Early And Mid 19Th Century Thought Essay

, Research Paper

Throughout history, there have been many isms that had come and gone. Many things have come out of these so-called “isms.”

Romanticism began in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. It practically dominated European cultural life in most of the first half of the nineteenth century. Poets such as Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron were all exponents of romanticism. This was expressed in many different ways such as Writing, art and music.

Victor Hugo, A.W., Friedrich Schlegel, Schiller and Schelling all expressed their thoughts of romanticism through writing. Caspar David Friedrich and John Constable expressed their thoughts on romanticism on canvas through art. Later on, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Wagner expressed it through music.

The central message of the romantics was that the imagination of the individual should determine the form and content of an artistic creation. This outlook ran counter to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which itself had been a reaction against the otherworldly Christian orientation of the Middle Ages.

According to Philisophes, the romantics had turned flesh-and-blood human beings into soulless thinking machines.

The Romantics’ stress on the inner person also found expression in the school of German philosophy called idealism. Idealists held that the world is not something objective that exists independently of individual consciousness.

The decade after 1815 saw a spectacular rise of the bourgeoisie. Bankers, merchants, manufacturers, professionals, and officeholders wanted to break the stranglehold of the landed nobility. Liberalism is an extension of the democratic practices and rational outlook that originated in ancient Greece.

The French philosophes helped shape liberalism. From Montesquieu, liberalism derived the theory of the separation of the powers and of checks and balances- principles intended to guard against despotic government.

Liberals attacked the state and other authorities that prevented the individual from exercising the right of free choice, interfered with the right of free expression.

To the traditional rulers of Europe—kings, aristocrats, and clergy—the French Revolution was a great evil, which had inflicted a near-fatal wound on civilization. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was instrumental in shaping conservative thought. Burke, an Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist, wanted to warn his countrymen of the dangers inherent in the ideology of the revolutionaries.

Conservatism pointed to a limitation of the enlightenment. It showed that human beings and social relationships are far more complex than the philosphes had imagined. They often find familiar customs and ancestral religions more satisfying guides to life than the blueprints of philosophers. Conservative theorists warned that revolutionary violence in the pursuit of utopian dreams transforms politics into an ideological crusade that ends in terror and despotism.

Nationalism is a conscious bond shared by a group of people who feel strongly attached to a particular land and who possess a common language, culture, and history, marked by shared glories and sufferings. Nationalists contend that one’s highest loyalty and devotion should be given to the nation.

In an age when Christianity was in retreat, nationalism became the dominant spiritual force in 19th century European life. It provided new beliefs, martyrs, and “holy” days that stimulated reverence; it offered membership in a community, which satisfied the overwhelming psychological need of human beings for fellowship and identity.

Realism, the dominant movement in art and literature in the mid-19th century, opposed the romantic veneration of the inner life and romantic sentimentality. Much like scientists, realist writers and artists carefully investigated the empirical world.

Seeking to portray life as it is, realist writers frequently dealt with social abuses and the sordid aspects of human behavior and social life. Literary realism evolved into naturalism when writers tried to demonstrate a casual relationship between human character and the social environment.

Positivists viewed science as the highest achievement of the mind and sought to apply a strict empirical approach to the study of society.

Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, called for a purely scientific approach to history and society: only through a proper understanding of the laws governing human affairs could society, which was in a state of intellectual anarchy, be rationally reorganized. Like others of his generation, he believed that scientific laws underlay human affairs and could be discovered through the methods of the empirical scientist.

There were many isms during this time period, all of which accomplished different things.


Perry, Marvin: Western Civilization: A Brief History, Volume II from the 1400’s. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.


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