By Andrea Wulf

John Murray. 494 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-529-39274-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There are times when a number of people with some shared aims and interests come together and, in one way or another, change the course of the history of ideas. Andrea Wulf says that this is what took place in Jena between 1795 and 1805: “For it was here that….a group of novelists, poets, literary critics, philosophers, essayists, editors, translators and playwrights who, intoxicated by the French Revolution, placed the self at the centre stage of their thinking and coalesced, and the impact was seismic, spreading out across the German states and on into the world – and into our minds”.

Jena was a small university town and part of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, “a principality headed by Duke Carl August”. It had around four and a half thousand inhabitants. It needs to be borne in mind that Germany, as we know it, did not then exist. It was made up of numerous minor states, and one major one, Prussia. Small as Jena was, the presence of the university gave it diversity. It had a “thriving local economy of bookbinders, printers, tailors and taverns”. Wulf says that “Jena was a pleasant place. The town had expanded beyond the crumbling medieval walls, with more houses, gardens, nurseries and fields”. And there was a “new botanical garden”. With eight hundred or so students in town there were opportunities for writers and intellectuals to pick up some university work, and even permanent employment for a few notable personalities.       

One of them was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a professor of philosophy. He had achieved some notoriety by placing “the self, the Ich as it is known in Germany, at the centre of his new philosophy. He imbued the self with the most thrilling of all ideas: free will”. The French Revolution had influenced many people’s thinking, especially in Germany where rules and regulations relating to free speech and the right to travel, take certain kinds of employment, marry, and much else varied according to the whims of those in charge. However, as Wulf points out : “The empowerment of the Ich was as much about the liberation of the individual as it was a rebellion against the despotism of the state”.

Fichte’s ideas appealed to those who regularly flocked to his lectures, if not necessarily to the authorities who viewed him as a disturbing influence. He was to become a controversial figure, something that was accentuated by his personal behaviour which could be brusque and combative. But his reputation spread beyond Jena and attracted the attention of young writers and intellectuals. Among them were Caroline and August Wilhelm Schlegel. She was already notorious, or seen as such by the respectable, because of her activities in Mainz.

Caroline Böhmer, as she then was, had welcomed the invading French army and a brief liaison with one of its officers resulted in her having a daughter. When Mainz was liberated she was arrested and imprisoned for collaborating with the enemy. Released, she married Schlegel, one of her many admirers. Caroline was independently minded and intellectually alert. Well-read, she could hold her own in any discussion about literature, philosophy, and other subjects. Once the Schlegels settled in Jena numerous reviews and other material published as by her husband were actually written by Caroline.

The Schlegel’s household soon became a centre for a growing assemblage of young writers. August Wilhelm’s younger brother, Friedrich, turned up and quickly fell for Caroline’s charms. He had created something of a scandal in Berlin when his novel, Lucinde, described by Isaiah Berlin as “a kind of Lady Chatterley of its time”, was constructed around the thinly-disguised details of his affair with Dorothea Veit, an older married mother of two children. She later divorced her husband and lived with Friedrich, though that didn’t stop him from having relations with other women. I have to admit that Friedrich rather intrigued me, partly because of his somewhat wayward and mischievous character.  Wulf describes him as embracing Catholicism in later life and abandoning his earlier beliefs about the Ich and free will. Philosophers like Fichte, Friedrich Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were, he said, just dealing in “dead abstractions”. He seems to have scuffled to make a living, editing journals and lecturing on history, literature and philosophy, with Dorothea, by then his wife, boosting their income by translating works from the French. The translations were credited to him when published. He also worked, though not successfully, for the Austrian civil service.  Interestingly, Wulf says that Friedrich’s “true intellectual accomplishments were only fully acknowledged when, more than a century later, a critical edition made his previously unpublished papers available, revealing him as one of the great thinkers of the first generation of Romantics”.  

Among the more-prominent players in the Jena activities were Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, though the latter was not a devotee of Fichte’s idea of the Ich. The famous poet, admired by just about everyone, and something of an influence on them with his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was older than the others. And he wisely tended to stand aside and try to stay friends with them all while, as was sure to happen when ambitious writers and intellectuals were placed in close proximity to each other, one-time colleagues began to bicker and fall out. The egocentric quickly began to compete.

Reading Wulf’s account of how Goethe, despite a heavy work load from his role as an administrator in Weimar, often visited Jena and took inspiration from the writers and others there, I couldn’t help admiring his patience and forbearance. He even managed to stay calm when Fichte lost his post at the university because of an article he had published which appeared to favour atheism. Goethe attempted to intervene by persuading the authorities to only reprimand Fichte and not dismiss him if he apologised. Wulf refers to Fichte’s “volatile temperament” as one reason why he made matters worse by embarking on a campaign claiming that his right to free speech was under attack.

