Friday, November 27, 2020

Diversity in Dance Today: Enlightenment and Romanticist perspectives

 The drum is always there. In life and death. In between is dance. Always the drum is everywhere.
Peniel Guerrier

I don't think this world was made for a small minority to dance on the faces of everyone else.
H.G. Wells (In the Days of the Comet)

Nothing happens until something moves.
Albert Einstein


The dance group Diversity's 'I Can't Breathe' routine evoked around 24,500 complaints from members of the public when it aired on ITV on 5 September, 2020. The performance was inspired by the killing of George Floyd in the USA. Its choreography references progress from stock market bubbles, the growth of digital shopping, the effect of mobile phones on family life, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, to the killing of George Floyd, and then ending with street protests and the riot police. The show was a spectacular mix of spoken word, song, visual and stage effects, as well as Diversity's trademark blend of complex routines, breakdancing, backflips and theatricality.

Diversity's 'I Can't Breathe' routine -

While the troup garnered much international praise for the 4 1/2 minute anti-racist performance, the many complaints focused on its political content. According to Ashley Banjo, troupe member and choreographer, "We got bombarded with messages and articles … horrible stuff about all of us, our families … it’s sad."

This level of negative public reaction to a dance routine on TV in the UK was unprecedented.

Dance has been an important part of of TV entertainment, especially in the UK and the USA, since the 1960s with shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train, dance groups on Top of the Pops and in more recent decades, shows such as Dancing on Ice‎, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and Strictly Come Dancing‎.

However, maybe the innocuousness of such TV history has lulled people into seeing dance as pure entertainment, safe from the radical social commentary that other artforms put on display now and then in theatres, galleries and cinemas.

The history of dance shows that it has always been with us, and, like with other art forms, dance has a mixed history of social and radical roles. It has also, like other art forms, been highly influenced by Enlightenment and Romanticist ideas in more recent centuries, changing how we see and understand the role of dance in society today.

In this article I will examine how dance has changed since the Enlightenment and why it has had an increasing popularity in the last century. I will also look at the potential for a radical dance culture to become a vehicle for increasing social and political awareness on a global scale.

Early and medieval dance history

Dance has been a part of human culture from prehistoric times to Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures from c. 3300 BC. Folk dance, in particular, has been an important part of festivals, seasonal celebrations and community celebrations such as weddings and births.

In Europe during the Middle Ages there are references to circular dances called 'carole' from the 12th and 13th centuries. People also danced around trees holding hands in a leader and refrain style. These dances and songs became the carols we know today.

From a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, c. 1430.
Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) is a medieval poem in Old French, styled as an allegorical dream vision.

However, the literary history of dance in terms of detailed descriptions goes back to Italy in the middle of the fifteenth century after the start of the Renaissance. During this time there also developed a divergence between court dances and country dances, between performance and participation. Court dancers trained for dances for entertainment, while anyone could learn country dances. At court formal display dancing would be followed by informal country dances for all to participate in.

Dance at Herod's Court, ca. 1490, Israhel van Meckenem, engraving. Couples circling in a basse danse.

Ballet also began at this time developing out of court pageantry in Italy at aristocratic weddings. Its choreography was based on court dance steps and performers dressed in the formal gowns of the time rather than the later tutus and ballet slippers.

It was then brought to France by Catherine de' Medici in the 16th century where it developed into a performance-focused art form during the reign of Louis XIV where: "His interest in ballet dancing was political motivated. He established strict social etiquettes through dancing and turned it into one of the most crucial elements in court social life, effectively holding authority over the nobles and reigning over the state."

By the 17th century ballet became professionalised and its challenging acrobatic movements could "only be performed by highly skilled street entertainers."

The Enlightenment and ballet in the 18th century

It was ballet that also became a focal point for criticism by the Enlightenment philosophes during the 18th century. Philosophes (French for 'philosophers') "were public intellectuals who applied reason to the study of many areas of learning, including philosophy, history, science, politics, economics, and social issues."

The philosophes "argued that ancient superstitions and outmoded customs should be eliminated, and that reason should play a major role in reforming society." They desired to see "the development of art forms that gave meaningful expression to human thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and they disregarded merely decorative or ornamental forms of art."

Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) was a French dancer and balletmaster, and is generally considered the creator of ballet d'action, a precursor of the narrative ballets of the 19th century. His birthday is now observed as International Dance Day.

Denis Diderot, for example, (one of the editors of the quintessential enlightenment project: the Encylopédie) wrote in his essay 'Entretiens sur 'Le Fils Naturel'':

"I would like someone to tell me what all these dances performed today represent — the minuet, the passe-pied, the rigaudon, the allemande, the sarabande — where one follows a traced path. This dancer performs with an infinite grace; I see in each movement his facility, his grace, and his nobility, but what does he imitate? This is not the art of song, but the art of jumping. A dance is a poem. This poem must have its own way of representing itself. It is an imitation presented in movements, that depends upon the cooperation of the poet, the painter, the composer, and the art of pantomime. The dance has its own subject which can be divided into acts and scenes. Each scene has a recitative [type of singing that is closer to speech than song] improvised or obligatory, and its ariette [a short aria]."

To achieve this the philosophes argued for more naturalism in style and less of the "contrived sophistication and majesty" of earlier Baroque aesthetics. This criticism eventually led to new forms of ballet "that attempted to convey meaning, drama, and the human emotions" in particular the ballet d'action: "a dance containing an entire integrated story line".

