The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin

This book consists of Berlin’s series of Mellon Lectures, originally delivered in 1965 and broadcast by the BBC. It is edited by Henry Hardy, who has been the midwife of so many writings of Berlin’s that would, without his scholarly efforts, have remained unpublished.

Very brilliant lectures they are, too. He ranges so knowledgeably and penetratingly across the history and thought of the Romantic movement, it is a bit like watching an acrobat, when you just marvel at the vitality and the movement.

He notes the breadth of the Romantic influence. We could say of so many things that they are part of the Romantic – a lonely aristocrat in a huge, dark, Gothic castle, brooding on loss or unrequited love; a passionate and brilliant actress, winning plaudits; or even a quixotic caravan journey involving dozens of people.

He traces to Herder and other German thinkers the idea of radical freedom, the rejection of the concept of rational rules or other restrictions and boundaries on the human spirit. He notes that this sense of freedom is not knowable or explainable – it is ineffable, wrapped up in some other kind of experience and motivation, neither describable nor accessible.

In typically graceful Berlin style, he brings his intellectually satisfying analysis back to earth with the observation that while Romanticism was originally a reaction against prevailing orthodoxies, it ended up enhancing them, if not replacing them.

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