“Unbridled Romanticism” – Isaiah BERLIN

I NOW COME TO THE FINAL eruption of unbridled Romanticism. According to Friedrich Schlegel, who wrote most authoritatively about this movement, and was indeed a part of it himself, the three factors which most profoundly influenced the entire movement, not only aesthetically but also morally and politically, were, in this order, Fichte’s theory of knowledge, the French Revolution, and Goethe’s famous novel Wilhelm Meister. This is probably a just attribution, and I should like to make it clear why this was so, and in what sense.

In my remarks about Fichte I spoke about his glorification of the active, dynamic and imaginative self. The innovation which Fichte brought into both theoretical philosophy and the theory of art – and to some extent of life – was roughly this. He accepted the view of the empiricists of the eighteenth century that there was some problem about what was meant by speaking about oneself. Hume had said that when he looked within himself as people normally do, when he introspected, he discovered a great many sensations, emotions, fragments of memory, of hope and fear – all kinds of small psychological units – but he failed to perceive any entity which could justly be called a self, and therefore concluded that the self was not a thing, not an object of direct perception, but perhaps simply a name for the concatenation of experiences out of which human personality and human history were formed, simply a kind of string which held together the onions, except that there was no string.

This proposition was accepted by Kant, who then made valiant efforts to recapture some kind of self, but much more passionately by the German Romantics, in particular by Fichte, who laid down the doctrine that it was quite natural that the self should not emerge in cognition. When you are wholly absorbed in an object, whether in looking at a material object in nature, or in listening to sounds – music or something else – or in any other kind of process in which there is an object before you in the contemplation of which you are wholly absorbed, then naturally you are pro tanto not aware of yourself as the absorber. You become aware of the self only when there is some kind of resistance. You become aware of yourself not as an object but as that which is obtruded upon by some kind of recalcitrant reality. When you are looking at something and something intervenes, when you are listening to something and there is some kind of obstacle, it is the impact of the obstacle upon you which makes you aware of your self as an entity different from the not-self which you are trying to understand, or to feel, or perhaps to dominate, conquer, alter, mould – at any rate do something to or at. Therefore the Fichtean doctrine, which then becomes the authorised doctrine not only of the Romantic movement, but of a great deal of psychology besides, is that the ‘I’, the ‘self’ in that sense of the word, is not the same as ‘me’. ‘Me’ is something which no doubt can be introspected, which psychologists talk about, which scientific treatises can be written about, an object of some kind of inspection, an object of study, an object of psychology, sociology and the like. But there is a kind of non-accusative ‘I’, the primal nominative, which you become aware of, not at all in the act of cognition, but simply through being impacted upon. This Fichte called the Anstoß, ‘impact’, and it appeared to him to be the fundamental category which dominated all experience. That is to say, when you asked yourself what reason you had for supposing that the world existed, what reason you had for supposing you were not deluded, what reason you had for supposing that solipsism was not true, and that everything was not a figment of your imagination, or in some other way wholly delusive and deceiving, the answer was that you could not doubt that some kind of clash or collision occurred between you and what you wanted, between you and what you wished to be, between you and the stuff upon which you wished to impose your personality and which, pro tanto, resisted. In the resistance emerged the self and the not-self. Without the not-self, no sense of the self. Without the sense of the self, no sense of the not-self. This was a primary datum more radical, more basic, than anything which later supervened upon it or could be deduced from it. The world as described by the sciences was an artificial construction in relation to this absolutely primary, irreducible, fundamental datum, not even of experience, but of being. This, roughly, is Fichte’s doctrine.

From this he expands the whole vast vision which then proceeds to dominate the imaginations of the Romantics, whereby the only thing which is worthwhile, as I have tried to explain, is the exfoliation of a particular self, its creative activity, its imposition of forms upon matter, its penetration of other things, its creation of values, its dedication of itself to these values. This can have its political implications, as I hinted, if the self is no longer identified with the individual but with some super-personal entity, such as a community or a Church or a State or a class, which then becomes a huge intrusive forward-marching will, which imposes its particular personality both upon the outside world and upon its own constituent elements, which might be human beings, who are thereby reduced to the role simply of ingredients of, or parts in, some much bigger, much more impressive, much more historically persistent personality.