 Ballet in the 19th century: Romanticism

Enlightenment ideas which led to the 'Age of Reason' and classical ideas of order, harmony and balance gave way to Romanticist emphasis on emotion, individualism and anti-rationalist medievalism. The "vogue for exotic, escapist fantasy which dominated Romanticism in all the other arts" soon affected ballet in two major aspects: a new preoccupation with the supernatural, and the exotic. The plots in Romantic ballet:

"were dominated by spirit women—sylphs [imaginary spirits of the air], wilis [a type of supernatural being in Slavic folklore], and ghosts—who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men and made it impossible for them to live happily in the real world. Women dancers were dressed in diaphanous white frocks with little wings at their waist, and were bathed in the mysterious poetic light created by newly developed gas lighting in theatres. They danced in a style more fluid and ethereal than 18th-century dancers and were especially prized for their ballon [the ability to appear effortlessly suspended while performing movements during a jump] as they tried to create the illusion of flight."

The second important Romantic influence in ballet was:

"a fascination with the exotic, which was figured through gypsy or oriental heroines and the use of folk or national dances from ‘foreign’ cultures (such as Spain, the Middle East, and Scotland). Such dances were considered highly expressive both of character and of exotic local colour, though in some countries, such as Italy, indigenous dances were featured in ballets whose plots reflected that region's surge of nationalist feeling."

An early example of the Romantic ballet is La Sylphide which was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1823 starring Marie Taglioni:

"La Sylphide is a story ballet about a supernatural female creature, half-woman, half-bird, who is doomed to an eternity of dancing. The Sylphide falls in love with a peasant man, James, who is soon to be married. However, James falls in love with the sylphide and leaves his wedding to spend his life with her. The ballet takes a turn when James consults a witch on how to keep the Sylphide from flying off. The witch tells him to tie a scarf around the Sylphide’s waist, and James obeys. The scarf ends up killing the Sylphide, and James is ultimately killed by the witch in an attempt to avenge her death. The Sylphide is symbolic of an unattainable dream, and James is the naive hero who pursues her. This ballet was the first romantic ballet and typifies the romantic themes of fantasy, supernaturalism and man vs. nature."

However, it was also the 19th century which saw the creation of what is considered by many to be the finest achievement of the Classical style, Sleeping Beauty. As Victoria Rose Niblett writes:

"Sleeping Beauty is opulent, returning to the intermingling of traditional French court dances in the choreography and the refinement of the Apollonian [relating to the rational, ordered, and self-disciplined aspects of human nature as opposed to Dionysian characteristics of excess, irrationality, lack of discipline, and unbridled passion] expression. This was a shift away from the emotional exploration of the Romantic period and back to reason and rational philosophy. [...] In the Romantic period, dance was designed by the external power of the music, but in the Classical period choreographers had a more influential role with the construction of the symphony. This involvement allowed choreography to follow an academic, pattern-oriented structure that insured the association between dance and music. [...] While Romantic ballet focused on fragile and emotional femininity, Classical ballet focused more on the type of femininity that could be expressed in the refinement, strength, and charm of the female character."

A publicity photo for the premiere of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1890).

While this era saw the rise of ballet as a truly international art form, Romanticism in ballet declined rapidly "as ballets were so weighted towards the feminine and the febrile", while "male dancers were frequently relegated to the role of porteur [supporting the ballerina]".

Folk dance and Herder

The rise of nationalist feeling in the 19th century was also associated with the new emphasis on local culture and traditions. Folk dances attained a new significance as the spread of nationalist and socialist ideas gave a new emphasis and importance to the culture of the peasants and the working classes. In Ireland, for example, céilí dances were popularised by Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) in its goal to promote Irish cultural independence and de-anglicisation.

It was the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) who recognised the importance of traditional culture. Herder established fundamental ideas concerning the intimate dependence of thought on language which "appears in its greatest purity and power in the uncivilized periods of every nation." Hence Herder's interest in collecting ancient German folk songs. His focus upon language and cultural traditions as the ties that create a 'nation' "were extended to include folklore, dance, music and art."

Portrait of Johann Gottfried Herder

Herder developed his folk theory to the point of believing that "there is only one class in the state, the Volk, (not the rabble), and the king belongs to this class as well as the peasant". His idea that the Volk was not the rabble was a new idea at this time, and thus Herder laid the basis for the idea of "the people" as the basis for later democratic ideologies.

Therefore, as Vicki Spencer writes:

"Herder's intention, then, was not to urge moderm intellectuals and artists to reject the philosophical and intellectual features of their own culture in favor of the simple naivety of earlier folk literature. Instead, he argued that their relationship to their own culture needed to change, in order to capture the complexities and spontaneity in the way of life, language, and character of their own unique culture." [1]

Moreover, Herder believed it was important to look back through history for the nation to 'grow organically' into the future. According to David Denby:

"Herder believes in a human drive towards perfection and self-improvement, but this is a process which operates always in given contexts and within given constraints, which must be understood and respected historically. It is when societies are denied the  opportunity  to  grow  organically  that  they  fail  to  progress. Tradition and progress are not opposites: progress must emerge out of a social and historical tradition if it is to take root, and, conversely, ‘a living tradition was  inconceivable  without  the  progressive  emergence  of  new  goals’." [2]

Later, Herder's ideas on folk culture became strongly associated with Romanticism and national chauvinism. However, Herder "understood and feared the extremes to which his folk-theory could tend" and he "refused to adhere to a rigid racial theory, writing that 'notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth'."

Thus Herder saw the importance of understanding one's own culture as a foundation stone for future national projects to be built upon, and not about seeing the past as a Golden Age to be nostalgic about as in Romanticist theory.

The twentieth century and Modernism

By the beginning of the twentieth century folk dance was firmly established and formed an important part of national culture. Many countries around the world had state folk dance ensembles by the middle of the century. In particular this could be seen in the Soviet Union after the Russian revolution of 1917 where the state supported and promoted folk dance as part of the culture of the people. The Red Army Choir, an official army choir of the Russian armed forces, was set up in the 1920s, and by the 1930s was touring with an ensemble of dancers.

