September 23, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

Andrea Wulf’s ‘Magnificent Rebels’ (2022)

The situation in this country and around the world is quite depressing and I wondered what could cheer me up. Then I started to read Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self and that did the trick (I had previously read her biography of Alexander von Humboldt and enjoyed that too). Magnificent Rebels is a magnificent book and lifted my spirits from the start. Reading it, I travelled back to my youth. I also travelled to parts of Germany I had actually never visited.

I studied philosophy at the University of Bonn in the 1970s. I did Kant, lots of Kant, Hegel, lots of Hegel, some Fichte, at least one Schlegel I think, I can’t remember any Schelling. Later, when I delved into the history of linguistics, I read Wilhelm von Humboldt. Had I studied German instead of French alongside philosophy, I might have gained a more than cursory insight into the works of Goethe, Schiller and Novalis. All these characters appear in the book, but unlike in my philosophy classes, they come to life, and, wait for it, there are women!

Joys and sorrows

On 2 September Wulf tweeted the following message which, in a way, encapsulates the exuberance of first part of the book: “Happy Birthday Caroline–Michaelis–Böhmer–Schlegel–Schelling … widowed at 24, imprisoned for being a French sympathizer, pregnant after a wild ball night, married thrice – writer, critic, translator & heart of the Jena Set.”

The stories that Wulf tells about the Jena set centre geographically around Jena, a very small German town in Thuringia, but a town brimming with ideas and idealists (and some realists), with some excursions to other towns like Göttingen, Weimar, Berlin and Dresden for examples. In terms of the main actors involved, we find clusters of men and women, poets, philosophers and scientists, friends and lovers that swirl around each other, merge with each other and separate in a kaleidoscopic way, with Caroline at its centre. The whole plays out exuberantly in the 1790s, a few years after the French revolution, an event that inspired thoughts of freedom and equality in the ways we think, feel, love and live.

But later the Napoleonic wars came to Jena, at a time when the group of friends, who had so happily and energetically “symphilosophised” in Jena, began to disperse, when relationships broke down and when many fell ill and died, only to be resurrected, so to speak in other minds, especially in Britain and the United States. The links between the German romantics and the Wordsworth circle were strong, as well as later those between them and the American transcendentalists.

Elective affinities

Following this trajectory, we hear stories of friendships, for example, about how the poet, scientist and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the elder statesman in the group, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph (von) Schiller, the young playwright, became best buddies; how Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Goethe came to tolerate each other; how Goethe and the polymath and adventurer Alexander von Humboldt experimented and dissected together in the quest for a new science of life; how Schiller and the Schlegels, August Wilhelm and Friedrich, fell out spectacularly; how people fell in love, how couples formed, lived together and separated. We also hear about the impacts of the French revolution on people’s lives, especially that of Caroline Michaelis Böhmer Schlegel Schelling, and about the search for freedom and equality in love and marriage.

We hear about Wilhelm von Humboldt and his wife Caroline who had a very open marriage, at one time a ménage à trois, but stayed together until they died; about Friedrich Schlegel living with his lover and later wife, the divorced writer Dorothea Veit; about Fichte who did not support such infringements to the married status. All these love entanglements that run through the book show how the Jena set not only thought about freedom and creativity but how at least some men and women also tried to live their new philosophies to the full.

Telling tales

All these stories are brought to life through wonderful anecdotes and gossip.

We hear for example about how seven-year-old Auguste, Caroline’s daughter from her first marriage to Böhmer sang the Marseillaise when she and her mother were imprisoned for being revolutionary sympathisers; how Immanuel Kant and Fichte staged a publishing coup that brought fame and a professorship to Fichte; how Goethe and Schiller played with their children; how the death of a lover (and his work in the salt mines) inspired the poet Novalis’s anti-enlightenment philosophy of darkness; how Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher, of hermeneutics fame, lodged together for a while like an old married couple; how Caroline Schlegel guided the thinking and writing of her husband August (but most importantly collaborated in their translations of Shakespeare and indeed wrote her own work alongside the help she gave many others); how students smashed Fichte’s windows; how Schelling usurped students’ affection away from Fichte; how Georg Friedrich Hegel smuggled his work through enemy lines to his printer when Jena was under siege from Napoleon; and much more.

Spreading the word

We also learn about one important coincidence that made it possible for the philosophy of the Jena set to travel all over the world, again an outcome of war and peace, love gained and love lost.