Let me quote a passage from Fichte’s famous speeches to the German nation, delivered when Napoleon had conquered Prussia. These speeches were delivered to not very many people and had no great impact when they were delivered. Nevertheless, when they were read afterwards they produced a vast nationalist upsurge of feeling, and went on being read by Germans throughout the nineteenth century, and became their Bible after 1918. I need only quote a few lines out of this little book of lectures to indicate the kind of tone in question – the kind of propaganda which Fichte was at this period engaged in making. He says:

Either you believe in an original principle in man – a freedom, a perfectibility, an infinite progress of our species – or you believe in none of this. You may even have a feeling or some kind of intuition of its opposite. All those who have within them the creative quickening of life, or else, assuming that such a gift has been withheld from them, at least await the moment when they are caught up in the magnificent torrent of flowing and original life, or perhaps have some confused presentiment of such freedom, and have towards this phenomenon not hatred, nor fear, but a feeling of love, these are part of primal humanity. These may be considered as a true people, these constitute the Urvolk, the primal people – I mean the Germans. All those, on the other hand, who have resigned themselves to represent only the derivative, the second-hand product, who think of themselves in this way, become such an effect, and shall pay the price of their belief. They are a mere annexe to life. Not for them those pure springs which flowed before them and which still may be flowing around them. They are but an echo coming from a distant rock, from a voice which is now silent. They are excluded from the Urvolk, they are strangers, they are outsiders. The nation which bears the name ‘German’ to this day has not ceased to give evidence of a creative and original activity in the most diverse fields.

He then goes on:

And this is the principle of exclusion that I adopt. All those who believe in spiritual reality, those who believe in the freedom of the life of the spirit, those who believe in the eternal progress of the spirit through the instrumentality of freedom, whatever be their native land, whatever the language which they speak, they are our race, they are part of our people, or they will join it late or soon. All those who believe in arrested being, in retrogression, in eternal cycles, even those who believe in inanimate nature, and put her at the helm of the world, whatever be their native country, whatever be their language, they are not Germans, they are strangers to us, and one would hope that one day they would be wholly cut off from our people.

This, to do Fichte justice, was not a chauvinistic German sermon, because by Germans he meant, as Hegel meant, all the Germanic peoples; that makes it perhaps not very much better, but a little better. This category includes the French, it includes the English, it includes all the Nordic peoples, and it includes some of the Mediterranean peoples as well. Even so, the heart of the sermon is not simply patriotism, or simply an attempt to arouse the waning German spirit, crushed under the heel of Napoleon. The main thing is this broad distinction between those who are alive and those who are dead, those who are echoes and those who are voices, those who are annexes and those who are the genuine article, the genuine building. That is Fichte’s fundamental distinction, and it bound its spell upon the mind of a great many young Germans born somewhere around the late 1770s and early 1780s.

The fundamental notion is not cogito ergo sum but volo ergo sum. Curiously enough, the French psychologist Maine de Biran, writing at about the same time, was developing the same kind of psychology – that personality was to be learned only through effort, through trying, through hurling yourself against some obstacle which made you feel yourself wholly. In other words you felt yourself properly only in a moment of resistance or opposition. Mastery, Titanism, is what this leads to as an ideal – both in private and in public life.

Let me say a few words – although it is very unjust to him to treat him so cursorily – about the somewhat analogous but in certain respects profoundly different doctrine of Fichte’s younger contemporary Schelling, who had a greater influence on Coleridge, at any rate, than any other thinker, and a profound influence upon German thought as well, though he is very seldom read now, partly because most of his works appear today exceedingly opaque, not to say unintelligible.

