19th-century philosophers and poets who asked what it means to be free


The romantic philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte stood before a crowded auditorium in the late 18th century and urged his students to look within. take care of yourselfhe would say Avert your eyes from everything around you: the walls of the classroom, the other students just inches away, the world itself. Thus began Fichte’s acclaimed lectures on the meaning of freedom, drawing a fascinated audience numbering in the hundreds. A few years later, another great Romantic, Friedrich Schelling, took over the lectern at the same university. Fichte’s former student and soon-to-be bitter rival, Schelling, taught by the light of two candles. In his courses on nature and art, the darkened lecture hall once again became a place of enchantment. “I was in a state of rapture,” recalled one listener. Others just burst into tears.

Andrea Wulf’s stirring and often profound new group biography, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, keeps coming back to such classroom scenes. Set in Jena, a German university town that was briefly the intellectual capital of Europe around the turn of the 19th century, the book shows how “the first romantics” or “the Jenaer Set”, as Wulf calls them, came about together – to write, argue, love and study. It paints an exciting picture of university life that is less and less known in our own era of hypermediated education and the ongoing devaluation of the humanities.

The book’s title adapts an expression of one of Fichte’s contemporary, the critic Friedrich Schlegel – “great outlaws” or literally “exiles” – to describe this group of poets and philosophers who lived together after the French Revolution and asked to go their own ways, what it means to be free. Wulf paints a moving collective portrait of these intellectuals struggling to embody their revolutionary ideals. She argues that the Romantics – including Goethe, Schiller, and Hegel, as well as some lesser-known figures such as the philosophers Fichte and Schelling, the critics Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, and the poet Novalis – have handed down to us the modern notion of the self as essentially free. Wulf also shows the importance of women in this intellectual circle who lived through their own experiments in liberation. Caroline Schlegel, August Wilhelm’s wife, who herself worked as a translator and critic, plays a crucial role in the story, its biographical and emotional pivot.

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As a local history of Romanticism, the book stands in striking contrast to Wulf’s last, the acclaimed The Invention of Nature. There Wulf followed the romantic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt from Berlin and Jena to Venezuela, Siberia and beyond. In Magnificent Rebels, the main reminder of a world outside of Jena comes in the form of occasional news reports of Napoleon’s rise to power and his campaign of conquest – a campaign which in the final chapter becomes a devastating intrusion into the seclusion of intellectual life.

At its most ambitious, Magnificent Rebels explores the relationships between philosophy and politics, thought and action. It examines the tension between the inwardness of romantic philosophy and the ethical or political aspirations of its practitioners, almost all of whom supported the French Revolution. For the Romantics, Wulf argues, this apparent contradiction could understood only in the light of a concept of ego or ego: the autonomous self or free actor, which we still often think of as. Shaped by its revolutionary historical context, this idea of ​​universal human freedom had radical and far-reaching implications that transcended individual minds. It posed a direct challenge to the oppressive hierarchies of old regimes.

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As is well known, the romantic vision of the self centered on the power of the imagination. As Novalis put it, in “poetry” the self demonstrates that it is free. For Wulf, as for many others, these claims raise a difficult question: was the romantic philosophy of liberty a genuine revolutionary philosophy? Or was it more of a withdrawal from politics, an attempt to overcome social conflicts with imaginative or poetic means? The latter has long been consensus, but to her credit, Wulf never fully accepts that these two possibilities are opposed. She acknowledges that the Romantics really hoped to reinvent the world and did so in part with their ideas. As Friedrich Schlegel observed in a moment of “sublime insolence,” “Whoever writes only for philosophers can be incredibly foolhardy before the police notice.” Schlegel knew that the Romantics’ thoughts on freedom, nature, art, and more had real impact could.

Despite the complex arguments developed by its main characters, the book vividly conveys the drama of the ideas. It captures the unique joys of community thinking (“symphilosophy” in Schlegel’s term) as well as the suffering and sense of betrayal that mark the dissolution of a community. there There’s a lot of erotic drama here too, because the rebellion that Wulf describes was primarily sexual. As we see in detail, for the Romantics, free thought and free love were inseparable, and the personal consequences were often excruciating.

When the book tries to communicate the ideas of its subjects – some of which are notoriously obscure – there can be oversimplification. It sometimes unnecessarily avoids the language used by the Romantics themselves; for example, the absence of the term “irony” is odd considering its importance to Schlegel, who gave a philosophical meaning to this familiar poetic device. And important forerunners like Rousseau and Kant are mentioned only briefly. Still, Magnificent Rebels shows with great clarity how the romantic desire to liberate the self still shapes our sense of who we are – or who we could be.

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In the book’s epilogue, Wulf traces the influence of the Jena Romantics on American transcendentalism and beyond. Her interests are primarily literary, but there would be other ways to tell the story of Romanticism’s legacies. In 1836 the young Karl Marx studied with August Schlegel in Berlin. It was the romantic ideal of freedom that Marx had in mind a few years later when he argued that German philosophy was a compensation for the absence of a political revolution. “We are philosophical contemporaries of the present,” he wrote, “without being their historical contemporaries.” In Germany, unlike in France, the revolution had only taken place in books. But, he added, there is no way to go beyond philosophy “without making it a reality‘ – but without creating a new social world in which it would be possible to live freely together, as the Romantics envisioned, on a scale far greater than that of a university town. For Marx, this was a world waiting to be built. And it still is.

Greg Ellermann is a lecturer in English at Yale University and the author of “Thought wilderness: romance and understanding of nature.”

The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

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