The 'Romantic predicament', which still continues today, occurred first, approximately, between 1780 and 1850 and embraces such names as Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake, Scott and Wordsworth in literature, especially poetry, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann in music, and Schiller, Schelling, Novalis, and August and Friedrich Schlegel in philosophy All, in their own way, were critical of a modern world which they viewed as alienating, corrupt or empty. Culture was deployed as the weapon against civilization. In this context, other cultures apart from the modern European one were invoked as idealized counterpoints to modern civilization - the Middle Ages (Scott and Novalis), the American New World (Coleridge) and an Athenian poetic republicanism (the Schlegels).

In On the Aesthetic Education of Man, barbarism is used by Schiller as a modern category to denote the pathologies of modern, Western civilization. In Schiller's understanding, it has nothing to do with the presumed savagery of so-called primitive peoples. It is a modern condition in which the division of labour and political democratization and state-formation result in the fragmentation of the human world. Schiller's response is a pedagogical one based on an ideal of aesthetic play. In a manner similar to much of Romantic criticism, Schiller's aesthetics refers to the Athenian world through the image of a lost, undistorted human nature in contrast to modern, fragmented life. This lost, undistorted condition cannot be regained, according to Schiller, but he sees it as a precondition for a new humankind which is transformed by an aesthetic revolution that unites desire and freedom, sentiment and reason.