The Alexandrov Choir with Dance Ensemble, Warsaw 2009
(Also known as the Red Army Choir and the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army)

Ballet continued life after the revolution too but with new revolutionary content. As Georg Predota writes:

"Ballet companies had to cope with a mass exodus of leading figures of the stage, but also defend against grassroots Communist voices that decried ballet as an artificial, frivolous art form, a decadent playground for grand dukes hopelessly out of touch with reality. Yet gradually, government policy opened the former bastions of imperial high culture to the masses, making ballet performances available to a wider audience by distributing free or subsidized tickets."

For example, the Russian ballet, The Red Poppy, with a score written by Reinhold Glière, was created in 1927 and was a huge success. It had a modern revolutionary theme, as Predota notes:

"Set in a port in Kuomintang China in the 1920’s, The Red Poppy eventually became the first truly Soviet ballet. The story tells of the love between a Soviet sailor and a Chinese girl, who is eventually killed by the sailor’s capitalist rival. The tyrannical British imperialist commander of the port sanctions her murder, as Tao-Hoa tries to escape her homeland on board a Soviet ship. As she falls dying, she gives her compatriots a red poppy as an emblem in their fight for freedom."

A scene from the 1927 production of The Red Poppy

In Europe the ballet company Ballet Russes, was formed in 1909 and toured Europe as well as North and South America. Although set up by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev (and even used Russian dancers), the company never performed in Russia. It became part of the Modernist movement with music commissioned from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky and the designs of Picasso, Rouault, Matisse, and Derain.

Modernism - an extension of Romanticist thinking - emphasised individualism, art for art’s sake, suspicion of reason, subjectivism and rejected Enlightenment ideas. In the arts, Modernism tended to emphasise constantly changing form over sociopolitical content and this became particularly notable in the twentieth century.

Dance in general also developed in many different directions in the twentieth century but the Modernist movement set the stage for dance trends and styles in the United States and Europe which tended to emphasise individualism and diversion, and then later developed into freestyle. This could be seen in western concert or theatrical dance where modern dance continued as an art form:  

"Modern dance is a broad genre of western concert or theatrical dance, primarily arising out of Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of or rebellion against, classical ballet. Socioeconomic and cultural factors also contributed to its development. In the late 19th century, dance artists such as Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan and Loie Fuller were pioneering new forms and practices in what is now called aesthetic or free dance for performance. These dancers disregarded ballet's strict movement vocabulary, the particular, limited set of movements that were considered proper to ballet and stopped wearing corsets and pointe shoes in the search for greater freedom of movement."

Later in the twentieth century, as in the other arts, dance was affected by Postmodernism from the 1960s to the 1980s. While Postmodernism rejected the grand narratives [e.g. Christian ideology, Freudian psychology, political democracy etc.] and ideologies of Modernism, it was similar to Modernism in that it also rejected Enlightenment ideas and was thus another form of Romanticism. With Postmodernism, the politicisation of dance or the use of dance as a form of collective resistance to capitalism and imperialism, became a more remote prospect as "the postmodern dance movement rapidly developed to embrace the ideas of postmodernism, which rely on chance, self-referentiality, irony, and fragmentation." For example, Postmodern dance incorporated "improvisation, spontaneous determination, and chance", cast non-trained dancers, and changed the relationship of dance to the tempo of accompanying music. Later it became more conceptual and abstract while distancing "itself from expressive elements such as music, lighting, costumes, and props."

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926

As Postmodern dance distanced itself from the masses, popular dances in the form of novelty and fad dances went to the other extreme, regularly spreading among the people like wildfires that soon burnt themselves out. They took different forms: solo dances, partner dances, group dances and freestyle dances. From 1909 to the mid 1940s there was: The Grizzly Bear, Charleston, Duckwalk, Carioca, Suzie Q, The Lambeth Walk, Thunder Clap, Conga, and the Hokey cokey. During the 1950s there was Bomba, The Chicken, Bunny Hop, The Hop, The Meatstick, Madison, The Stroll, and Hully Gully. The 1960s had Shimmy, Twist, The Chicken Walk, The Gravy ("On My Mashed Potato"), The Loco-Motion, Martian Hop, Mashed Potato, The Monster Mash, The Swim, Watusi, Chicken Dance, Hitch hike, Monkey, The Frug, Jerk, The Freddie, Limbo, Batusi, and The Shake.

In the 1970s it was Sprinkler, Penguin, Hustle, Time Warp, Bump, Tragedy, Grinding, Car Wash, Electric Slide, Robot, The Running Man, Y.M.C.A., and Little Apple. The 1980s saw Moonwalk, Cotton-Eyed Joe, Harlem Shake, Agadoo (aka Agadou), Superman (aka Gioca Jouer), The Safety, Lambada, Thriller, The Hunch, Wig Wam Bam, Cabbage Patch, Da Butt. In the 1990s there was The Carlton, Locomía, Boot Scootin' Boogie, Do the Bartman, Hammer, The Humpty, Vogue, The Urkel, Achy Breaky Heart (Line dance), Macarena, Saturday Night, Tic, Tic Tac, Thizzle, La Bomba (not to be confused with Bomba), The Roger Rabbit, and Tootsee Roll.

As can be seen from the quantity cited and the regularity of change there is no end to Modernism's ability to move with the markets or keep up with the constantly changing mass consumer pop music scene. A few styles of dance had periods of mass popularity and are still going today as social dances encouraged by regular classes in, for example, jive, salsa, and ballroom dancing.

Cinema also aided the popularity of dance in the twentieth century as can be seen in films featuring ballet in the 1940s (The Red Shoes), tap dancing in the 1950s (Singin' in the Rain), modern dance in the 1960s (West Side Story), disco in the 1970s (Saturday Night Fever), club/performance partner dancing in the 1980s (Dirty Dancing), tango in the 2000s (Chicago) and modern dance theatre in the 2010s (Pina). The global popularity of Hollywood musicals and Bollywood song-and-dance sequences have made dance an important element to be considered in any new film musical.