Unlike Fichte, who contrasted the living principle of the human will with nature – which was, as to some extent in Kant, dead stuff, to be moulded, as opposed to some harmony to be fitted into – Schelling maintained a mystical vitalism. For him nature was itself something alive, a kind of spiritual self-development. He saw the world as beginning in a state of brute unconsciousness and gradually coming to consciousness of itself. Starting, as he says, from the most mysterious beginnings, from the dark, developing unconscious will, it gradually grows to self-consciousness. Nature is unconscious will; man is will come to consciousness of itself. Nature exhibits various stages of the will: every stage of nature is the will in some stage of its development. First there are the rocks and the earth, which are the will in a state of total unconsciousness. (This is an ancient Renaissance doctrine, to go no further, to gnostic sources.) Then gradually life enters into them, and there is the early life of the first biological species. Then come the plants, and after them the animals – the progressive self-consciousness, the progressive beating of the will through towards the realisation of some kind of purpose. Nature strives after something but is not aware that it strives for it. Man begins to strive and becomes aware of what he is striving for. By striving successfully for whatever it is that he may be striving for he brings the whole universe to higher consciousness of itself. For Schelling, God was a kind of self-developing principle of consciousness. Yes, he said, God is alpha and omega. Alpha is unconscious, omega is full consciousness come to itself. God is a kind of progressive phenomenon, a form of creative evolution – a notion which, indeed, Bergson made his own, for there is very little in Bergson’s doctrine which was not previously in Schelling.

This is the doctrine which had a very profound influence upon German aesthetic philosophy and the philosophy of art; because if everything in nature is living, and if we ourselves are simply its most self-conscious representatives, the function of the artist is to delve within himself, and above all to delve within the dark and unconscious forces which move within him, and to bring these to consciousness by the most agonising and violent internal struggle. That is Schelling’s doctrine. Nature does this too. There are struggles within nature. Every volcanic eruption, every phenomenon such as magnetism and electricity was interpreted by Schelling as being a struggle for self-assertion on the part of blind mysterious forces, except that in man they became half conscious. The only works of art, for him, which have any value at all – and this is a doctrine by which not only Coleridge but other art critics were subsequently influenced – are those which are similar to nature in conveying the pulsations of a not wholly conscious life. Any work of art which is fully self-conscious is for him a kind of photograph. Any work of art which is simply a copy, simply a piece of knowledge, something which, like science, is simply the product of careful observation and then of noting down in scrupulous terms what you have seen in a fully lucid, accurate and scientific manner – that is death. Life in a work of art is analogous with – is some kind of quality the work has in common with – what we admire in nature, namely some kind of power, force, energy, life, vitality bursting forth. That is why the great portraits, the great statues, the great works of music are called great, because we see in them not merely the surface, not merely the technique, not merely the form which the artist, perhaps consciously, imposed, but also something of which the artist may not be wholly aware, namely the pulsations within him of some kind of infinite spirit of which he happens to be the particularly articulate and self-conscious representative. The pulsations of this spirit are also, at a lower level, pulsations of nature, so that the work of art has the same vitalising effect upon the man who looks at it or who listens to it as certain phenomena of nature. When this is lacking, when the whole thing is wholly conventional, done according to rules, done in the full self-conscious blaze of complete awareness of what one is doing, the product is of necessity elegant, symmetrical and dead.

That is the fundamental Romantic, anti-Enlightenment doctrine of art, and it has had a very considerable influence upon all critics who regard the unconscious as having some part to play, not merely as in the old Platonic theories of divine inspiration and the ecstatic artist who is not wholly aware of what he is doing – in Plato’s doctrine in the Ion the god blows through the artist, who does not know what it is he is doing because something more powerful inspires him from outside – but upon all the doctrines which take an interest in, and regard it as valuable to consider, the unconscious or sub-conscious or pre-conscious element in the work either of the individual artist or of a group, a nation, a people, a culture. This goes directly back to Herder, who also regards folk song and folk dancing as the articulation of some kind of not wholly self-aware spirit within a nation, and worthless unless it is that.

It cannot be said that Schelling wrote these things down with a great deal of clarity. Nevertheless he wrote very rhapsodically and had a considerable effect upon his contemporaries. The first great doctrine which emerges from this combination of Fichte’s doctrine of the will and Schelling’s doctrine of the unconscious – the great formative factors in the aesthetic doctrine of the Romantic movement, and subsequently its political and ethical doctrines as well – is the doctrine of symbolism. Symbolism is central in all Romantic thought: that has always been noticed by all critics of the movement. Let me try to make it as clear as I am able, although I do not claim to understand it entirely, because, as Schelling very rightly says, Romanticism is truly a wild wood, a labyrinth in which the only guiding thread is the will and the mood of a poet. As I am no poet I cannot altogether trust myself to provide a full exposition of this doctrine, though I shall do my best.

