How did Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried von Herder inspire European romanticism (literature)?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

n many ways, the great thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johan Gottfried von Herder were the harbingers of Romanticism in Europe. Here are major characteristics of Romanticism and how these two men are connected with them:

  • Inner World and Power of the Individual

Johan Gottfried von Herder broke from the psychologists of his time who examined various aspects of the mind; instead, he perceived the human as having unique sensitivities which made him the "first liberated member of creation" capable of individual experience. Furthermore, he perceived historical existence as the conflict between "individuation and the whole of history." This idea runs counter to that of previous thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy who felt that individuals, even powerful ones such as Napolean and Alexander the great, did not affect the outcome of history. 

Von Herber perceived the mind of a human being as an individual phenomenon, 

...a human soul is an individual in the realm of minds: it senses in accordance with an individual formation, and thinks in accordance with the strength of its mental organs.

Much like the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau with the freedom of the individual, who was in conflict with society. Rousseau felt that society played a corrupting role upon the pure soul of the individual because he felt that individuals derived their sense of self from the opinions of others, a condition that was "corrosive and freedom, and destructive of...authenticity."

  • Poetry as the Highest Form of Literature

In his intense examination of the works of Homer and Shakespeare, Herder concluded that the more profound aspects of man's life are revealed in the creative employment of language that functions to enlighten the mind. He declared,

A poet is the creator of a nation around him....he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.  

Rousseau stressed the importance of feeling and emotion, a characteristic of poetry. His writings on language stress that the arrangement of words permits the communication of the passions in a way that actions and gestures cannot. Moreover the "tone and stress of linguistic communication" are of much greater import than the content of this communication.

  • Interest and love of Nature

Rousseau felt that in his natural state man is good. And by attending to nature, man is prone to living a more virtuous life than if he adheres to the opinions and forces of society.  It is in his natural state that man can be happy.