Rehearsals for West Side Story, 1960
American dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins (1918 - 1998) (in white) demonstrates a dance move to American actor George Chakiris (left, foreground) during the filming of 'West Side Story,' directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, New York, New York, 1961.

In terms of live performance the Irish stage show, Riverdance, featuring Irish step-dancing, opened in Dublin in 1995. It went on to perform in over 450 venues worldwide and has "been seen by over 25 million people, making it one of the most successful dance productions in the world." The show also incorporated international dance elements of flamenco and tap dancing.

Thus the twentieth century has seen an explosion in interest in dance in general, and in the quantity of styles and techniques. It also has seen the overt politicisation of dance in nationalist and socialist struggles, and as an art form as affected by Romanticist and Enlightenment ideas as every other major art form.

 The 21st century and new debates

Dance has become even more prevalent in the 21st century with the internet and global satellite media, for example, through  apps like TikTok and dance shows on TV. Riverdance is still touring and ballet is as popular as ever. Novelty and fad dances still come and go. Social dancing and traditional dance are still in demand due to classes, competitions and people's natural love of dance as a form of socialising.

Riverdance cast at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, 2019.

However, it could be asked if popular dance has simply become a form of social catharsis, and performance dance as escapism and diversion? Is there a role for dance in progressive culture? The negative reaction to Diversity's 'I Can't Breathe' radical narrative may have been simply an overreaction in a society unused to seeing dance used in a critical setting. The connection between dance and story has become relevant again as Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic strategies have waned in popularity. 21st century ballet has seen discussion revolving around narrative or story ballet (has plot and characters), as Alastair Macaulay writes: "Nowhere more than in narrative has ballet become the land of low expectations. Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they would never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical."

Hanna Rubin discusses issues relating to choreography:
"Choreographing story ballets that will appeal to contemporary audiences presents unique challenges even for experienced dancemakers. A too-literal approach or too-traditional staging can seem quaint or flat. And what makes a suitable narrative for those coming of age in a digital era, where there are no strictures on what can be searched, seen and shared? How can a story ballet hold audiences' attention? If mere distraction becomes the goal, how can a ballet achieve the resonance that will give it continued life?"

However, choreographer Helen Pickett notes that "[n]ew stories are being created from other people's histories". She points out that traditional ballerina roles haven't always been empowering ones. "Putting the female on the pedestal was a way to say she is untouchable, but not in an elevated way — in a way that she is perhaps suffering [...] There was a lot of that in the Romantic era: Giselle goes nuts for her love."

In her own work, Pickett has featured strong female characters, and has worked on an adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible for the Scottish Ballet. This is certainly an interesting direction as The Crucible was a "dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692–93. Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the United States government persecuted people accused of being communists."

Scottish Ballet’s The CrucibleTheatre Royal, Glasgow . Image: Jane Hobson.
Based on the play by Arthur Miller. Choreographer: Helen Pickett.
"The real trick of telling the story of The Crucible through dance is not to overexplain everything." Helen Pickett in The Scotsman

Yet, although laudable, progressive narratives of resistance can also be cheapened. According to Macaulay: "'Spartacus,' the Bolshoi Ballet’s biggest hit of the last half-century, reduces its freedom-fighting story to the dimensions of trash (irresistible and sensational trash in the right performance), as enjoyable as “Flash Gordon” and scarcely more serious."

Finding the right balance between form and progressive content in ballet may be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century for many reasons: conservative owners/backers/critics, the negative effects of Modernism and Postmodernism on form and ideology, and the lingering effects of Romanticist over-emphasis on emotion and the individual rather than on context and sociopolitical struggles.

Similarly with other forms of dance. The synthesis of the new with the old can make for exciting and engaging art (like 'I Can't Breathe') when it is based on the stories of people's actual lived lives.

While Diversity have the luxury of prime time television and a mass audience to present their views and choreographies, other choreographers work on their stories in more difficult situations, as Veronica Jiao writes:

"There are countless choreographers who have dedicated their entire body of work to the story-telling of blackness in America (Kyle Abraham, Camille Brown, Okwui Okpokwasili and the collaborators/choreographers of Urban Bush Women, to name a few). There are the nameless choreographers working four part-time jobs in order to share their stories and experiences in a downtown factory-turned-studio-turned-theatre."

Dance has truly taken its place as a significant global cultural movement. While there are still social divisions in dance today, as in the past, the difference is that the performance dances of the elites have the potential to be radical and progressive, just as the group dances of the masses today can be self-absorbed and escapist.

The future of participative dance will also depend on the level of engagement of people in sociopolitical struggle. In the past, in Ireland, for example, people flocked to traditional dance as it tied in with their nationalist and socialist beliefs. It was a way of connecting their past to a perceived or hoped for future. Similarly, in sport the Irish people flocked to Gaelic games while the previous mass support for cricket dropped dramatically as cricket was perceived to be a 'British' sport. People seek what gives their life meaning as they become more politicised, and this leads to pride in their own radical culture and radical history as a form of resistance. Participative dance will no doubt change again on this more conscious basis because it is an important part of people's social and cultural lives. 


Dance has had a long journey through human history. It has always been associated with people's celebrations and festivities as a collective expression of human emotions. However, over time particular dances became more and more associated with different classes and groups as societies grew ever more complex. During the time of the Enlightenment, dance became a focus of research and criticism. Performance dance became imbued with Classical ideals and participative dance was seen in a new way as an important part of the heritage of all the people, and not backward or even inferior as in the past. Later, such dances took on even more powerful roles with revolutionary content and state folk ensembles. However, Romanticist ideas turned dance in on itself, shearing it of sociopolitical ideals and progressive content. That is, until Diversity hit the stage with a performance which may yet prove to be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of dance.

