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magnificent rebels : the first romantics and the invention of the self

[usr 4]

This book will probably become a required textbook for university philosophy students, rather than those seeking to know more about the Romantic painters and poets (although yes they are mentioned ).

It is of medium size but quite thick (just under five hundred pages). Divided into four parts, Andrea Wulf’s MAGNIFICENT REBELS contains a prologue and epilogue, and consists of twenty chapters. A list of dramatis personae and maps are included, as well as illustrations and there is an excellent notes/bibliography and index at the back. It is dynamically written, vividly brings to life the various personalities, and is impeccably researched and revealing in assorted details.

Wulf in her complex yet easy to read tome examines  ‘the Jena set’ and how they changed the whole perception of mind, body and thought, the beginnings of modern day philosophy, the development of the idea of the self, and individual rights and romanticism – the German founders of the post – enlightenment movements in the eighteenth century. International politics are also interwoven, with the French revolution, the rise of Napoleon and Italian and German politics for example .As well it also looks at how women were regarded and treated in that area, their lack of independence and the social attitude towards divorce and people living together but unmarried …

We learn why and how Jena was able to become such a hotbed of philosophical thought- it was mostly because of the university. ’The reason was the university’s peculiar governance, in which four Saxon rulers from four different duchies had to agree on all matters, making rules difficult to enact and enforce. As a result theologians were not strictly bound to the religious canon, law professors taught revolutionary political theories, censorship was more lenient compared to elsewhere, and the scope of subjects that could be taught was broad. There was no university like it in Europe.’ as Wulf explains.

We meet the main people in the Set, a mix of writers and philosophers, including Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Novalis , the Schegel brothers Friedrich and August, and Alexander von Humboldt. We also learn a lot about two women in particular – the Schlegel wives, Caroline and Dorothea — who were extremely busy and hard working, writing, researching and editing furiously but often their work was unacknowledged and presented as by their husband. And how they at times defied society’s expectations of how a woman should behave. August Wilhelm Schlegel and his wife, Caroline, were instrumental in translating Shakespeare’s plays into German verse. Johann Gottlieb Fichte was the celebrity philosopher and university lecturer of the era – his lectures drew enormous crowds and included international students Fichte’s conceptualisation of ‘the Ich’ established the self at the core of everything.

Novalis, the nom de plume of  poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, was almost in some ways the embodiment of Goethe’s Young Werther in his flamboyant mannerisms and posturing and intense devotion to an ailing young lady. Then there’s philosopher Friedrich Schelling, whose naturphilosophie conceptualised the self as at one with everything living, and who envisioned art as the articulation of this union. On the Aesthetic Education of Man by Schiller would become a keystone chronicle for the rising breed of philosophers, who labelled their group romantics.

There is a huge amount of squabbling and feuding throughout the ‘Set’ at times – first between the Schlegels and Friedrich Schiller, and later between Schelling and Fichte among other things.

The Jena set fragmented in 1803, spreading to other places in Germany  and beyond in a general exodus, mainly because of politics and Napoleon. Wulf’s book chillingly describes the arrival of French troops in Jenna in 1806, wreaking havoc, plundering and destroying the town, before the Prussian army is defeated and  Napoleon sleeps in Goethe’s bed.

Their legacy is examined and how their ideas spread from a small German town to France, the UK (see for example Carlyle and Coleridge’s work) and America  (with Emerson and Thoreau ). Their thoughts regarding art as a way of connecting nature and humans, nature as a living thing that needs to be tended, still flourish today.





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