There were other disputes that Goethe got caught up in. Schiller, well-known for his play, The Robbers, was at loggerheads with the Schlegel brothers due to critical comments that Friedrich Schlegel had written about Horen and Musen-Almanach, two journals edited by Schiller. August William Schlegel had contributed to Horen, and had nothing to do with what his brother had said, but Schiller refused to accept any more work from him. Schiller also upset Fichte who he admired in many ways, though without accepting “Fichte’s belief that the external world didn’t exist without the Ich”. When he rejected an article Fichte had submitted to Horen the philosopher was outraged : “It would be years before Fichte and Schiller spoke to each other again”.

And Schelling was yet another one of the Jena Set who tangled with Fichte. He had been told by Friedrich Schlegel that Fichte had been making negative comments about Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, the work in which he outlined his belief in the notion that “Nature is unconscious will; man is will come to consciousness of itself” (I’m quoting Isaiah Berlin and not Wulf). Furthermore, Fichte had more or less suggested that Schelling was just a follower of his and any worthwhile ideas he had were largely derived from Fichte’s.

Schelling was friendly with Goethe and, according to Wulf, played a key role in getting the older man to return to his unfinished version of the Faust legend and complete it. There was also the fact of the relationship between Schelling and Caroline Schlegel. It was hardly a secret that the pair were having an affair, and that Caroline’s husband was aware of it. In due course she divorced August William and married Schelling. He at one point collaborated with Hegel on a publication called the Critical Journal of Philosophy. Wulf indicates that in America, “the Transcendentalists were inspired by Schelling’s “unity of mind and matter”.

It would be almost impossible in a review to deal with all the people, not to mention their activities and ideas, included in Magnificent Rebels. The scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt spent time in Jena, and Wulf says that, wherever he travelled, he “stayed true to the spirit of Jena……Like his old Jena friends, he believed that feelings and imagination were essential tools for making sense of the external world”. And Friedrich von Hardenberg, who published under the name Novalis, had an impact in his short life with his Hymns to the Night. This was a poem sequence written after the death of Sophie von Kuhn, the girl he was engaged to, and “in which the Ich and the night were the main focus”. Novalis also inspired the use of “fragments”. Friedrich Schlegel had said that “a novel should defy all classifications…..and include everything from fairy tales and dreams to fragments, letters, songs and confessions”. Reading that I was reminded of the work of the American novelist David Markson, several of whose books are made up of deliberate as opposed to accidental  “fragments”.

The Jena Set eventually broke up for various reasons. The personal collisions referred to earlier caused several people to move on. Others left to pursue careers in the academic world and elsewhere. Some died. By 1805 the town was almost empty of followers of the philosophy of the Ich. In 1806 French troops rampaged through the area, looting and burning, before defeating the Prussians and their Saxon allies at the Battle of Jena.

Wulf stresses that Fichte “never intended his ideas to be a narcissistic celebration of the self. Instead, he always insisted that our freedom was tightly interwoven with our moral obligations. ‘Only those are free’, he told students during his first lecture series in 1794, ‘who will try to make everyone around them free’”. A later philosopher, Max Stirner, one-time member of the Young Hegelians, and a major influence on advocates of individualist anarchism, perhaps took the theory of the Ich to its extreme in his book The Ego and His Own when he asserted “Nothing is more to me than myself”. But his ideas never seemed likely to have any wide circulation, though they may have been used by some individuals to justify their own selfishness and exploitation of others.

In her Epilogue Wulf refers to the influence that the Jena set had on later writers and others. The English Romantics, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, are obvious examples. In America Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson were familiar with the works of Schlegel, Schiller and Schelling. According to Wulf their writings were also known to Sigmund Freud: “The Jena Set’s ideas on the centrality of self-consciousness helped to pave the way for modern psychology and psychoanalysis”. And she draws some parallels between Novalis’s advocacy of “fragments” and what James Joyce did in Finnegans Wake.

Magnificent Rebels seems to me a real achievement in the way it blends the personal stories of its leading lights with the ideas that inspired them. Andrea Wulf makes the philosophy understandable, but her emphasis is on the people. Ideas do not exist on their own and they need people to formulate them and put them into practice. One wonders what would have happened had Fichte not propounded his theory of the Ich at a time when it was likely to reach a receptive audience? In different circumstances it might have been passed over as just another abstruse philosophical concept destined to reach only a limited readership. But the time was ripe for what he had to say, and for his words to venture far beyond a few students and fellow-academics.

There are ninety-two pages of notes, and a nineteen page bibliography, plus several pages of relevant illustrations.