Magnificent Rebels

The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
Andrea Wulf

We think of culture as just something that happened, that people just happen to be the way they are as the result of some inevitable historical force.  There is more to it than that, however, there are waves of thought, fashions if you will, that sometimes make great changes in our culture and in ourselves.  One of the schools of thought that some think has come to define much about the modern world is romanticism. This book outlines its birth as a conscious school of thought.

Goethe was a name that I have often heard, including that he was still a towering figure in the German-speaking world, sometimes called the German Shakespeare, but had somewhat been forgotten elsewhere. Hegel, too I knew about because of his influence on Marx.  When I tried to read some Marx, the word dialectic appeared so many times, that I couldn't skip over it and had to put Marx down to try to find out what it meant.  I read about Hegel's interpretation of the dialectic as a process by which ideas progress via thesis, synthesis and antithesis.  I tend to think about ideas being physical evolution by other means, and the dialectic seemed consistent with this.

So the names of these thinkers were known to me but little else, and when I listened to a podcast featuring the author and found out that Hegel and Goethe lived in the same small town and were part of the same social circle my ears pricked up. The podcast then mentioned that a whole host of deep thinkers had also lived in the town, together building a philosophy they would call romanticism and that it was one of the central creeds of our modern individualistic world, for better or worse. The other attraction to me is to understand something of the world of German thought that I hadn't been exposed to beyond bits of Kant and Nietschze. I had heard about the English Romantics and the American Transcendentalists but had no idea that they were preceded and deeply influenced by these German thinkers. This was all in line with what I am increasingly understanding, that the history of human thought is something of a tree, with tangible branches amongst which romanticism seemed a powerful one.

The story as the author tells it is quite incredible, in or adjacent to their circle along with Goethe and Hegel were the Von Humbolt brothers, the Schlegel brothers, Schelling and Schiller (do not try to describe this book to anyone after a few drinks).  The book tells about the amazement of people who would go to the theatre and see them all sitting in a row together, or going to a small party where most of the greats of German thought were present.  It is also a story of the uncredited role that women have often played in the history of thought, and they were ever present here at the centre of this exceptional circle.

In the University of Jena, in what is now Germany an unlikely concentration of philosophers, writers, poets and thinkers formed at the end of the 18th century.  Napoleon was on the march, revolution and revolutionary ideas were in the air. The numerous German states were ruled by noble families, who had almost total control over the lives of their citizens. This included the standard censorship of the time, but also who could come and go, live in a city, and even who one could marry. Jena however by an oddity of political circumstance was in a region that had no single ruler, and thus there was a degree of freedom available in thought that was unusual for the time. The social atmosphere of the university town of Jena can be partially understood by the fact that almost a quarter of children born in the town were born out of wedlock.

Goethe was already famous at this time. His book The Sorrows of Young Werner had been a sensation in Germany, with people dressing in the style of the protagonist and it is said some even committed suicide inspired by his example. The book was a part of the Sturm and Drang movement, which saw passion, rebellion and youth as ends in themselves. This referencing of emotion over reasoned thought was to have a foundational effect on the ideas of Romanticism. Goethe had various official duties for the Weimar Court which controlled the University of Jena and this and his fame enabled him to recommend people for academic positions. This led to promising young intellectuals, especially ones who had been the subject of censorship, being plucked from around the German states.

Perhaps the pivotal member of the group after Geothe was August Wilhelm Schlegel and his wife around whom the Jena set revolved when it was at its most verdant. Caroline, raised in a literary family and highly educated, found herself in something of a social limbo due to her political views and unfortunate personal circumstances. For Caroline, the marriage to Schlegel was perhaps one more of convenience for her than love, but it saved her from social rejection and isolation. They were very much intellectually compatible, and much of the work which bears Schlegel's name, including German translations of Shakespeare which are still the standards today, was co-authored together. Upon moving to Jena the quick-witted and well-read Caroline became something of the centre of their literary and philosophical circle.

One of the things which spoke deeply to me was the communal nature of the project they embarked upon.  They would meet and eat together daily, and collaborate on all they did. They put the preface "Sym" on what they were doing to symbolise its collaborative nature; sym-philosophy, sym-poetry etc. There are a number of examples from history where remarkable people have clustered in the same place and time. I don't believe this to be a coincidence, I believe it is profoundly in keeping with the shared nature of knowledge and individual progress. The common trope is that there are people "touched" by some divinity who are geniuses. Even if this is true, it seems genius is catching. What I think these circumstances of clusters of genius shows is that with the right circumstances, inspiration and example, genius might not be as rare a trait as common wisdom would hold it to be. Indeed most of us might have some form of greatness within us, but we do not have a culture that either understands how to unlock it or understands its true nature.

Perhaps the only real flaw in the book from my perspective, is that the interesting characters and goings on of the Jena set are featured more than the philosophies and works they produced. I can understand this, as when I try to tell people about the book, I spend more time explaining the relationships and people than the ideas. Perhaps there is something to the fact that these people lived their ideas, and to understand Romanticism, this emotional set of people with their polyamory, shifting allegiances, and tumultuous lives are essential. Still, I feel I want to understand more about their works, especially the Nature Philosophy of Schelling which echoes my own thinking that nature is the ultimate root of our ontologies and epistemologies.

Put simply if you don't really know what Romanticism is, you should read this book because you are living in a world profoundly affected by this movement. Whether it is a good thing that we live in a world more governed by the emotional self is harder to say. If put to it, I would turn to Hegel's thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Romanticism was a response to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and even the protestant reformation.  It sought to return the magic and awe that we can inject into life through our perspective. There is much to like about this, but if we are to progress together, we cannot descend too completely into ourselves and lose touch with the world that connects us. The world in many ways does exist only through the lens of ourselves and it is understandable if this lens is everything to the young person, for whom finding themselves is such an urgent task. For the young, we can see there is a raw almost primal focusing power in this emotional self-centredness, but maturity however comes when we are able to comprehend a wider view. We must come to see that our lens is just one of many valid others, and that to really know ourselves and our world can only be a collective endeavour. Ultimately it seems wisdom lies in seeing that in the relationship between the self and non-self, neither should play a subordinate role.


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