There are two kinds of symbols, to put it at its very simplest. There are conventional symbols and symbols of a somewhat different kind. Conventional symbols offer no difficulty. They are symbols which we invent for the purpose of meaning certain things, and there are rules about what they mean. Red and green traffic lights mean what they mean by convention. Red lights mean that motor cars may not pass, and they are simply another form of saying ‘Do not pass.’ ‘Do not pass’ is itself a form of symbolism, linguistic symbolism, which stands for some kind of ban on the part of persons in authority and holds within it some kind of threat, a perfectly understood threat that if you disobey this order dire consequences may follow. This is ordinary symbolism, examples of which are artificially invented languages, scientific treatises and any kind of conventional symbolism invented for a specific purpose, where the meaning of the symbol is laid down by rule.

But there are obviously symbols not quite of this kind. I do not wish to enter into the theory of symbolism in general, but, for my purposes, what these people meant by symbolism was the use of symbols for what could be expressed only symbolically and could not be expressed literally. The traffic situation is such that if instead of the green and red lights you were to put up signs saying ‘Stop’ or ‘Go’, or if instead of that you even placed persons of obvious authority to cry through megaphones ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’, this would serve its purpose equally well, at least so far as grammatical purposes are concerned. But if you ask, for example, in what sense a national flag waving in the wind, which arouses emotions in people’s breasts, is a symbol, or in what sense the Marseillaise is a symbol, or, to go a little further, in what sense a Gothic cathedral built in a particular way, quite apart from its function as a building in which religious services occur, is a symbol for the particular religion which it houses, or in what sense sacred dances are symbols, or in what sense any kind of religious ritual is a symbol, or in what sense the Kaaba Stone is a great symbol to the Moslems, the answer will be that what these things symbolise is literally not expressible in any other way.

Suppose someone asks, ‘Would you spell out for me what it is that the word “England” stood for in the sentence “England expects every man to do his duty” when Nelson said it?’ If you begin to spell it out, if you say ‘England’ means a certain number of featherless bipeds with reason, inhabiting a certain island at a particular moment in the early nineteenth century, clearly it does not mean that; it does not simply mean a group of persons, with names and addresses known to Nelson, whom he could if he wished, and took enough trouble, spell out. It plainly does not mean that, because the whole emotive force of the word ‘England’ extends over something both vaguer and more profound, and if you say ‘What exactly is it that the word “England” stands for here? Would you unpack it, would you give me – however tedious it may be – the literal equivalent of what this is simply shorthand for?’, this will not be easy to do. Nor will it be very easy to reply if you say ‘What is it that the Kaaba Stone stands for? What is it that this particular prayer stands for? What is it that this cathedral means to the people who come to worship in it, apart from associations of a vaguely emotional kind, apart from a penumbra?’ It is not simply that it arouses emotion: emotion might be aroused by the singing of birds; emotion might be aroused by a sunset; but a sunset is not a symbol and the singing of birds is not symbolic. To worshippers, however, a cathedral is a symbol, a religious rite is a symbol, the raising of the Host is a symbol.

The question now arises, what are these things symbolic of? The Romantic doctrine was that there is an infinite striving forward on the part of reality, of the universe around us, that there is something which is infinite, something which is inexhaustible, of which the finite attempts to be the symbol but of course cannot. You seek to convey something which you can convey only by such means as you have at your command, but you know that this cannot convey the whole of what you are seeking to convey because this whole is literally infinite. That is why allegories and symbols are used. An allegory is a representation in words or in paint of something which has its own meaning but also stands for something other than itself. When an allegory stands for something other than itself, that which it stands for – for those who really believe in allegories and who say that the only mode of profound speech is allegorical, as Schelling believed, as the Romantics in general believed – is ex hypothesi not statable itself. That is why the allegory has to be used, and that is why allegories and symbols are of necessity the only mode which I have of conveying that which I wish to convey.