[1] Vicki Spencer, In Defense of Herder on Cultural Diversity and Interaction, The Review of Politics , Winter, 2007, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Winter, 2007), pp. 79-105 Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics

[2] David Denby, Herder: culture, anthropology and the Enlightenment, HISTORY OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES Vol. 18 No. 1
© 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) pp. 55–76

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 





Sunday, August 2, 2020

We Need To Talk About Romanticism: Re-Examining Emotion and Justice in Enlightenment Ideals

by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin

 Satire on Romantic Suicide (1839) by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (1807–1845)

“A man who desires to be solely head, is just as much a monster as one who desires to be only heart; the whole, healthy man is both. And that he is both, with each in its place, the heart not in the head and the head  not  in  the  heart,  is  precisely  what  makes  him  a  human  being.
Johann Gottfried Herder

“We are slipping back from the age of reason into the mire of mystery, into a world of gods and devils, ghouls and angels. The difference this time is that we have chosen ignorance over knowledge, vapidity over insight, folly over realism. Consequently, we only have ourselves to blame when the rich and powerful take advantage of us.”

Andrew Davenport


Why do we need to talk about Romanticism? What is Romanticism? And how does it affect us in the 21st century? The fact is that we are so immersed in Romanticism now that we cannot see the proverbial wood for the haunted-looking trees. Romanticism has so saturated our culture that we need to stand back and remind ourselves what it is, and examine how it has seeped into our thinking processes to the extent that we are not even aware of its presence anymore. Or why this is a problem. The Romanticist influence of intense emotion makes up a large part of modern culture, for example, in much pop music, cinema, TV and literature, e.g. genres such as Superheroes, Fantasy, Horror, Magical realism, Saga, Westerns. I will look at the origins of Romanticism, and its negative influence on culture and politics. I will show how Enlightenment ideas originally emerged in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church and led to the formation of a working class ideology and culture of resistance.

Romanticism and the modern world

"The whole exuberance, anarchy and violence of modern art ... its unrestrained, unsparing exhibitionism, is derived from [Romanticism]. And this subjective, egocentric attitude has become so much a matter of course for us ... that we find it impossible to reproduce even an abstract train of thought without talking about our own feelings."
Arnold Hauser

Romanticism arose out of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as a reaction to what was perceived as a rationalisation of life to the point of being anti-nature. The Romantics were against the Industrial Revolution, universalism and empiricism, emphasising instead heroic individualists and artists, and the individual imagination as a critical authority rather than classical ideals.

The Enlightenment itself had developed from the earlier Renaissance with a renewed interest in the classical traditions and ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order based on reason and science. On a political level the Enlightenment promoted republicanism in opposition to monarchy which ultimately led to the French revolution.

The worried conservatives of the time reacted to the ideas of the Enlightenment and reason with a philosophy which was based on religious ideas and glorified the past (especially Medieval times and the 'Golden Age') - times when things were not so threatening to elites. This philosophy became known as Romanticism and emphasised medieval ideas and society over the new ideas of democracy, capitalism and science.

Romanticism originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1890. It was initially marked by innovations in both content and literary style and by a preoccupation with the subconscious, the mystical, and the supernatural. This period was followed by the development of cultural nationalism and a new attention to national origins, an interest in native folklore, folk ballads and poetry, folk dance and music, and even previously ignored medieval and Renaissance works.

The Romantic movement "emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature." The importance of the medieval lay in the  pre-capitalist significance of its individual crafts and tradesmen, as well as its feudal peasants and serfs.

Thus Romanticism was a reaction to the birth of the modern world: urbanisation, secularisation, industrialisation, and consumerism. Romanticism emphasised intense emotion and feelings which over the centuries came to be seen as one of its most important characteristics, in opposition to 'cold', 'unfeeling' Enlightenment rationalism.

Origins of Enlightenment emotion

"Whence this secret Chain between each Person and Mankind? How is my Interest connected with the most distant Parts of it?"
Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) 

However, this 'cold', 'unfeeling' scenario is actually very far from the truth. In fact, the Enlightenment itself had its origins in emotion. Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century tried to create a philosophy of feeling that would allow them to solve the problem of the injustice in the unfeeling world they saw all around them.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together, Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”, while David Hume (1711 – 1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.[1] In Italy, Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) wrote his famous treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which "condemned torture and the death penalty, and was a founding work in the field of penology and the Classical School of criminology." Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was so incensed at the trial, torture and execution of Jean Calas for the murder of his son, despite his protestations of innocence, that he wrote his Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas from the Judgment Rendered in Toulouse (Traité sur la tolérance)
. Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) believed that individuals, both individual persons and individual groups of persons, are bearers of rights. His masterpiece De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625; On the Law of War and Peace) is considered one of the greatest contributions to the development of international law which Grotius wrote with the aim of minimizing bloodshed.

Portrait of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

For the Enlightenment philosophers the relationship between feeling and reason was of absolute importance. To develop ideas that would progress society for the better, a sense of morality was essential. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) a prominent French philosopher of the Enlightenment in France, for example, had strong views on the importance of the passions. Henry Martyn Lloyd writes:

"Diderot did believe in the utility of reason in the pursuit of truth – but he had an acute enthusiasm for the passions, particularly when it came to morality and aesthetics. With many of the key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, he believed that morality was grounded in sense-experience. Ethical judgment was closely aligned with, even indistinguishable from, aesthetic judgments, he claimed. We judge the beauty of a painting, a landscape or our lover’s face just as we judge the morality of a character in a novel, a play or our own lives – that is, we judge the good and the beautiful directly and without the need of reason. For Diderot, then, eliminating the passions could produce only an abomination. A person without the ability to be affected, either because of the absence of passions or the absence of senses, would be morally monstrous."

