Book Review

The Birth of the Self

“When did we begin to be as selfish as we are today?” asks historian Andrea Wulf in her new book Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self.[1] “At what point did we expect to have the right to determine our own lives? When did we think it was our right to take what we wanted? . . . When did we first ask the question, how can I be free?”
Wulf locates the historical moment in the small German university town of Jena, in the years between the onset of the French Revolution and the town’s devastation by Napoleon’s armies in 1806. During the research for her 2015 biography of Alexander von Humboldt, Wulf found herself fascinated by the “Jena Set” with whom Humboldt socialized and collaborated during extended visits to the town during the 1790s. Between 1789, when Friedrich Schiller arrived in Jena to lecture on history and aesthetics at the university, and 1807, when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a latecomer, finally left the nearly ruined town, a remarkable group of thinkers and authors lived there: as well as Schiller and Hegel, there were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Johann Gottlieb Fichte; Alexander von Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm; the Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and August Wilhelm; Friedrich Hölderlin; Novalis (pen name of Friedrich von Hardenberg); Ludwig Tieck; Friedrich Schelling. And then there was Caroline Michaelis Böhmer, whom Wulf sees as the heart of the group, an intellectual widow who had given birth to a child out of wedlock and then married first August Wilhelm Schlegel and then, after divorcing him, Schelling. All these people worked side by side, collaborated, competed, fought. By the turn of the nineteenth century, they had mostly fallen out with one another, but their proximity during the key Revolutionary years had a great deal to do, as Wulf demonstrates, with the birth of Romanticism and what it was eventually to become.
Why Jena? For one thing, it was in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, ruled over by the cultivated and relatively liberal Duke Carl August. One of the period’s so-called “enlightened” monarchs, Carl August presided over a court that was famous for its intellectual brilliance. Germany, at the time, was still composed of some 1,500 states, at varying levels of autocracy. The princes, dukes, kings, and electors still had feudal rights over their subjects; no one could marry without the sovereign’s say-so; and anyone who hoped to settle in a particular place had to have his permission. Among a cohort of mostly reactionary rulers, Saxe-Weimar’s Carl August was notable for his tolerance.
“One unintended advantage of [Germany’s] fragmentation,” Wulf points out, “. . . was that censorship was much more difficult to enforce than it was in large, centrally administered nations such as France or England.” In Jena this was particularly true: its university was controlled by four different dukes, with no one really in charge. As a result, its professors had far more freedom than was the case at other German institutions. Social mores, too, were laxer in Jena than elsewhere; Wulf reveals that the rate of illegitimate births was more than ten times the national average! All these unusual circumstances meant that “the last decade of the eighteenth century saw more famous poets, writers, philosophers and thinkers living in Jena in proportion to its population than in any other town before or since.”
As a teenager Duke Carl August, like so many of his contemporaries, had fallen in thrall to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and invited Goethe to live at the ducal court in Weimar. The poet and novelist, twenty-six years of age, arrived there in 1775 and became not only Carl August’s confidant, but a privy councillor; he would remain a servant of the Duke and an on-and-off resident of Weimar for the rest of his life.
One of Goethe’s countless interests was botany, and in 1794 he traveled to Jena to supervise the construction there of a new botanical garden and institute, putting up at the old ducal castle. Schiller, who had been there five years, was the town’s most interesting inhabitant: working feverishly on history and philosophy, he had moved away from the plays and poetry which had won him fame twenty years earlier. He was torn between creative and intellectual work: “Imagination disturbs my abstract thinking, and cold reason my poetry.” His friendship with Goethe, one of the most fruitful in literary history, began there at Jena. Their contrasting temperaments and outlooks on life enriched their collaboration as it would their work in Weimar later on. Goethe saw himself as a realist, an empiricist, while Schiller was a self-described “idealist.”
Another star appeared in Jena about the same time as Goethe: Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a philosopher of immense charisma. At that time university students paid professors directly for the privilege of attending their classes. Fichte’s were always oversubscribed; his students at Jena would dub him “the Bonaparte of Philosophy.” At the center of his system was the “Ich”—the self—contrasted with what was outside the self: the “non-Ich.” Initially a disciple of Immanuel Kant, Fichte had now come to disbelieve in Kant’s “thing-in-itself.” “The only certainty, Fichte told his students, was that the world was experienced by the self—by the ‘Ich’ . . . The new focus was the self, and on the self being aware of itself—or what we now call ‘self-consciousness.’ And with this Fichte fundamentally recentred the way we understand the world.”
