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The Romantic Revolution: A History
by tim blanning
modern library, 272 pages, $22

The very aim that united the romantics—to express feeling—makes it impossible to define romanticism precisely. The romantic rejection of the classical ideal of mimesis as an aesthetic norm freed art from the imperative to imitate nature, and the new emphasis on self-expression, on bringing the feeling soul’s interior world into the exterior world, ensured that there would never be a distinctive romantic style. Nevertheless, according to Cambridge historian Tim Blanning, it is by looking back on this elusive movement that we can better assess that inchoate yet pervasive intellectual movement of our own day, postmodernism. 

In the epilogue of his new book, The Romantic Revolution, Blanning downplays the standard historical account of an opposition between the rationalist Enlightenment and the subsequent romantic period in favor of emphasizing a “dialectic” that has supposedly continued to exist between their latter-day manifestations. That dialectic forebodes that “the romantic revolution is not over yet,” just as it has ensured that our postmodern moment had to be neoromantic—or, more accurately by Blanning’s tally, neo-neo-neoromantic. Rather than being something wholly new or fundamentally transformative, postmodernism reflects something much older and even predictable: It represents the (temporary) recurrence of “feeling” within a governing dynamic of modern Western culture.

Romanticism itself, he argues, was just such a recurrence. And, to be sure, the general movement toward feeling in European culture was hardly new. The baroque era of the seventeenth century was seeded, for example, by the call of the Catholic Counter-Reformation for new works of art that provided, in the words of the Italian cleric (and now saint) Carlo Borromeo, an “emotional stimulus to piety.”

But Blanning goes further—too far—in thinking there are enough similarities between baroque and romantic works of art to suggest a “long-running dialectic between a culture of feeling and a culture of reason.” The baroque era was certainly a movement toward feeling, as was romanticism; but the baroque turn elevated feeling as an artistic reaction against the “reason” of the Protestant Reformation and in support of traditional norms, whereas romanticism endorsed feeling in the interest of liberation and the creation of cultural alternatives. The two eras differed, in other words, with respect to the different ascendancies they were reacting against.

Blanning’s book simply ignores those enormous historical differences, presumably subsuming them within the “dialectic” of feeling and reason. The term, philosophically slippery, to say the least, is never defined in the book. At points Blanning seems to use dialectic to denote a fixed pattern in modern Western history, while at others he seems to refer to a protean historical dynamic. Clearly it is a convenient term with which to construct a neat theory of history. But neither the jargon nor the theory is a source of insight.

In the specific and actual history it relates, The Romantic Revolution offers a useful if insufficient account of romanticism. Blanning’s main focus is on individual romantics and the widely varied attempts they made to plumb the depths of human feeling. Efficiently and engagingly, Blanning reviews the endeavors of important romantics in painting and the visual arts (Fuseli, Friedrich, Goya), music (Chopin, Berlioz, Donizetti), literature and poetry (Goethe, Schlegel, Coleridge), and philosophy (Schiller, Schelling, Herder, Fichte).

Blanning also concisely summarizes the historical origins of romanticism, and while he has little to say that is new, his presentation is especially artful. Growing dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment’s “move from theocentricity to anthropocentricity” and its culmination in secular meliorism opened up in European culture a vacuum that the early romantics began to fill in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

They objected in particular to the limits that the Enlightenment’s scientific outlook imposed on knowledge, particularly the attempt to know man. They believed that, by defining knowledge as the externally verifiable, Enlightenment empiricism denied “the Soul within” (Tennyson’s terms) any guiding importance. Liberating the soul from those epistemological shackles offered new human depth and cultural possibilities. The new freedom also demanded sincerity and authenticity—“being true to oneself” while exploring the feeling soul, and, in Goethe’s formulation, “oblivious . . . of everything foreign” to it.

While individual romantics began consciously to repudiate the ascendancy of rationalism, their audience-to-be was undergoing changes of its own, almost all of them unplanned. Blanning is particularly adept at explaining how these changes in social conditions coalesced to make European society into the patron of the romantic movement. Those propitious conditions included the “downgrading” of organized religion and the sacralization of museums and concert halls, the expansion of media and the empowering of public opinion, and the emergence of a new cult of heroism centered on the artistic and often haughty genius.