As Diderot wrote in a letter to Sophie Volland:

"If the spectacle of injustice sometimes rouses me to so much indignation that I lose my judgement over it, and that I'd kill, I'd destroy, during this delirium; so the spectacle of equity fills me with a sweetness, inflames me with such ardor and enthusiasm that life would mean nothing to me if I had to yield it up."

Moreover, to remove the passions from science would lead to inhuman approaches and methods that would divert and alienate science from its ultimate goal of serving humanity, as Lloyd writes:

"That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature. The archetypical example here was a doctor, attuned to the bodily rhythms of patients and their particular symptoms. Instead, it was the speculative system-builder who was the enemy of scientific progress – the Cartesian physician who saw the body as a mere machine, or those who learned medicine by reading Aristotle but not by observing the ill. So the philosophical suspicion of reason was not a rejection of rationality per se; it was only a rejection of reason in isolation from the senses, and alienated from the impassioned body."

Michael L. Frazer describes the importance of Enlightenment justice and sympathy in his book The Enlightenment of Sympathy. He writes:

"Reflective sentimentalists recognize our commitment to justice as an outgrowth of our sympathy for others. After our sympathetic sentiments undergo reflective self-correction, the sympathy that emerges for all those who suffer injustice poses no insult to those for whom it is felt. We do not see their suffering as mere pain to be soothed away when and if we happen to share it. Instead under Hume's account, we condemn injustice as a violation of rules that are vitally important to us all. And under Smith's account, we condemn the sufferings of the victims of injustice as injustice because we sympathetically share the resentment that they feel toward their oppressors, endorsing such feelings as warranted and acknowledging those who feel them deserve better treatment." [2]

Cooper, Hume and Smith were living in times, not only devoid of empathy, but also even of basic sympathy. Robert C. Solomon writes of society then in A Passion for Justice: "There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. [...] Poverty was considered just one more "act of God," impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime." [3]

Enlightenment emotion eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the 'sentimental novel'. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature

"focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment. Frederick Douglass himself was inspired to stand against his own bondage and slavery in general in his famous Narrative by the speech by the sentimentalist playwright Sheridan in The Columbian Orator detailing a fictional dialogue between a master and slave."

As Solomon notes: "What distinguishes us not just from animals but from machines are our passions, and foremost among them our passion for justice. Justice is, in a word, that set of passions, not mere theories, that bind us and make us part of the social world."[4]

Title page from the first edition


Writers such as the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie tried to highlight many things that he perceived were wrong during his time and showed how many of the wrongs were ultimately caused by the established pillars of society. In his book, The Man of Feeling (1771), he has no qualms about showing how these pillars of society had, for example, abused an intelligent woman causing her to become a prostitute (p44/45), destroyed a school because it blocked the landowner's view (p72), and hired assassins to remove a man who had refused to hand over his wife (p91), etc. [5] Mackenzie shows again and again the injustices of British military and colonial policy, and who is responsible. As Marilyn Butler writes:

"Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), is pointedly topical when it criticizes the consequences of a war policy - press-ganging, conscription, the military punishment of flogging, and inadequate pensions - and when, like the same author's Julia de Roubigné (1777), it attacks the principle of colonialism. An interest in such causes was the logical outcome of art's frequently reiterated dedication to humanity. It was a period when the cast of villains was drawn from the proud men representing authority, downwards from the House of Lords, the bench of bishops, judges, local magistrates, attorneys, to the stern father; when readers were invited to empathize with life's victims". [6]

It took a long time for the ideas of sentimentalism (emotions against injustice) to filter down to the Realism (using facts to depict ordinary everyday experiences) that Dickens used in the nineteenth century to finally evoke some kind of empathy for people impoverished by society. As Solomon notes: "It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that Dickens shook the conscience of his compatriots with his riveting descriptions of poverty and cruelty in contemporary London, [...] that the problem of poverty and resistance to its solutions [e.g. poorhouses] has become the central question of justice." [7]


Dickens's Dream by Robert William Buss, portraying Dickens at his desk at Gads Hill Place surrounded by many of his characters

European literary sentimentalism arose during the Enlightenment, and partly as a response to sentimentalism in philosophy. In England the period 1750–1798 became known as the Age of Sensibility as the sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility became popular.

Romanticist emotionalism: the opposite of Enlightenment sentimentalism

"Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness."
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832)

However, sensibility in an Enlightenment sense was very different from the Romanticist understanding, as Butler notes: "It is, in fact, in a key respect almost the opposite of Romanticism. Sensibility, like its near-synonym sentiment, echoes eighteenth-century philosophy and psychology in focusing upon the mental process by which impressions are received by the senses. But the sentimental writer's interest in how the mind works and in how people behave is very different from the Romantic writer's inwardness." [8]

She writes that 'neither Neoclassical theory nor contemporary practice in various styles and genres put much emphasis on the individuality of the artist' (p29). This is a far cry from the apolitical, inward-looking, self-centered Romantic artists who saw themselves outside of a society that they had little interest in participating in, let alone changing for the better. Butler again:

"Romantic rebelliousness is more outrageous and total, the individual rejecting not just his own society but the very principle of living in society - which means that the Romantic and post Romantic often dismisses political activity of any kind, as external to the self, literal and commonplace. Since it is relatively uncommon for the eighteenth-century artist to complain directly on his own behalf, he seldom achieves such emotional force as his nineteenth-century successor. He is, on the other hand, much more inclined than the Romantic to express sympathy for certain, well-defined social groups. Humanitarian feeling for the real-life underdog is a strong vein from the 1760s to the 1790s, often echoing real-life campaigns for reform." [9]

This movement over time towards the Romanticist inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings has had knock-on negative effects on society's ability to defend itself from elite oppression (through cultural styles of self-absorption, escapism and diversion rather than exposure, criticism and resistance), and retarded 'art's frequently reiterated dedication to humanity'. Solomon describes this process:

"What has come about in the past two centuries or so is the dramatic rise of what Robert Stone has called "affective individualism," this new celebration of the passions and other feelings of the autonomous individual. Yet, ironically, it is an attitude that has become even further removed from our sense of justice during that same period of time. We seem to have more inner feelings and pay more attention to them, but we seem to have fewer feelings about others and the state of the world and pay less attention to them."[10]

Thus while Enlightenment sentimentalism "depicted individuals as social beings whose sensibility was stimulated and defined by their interactions with others", the Romantic movement that followed it "tended to privilege individual autonomy and subjectivity over sociability".

