On the eve of the “end of history,” Napoleon and his Grande Armée rolled into the small but rowdy university town of Jena. A professor of philosophy, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, caught a glimpse of the “world soul riding out of the city on reconnaissance” as he later wrote a friend. The next day, Napoleon’s army smashed the Prussians and Saxons at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt.
In 1806, Europe was at war. Not just politically. But morally, spiritually, imaginatively, and intellectually. Since the French Revolution, there had hardly been a moment of peace between the great powers of Europe. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, a band of poets, writers, philosophers, theologians, and scientists happened to coalesce at the University of Jena—then Europe’s most important center of education. From roughly 1793 until the university canceled its classes with the arrival of Napoleon’s army in 1806, these fertile years saw the eruption of what we remember as the Romantic Revolution.
What is Romanticism?
To critics, Romanticism was a dark return of mystical passion, the irrational, and a rejection of the logical and empirical outlooks that characterized the so-called Enlightenment. To champions of Romanticism, it was the necessary (and inevitable) response to the de-spiritualization and anti-poetic view of the world that was the corollary result of the philosophy of scientific conquest promoted by Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume and their disciples. The poet Novalis was a man whose life encapsulated the romantic spirit, “[Novalis] turned against the modern age – an age that, according to him, had sucked the sublime and the holiness out of religion, as well as beauty, kindness and humanity.” With Novalis we might best understand Romanticism simply as the reaction against the “disenchantment with the world” wrought by the Scientific Revolution of modernity.
But in this fight against disenchantment and longing for unity and wholeness with nature (which was conceived artistically and poetically like the Christian mystics over a thousand years ago, Augustine most notably) stood the self. The self was uprooted from all the old norms and pillars of the past. This, terrifying as it could be, also portended a great freedom. Romanticism, at once yearning for wholeness, also embraced the philosophy of the I, the Ich of Fichte’s philosophy from whence the roaring rivers of Romanticism flowed.
Andrea Wulf’s brilliant history of the lives of the “Jena Set,” her term for the myriad of souls we also know as the Jena Romantics, tells the story how a handful of rambunctious, revolutionary, and at times adulterous group of young German students turned professors and writers began to redefine our sense of self and the world. It was at Jena, a small university town that was the intellectual hub of the world at the time, where these souls gathered. It was at Jena that they lived and theorized their liberative, poetic, and sensual world of beauty, hope, and despair. It was at Jena they had their moments of inspiration and their moments of tragedy.
Many of the Jena Set are well-known to us but for a variety of different reasons. Among poets and writers were Novalis, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Schiller, and Goethe, “Germany’s most celebrated poet.” Among philosophers there were Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and eventually George W.F. Hegel. Among scientists were Wilhelm and Alexander Humboldt. There were also impetuous and scandalous women seeking erotic freedom like Dorothea Veit and Caroline Michaelis-Bohmer-Schlegel-Schelling, perhaps the most influential it-girl before the idea of the it-girl.
We who live two centuries after the Romantic Revolution might not realize how indebted we are to these men and women. Free love; the self as the center of the universe and moral creation; the equality of the sexes; the desire to have a relationship with nature amid the growth of scientific and technological advancement; the belief that imagination rules the world, all were the gifts, good and bad, of the Jena Set. As Wulf aptly summarizes, “the Jena Set feared…that humankind focused too much on reason alone. Reality, they believed, had been stripped of poetry, spirituality and feeling.” The pendulum was swinging back in favor of a life governed by art, poetry, and imagination.
It is wrong, though, to think that the Romantics were anti-rational or anti-science as some of the crudest critics of Romanticism have contended (then and now). On the contrary. Many were leading figures in the exciting new age of scientific discovery, a new scientific age that sought to return poetry and spiritually to science stripped from the preceding century of scientific rationalism. Though we remember Goethe principally as a poet and dramatist, he was also an amateur scientist with a deep interest in botany and color theory. Alexander Humboldt, whose expeditions in South America led to the development of biogeography, embodied the spirit of Romantic science: the cosmos was not a cold, mechanical, clockwork world as Newton and his disciples asserted, rather, the cosmos was alive as an interconnected whole! The scientific outlook of the Romantics took the discoveries of modernity and injected it with a poetic mysticism.
Romanticism, following Fichte’s philosophy, was all about self-action. Romanticism, following Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, was all about the unity of art, beauty, feeling, freedom. We might go as far as to say that Romanticism was really about the self as the interconnected bridge uniting all things as one leading to the union of beauty, passion, politics, and morality as all being expressions of moral action. Moral, at least in the eyes of our Romantic heroes and heroines. (Not everyone agreed then and not everyone would agree now.) This is what the Romantics theorized about. This is what the Romantics wrote about. This is what the Romantics tried to live out, though they all failed miserably at this.
Part of the backdrop to the Romantic Revolution was the Storming of the Bastille, that most sublime moment of the French Revolution. The French Revolution offered new hope for a Europe often stifled by ancient monarchies, principalities, and ecclesiastical authorities. The Jena Set was not immune from this intoxicating allure. The fires of French Revolution initially shined brightly and gave them hope; until the horrific turn to the Terror under Robespierre caused many to break sharply with the terror and bloodshed of the Jacobins. All but Caroline, who enthusiastically welcomed French revolutionary soldiers into Mainz in 1793, was impregnated through an affair with a French officer, and imprisoned by anti-French authorities, retained a lively sentiment to the French revolutionaries even as their revolution drifted toward bloodshed and despotism.
The excitement and hope for liberation and liberty, though, didn’t dissipate as the fire of revolution turned to despotism and war. While the Jena Set eventually moved beyond politics, the search and want for freedom: freedom in philosophy, freedom in art, freedom in science, was the governing spirit of the young Romantics who began to transform our world and consciousness at the university lecterns, salons, apartments, and homes in Jena. What began as a hopeful experiment in liberty eventually devolved into petty squabbles, power struggles, and romantic disillusionments. Human nature, it turns out, is still very real.
Friends became enemies. Enemies became entrenched in their hatred for each other. Lovers swapped arms and beds with others. Even children died. Then some of our protagonists, like Novalis, died young. In this tempest Andrea Wulf reveals all to her readers. The highs and lows, the successes and failures, the love affairs and subsequent despair and grief, of the Jena Set.
Our world is as much a product of the Enlightenment’s philosophy of scientific conquest as it is the contradictory celebration of the self and the desire for an original wholeness and beauty lost across the sands of time that threatens to consume the self. The Romantics who had come to love art and drama so much, if they had the good fortune of looking back on their history, might just see that their lives have become a tragedy. While we still remember the Jena Set for their writings, often encountering them as dry, boring, and even incomprehensible (that is still true, especially in philosophy) we hardly remember them for the truly engrossing moments of their lives—but those are the moments that Andrea Wulf resurrects for us and, as readers, we are truly grateful.
Magnificent Rebels is a gracefully written book that reads as a series of vivid and enticing episodes into the lives of the Jena Romantics—little biographies and snapshots. In Wulf’s chronological tapestry of the gripping drama of her Jena Set, we are treated to historical biography, intellectual commentary and exposition, and personal details and foibles often left out of Literature, Philosophy, and Science classes where students might have first encountered these famous souls. Her book reads like a miniseries of an electrifying and transformative time with an unforgettable cast of characters. It has a little bit of everything for everyone. That is not a weakness but a great strength, for it incapsulates the Romantic impetus for wholeness.
Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
By Andrea Wulf
New York: Knopf, 2022; 512pp
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