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Mar 1, 1975

Jones, “Revolution & Romanticism”

Knight explores twin themes in libertarian history: Revolution and Romanticism.

It is surprising that there have not been more studies written detailing the connection between revolution and romanticism. For although not all romanticists were politically radical (some were in fact quite reactionary), the strain of revolutionary thought in romantic writing is too strong to be simply a matter of coincidence. To cite a few ready examples: Byron would die in the cause of liberty. Schil1er was often in trouble with the authorities in the early part of his career for his plays vigorously protesting political and social injustice and oppression. Much of Shelley’s poetry is fervently radical. Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People is just one of a number of paintings he did on revolutionary themes. Hugo, who spent 20 years in exile for his political activities, openly and gladly linked, in hisReply to an Act of Accusation, the rebels of romanticism with the ideals of the French Revolution.

Despite such evidence of the revolutionary fervor of the romanticists, studies of the relationship between the two are relatively uncommon. Of that small number, Jones’s Revolution & Romanticism is the latest and perhaps the most accessible for the layman.

Jones concentrates on the two great political upheavals of the eighteenth century, the American and French revolutions, and on the romanticists of Great Britain, France, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

Jones points out that the American Revolution was born less out of an attempt to overthrow an unsupportable tyranny than it was out of philosophy. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would, “whatever their defects, unify a philosophy of the state and of the individual and emphasize the freedom of the self rather than the subordination of individualism to status” as in the semi-feudalism of Europe. “In the New World the individual was now made the primary foundation of a philosophic state.” What the American revolution accomplished, and the French attempted (and despite its excesses partially achieved), was to transform “subjects into citizens.”

Still, however much the American patriots and the men of 1787 may have been political revolutionaries, they were in many important respects very much classicists. Washington became the new Cincinnatus; Jefferson’s Monticello is classicism in architecture; and David painted his austerely neoclassical The Death of Marat in 1793, at the height of the French Revolution.

In “a society infiltrated by ideas of emancipation and liberty,” as Hugo called it, the task remained for the romanticists to enlarge the political concept of autonomy to encompass the whole man. The romanticists found “a new formula for the-individual—le moi romantique.” This involved a revaluation of the concept of the ego, a new valuation of self, an emphasis on the uniqueness of each being.

The romantic moi, which is the central focus of Revolution &’ Romanticism, manifested itself in several different ways: the concept of romantic individualism (emphasizing differentiation over standardization), the doctrine of the romantic genius, and the romantic rebel. Perhaps Ie moi romantique can best be expressed through the mythic figure of Prometheus, who was without a doubt one of the favorite characters of the romanticists. Herder wrote a poem entitled Prometheus Bound, and later Shelley wrote his huge lyric dramaPrometheus Unbound. Byron too wrote a poem on Prometheus; Goethe left a fragment. Liszt composed a symphonic poem on the same theme. Even Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley got into the act, subtitling her little romance, Frankenstein, “The Modern Prometheus.” Unlike Aeschylus’ drama of frustrated defiance, the romantic conception of that hero is more encouraging, based on the idea that Prometheus brings, to use Herder’s words, “the flame of man’s eternal quest to know more, to better himself and the world around him.” The message, while still clearly defiant, becomes hopeful rather than despairing.

Revolution & Romanticism has several faults. Perhaps the major one is a disorganization of material. For example, the discussion of Prometheus occurs not in the section on the romantic rebel, as one would expect, but instead in the more general chapter on the romantic individual. There are, besides, too many digressions and a good deal of extraneous material.

However, read critically (and what book should not be!), Revolution & Romanticism offers much insight into the significant relationship between the political and artistic upheavals that shook that age. The twentieth century is still feeling the effects of those upheavals. And today, when the concept of individualism is—to say the least—beleaguered, it is well to remember that the “great, the unique contribution of romanticism to modernity is the insistence that every human being is a distinct and autonomous entity, whatever theories of education or of sociology or of political science or of evolution may say to the contrary.” Reviewed by Jesse F. Knight / Intellectual History (490 pages) / LR Price $15