The perpetual disappointment of doing history by means of constructs is that, while they seem to offer neat answers to big questions, they dissolve under close scrutiny.
It’s nice to divide Greek history into archaic, classical, and hellenistic periods. But if you ask when, precisely, did the archaic age end and the golden classical age begin, you will not receive a satisfying answer.
Likewise, the exact date on which the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance will never be found, not because we can’t find it, but because it doesn’t exist.
You see, such constructs are convenient categorizations for History teachers and History students, but they don’t exist in reality. They are retrojections imposed on the set of data points which is the raw material of history.
In the same way, to ask about the starting point of Romanticism, that broad movement which included not only poetry, painting, and music, but which also influenced the science of linguistics, the teaching of history, and political revolutionary movements - to ask about the starting point of Romanticism attracts merely a long series of unsatisfying answers.
Isaiah Berlin and Kenneth Clark, two of Oxford University’s top scholars, wrestled with the question and never quite settled on an answer. Professor Allen Guelzo, of Gettysburg College, writes:
Picking a starting point for Romanticism has long been a favorite parlor game: For Berlin, it was Herder and Kant; for Clark, it was alternately the Lisbon earthquake, the nightmare in 1764 that set Horace Walpole to writing The Castle of Otranto, Burke’s Inquiry into the Origins of the Sublime (1757), and Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons (1749).
Guelzo also relates the best guess of Cambridge’s Timothy Blanning on this question:
It was the day in July 1749 that the eye of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was caught by an advertisement for an essay contest on the question: “Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?” The promoters of the contest were confidently expecting variations on improve; it suddenly swam into Rousseau’s head that the real answer was corrupt, and from there flowed a lifelong declaration of war against reason, calculation, balance, law, and orderliness, which Rousseau believed had snatched away the “innocence” of humanity.
Of course, the question of itself is of very little importance. But it is an entry into the more significant question of what Romanticism is, and what its impact on the world has been. When Romanticism began isn’t that important; whether or not Rousseau is a paradigmatic figure in Romanticism is significant because it will point to the essence and to the effects of that movement.
If Rousseau is a central figure in Romanticism, and if Romanticism and Rousseau are the spiritual parents of the French Revolution, then Romanticism has much blood on its hands, as thousands of innocent civilians went to their deaths, first butchered in the “Great Fear” and then sent to the guillotine in the “Reign of Terror.” Guelzo writes:
Isaiah Berlin was deeply suspicious of fingering Rousseau as Romanticism’s progenitor, and Rousseau merits only one passing reference in Clark’s The Romantic Rebellion (1973).
Whenever Romanticism may have started, there is
a fairly extensive supporting cast for Romanticism’s debut, including Wordsworth (on the sublime), Hamann (on passion), Johann Heinrich Merck (on the deadness of reason), and Kant.
To which extent Rousseau was a founder of Romanticism, or whether he was an ancestor of it, or whether he was falling into line with an already-established movement: in any case, the notion that reason and orderliness were enemies of morality, the idea that balance and law and art destroy the innocence of the human race, - such notions are iconoclastic at least.
When people are free to buy and sell at the prices they voluntarily negotiate with others, economies generate continually increasing amounts of wealth. Yet Rousseau somehow saw the marketplace as the creator of need and want, and its oppression as the true liberation of mankind. Both counterintuitive and illogical, Rousseau’s ideas nonetheless held then, and hold now, fascination for many.
Rousseau represented a repudiation of everything the Enlightenment held at its core. Chief among those antagonisms was Rousseau’s (and Romanticism’s) hostility to both democracy and commerce. In a world of natural plenty, Rousseau believed commerce created artificial scarcity (Locke had believed the exact opposite — that this was a world of scarcity that commerce and property turned into a cornucopia). Those who led commercial lives did so under the most deadeningly and harshly rational rule of all, the bottom line, which reduced Nature to mere utility.
Famously, Rousseau felt that humans might not always know what’s best for them, and so his idealized state would be justified in violating the individual’s will - hardly a new idea. But what is new is that Rousseau claimed that in controlling the behavior of the individual, his envisioned state would be “forcing” people “to be free,” an Orwellian oxymoron.
Rousseau’s 1762 publication of The Social Contract revealed internal tensions, both inside Rousseau and inside Romanticism: he argued that traditional forms of the church and of Christianity were not helpful to people, and according to him oppressed people. Instead, he proposed a religion which he invented on his own, and promptly declared that anyone who failed to profess it should suffer the death penalty.
Whether Rousseau is an ancestor of, the founder of, or a follower of Romanticism remains an open question. In any case, he, and the paradoxes and contradictions inside his thought, cannot be ignored when studying Romanticism.