What is it that I wish to convey? I wish to convey the stream of which Fichte speaks. I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means for it. I have to convey something which is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means. I know in advance that I shall not succeed and cannot succeed, and therefore all I can do is to get nearer and nearer in some asymptotic approach; I do my best, but it is an agonising struggle in which, if I am an artist, or indeed for the German Romantics any kind of self-conscious thinker, I am engaged for the whole of my life.

This is something to do with the notion of depth. The notion of depth is something with which philosophers seldom deal. Nevertheless it is a concept perfectly susceptible to treatment and indeed one of the most important of the categories that we use. When we say that a work is profound or deep, quite apart from the fact that this is obviously a metaphor, I suppose from wells, which are profound and deep – when one says that someone is a profound writer, or that a picture or a work of music is profound, it is not very clear what we mean, but we certainly do not wish to exchange these descriptions for some other term such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘important’ or ‘constructed according to rules’ or even ‘immortal’. When I say that Pascal is more profound than Descartes (although Descartes, no doubt, was a man of genius), or that Dostoevsky, whom I may or may not like, is a more profound writer than Tolstoy, whom I may like much better, or that Kafka is a more profound writer than Hemingway, what exactly am I trying unsuccessfully to convey by means of this metaphor, which remains metaphorical because I have nothing better that I can use? According to the Romantics – and this is one of their principal contributions to understanding in general – what I mean by depth, although they do not discuss it under that name, is inexhaustibility, unembraceability. In the case of works of art that are beautiful but not profound, or even of pieces of prose fiction or philosophy, I can translate into perfectly lucid literal terms; I can explain to you, say, about some musical work of the eighteenth century, well constructed, melodious, agreeable, even perhaps a work of genius, why it is made in the way it is, and even why it gives pleasure. I can tell you that human beings feel a particular kind of pleasure in listening to certain kinds of harmonies. I can describe this pleasure, perhaps quite minutely, by all kinds of ingenious introspective devices. If I am a marvellous describer – if I am Proust, if I am Tolstoy, if I am a well-trained descriptive psychologist – I might succeed in giving you some kind of version of your actual emotions when listening to a particular piece of music or reading a particular piece of prose, a version which is sufficiently similar to what you are in fact feeling or thinking at this particular moment to be regarded as an adequate prose translation of what is occurring: scientific, true, objective, verifiable and so on. But in the case of works which are profound the more I say the more remains to be said. There is no doubt that, although I attempt to describe what their profundity consists in, as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose. That being so, this is certainly one of the uses of ‘profound’ – to invoke the notion of irreducibility, the notion that I am forced in my discussion, forced in description, to use language which is in principle, not only today but for ever, inadequate for its purpose…

Suppose I am trying to explain a particular profound proposition. I do my best, but I know that it cannot be exhausted; and the more inexhaustible it seems to me to be – the wider the region to which it seems to me to apply, the more chasms open, the deeper the chasms are, the wider the area on which they open – the more liable I am to say that this particular proposition is profound and not merely true or interesting or amusing or original, or whatever else I might be tempted to say. When, for example, Pascal makes the famous remark that the heart has its reasons as well as the head, when Goethe says that no matter how hard we try there will always be an irreducible element of anthropomorphism in everything we do and think, these remarks strike people as profound for this reason, because wherever we apply them they open new vistas, and these vistas are not reducible, not embraceable, not describable, not collectable; you have no formula which will by deduction lead you to all of them. This is the fundamental notion of depth in the Romantics, and it is to this, in a large degree, that most of their talk about the finite standing for the infinite, the material standing for the immaterial, the dead standing for the living, space standing for time, words standing for something which is in itself wordless, relates. ‘Can the sacred be seized?’ asked Friedrich Schlegel, and he replied, ‘No, it can never be seized because the mere imposition of form deforms it.’ This is what runs through their entire theory of life and of art.

