Romanticism and Classicism (Assembly Required)

I’ve been obsessed with the concept of an aesthetic recently. In particular, aesthetics applied to things other than art and design. I’ve come to believe that your aesthetic posture is one of the most important determinants of how you think.

This post was threatening to snowball into a 10,000 essay (here’s why) so I decided to spare you the pain and provide three sampler pieces of the dozen or so I am trying to assemble into…something. Instead I’ll leave you to try and assemble something out of these pieces yourself.

Hint: you may want to try viewing a variety of distinct examples that are not formally pieces of art using these three constructs. Like say, coffee, the Republican/Democrat parties (in America), popcorn, a slum, a forest, a language, a mathematical result, a piece of code, an approach to planning a vacation, a way of organizing a desk…. So here you go, your first DIY ribbonfarm post.

First, always a good idea to start with a 2×2. Here, the challenge was to come up with a useful y-axis.

Next, an attempt to link aesthetics with attitudes about time. Paired-term lists are always good for exploring a dichotomy, and time is a reliably fertile variable to attempt to link to just about anything else.

And finally, a grab bag of derivative stances that I think arise from aesthetic stances. Generative application of a dichotomy to a large sample of related abstractions usually yields insights. Sometimes predictable, sometimes not so predictable, sometimes counter-intuitive. There are examples of all three here. Normally, I would throw away the scaffolding and start worrying about the predictable ones. I don’t like it when thinking goes according to plan. But do your own thing. Sometimes it is interesting to switch to a skeptical perspective and cross-examine the counter-intuitive results, to make sure the pleasure of an Aha! isn’t blinding you to a weakness.


I won’t share any more pieces just yet, but you may want to try applying a yin-yang to romanticism/classicism, or think about the negative space of this ideaspace (the space of ideas/abstractions etc. that this set of thoughts does not organize explicitly or reach via generative expansion). Or think about tricky-to-analyze aesthetics like wabi-sabi (tricky examples often turn out to be counter-examples to something or the other).

A word of warning: based on a casual online scan I’ve been underwhelmed by what I’ve seen written about the two words (romanticism and classicism) by way of definition, so I’ve gone Humpty-Dumpty and am using the words in ways that make sense to me.  I may be reinventing the wheel, repeating mistakes, confusing people who are used to the way a particular academic field uses these words, etc. You can actually use these diagrams to figure out why I think the way I think. Very meta.

Have fun. Feel free to use the images as you like. If you blog your DIY take on these pieces somewhere, a comment with a link or a trackback would be appreciated. If people enjoy playing with this, I may do more DIY posts.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Fascinating and insightful, as always. Just wondering if (provided I understood your use of the concepts correctly with both axes capturing a measure of top-down/predictable vs. bottom-up/open-edned) it would not make sense to rotate your 2×2 90º CW to get something along these lines:

    If so, does the link aesthetics and political attitudes really work as described? The two romantic quadrants will indeed always be looking for change since they see the future as open-ended, but the two classics (esp. the fundamentalists) will only preserve if they believe that the deviations from the original paradise have not been too big. In other words, politically there is room for radical conservatism. The science attitudes also seem to me as if they belong more on the Idealise/Essentialise axis than on the Romantic/Classic one…

  2. Alexander Boland says:

    I came up with a similar diagram a while back, though I don’t know entirely how I feel about it. I went through a number of axes; but the two that seemed most similar to your own diagram were “Questions/Answers” (romantic/classical) and “Form/Essence” (idealize/essentialize).

    Questions+Form: Structuralist
    Questions+Essence: Phenomenologist
    Answers+Form: Platonist
    Answers+Essence: Pragmatist

    My own drawing of this map is of course biased–I tend to think that anyone who sees platonic forms as anything more than a temporary verbalization of a dialectic is simply wrong.

    I also had a thought about the “ribbonfarm forum” idea based on this: a forum would be a great place to play with archetypes and 2×2 diagrams.

    • Indeed, it really looks like the Analytic (Questions,drawn from experience thus somehow subjective or emotionaly charged, romantic) VS Synthetic (Answers, applied from knowledge) dichotomy.
      I’d add another line to the table
      Art – Dionysian – Apollonian

      • Alexander Boland says:

        Questions was meant to represent “existence as flux”–the idea that things don’t exist outside of some dialectic/entropic process. Answers was meant to represent “existence as data”–there are pre-existing “objects” that exist and assume their shape independently of what kind of light we choose to shine on them.

        When I leave a pair of shoes in the closet, they exist in some constant way regardless of my observation. I cannot say the same for subatomic particles. The question is where we classify things like concepts and more complex knowledge.

  3. I think that what you’re calling the Romantic/Classic dichotomy, I’d call more of a Learn/Trust dichotomy. An individual in the former camp defaults to figuring things out, building things, or experiencing things for himself; one in the latter camp puts more weight into humanity’s collective experience, whether that comes directly from societal ideas/values or indirectly through “experts” selected by society. I’d also tie J and, more loosely, N on the Myers-Briggs test to the first camp and P and, more loosely, S to the second.

  4. You’ve got me thinking about whether this dichotomy has an application to economics/finance/trading. No traction yet, but if I get somewhere I will link it.

    • How about marxist thought being fundamentalist (and probably the Austrians too, though with a different set of essentials), Chicago-style finance markets and theory of the firm being formalist, classical liberalism a la Smith being experientialist, and Keynsianism narrativist?

  5. If you flip this horizontally, such that ‘Classic’ is on the left, it reminds me somewhat of the “4 humours” or “imprint types” as explicated by Robert Anton Wilson in _Prometheus Rising_ (see page 73 and onwards at )

  6. ?

  7. Hello there,

    i wrote a long essay about evolution of culture. It begins with a philosophical disquisition about culture. I think the interesting part would be page 10-12, because here i tried to categorize the evolution of culture in romantic and classic domains.
    unfortunately its in german language:

    well only the first 20 pages are very interesting, the rest of the historical abstraction is to shallow. besides its “only” the groundwork for a game i made for the university. you can download the game on my homepage, if you can find it ;)

    greetings Pablo

  8. Might the romantic/classic aesthetic be between those who value a thing for the personal, emotional charge it brings vs those who value a thing for the external systemic pleasure that it brings? So, “I love how it makes me feel” vs “I love how this fits neatly into everything else, and helps everything else make sense”.