After Caroline had divorced August Wilhelm Schlegel and married Schelling, August travelled with the French writer and politician Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, to Switzerland. De Staël later wrote a book entitled De l’Allemagne (1810) in which she popularised the new and exciting philosophy of the Jena set, a book that was banned by Napoleon. In 1816 Lord Byron met August Wilhelm and Madame de Staël in Switzerland and and “Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein in the company of Lord Byron in a villa just across Lake Geneva, opposite Madame de Staël’s chateau Coppet.”

Science and sensibility

And so, we come to science. This is after all a science blog of sorts. What have all these Schillers and Schellings to do with science? In a sense, science was central to everything they wrote and was, to some extent, the beginning of all the stories told in the book. In the summer of 1794 Goethe wandered over from Weimar to Jena to participate in a meeting of the newly founded Natural History Society. It was there that he met Schiller, a meeting that, alongside Fichte’s philosophy, became the catalyst for almost all the events that happened afterwards, both personal and intellectual.

Science was, in a sense, the backdrop against which the Jena set philosophised, together and apart, a science they saw as separating mind from body, nature from humans, emotions from reason, insight from wonder, and as turning the world into a giant machine.

Fichte’s most famous work was entitled Wissenschaftslehre and grappled with how we achieve knowledge in a free act that creates both the self and the non-self. It’s an extremely difficult philosophy which, I read to my relief, even Goethe didn’t quite get, and, remember when students smashed Fichte’s windows… On that occasion Goethe apparently joked that it must have been painful for Fichte ‘to have the existence of a non-Ich proven to him’. I shall come back to Fichte a bit further below.

Schelling’s most seminal work was perhaps his Naturphilosophie in which started to look at nature from a holistic point of view. This too is a difficult philosophy but Goethe, who liked to take plants and animals apart, immersed himself in it as a counterpoint to reducing science to mere analytical dissection.

Goethe’s famous play Faust is rooted both in Goethe’s own experimentation experiences and in Fichte’s and Schelling’s philosophies. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the foremost natural scientists of his time and his view of the ‘Cosmos’ as a unitary phenomenon was equally influenced by Goethe and these philosophies.

All these thinkers (and doers) attempted to make sense of how we, our-selves, make sense of the world and nature, through science and art, reason and imagination, in an always fragmentary and evolving process that does, nevertheless, not lose sight of the interconnected whole over the disconnected parts. Science is seen as creative and poetic as art and literature.

“’The sciences must all be poeticised,’ Novalis wrote […] Yes, shouted Friedrich Schlegel”. For the Jena set, a poem could be as ‘romantic’ as a scientific experiment, as long as it was the result of an interweaving of reason, emotion and imagination, as long as it embraced true creativity and beauty beyond the mere following of rules, as long as it did not jettison subjectivity for the sake of objectivity. That was the essence of romanticism.

Fichte and freedom

The catalyst for this new thinking about self and society, science and nature, reason and imagination, was Fichte’s all so obscure but still all so admired philosophy of the Ich and the non-Ich.

I leave it to Wulf to summarise it, as she has done in a recent article for The Atlantic: “Fichte’s starting point for everything was the self, but not Kant’s twofold view of the thing-in-itself and the thing-as-it-appears-to-us. He criticized Kant for not having overcome Descartes’ dualism, in which the external world exists independently of the mind. Not only did Fichte overcome this divided world (when he asserted that our knowledge of the external world was produced by our self) but his Ich was powerful: If the Ich brings itself into existence, it must be free. The Ich, not God or monarchs, was the first principle of everything. At a time when most German rulers demanded complete subordination from their subjects, Fichte gave the self the most exciting of all powers: free will.”

Why is this important?

Again, I hand over to Wulf, who puts it so well: “We accept as self-evident that each of us is free to think and form our own opinions, that we have autonomous selves. Western societies and institutions are founded on this spirit of individual freedom and self-determination. But it is becoming clear that this very core of Western democratic culture is being undermined—be it by Russia’s cyber interference in elections or the widespread dissemination of fake news on social media. Many people assumed that they were at least in control of decisions over their own bodies, until the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in June.” ….


I’ll end on a personal note. One evening, a long time ago, when my son was doing ‘cultural studies’ at his local comp, but reading around a bit, turned to me and asked: “So what do you think about Schlegel’s theory of romanticism?” I was rather stunned and stumped and, I can tell you, embarrassed. So, you can imagine that I HAD to read this book, and, to my relief, I found that: “When August Wilhelm [Schlegel] had asked his brother to send him his explanation of the word ‘romantic’, Friedrich had replied that it was impossible because it was two thousand pages long.” I wish I had known that at the time. I’d have felt a little bit less embarrassed.


Image: Jena, 1650 by Matthäus Merian, Wikimedia Commons (I couldn’t find one that was free to use for 1790, but I don’t think the town changed a lot during that time)

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