Romanticism as a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century had a profound influence on culture which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implies a turning inward and encourages introspection. Romantic literature put more emphasis on themes of isolation, loneliness, tragic events and the power of nature. A heroic view of history and myth became the basis of much Romantic literature.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier

It was in Germany that Romanticism took shape as a political ideology. The German Romanticists felt threatened by the French Revolution and were forced to move from inward-looking ideas to formulate conservative political answers needed to oppose Enlightenment and republican ideals. According to Eugene N. Anderson:

"In the succeeding years the danger became acutely political, and the German Romanticists were compelled to subordinate their preoccupation with the widening of art and the enrichment of individual experience to social and political ideas and actions, particularly as formulated in nationalism and conservatism. These three cultural ideals, Romanticism, nationalism and conservatism, shared qualities evoked by the common situation of crisis. [...] The Germans had to maintain against rationalism and the French a culture which in its institutional structure was that of the ancien régime. German Romanticism accepted it, wished to reform it somewhat, idealized it, and defended the idealization as the supreme culture of the world. This was the German counter-revolution. [...] They endowed their culture with universal validity and asserted that it enjoyed the devotion of nature and God, that if it were destroyed humanity would be vitally wounded." [11]

The reactionary nature of German Romanticism was demonstrated in its hierarchical views of society, its chauvinist nationalism, and extreme conservatism which would have serious implications for future generations of the German populace. 

Indeed, on May 29th 1945, the German author Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, gave a lecture at the Library of Congress titled “Germany and the Germans” in which he stated:

"German Romanticism, what is it but an expression of this finest German quality, German inwardness? Much that is longingly pensive, fantastically spectral, and deeply scurrilous, a high artistic refinement and all-pervading irony combine in the concept of Romanticism. But these are not the things I think of primarily when I speak of Romanticism. It is rather a certain dark richness and piousness-I might say: antiquarianism-of soul that feels very close to the chthonian, irrational, and demonic forces of life, that is to say, the true sources of life; and it resists the purely rationalistic approach on the ground of its deeper knowledge, its deeper alliance with the holy. The Germans are the people of the romantic counter-revolution against the philosophical intellectualism and rationalism of enlightenment—a revolt of music against literature, of mysticism against clarity."

As Anderson writes:

"The low estimate of rationalism and the exaltation of custom, tradition, and feeling, the conception of society as an alliance of the generations, the belief in the abiding character of ideas as contrasted with the ephemeral nature of concepts, these and many other romantic views bolstered up the existing culture. The concern with relations led the Romanticists to praise the hierarchical order of the Ständestaat and to regard everything and every-one as an intermediary. The acceptance of the fact of inequality harmonized with that of the ideals of service, duty, faithfulness, order, sacrifice - admirable traits for serf or subject or soldier." [12]

Anderson also believes that the Romanticists remained swinging "between individual freedom and initiative and group compulsion and authority" and as such could not have brought in fundamental reforms, because: "By reverencing tradition, they preserved the power of the backward-looking royalty and aristocracy." [13]

Thus Romanticist self-centredness in philosophy translated into the most conservative forms for maintaining the status quo in politics. Individual freedoms were matched by authoritarianism for the masses. The individual was king alright, as long as you weren't a 'serf or subject or soldier'.

Beyond morality: Working Class perspectives on Reason and

"We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles."
Voltaire (1694–1778)

Around the same time of the early period of Romanticism, Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) were born. They grew up in a very different Germany. Capitalism had become established and was creating an even more polarised society between extremely rich and extremely poor as factory owners pushed their workers to their physical limits. On his way to work at his father's firm in Manchester, Engels called into the offices of a paper he wrote for in Cologne and met the editor, Marx, for the first time in 1842. They formed a friendship based on shared values and beliefs regarding the working class and socialist ideas. They saw a connection between the earlier Enlightenment ideas and socialism. For example, as Engels writes in Anti-Duhring: "in its theoretical form, modern socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the eighteenth century. Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts." [14]

They were also critical of Romanticism. In a 'Letter from Marx to Engels In Manchester' Marx criticises the Romanticist obsessions with Medievalism and the 'Golden Age'. He writes: "The first reaction against the French Revolution and the period of Enlightenment bound up with it was naturally to see everything as mediaeval and romantic [...]. The second reaction is to look beyond the Middle Ages into the primitive age of each nation".

However, once
Marx and Engels had connected themselves to the Enlightenment they soon saw the limitations of Enlightenment concepts of reason and sentiment. As Krylov wrote in his Preface to On Literature and Art:

"Marx and Engels stripped away the romantic idealisation of the Middle Ages and, at the same time, demonstrated the inconsistency of the abstract view held by the Enlighteners that this was merely an age of social and cultural regression. They pointed out that the transition from slave-owning to feudal society was historically inevitable and showed that the establishment of the feudal mode of production was a step forward in the development of human society, compared to the reign of slavery which had preceded it. This enabled Marx and Engels to form a new approach to medieval culture and art and point out those features in them which reflected the progressive course of historical development."