Unfortunately, Blanning scants the historical causes of romanticism’s subsequent differentiation across Europe. After 1800, for example, German romanticism turned away from the cultural pluralism that had been upheld by Herder and toward the millenarian ethnic nationalism of Fichte; being “true to oneself” came to mean being one’s truly German self, a soul with new faith in its political greatness. There was an important political reason that the German movement diverged in that way from other European romanticisms: French imperialism was subjugating and humiliating Germany. While Blanning dutifully mentions Napoleon in various contexts, his thin book provides comparatively little analysis of how the emperor’s political stranglehold on Europe altered the nature and expression of romanticism.

In general, Blanning elevates the works of art over the artists’ politics, notwithstanding personal disclaimers from several romantics acknowledging the effect of politics on their work—including Percy Bysshe Shelley, who declared, “I consider Poetry very subordinate to moral & political science.” In de-emphasizing the contingencies of political history and personal politics, The Romantic Revolution stands in contrast to the conservative political philosopher Maurice Cranston’s account in The Romantic Movement, which should supplement any reading of Blanning’s proficient but abbreviated survey.

Historical differences and contingencies matter. Blanning should know this, and yet in the sweeping epilogue to his book he propounds his hypothesis of the dialectic of reason and feeling until the differences between them are so minimized that they almost drop out of sight. The romantic revolution in European history was merely one instance in a cultural alternation that continues to this day—and that has given rise to contemporary postmodernism.

Romanticism, Blanning argues, gave way to artistic realism and a nascent “culture of reason” as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum; soon, however, the “culture of feeling” reasserted itself in the neoromantic fin-de-siècle movement; then reason reestablished its own cultural hegemony in aesthetic modernism and, later, in Cold War politics; thereafter the youth culture of the 1960s arose as the second neoromantic reaction, when feeling was embedded in “anarchic hedonism.” Today’s postmodernism, in effect, is only the latest prefix of romanticism. Its prominence signals that “feeling” is, again and for now, regnant in Western culture.

This is overreach on Blanning’s part, and it greatly oversimplifies recent cultural history. At points Blanning himself cannot help backtracking even as he puts his thesis forward, rightly noting, for example, the rather considerable differences between the truth-seeking subjectivity of the romantic era and the truth-denying perspectivism of Friedrich Nietzsche and his relativist followers.

Nevertheless the dialectic is upheld; at one point, Blanning even suggests that it had its “work” to do. To do what? To direct history? To homogenize its temporal differences? To fulfill fate? It is never made clear what insights are gained at the high price of making actual history fit into a theory of its “dialectic.”

And the actual differences found in the history of Western culture cast doubt on Blanning’s theory. Indeed, the epochs of “feeling” marked out by Blanning—the baroque, the romantic, the postmodern—are importantly dissimilar. The baroque turn in Western culture enlisted feeling to support a particular tradition of belief and the attempt to find meaning in life. Romanticism, though it liberated man from rationalism’s excesses, simultaneously elevated feeling for the sake of creating new culture and new meaning.

In that respect, neither has much in common with the intellectual bustle of postmodernism, which “interrogates” or “decodes” or “dismantles” or “deconstructs” cultural forms and meaning, which, in short, destroys culture and meaning. While postmodernism is hardly noteworthy for representing one side of a recurring alternation in modern history, it deserves notice because it is a sign not of a variation on a persistent theme but of a troubling decline.

Thoughtful individuals should beware both of the two attitudes toward culture that seem to be recommended by dialectical theories like Blanning’s. These theories are, at bottom, pictures of historical inevitability. As such they can be sources either of optimism regarding contemporary culture (since postmodernism is “dialectically” fated to wane) or of quietism (since it is only the “dialectic” that does any real “work” in history).

Neither attitude, however, is a wellspring of cultural responsibility; both are attitudes of mere spectators. Instead of fanciful dialectics that can merely be watched, we need historical accounts that aid the careful practical judgments we must make to guide the cultural direction of the West.

Jeffrey A. Smith is tutor and NEH Chair in Modern Thought at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.

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