Stendhal on Romanticism and Classicism

In his little book, Racine and Shakespeare, Stendhal defined romanticism and classicism as follows:

Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

To which Victor Hugo replied,

…he is profoundly unaware of what the classical genre is or what the romantic genre is.

Perhaps. Stendhal’s definitions aren’t like anything I’ve ever heard in an English class. On the other hand, they’re as clear and understandable now as they were when he wrote them down nearly 200 years ago. I suspect they’re also a great deal more useful for actually communicating an idea than anything Hugo might have come up with. For example, as Stendhal put it,

It requires courage to be a romantic (his definition), because one must take a chance. The prudent classicist, on the contrary, never takes a step without being supported secretly, by a line from Homer or by a philosophical comment made by Cicero in his treatise De Senectate.

If you look at what passes for “culture” in Europe in our time, it’s obvious that not many artists are taking chances. They’re mostly content with repackaging the work that pleased their great-grandfathers.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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