This new focus on the Ich fit the historical moment and mood perfectly. “My system is the first system of freedom,” Fichte boldly claimed: “just as the French nation is tearing man free from his external chains, so my system tears him free from the chains of things-in-themselves, the chains of external influences.” Goethe and Schiller attended the lectures. Goethe was delighted by what Fichte’s system implied about the necessity of free will and was interested in its implications about individual subjectivity; it connected with the work he’d been doing on optics and color theory. He playfully began addressing his correspondents as “Dear non-Ich.” Schiller was interested but eventually turned away from Fichte’s conclusions, weary of his obsession with the Ich and non-Ich. It “was like a vortex that sucked everything in . . . he couldn’t accept Fichte’s belief that the external world didn’t exist without the Ich.”
In 1795 Schiller founded Horen, a journal with the goal of bringing together the best in German culture: literature, philosophy and the arts, with the concept of a German nation (which of course legally had yet to exist) binding the ideas. It was in the pages of Horen, Wulf claims, that the Jena set became a cohesive group for the first time. The groundbreaking linguist, anthropologist and man of letters Wilhelm von Humboldt and his wife Caroline had recently moved to Jena, where Wilhelm’s brother Alexander, now generally thought to have been the greatest scientist of the nineteenth century, often visited them. They both wrote pieces for the new journal, as did August Wilhelm Schlegel. Goethe contributed his Roman Elegies. Schiller made it the forum for his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason rather than feeling, Schiller claimed, had led to the excesses of the French Revolution. “Utility is the great idol of our time, to which all powers pay homage.” Beauty, on the other hand, leads to ethical principles, and art, as its vessel, makes us better people as well as wiser ones. “[I]t is through beauty that we reach freedom.” Was he correct? As a civilization, we still don’t seem to have made up our mind on this question. But Schiller’s tract had a tremendous influence, becoming, in Wulf’s words, “a founding document for a new generation of thinkers and writers called the Romantics.”
There were new arrivals in Jena too. August Wilhelm Schlegel had married Caroline Böhmer in mid-1796, and they came to Jena a week later. “Dozens of the three hundred reviews and essays that were published under his name over the next years were in fact written by Caroline,” Wulf reveals. The daughter of a Göttingen professor, Caroline had a sharp intellect and an equally sharp tongue. She and August Wilhelm had begun translating Shakespeare’s plays together before their arrival in Jena—the first Shakespeare translations into German. In all they did sixteen plays in five years, making August Wilhelm famous and establishing Germany’s great Shakespeare cult. And the young poet Novalis came too, initially as a student of Schiller and Fichte, whom he greatly admired. Fichte he called a second Copernicus, “the one who woke me up.” But why, he asked, had Fichte ignored the question of love? “Freedom and love are one,” Novalis proclaimed, with love the “synthesising force.” Novalis was an eccentric; in later ages, indeed, he might have been diagnosed as bipolar. When his fiancée Sophie von Kühn died of a liver abscess at the age of fifteen, he was certain that his Ich was strong enough to allow him to follow her to the grave through willpower alone. It didn’t work, but he maintained his faith in the Ich and never gave up hope that he could somehow, through mental powers alone, separate body and spirit.
Like others in the set, Novalis was a polymath who studied mathematics, physics, geology and biology as well as poetry and philosophy. He was a key figure in the Jena thinkers’ attempt to fuse the scientific and the emotional, art and nature; he preceded Keats in judging truth to be beauty, beauty truth, and he planned a sort of anti-Diderotean Encyclopedia that instead of separating subjects into categories would unite them in an “absolute universal body of knowledge.” His Hymns to the Night, in which he took the truthfully rather earthy Sophie von Kühn and mythologized her as an ethereal, fairylike creature, has been said to be the most important poem of the young Romantics. “The more poetical,” Novalis famously claimed, “the more true”—a dubious proposition, then and now. “It wasn’t Freud,” Wulf writes, “who first explored dreams and the darker regions of the mind, nor William Blake or Coleridge, but the Jena set.” Well, maybe . . . some of Blake’s darker masterpieces were already being written; perhaps it is safer to say that these ways of seeing were being born independently, from the implosion of Enlightenment ideals during the chaos of the revolutionary age. Most of the Jena set (Schiller was a notable exception) celebrated what they saw as a creative chaos the Revolution had ignited.
