Magnificent Rebels

I originally wrote this review of Magnificent Rebels, by Andrea Wulf, on Medium, before I started this blog, but I thought I may as well reprint it here.

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self recounts the history of the “Jena Circle,” a group of highly influential German writers, poets, and philosophers who were instrumental in birthing the Romantic movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As author Andrea Wulf points out, people today often forget that this movement inspired later Romantics such as the English poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe and MaryShelley, Keats as well as the American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau. While the latter are now considered more characteristic of the Romantics (at least among many English and American readers), Wulf convincingly recounts how the Germans of the Jena set actually laid the foundations for the movement.

Magnificent Rebels is a broad and ambitious book that spans several decades and covers the poets Goethe (probably the best-remembered of the group today) and Novalis the philosophers Fichte and Schelling, the playwright Schiller, and the Schlegal brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm. Also central to the group was Caroline Schlegel-Schelling who was married three times, including to the aforementioned Schelling and Schlegel. Wulf emphasizes Carolines’ role as muse to many of the men as well as someone with formidable writing and translating abilities of her own (though, as was typical at that time, many of her writings were published under the names of the men with whom she collaborated). The naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (about whom Wulf wrote another book, The Invention of Nature) is also an influential figure in this circle, helping Goethe explore his own interests in the natural world.

Those (including myself) not familiar with German may find the names a bit of a challenge as “Friedrich,” “Wilhelm,” and “August” recur multiple times as first, middle, and last names. Schlegel, Schelling, and Schiller are a kind of alliterative tongue twister. There are even two important Carolines in the circle. Wulf is considerate enough to include a cast of characters for reference at the start of the book, which I often referred to.

Magnificent Rebels mostly covers the volatile years 1794 to 1806, when Napoleon conquered much of modern-day Germany, including, eventually, Jena. Before this, Jena was one of the cultural centers of Germany, with a flourishing university and enthusiastic students who would come from far and wide to hear charismatic professors such as Fichte and Schelling.

Whereas many nonfiction books fall into a dry recounting of names and dates, Wulf keeps the reader engaged with a compelling narrative that reads almost like a novel. We get caught up in the intellectual excitement of this age and how important it was in bringing about the modern world.

Wulf makes a strong case for the Jena set philosophers, in particular Fichte, for literally inventing the “self” as we understand it today. Fichte used the term “ich” which can be translated as self (as well as ego, as Freud later used the term). The world is divided into Ich and non-Ich. Fichte, and then Schelling, continued in the tradition of Kant, who pointed out that we can never know the world as it is, only as we see it through our senses.

I don’t want to write pages and pages about abstract metaphysical points, but the turn of the 18th century Jena was one of those rare times and places (perhaps like Athens in the times of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) when philosophy actually excited and influenced many people and influenced how they thought about the world. Today, by contrast, philosophers have almost no audience beyond academic departments. I should also point out that Wulf does an exemplary job of summarizing complex intellectual arguments in a comprehensible way, certainly better than the average philosopher does (if you’ve ever tried to read Kant, Hegel, or Heidegger, you’ll know what I mean).

One somewhat depressing aspect of the Magnificent Rebels story is how the group splintered into factions and spent so much time competing and, in some cases, actively subverting one another. The philosophers Fichte and Schelling became enemies over abstract points that most people wouldn’t even understand. The poets were just as cantankerous, with Schilling turning against the Schlegels and so on.

Of course, artists and intellectuals have always been notoriously egotistical and competitive. What makes it disheartening in the case of the Jena set is that they began with such a utopian vision where like-minded visionaries would collaborate to help create a more enlightened future. Aside from the “friends’” (as Wulf calls them throughout the book) strong egos, history, largely in the form of Napoleon, also worked against them as the French army eventually occupied Jena in 1806, largely ending the town’s peaceful, intellectual atmosphere.

To her credit, Wulf resists any temptation to romanticize these Romantics. They are portrayed as brilliant, inspired, and historically important but also as often petty and self-absorbed. Nonetheless, their contributions to fields as diverse as poetry, literature, and the natural sciences is undeniable. While the Jena set never quite succeeded in forming an idyllic community, the individual and, in some cases, collaborative efforts of each of the Jena set’s members were immortalized in their many great works. Andrea Wulf does an exceptional job at capturing the excitement and enthusiasm of this unique period.

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