This leads to two quite interesting and obsessive phenomena which are then very present both in nineteenth- and in twentieth-century thought and feeling. One is nostalgia, and the other is paranoia of a certain kind. The nostalgia is due to the fact that, since the infinite cannot be exhausted, and since we are seeking to embrace it, nothing that we do will ever satisfy us. When Novalis was asked where he thought he was tending, what his art was about, he said ‘I am always going home, always to my father’s house.’ This was in one sense a religious remark, but he also meant that all these attempts at the exotic, the strange, the foreign, the odd, all these attempts to emerge from the empirical framework of daily life, the writing of fantastic stories with transformations and transmogrifications of a most peculiar kind, attempts at writing down stories which are symbolic or allegorical or contain all kinds of mystical and veiled references, esoteric imagery of a most peculiar kind which has preoccupied critics for years, are all attempts to go back, to go home to what is pulling and drawing him, the famous infinite Sehnsucht of the Romantics, the search for the blue flower, as Novalis called it. The search for the blue flower is an attempt either to absorb the infinite into myself, to make myself at one with it, or to dissolve myself into it. This is a secularised version, obviously, of that profound religious striving towards being at one with God, of reviving the Christ within me, of making myself one with some of the creative forces of nature in some pagan sense, which comes to the Germans from Plato, from Eckhart, from Böhme, from German mysticism, from a number of other sources, except that here it takes a literary and a secular form.

This nostalgia is the very opposite of what the Enlightenment regarded as its special contribution. The Enlightenment supposed that there was a closed, perfect pattern of life, as I have tried to explain. There was some particular form of life and of art, and of feeling and of thought, which was correct, which was right, which was true and objective and could be taught to people if only we knew enough. There was some kind of solution to our problems, and if only we could construct a structure which accorded with the solution and then proceed to fit ourselves, to put it crudely, into the structure, we should obtain answers both to problems of thought and to problems of action. But if this is not so, if ex hypothesi the universe is in movement and not at rest, if it is a form of activity and not a lump of stuff, if it is infinite and not finite, if it is constantly varying and never still, never the same (to use these various metaphors which the Romantics constantly use), if it is a constant wave (as Friedrich Schlegel says), how can we possibly even try to describe it? What are we to do when we wish to describe a wave? We usually end up by producing a stagnant pool. When we try to describe the light we can describe it accurately only by putting it out. Therefore do not let us attempt to describe it.

But you cannot not attempt to describe it, because that means to stop expressing, and to stop expressing is to stop living. For these Romantics, to live is to do something, to do is to express your nature. To express your nature is to express your relation to the universe. Your relation to the universe is inexpressible, but you must nevertheless express it. This is the agony, this is the problem. This is the unending Sehnsucht, this is the yearning, this is the reason why we must go to distant countries, this is why we seek for exotic examples, this is why we travel in the East and write novels about the past, this is why we indulge in all manner of fantasies. That is the typical Romantic nostalgia. If the home for which they are seeking, if the harmony, the perfection about which they talk could be granted to them, they would reject it. It is in principle, by definition, something to which an approach can be made but which cannot be seized, because that is the nature of reality.

One is reminded of the famous cynical story about someone who said to Dante Gabriel Rossetti when he was writing about the Holy Grail, ‘But Mr Rossetti, when you have found the Grail, what will you do with it?’ This is precisely the typical question which the Romantics knew very well how to answer. In their case the Grail was in principle both undiscoverable and such that one’s whole life could not be prevented from being a perpetual search for it, and that is because of the nature of the universe, such as it is. It might have been different, but it is not. The brute fact about the universe is that it is not fully expressible, it is not fully exhaustible, it is not at rest, it is in motion; this is the basic datum, and this is what we discover when we discover that the self is something of which we are aware only in effort. Effort is action, action is movement, movement is unfinishable – perpetual movement. That is the fundamental Romantic image, which I am trying to convey, as best I can, in words, which ex hypothesi cannot convey it.

The second notion, that of paranoia, is somewhat different. There is an optimistic version of Romanticism in which what the Romantics feel is that by going forward, by expanding our nature, by destroying the obstacles in our path, whatever they may be – the dead French rules of the eighteenth century, political and economic institutions of a destructive kind, laws, authority, any kind of cut and dried truth, any kind of rules or institutions which are regarded as absolute, perfect, unappealable from – we are liberating ourselves more and more and allowing our infinite nature to soar to greater and greater heights and become wider, deeper, freer, more vital, more like the divinity towards which it strives. But there is another, more pessimistic version of this, which obsesses the twentieth century to some extent. There is a notion that although we individuals seek to liberate ourselves, yet the universe is not to be tamed in this easy fashion. There is something behind, there is something in the dark depths of the unconscious, or of history; there is something, at any rate, not seized by us which frustrates our dearest wishes. Sometimes it is conceived as a kind of indifferent or even hostile nature, sometimes as the cunning of history, which optimists think bears us towards ever more glorious goals, but which pessimists such as Schopenhauer think is simply a huge fathomless ocean of undirected will upon which we bob like a little boat with no direction, no possibility of really understanding the element in which we are, or directing our course upon it; and this is a huge, powerful, ultimately hostile force, to resist which or even to come to terms with which is never of the slightest use.