Friedrich Schlegel, brother of Wilhelm August, was Novalis’ bosom friend; “You live,” Schlegel told Novalis in awe; “the others only breathe.” A bumptious, often divisive presence, Schlegel frequently voiced his opinion that old systems, above all Europe’s remaining anciens régimes, should be torn down mercilessly so that a new “aesthetic anarchy” might fill the void, inciting a “happy catastrophe” in the style of the French Revolution. His partner was Dorothea Veit, a daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, whom Friedrich had removed from her husband back in Berlin. Like Caroline Schlegel she was accustomed to taking part in intellectual life alongside men; she had been a central figure in Berlin’s Jewish salons, “the only places in Prussia where religious, class and gender boundaries were absent.” The Schlegel brothers were planning a new journal, Athenaeum, in which all their friends might take part, or “symphilosophize,” a word they invented. Perhaps the most influential items printed in Athenaeum were the “fragments,” mostly written by Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel but with a few others by Wilhelm August Schlegel, Caroline Schlegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher. It was then, Wulf writes, “for the first time, that the fragment became a favoured expression of art and literature,” to be taken up by Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Chopin, Schumann, and many others.
It was also in the pages of Athenaeum that the word “romantic” was first used in its new literary and philosophical sense. “By giving the commonplace a higher meaning,” Novalis explained, “by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.” The group actually meant the definition of “romantic” to remain vague. “Romantic poetry was unruly, dynamic, alive and forever changing, they believed, and should not be corseted by metric patterns because it was a ‘living organism.’” According to Friedrich Schlegel, “it should forever be becoming, never perfected.”
Friedrich Schlegel and his cohort blew their own horns the loudest. Alexander von Humboldt and Goethe, working intensely together in their laboratory, were quieter, but their partnership would bear fruits throughout Alexander’s long and brilliant career. Goethe had never really swallowed Fichte’s emphasis on the Ich, on subjectivity; “The Wicked Angel of Empiricism continues to pummel me,” he admitted to Schiller. He and Alexander concentrated on the difference between organic and inorganic “matter,” a vexed question of the time, and did galvanic experiments in an effort to determine the source of life. (These experiments would inspire Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein.) Alexander, with his manifold interests and boundless curiosity, would come to interpret the natural world “as a unified whole animated by interactive forces.” The great journey of world exploration he was about to undertake would reveal, he hoped, the way in which “all forces of nature are interlaced and bound together.” Both men realized that animals and plants were adapted to their environments and that animals and humans had a common ancestor.

As Alexander later recalled, the time in Jena “affected me power­fully.” Goethe changed the way he understood the natural world, moving him from purely empirical research towards an interpretation of nature that combined scientific data with emotional responses. “Nature must be experienced through feeling” . . . Together with a growing emphasis on the subjectivity of the Ich-philosophy, Alexander von Humboldt’s perspective shifted, and almost fifty years later he would write in his international bestseller Cosmos that “the external world only exists for us so far as we receive it within ourselves.”

Goethe’s influence on Alexander’s holistic vision of nature is evident; he was to dedicate the first book he published after his return from South America to Goethe. Evident, too, is the presence of Alexander, with his insatiable yearning for knowledge, in Faust, which Goethe recommenced work on, after years of neglecting it, during his time in Jena; as Wulf points out, the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles contains many allusions to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and Idealism.
A later arrival in Jena was Friedrich (they all seem to have been called Friedrich!) Schelling, who was appointed the university’s youngest-ever professor of philosophy in 1798. Amazingly enough, he had been roommates, in the Protestant seminary they all attended in Tübingen, with both Hegel and Hölderlin. His ideas deviated from those of Fichte. “Where Fichte’s Ich was shaped by its opposition to the non-Ich, Schelling believed that the self and nature were identical. Instead of dividing the world into mind and matter, as philosophers had for centuries . . . Schelling now insisted that everything was one. There was a ‘secret bond connecting our mind with nature.’” We can understand nature intuitively because we are part of that system. “[H]is philosophy of oneness became the heartbeat of Romanticism,” Wulf writes. Schelling’s lectures were eventually published as System of Transcendental Idealism, which posited art as the way of unifying nature and the self. “One star sets, and another rises,” Goethe remarked. For Fichte had finally offended even the easygoing Carl August, with a text the authorities found dangerously atheistic. He was got rid of in 1799, going dejectedly off to Berlin, and Schelling took his place at the top of the university’s heap. Schelling also won the love of Caroline Schlegel, twelve years his senior, who eventually divorced Wilhelm August Schlegel to marry him.
From this point the brief idyllic period of “symphilosophising” sputtered to an end. Schiller had become increasingly reclusive. He had been jealous of Alexander von Humboldt’s monopolization of Goethe’s time, and he quickly came to hate each of the Schlegels individually: they “had sullied the concept of a self-determined Ich with their self-absorption and arrogance,” he believed. Friedrich Schlegel stopped talking to Caroline and Schelling. French troops crossed the Rhine in April 1800; two months later Caroline’s beloved daughter Auguste, the darling of the whole set, died of dysentery at the age of fifteen. Novalis, unforgivably and wrongly, blamed Caroline, but he himself was dead the following year, of tuberculosis. Only twenty-eight years old, he became the first youthful martyr of the Romantic movement.
