Monday, March 24, 2008

"The German System of Romantic Thought"

What did Troeltsch mean by that phrase, "the German system of romantic thought"? Well, what he has to say on this subject is both interesting and complicated, so be prepared to pay attention for a little while:

The peculiarity of German thought, in the form in which it is nowadays [remember, this in 1922] so much emphasized, both inside and outside Germany, is primarily derived from the Romantic Movement... Romanticism too is a revolution, a thorough and genuine revolution: a revolution against the respectability of the bourgeois temper and against a universal equalitarian ethic: a revolution, above all, against the whole of the mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe, against a conception of Natural Law which sought to blend utility with morality, against the bare abstraction of a universal and equal Humanity. Confronted with the eruption of West-European ideas of Natural Law, and with the revolutionary storms by which they were accompanied, Romanticism pursued an increasingly self-conscious trend in the opposite direction of a conservative revolution. In the spirit of the contemplative and the mystic, the Romanticists penetrated behind the rich variety of actual life to the inward forces by which it was moved, and sought to encourage the play of those forces in a steady movement towards a rich universe of unique and individual structures of the creative human mind.

Please understand that Troeltsch is not speaking as a defiant German nationalist; he is trying to understand what the war was all about and how Germany can move beyond its rift with western-Europe: "Our duty to German traditions is not to push them to an extreme and one-sided conclusion... but to bring them into new contact with all the great movements in the world about us."

German romanticism in the 19th century would seem to be reactionary, in the spirit of Joseph de Maistre. What was it reacting against? The French Revolution with its rationalistic, ahistorical doctrines of human rights most obviously, but also what Troeltsch calls the "mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe"--to which, as it happens, the Germans had contributed as mightily as anyone else. Even as he was writing, in 1922, German mathematicians and physicists were creating modern quantum mechanics; Einstein, in 1905, won the Nobel prize for his papers on Special Relativity, the photo-electric effect and Brownian motion; ten years later he completed his work on General Relativity. To all of this, Troeltsch seems oblivious. But so what? He is right to be emphasizing the profoundly conservative nature of German pre-war Romanticism. That's a fact. Which leads to the question I want to ask: Wasn't Romanticism an inherently conservative, even reactionary, response not only to science but to technology and the industial revolution, to modernity in general? And not just in Germany but throughtout Europe? Even in France, the mother of all revolutions?

(to be continued)


  1. Your question is quite difficult, Piers. The novel is an outgrowth of the romantic movement. Is it conservative? Is George Eliot conservative?

    Baudelaire is part of the romantic tradition. Is he conservative? Certainly Verlaine and Rimbaud aren't.

    Did Troeltsch consider Einstein a German?

  2. The Enlightenment was based on the radical view that people have different ideas which should be given a free environment in which to interact and compete. Romanticism was based on the radical view that people have different emotions which should be given a free environment in which they could be expressed and explored.

    Romanticism is the logical follow-up to the Enlightenment.