This paranoia takes all kinds of other, sometimes much cruder, forms. It takes the form, for example, of looking for all kinds of conspiracies in history. People begin to think that perhaps history is formed by forces over which we have no control. Someone is at the back of it all: perhaps the Jesuits, perhaps the Jews, perhaps the Freemasons. This attitude was much stimulated by attempts to explain the course of the French Revolution. We the enlightened, we the virtuous, we the wise, we the good and the kind seek to do this or that, but somehow all our efforts end in nothing, and therefore there must be some fearful hostile force lying in wait for us which trips us up when we are on the brink, as we think, of great success. This view takes, as I say, crude forms, such as the conspiracy theory of history, by which you always look for concealed enemies, sometimes for larger and larger conceptions such as economic forces, the forces of production or class war (as in Marx), or the much vaguer and more metaphysical notion of the cunning of reason or of history (as in Hegel), which understands its goal much better than we do and plays tricks upon us. Hegel says, ‘The spirit cheats us, the spirit intrigues, the spirit lies, the spirit triumphs.’ He almost conceives of it as a kind of huge, ironical, Aristophanic force which mocks the poor human beings who are trying to construct their little homes upon the slopes of what they regard as a green and flowery mountain, but which turns out to be the vast volcano of human history, which is about to erupt once again, ultimately perhaps for human good, ultimately in order to realise itself towards an ideal, but in the short run destroying a large number of innocent persons and causing a great deal of suffering and damage.

This too is a Romantic idea, because once you get the notion that there is outside us something larger, something unseizable, something unobtainable, you either have feelings towards it of love, as Fichte wanted, or of fear; and if you have feelings of fear, the fear becomes paranoiac. This paranoia goes on accumulating in the nineteenth century: it accumulates to a height in Schopenhauer, it dominates the works of Wagner, and it comes to an immense climax in all kinds of works in the twentieth century obsessed by the thought that, no matter what we do, there is some canker, there is a worm in the bud somewhere, there is something which dooms us to perpetual frustration, whether it be human beings whom we must exterminate or impersonal forces against which all effort is useless. Works by writers such as Kafka are filled with a peculiar sense of undirected angst, of terror, of basic apprehension, which is not fixated upon any identifiable object; and this is very true about the early Romantic works as well. Tieck’s stories, Der blonde Eckbert for example, are pervaded by terror. No doubt they are meant to be allegories, but what always happens is that the hero begins by living happily and then something terrible happens. A golden bird appears before him and sings a song about Waldeinsamkeit, which is already a Romantic concept – about solitude in the woods of a half delightful and half terrifying sort. Then he kills the bird and various misfortunes follow, and he goes on killing, he goes on destroying, he gets enmeshed in a frightful net which some awful mysterious force has laid for him. He seeks to liberate himself from it. He murders more, he struggles, he fights, he goes under.

This kind of nightmare is extremely typical of early German Romantic writing and it comes from exactly the same source, namely the notion of the will as dominating life – the will, not reason, not an order of things which can be studied and therefore controlled, but some kind of will. So long as it is my will, and a will directed towards ends which I myself manufacture, it is presumably benevolent. So long as it is the will of a benevolent deity or the will of a history which is guaranteed to bring me to a happy conclusion, as it is in the writings of all the optimistic historical philosophers, that presumably is not too terrifying. But it may turn out that the end is much blacker and more terrifying and more unfathomable than I think. In this way the Romantics tend to oscillate between extremes of mystical optimism and appalling pessimism, which gives their writings a peculiar kind of uneven quality.


BERLIN, Isaiah, “Unbridled Romanticism”, The Roots of Romanticism. Edited by Henry Hardy. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1999.