Romanticism – the roots of Existentialism?

There is a fascinating series of documentaries by Simon Schama on BBC about Romanticism and its relevance to the modern world.

The first episode was about the aspect of Romanticism which was concerned with freedom, the imagination, a sense of self and a sense of humanity as one facing an uncertain future and an indifferent universe. Its politics were anti-establishment, anti-elite with an emphasis on the power of the people and yet also the importance of individual freedom.

As I watched the programme I was increasingly struck by the echoes of existentialism and began to wonder how far back beyond Nietzsche and Kierkegaard those roots stretched?

When you read Shelley’s political poetry with its emphasis on action, or his defence of atheism; when you look at Delacroix’s liberty leading the people or Gericault’s raft of the medusa, you are seeing and reading the ancestors of existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus with their philosophy of freedom, authenticity and political action to express the voices of the oppressed.

And in Coleridge and Wordsworth you read of their love or nature, their absolute immersion in life as if nothing else matters but what is around us here and now, again reflecting Sartre’s belief that this life is all there is and needs to be experienced and lived as authentically as possible.

So, it seems the modern world does contain echoes from the Romantics, and their influence is deeper and wider than we might have imagined.

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