to be based; cultures are blank slates, each able to have a special impress made on them. Herder believes in world peace. He thinks cultures should coexist without encroaching on one another. He thinks cultures should respect one another. Based on these beliefs, Herder did not like empires, nations that conquered other nations: by removing a culture and reorienting it, empires are removing an entire past, an entire history distinct to that culture alone; and that history can never be recovered, for it has already been disrespected. Moreover, it removes the identity of the culture itself, practically wiping it clean from the world. The discipline of historicism was also influenced by Herder. To understand a certain aspect of a culture, Herder said, you must understand the entire culture. For example, I took a similar approach when researching this topic: So that I could understand the environment in which the Romantics were operating, I had to study not just the philosophy of the period, but the history, the art, the literature, the music, and the people. Reserved for every culture is a specific goal, a main focus, what Herder calls the schwerpunkt of a culture. Identifying this central idea will help you envisage the context into which you are delving. And what is culture without people? The people, volk, constitute a collective spirit, a volksgeist, that is immanent in that culture. A culture is created by the nature of humans, their expression, and their environment. Regarding the first, humans are sociable; second, Herder praises art, seeing Unknown-5.jpegit as the expression of not just a person but of a people, where there is no objective beauty, allowing cultures to figuratively speak to one another; third, he sets up environmental studies, asserting that the development of a culture is dependent upon its environment. “We live in a world we ourselves create,”[1] and, “Nature has separated nations not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates but most particularly by languages, inclinations, and character…,”[2] he says. Also a psychologist, Herder can be called an eliminativist, a view I explain here. Simply put, Herder rejects all “folk psychology,” meaning he discredits any claims about sensations like “reason,” “will,” or “desire.” He also believes that Man is entirely physical, entirely discarding Cartesian dualism, stating that only the brain and the body make up the individual. The idea that the brain is compartmentalized, with individual sections hooked up to individual functions like eating, is also rejected. Herder thought it ridiculous, mystical even, that one part of the brain could do one thing and another something else. Predating Gestalt theory, he says, “The inner man, with all his dark forces, stimuli, and impulses, is simply one.”[3] The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in other words. Man is not identified with his desires, with his thinking, with his instincts, but with all of them; Man is not a single part but a collection. Within every man is an animating force, Kraft. Herder theorized this living force as fundamental to being, to existence; without it, there would be no life. Kraft is what allows us to function, to live, to interact with the real world, with objects outside of us, phenomena. Moving onto his linguistic theory, we find a revolutionary view, one that gave me an epiphany. Language developed and evolved alongside humans–that much is evident, and it was accepted. Each culture had a language that was different from its neighbors, for they progressed differently, and their language had to fit their specific needs. This led Herder to create a theory that inspired the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Because language was relative to each culture, it followed that language must accordingly affect how cultures experienced the world. Insofar as there is no such thing as a perfect translation, it must mean that words will have different connotations to different people; therefore, we all see the world differently based on our language. What made me really think was Herder relating the conscience to an “inward speaking.”[4] This, coupled with Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language, makes up the internal dialogue of the mind. We tend to think in pictures, and when we talk to ourselves in our heads, there is an inaudible voice, but a voice that we can altogether understand, as it uses language–it speaks.


[1] Smith, The Norton History of the Human Sciences, p. 337
[2] Meinecke, Cosmopolitanism and the National State, pp. 25-26
[3] Herder, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 8, p. 179
[4] Herder, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 21, p. 88


For further reading:
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson (2006)
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
 by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Passion of the Western Mind 
by Richard Tarnas (1993)
The Story of Civilization 
Vol. 10 by Will Durant (1967)
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Friedrich Jacobi
The Roots of Romanticism 
by Isaiah Berlin (1999)

The German Romantic Philosophers (1 of 5)

Ideally, one Kant write about German Idealism without mentioning Kant or Hegel, as both are Germane to the topic; regardless, in this and the following four posts I seek to explicate the philosophical background of the Romantic period. I have limited my research to only the philosophy of the period, but I wish not to discount the hundreds of other defining figures of the period, among them the famous dramatists, novelists, artists, and poets. Accordingly, I will not be covering all of the Romantic personalities, those often identified with the movement, such as Goethe or Byron, for the topic demands extensive research; I hope to do a follow-up series in the future, though, where I will in fact cover the non-philosophers of the Romantic period. In this post, which serves as an introduction, I will be discussing the nature of Romanticism, the background of 18th century Prussia, and the various recurring themes that will show up throughout the series.