Caroline and Schelling moved to Würzburg, later to Munich; Friedrich Schlegel and Dorothea went to Paris, where he and Tieck edited Novalis’ works and in their choice and arrangement of material helped create the myth of the doomed Romantic genius. As its famous professors and intellectuals drifted off, students got the message that Jena was not what it once had been and kept away. By the time Hegel arrived there in 1801, Jena’s glory days were over, but he stayed on, diligently working on The Phenomenology of Spirit, a work that would supplant those of his friend Schelling. “‘If it weren’t for me there would be no Hegel and no Hegelians,’ [Schelling] grumbled, but no one listened.” Hegel was still in Jena when Napoleon’s armies overran it in 1806, even getting a glimpse of the Emperor, whom he idolized, leading his men on horseback.
Wilhelm von Humboldt studied Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian and Malay, noting that “Every language contains its own world view.” He went on to found Berlin’s first university, now named after him and his brother, and reformed the Prussian educational system as its new minister. “He advocated a holistic approach, combining teaching and research as well as the arts and the sciences. Today, his model is followed by universities worldwide.” He appointed as first professor of philosophy Fichte, who in 1807 delivered a lecture series, “Addresses to the German Nation,” that tried to define a “national self.” Fichte, Wulf writes, “paved the way for a bigger Ich—the Ich of a nation. This was a dangerous idea, and one that would be exploited in Germany in the future.”
The member of the Jena set who had the oddest post-Jena adventures was Wilhelm August Schlegel, who accepted a post as tutor to Mme. de Staël’s sons and traveled with the family helping de Staël research the book she was planning on Germany and German art, culture and philosophy: De l’Allemagne. He was to stay with her until her death in 1817. They were never lovers, but she “wanted nothing less than total submission.” It was a turbulent existence.
All this is of course very, very interesting, and Wulf makes an excellent case for the deep and broad influence these first Romantics had, and continue to have, on our society. We are still, it seems to me, struggling to understand the Ich’s importance—or lack thereof—and whether we should kowtow to its importunate demands. But somehow I found myself not quite liking the book. The style will not, perhaps, be to the taste of readers who want their history delivered straight; Wulf has a tendency to introduce irritating novelistic touches, possibly in an effort to draw in the elusive “general reader”—which, to be fair, she has succeeded very well in doing. Still, I find passages like the following to be grating:

As the carriage passed through the ancient gate in the town walls, the horses’ iron-shod hooves clanked on the cobblestones and [Dorothea’s] heart raced faster and faster.

Says who? Did Wulf find this in Dorothea’s diary or letters? If so, shouldn’t she footnote them?
And then there’s the fact that quite a few of these Magnificent Rebels just aren’t very likeable. Exceptions here are the von Humboldt brothers, Schiller, and Goethe, who rise above the infighting in pursuit of their artistic and intellectual aims. But Friedrich Schlegel, without a doubt one of the central forces of the group, was unattractively narcissistic; Wulf is correct, I think, in judging that “Friedrich Schlegel’s only real interest was Friedrich himself. Though he never cared much about his literary adversaries, he wanted to be loved, admired and idolised by his friends.” Wulf enormously admires Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling’s forceful personality, her refusal to adhere to gender norms and her assumption that she had as much right to an intellectual life as any man, but I get the feeling that Dorothea Schlegel had a point when she said Caroline was self-assured because “she thinks everyone is stupider than she is.” The ire Caroline aroused among the other academic wives in Würzburg and Munich would seem to affirm this opinion; Wulf loyally attributes it to her not wanting to play the role of demure wife and her dislike of domestic tittle-tattle, but pure arrogance seems a more obvious answer. And Novalis! Talented and no doubt charming, but his ideas seem cracked today, even dangerous. “Have patience, it will come, it must come—the sacred age of eternal peace.”
Ha! Drunk with the freedom promised by the apotheosis of the Ich along with the advances of the French Revolutionary armies, the early Romantics can be excused for feeling unduly optimistic about how their ideas would change the world. They did indeed change the world, both for better and for worse, in ways they could not have foreseen, and we are still struggling with the consequences. The denigration of Enlightenment principles and the acceptance of subjective feeling as “truth” have proved exceedingly dangerous; their ill effects can instantly be perceived with even a cursory glance at the media, social or otherwise. While Alexander von Humboldt has shown a way forward that we can still profit from in managing, or trying to manage, our world, Fichte and the other Jena philosophers released Furies that have yet to be appeased. And Wulf, intent on celebrating the group, never quite confronts the darker side of its legacy.
[1] MAGNIFICENT REBELS: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, by Andrea Wulf. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.00.