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The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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8 The forces of change: towards Romanticism

8.1 The forces of change: towards Romanticism

The relationship between the Enlightenment and the movement known as Romanticism, which dominated early nineteenth-century culture, is the subject of intense debate among scholars. There is no single correct way of defining this relationship, and one of the main challenges you will face in this course is in forming your own conclusions on the subject. It is possible, for example, to see the French Revolution as a cataclysmic event that tumbled the old order and ruptured faith in the Enlightenment and its reformist ambitions, thus stimulating the intense inwardness and doubt symptomatic of much Romantic thought. (This dimension of the Revolution is explored further below.) Equally, the growth in our period of a new class benefiting from the profits of industry and agrarian reform is often seen as a transforming influence in the wider culture. Freed from the conventional allegiances of the hereditary noble and genteel sections of society to the classical and the decorous, this emergent capitalist elite (‘new money’) expressed different priorities in art, literature and music as it attempted to assert its new status and identity. After the Revolution, these priorities included a new fear of the great mass of the population untouched by the Enlightenment, and a search for ways of controlling it. The reforms to factory conditions proposed by Robert Owen, for example, might be seen as a combination of enlightened humanitarianism and social control.

It can also be argued, however, that the seeds of Romanticism were sown by the Enlightenment itself. It was, after all, the Enlightenment that stimulated vigorous discussion and criticism of the status quo as part of an impulse towards the creation of a more modern culture. Certainly, the quest for rebellion and modernity intensified in the Romantic era. In the following section we'll be looking at some of the developments of the eighteenth century that are now often called ‘pre-Romantic’. It is unwise to apply hindsight in such a way as to suggest that certain cultural developments took place in anticipation of others. Most large-scale cultural changes involve a complex web of factors. Nevertheless, Romanticism can be seen to have had gradual as well as more sudden causes, some of which, particularly the growing status of emotion and more personal responses to the human and natural worlds, we outline briefly below. We will then examine other agents of change.