Marx and Engels analysed West European romanticism in a way that gave credit for any progressive aspects despite its limitations:

"Considering romanticism a reflection of the age beginning after the Great French Revolution, of all its inherent social contradictions, they distinguished between revolutionary romanticism, which rejected capitalism and was striving towards the future, and romantic criticism of capitalism from the point of view of the past. They also differentiated between the romantic writers who idealised the pre-bourgeois social system: they valued those whose works concealed democratic and critical elements under a veneer of reactionary utopias and naive petty-bourgeois ideals, and criticised the reactionary romantics, whose sympathies for the past amounted to a defence of the interests of the nobility."

Similarly Krylov notes how Marx and Engels could see elements of class struggle in Enlightenment writing:

"Marx and Engels held in high esteem the heritage of the English and French 18th-century Enlighteners including their fiction and works on aesthetics. Their comprehensive analysis of the activity of the Enlighteners explains its close links with the life of society and the class struggle during the preparation for the French bourgeois revolution and draws a line between the moderately bourgeois and the democratic elements in their heritage."

However, Marx and Engels realised that the new bourgeois rulers would be limited by their conceptions of property, justice, and equality, which basically meant they only applied universality to themselves and their own property. The new rulers were buoyed up by the victory of their ideological fight over the aristocracy but incapable of applying the same ideas to the masses who helped them to victory. Thus Marx and Engels viewed the struggle for reason as important but limited to the new ruling class' world view, just like the aristocracy before them:

"Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on nature and the inalienable rights of man. We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realisation in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch." [15]

As for sentiment, they were well aware of the Realist critical nature of modern writers (the Realist movement rejected Romanticism) and indeed praised them (e.g. G. Sand, E. Sue, and Boz [Dickens]), but limited themselves to offering some advice. While recognising that progressive literature had a mainly middle class audience (and were happy enough with these authors just 'shaking the optimism' of their audience), they knew that this was not by any means a socialist literature and were well aware of sentimentalist limitations. Engels states:

"I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instills doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides." [16]

Sentimental literature focused on individual misfortune, and constant repetition of such themes certainly appeared to universalise such suffering, so that, as David Denby writes, "In this weeping mother, this suffering father, we are to read also the sufferings of humanity." Thus, "individualism and universalism appear to be two sides of the same coin". Sentimental literature gives the reader the 'spectacle of misfortune' and a representation of the reaction of a 'sentient and sensible observer' who tries to help with 'alms, sympathy or indeed narrative intervention.' Furthermore, the literature of sentiment "mirrors eighteenth-century theories of sympathy, in which a spontaneous reaction to the spectacle of suffering is gradually developed, by a process of generalisation and combination of ideas, into broader and more abstract notions of humanity, benevolence, justice." [17]

Workers in the fuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal late 1800s

This brings us then to the problem of interpretation, as Denby suggests: "should the sentimental portrayal of the poor and of action in their favour be read as an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to include the hitherto excluded? Or, alternatively, is the sentimentalisation of the poor to be interpreted, more cynically, as a discursive strategy through which the enlightened bourgeoisie states its commitment to values of humanity and justice, and thereby seeks to strengthen its claims to universal domination?" [18]

While such ideas of giving a 'voice to the voiceless' was a far cry from monarchical times, and claims of commitment to humanity and justice were laudable, the concept of universality had a fundamental flaw: "The universal claims of the French Revolution are opposed to a [aristocratic] society based on distinctions of birth: it is in the name of humanity that the Revolution challenges the established order. But for Sartre this does not change the fact that the universal is a myth, an ideological construct, and an obfuscation, since it articulates a notion of man which eliminates social conflict and disguises the interests of a class behind a facade of universal reference." [19]

Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934

Thus for Marx and Engels defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, that is, a universal moral theory, could not be achieved while society is divided into classes:

"We maintain [...] that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life."

Marx and Engels worked towards that morality through their activism with working class movements and culture. Their critical writing also formed an essential part of working class ideology and culture of resistance and has remained influential in resistance movements the world over.

The culture of resistance today still uses realism, documentary, and histories of oppression to show the harsh realities of globalisation. Like during the Enlightenment, empathy for those suffering injustice forms its foundation. And unlike Romanticism, reason and science are deemed to be important tools in its struggle for social emancipation and progress.

Conclusion: Enlightenment and Romanticism today

"When we are asked now: are we now living into an enlightened age? Then the answer is: No, but in an age of Enlightenment."
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

There is no doubt that the influence of Romanticism has become ever stronger in twentieth and twenty-first century culture. Romanticist-influenced TV shows on Netflix are watched world wide. Love songs dominate the pop industry and superheroes are now the mainstay of cinema. Even Romanticist nationalism is making a comeback. Now and then calls for a new Enlightenment are heard, but like the original advocates of the Enlightenment, they are limited to the conservative world view of those making the call and whose view of the Enlightenment could be compared to a form of Third Way politics, that is, they avoid the issue of class conflict.


[1] Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) p72/73
[2] Michael L Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford Uni Press, 2010) p126/127
[3] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p13
[4] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p45
[5] Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling ( Oxford World's Classics Oxford Uni Press, 2009)
[6] Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p31
[7] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p13
[8] Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p29/30
[9]  Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p30/31
[10] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p37
[11] Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p301-312. Source: Journal of the History of Ideas , Jun., 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jun., 1941), pp. 301-317. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. Stable URL:
[12] Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p313/314 Source: Journal of the History of Ideas , Jun., 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jun., 1941), pp. 301-317. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. Stable URL:
[13] Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis. p316. Source: Journal of the History of Ideas , Jun., 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jun., 1941), pp. 301-317. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. Stable URL:
[14] Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p270
[15] Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p271
[16] Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p88
[17] David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p28/29
[18] David J. Denby Sentimental Narrative and the Social Order in France, 1760–1820 (Cambridge Studies in French, 1994) p117
[19] David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p27 

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin BA MA PhD is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.