Having succeeded a time of austere rationalism and order, having grown tired of authority, having been “misunderstood,” and having struggled with its identity for too long, Romanticism was, as I like to say, the rebellious teen of history. Romanticism was a cry for help in some ways, letting history know that it had put too much focus on the rational side of human nature, that the creative instinct was not heard enough and was unfairly neglected. The Romantic period was a direct response to the Enlightenment, which the Romantics despised, since they felt it removed the sense of beauty and mystery from Nature. Whereas the Philosophes liked to “reduce [everything] to an abstract generalization,”[1]
the Romantics had a “love of the unclassified.”[2] Scientific and philosophical advancements during the Enlightenment, in other words, loved to observe nature, then proceed to make laws which governed the world and how it worked, using inductive reasoning to build a theory of the universe and its function. Another thing about Unknown.jpegRomanticism is that it is notoriously hard to define, because its character is so diverse, so complex, and no single definition can effectively summarize it–not that the Romantics would want to be subjected to “an abstract generalization” anyway. Many people, when asked what they think Romanticism is, think of quixotic troubadours–though that is certainly a part of it. While no specific insight can be made, it is best that I use a few common motifs: Because reason had been in the spotlight for so long, the Romantics found their calling in emotion. Emotion, thought the Romantics, was superior to reason, like Hume said; without emotion, humans are robots whose actions are biologically and psychologically determined, therefore removing free will. Reason can say nothing of what one is feeling and cannot properly translate one’s mental state, but emotion can. This idea of the emotional, the visceral, the gut feeling, was based on intuition, which was preferred to knowledge. Intuition is perception, and knowledge is conception. If we see life conceptually, constantly classifying things, always deducing facts, then what point is there in enjoying life? We must perceive life from our perspective, seeing things as though we are seeing them for the first time, with wonder, with excitement, with curiosity, not with cold calculation. And another part of enjoying life is being able to act according to our instincts, free of the constraints of reason. It is better to live the sensuous life of a libertine than the sensible life of a scientist in the eyes of the Romantic. Carpe diem! and do not waste a second of your life when you could be traveling the world, tasting exotic foods! The painter is superior to the philosopher, for he has what the other has not: Creativity. At the core of Romanticism is self-expression. A liberated individual is an individual who can express himself, who can put what he feels, what he experiences, in a work of art; and art is not just an imitation of nature, as Aristotle suggested, but an imitation of the self, because the self is nature–a theme that will be explored in Schelling. Aesthetics found its way back into history, with philosophers like Kant and Schiller writing about beauty once more. Literature was yet another expression of the self, evidenced by the prolific authors of the time, like Hoffmann, Goethe, and the Schlegels.

The genesis of Romanticism can truly find itself in Prussia during the 18th century, where we find it at its apogee with Frederick II, known better by his epithet “the Great.” Just as Romanticism was a result of the Enlightenment, so Prussia was post-French Revolution and post-Napoleon, resulting, ultimately, in an atmosphere that can best be described as Francophobic. Isaiah Berlin wrote: 

There was no sense of growth, dynamism and power…. [T]he French… managed to crush and humiliate them… and this dug an enormous ditch between the Germans and the French… [T]his is perhaps one of the roots of the German opposition to the French from which Romanticism began.[3]

To further exacerbate the antipathy the Prussians had for the French, their own leader, Frederick the Great, wrote entirely in French, for he felt it was superior to his native Unknown-1.jpeglanguage. The utter humiliation of which Berlin writes stuck deep with the Prussians, causing them to wholly resent the French, their culture, their thought, and their way of life. From France, all they got was overly logical, systematic, and hopeful thinking from the Enlightenment; political upheaval and anarchy from the French Revolution; and despotic organization from Napoleon, not to mention the devastating defeat inflicted upon the Prussians by the French in the Thirty Years’ War. Before Napoleon, Prussia consisted of loose, separate states, each ruled by a prince; hence Prussia was not a united nation and thus lacked a sense of identity. Interestingly, we can see from this the rise of nationalism, which we will further investigate in Herder and Fichte, the latter famously giving a series of orations known as the Addresses to the German Nation. Thereafter, “Germany became fascinated by the idea of political unity and national greatness precisely because it had neither.”[4] A great deal of importance was placed on creating a single nation, fittingly. Herder, who will be covered in part two, contributed much to the concept of Volk, the common people, and Volksgeist, the spirit of the people, embracing the uniqueness of every people and their part in the nation, considering “like much else in Romanticism, it emphasized genius or intuition rather than reason.”[5] Seeing as the Enlightenment was not much of a success–at least to the Germans–the Germans had an enlightenment of their own, an Aufklärung, referred to as the Sturm und Drang, translated into “Storm and Stress.” Their enlightenment, as you may guess, was centered around emotion and literature, the title itself referring to the emotional and mental turmoil within us all.

The different philosophers we will be exploring, in chronological order, are: F.H. Jacobi, J.G. Herder, F.J.C. Schiller, J.G. Fichte, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, W. Humboldt, K.W.F. Schlegel, and F.W.J. Schelling. Though their philosophies differ from one another, despite some borrowing from each other, they all share common thoughts that serve as the foundations for Romanticism. First, the German philosophers loved the idea of activity, of dynamism. Nothing in the universe is fixed or stagnant; rather it is all a process. As history became a serious discipline (because of Wilhelm von Humboldt), the idea of progress appealed to philosophers. The universe started out, then humans, and eventually the latter developed along with the former to where we are today. But this activity has no goal, no end, because should it reach said goal, there would be inactivity; therefore, activity is infinite. Second, the self is placed at the center of the universe, figuratively and metaphysically, as in the case of Fichte. Individualism is cherished above collectivism, so the eccentric is cherished above the conformist. Because everyone is unique, because everyone has their own creativity, their own inner-beauty, it is expected of the individual to express himself artistically, which society cannot do as a whole. Further, subjectivism is the norm. The world appears differently from person-to-person, meaning no view is “correct,” and reality is relative. Third, the idea of the Absolute is indispensable in metaphysics. Hegel is the first person to come to mind when we hear “the Absolute,” though it was first used by Schelling. Be it a pantheistic God or Nature as an all-pervading force, the idea of a higher power that orders the universe was used by all of the Idealists. This Absolute is unknowable to man, especially through reason, yet it is everywhere. Pantheism, popularized by Spinoza, was a controversial theory at the time, however. Fourth, freedom. The French Revolution fought in the name of freedom; whether it was achieved or not is debatable, but the Germans sought to explain the notion of freedom metaphysically. Morality became an issue of freedom, insofar as it was up to the individual to choose whether to be good or evil, because the Enlightenment left the unsatisfactory idea that the universe is deterministic, leaving no room for free will, for morality, for that matter. The artists, too, required an explanation for why they had unlimited, unbridled creative genius.


[1] Palmer, History of the Modern World 5th ed., p. 428
[2] Ibid.
[3] Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, pp. 42, 47
[4] Palmer, op. cit., p. 403
[5] Id., p. 402


For further reading: A History of the Modern World 5th ed. by R.R. Palmer (1978)
The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin (1999)

The Wisdom of Baltasar Gracián Pt. 2

Unknown-1Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) was a writer during the Golden Age of Spain, a time characterized by a surge in literature, of which Gracián was a part. His books, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, which I cover here, and The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, from which I will draw today, are collections of 300 aphorisms, each written with wit, grace, and precision, reflecting his period in history, yet at the same time providing guidance.

#6: The height of perfection. – No one is born complete; perfect yourself and your activities day by day until you become a truly consummate being, your talents and your qualities all perfected. This will be evident in the excellence of your taste, the refinement of your intellect, the maturity of your judgement, the purity of your will. Some never manage to be complete; something is always missing. Others take a long time. The consummate man, wise in word and sensible in deed, is admitted into, and sought out for, the singular company of the discreet.

#32: Be known for pleasing people. –  To please is greatly to the credit of rulers, a quality that enables sovereigns to gain universal favor. The one advantage of ruling is precisely this, to be able to do more good than others. True friends are those who do favors. In contrast, others are set on pleasing no one, not so much because it’s tiresome as out of malignancy, being entirely opposed to such divine dealings.

#195: Know how to appreciate. – There’s no one who can’t be better than someone at something, and none who excel that can’t be excelled. Knowing how to enjoy the best in everyone is a useful form of knowledge. The wise appreciate everyone, recognizing the good in all and knowing how much it costs to do things well. Fools despise everyone because they are ignorant of the good and choose the worst.

#274: Have appeal. – It casts a polite and politic spell. Let such gallant allure be used more to win goodwill than personal advantage–or use it for everything. Merit alone is not enough without charm, which is what leads to approval, sovereignty’s most useful instrument. To win someone over is a matter of luck, though artifice can help this along, for artifice works best where natural gifts are already found. This gives rise to affection, and eventually to universal favor.


For further reading: The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence by Baltasar Gracián (2011)

Alea Iacta Est

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 11.48.13 AM.pngWhen he finished fighting the Gauls, when his command was terminated, when he himself was branded a traitor to Rome, Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), with his loyal army, came to Rome, announced, “The die is cast,” and crossed the Rubicon, entering Rome, defeating Pompey, winning the consulate, eventually making himself dictator for life, resulting in his assassination.

One of the most notable quotes in history, “The die is cast,” which in Latin is “Alea iacta est,”¹ was what Suetonius (c. 69-140), a Roman historian and biographer of emperors, claimed Caesar, who was returning with his armies in the year 49, reluctant to hand them over, said to his soldiers. Suetonius writes that Caesar, after apparently witnessing a deity cross the river, declared, “Let us accept this as a sign from the Gods, and follow where they beckon, in vengeance on our double-dealing enemies. The die is cast;”² similarly, the biographer Plutarch (c. 46-120), on writing of Pompey, writes, “For when he [Caesar] came to the banks of the Rubicon…. he merely uttered to those near him in Greek the words ‘Ανερρίφθω κύβος (let the die be cast),’ and led his army through it.”³

The quote itself denotes the point of no return, the crossing of lines, or in this case the Rubicon, which itself is an idiom (to cross the Rubicon), because Caesar, by going into Rome, with his army, past his military term, was putting his and his army’s lives in the hands of fate, of chance, as though it were a gamble, a roll of the dice. Used today, it usually does not involve a life or death scenario, though it can be used humorously or seriously, meaning that what one is about to do is irreversible, an act one cannot go back on, an act that can either end well or badly, entirely fortuitously.


¹’Ah-lee-uh     ‘yahk-tuh     est
²Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 28
³Plutarch, Parallel Lives, p. 528 — ‘Anerriphtho kybos’