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18 October 2022

How the greatest minds of the Enlightenment united in a small town in Germany

In 1790s Jena a group of thinkers including Friedrich Schiller and Goethe built the intellectual foundations of today’s world.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Every so often in the history of ideas, a cluster of thinkers and artists forms in a particular place and fundamentally changes how the world sees itself: the Golden Age writers of imperial Madrid, say, or the Scottish Enlightenment in mid-18th century Edinburgh, the Bloomsbury Set of early-20th century London, or the Beat Generation in 1950s San Francisco. What is the alchemical formula behind such moments? Why is it that groups of such unusual collective genius come together in the times and places that they do?

One such set, less well known internationally than some of the above examples, coalesced in a small university town in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Jena, about 150 miles south-west of Berlin, was tiny. You could cross it by foot it in about 10 minutes. But on the course of that stroll you would come across an astonishing concentration of some of the greatest minds of their age.

On a typical day in the mid-to-late 1790s, for example, you might encounter students on ladders at the windows of a university auditorium full to overflowing, straining to watch Johann Gottlieb Fichte, “the Bonaparte of Philosophy”, lecturing on the relationship between the self and the external world. In the narrow Leutragasse you would pass the house of August Wilhelm and Caroline Schlegel, busy in the top-floor study working on translations of Shakespeare. In the anatomy theatre set into a tower in the medieval walls the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt might be busy passing electric currents through frogs’ legs better to understand the relationship between organic and inorganic matter. In his garden house down by the River Saale, the dramatist Friedrich Schiller might be found smarting from the latest broadside against his literary journal by Friedrich Schlegel, August Wilhelm’s impetuous younger brother.

At a time of great European convulsions – French revolutionary armies sweeping through Italy and German territories farther West – Jena made a convivial haven for these revolutionary thinkers. As the day drew to a close, the sound of violins and pianos would waft from house windows, competing in the streets with the chatter of students and distant clutches of conversation from the vineyards and parks rising up the steep surrounding hills. At night the streets would be illuminated by the flickering, tobacco-tinged candlelight from taverns such as Zur Rose, a favourite haunt of the university professors.

In Magnificent Rebels, her new history of the Jena Set, the German-British historian Andrea Wulf advances the argument that the very birth of modern individuality – the sense of self that today we take for granted but defines our relationship with the world – took place in those houses and narrow streets, in those taverns and university lecture halls. It is a bold claim. The remarkable thing about the book is that Wulf not only stands it up but in the process weaves a thrilling page-turner of a story.

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At the heart of her tale is the emergence of the “Ich”, the self, amid the transition from 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism to 19th-century Romanticism; from the bright light of reason to the moonlit mindscapes of a Coleridge or a Wagner. It is the story of three generations of philosophical ideas, the second and third of which played out in Jena.

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The first generation was that of Immanuel Kant, in Königsberg on the faraway Baltic, and his rationalist-empiricist distinction between the “Ding an Sich” (the thing-in-itself) and the Ich (self). Fichte represents the second generation, developing Kant’s thought into an argument that the Ich alone was the foundation of all reality; a daring leap that made him the intellectual pin-up of students: “Gentlemen, go into yourselves!”, he urged them. At the heart of the third generation of these ideas was Friedrich Schelling, who arrived in Jena in 1798, and his assertion that the Ich and nature (that is, the external world) are in fact one – a foundational idea of subsequent generations of Romantics.

Parallel to this philosophical progression was a literary-poetic one. Goethe and Schiller, the doyens of German Classicism, both came to Jena (the former on a series of prolonged visits from nearby Weimar, the latter to live) in a period of creative funk after their earlier successes. Both found intellectual renewal in their interactions with others there, like the Schlegels – whose translations of Shakespeare popularised his work among a German audience and epitomised the early Romantic idea of an earthy, intuitive “natural genius” as opposed to the more formal, classical refinement of French dramatists like Racine or Corneille. This shift was best personified by the Jena poet known as Novalis, so inspired by Fichte’s and Schelling’s new ideas about the Ich that he sought to end his life “through sheer force of will” on the death of his beloved fiancée. This was unsurprisingly unsuccessful but meditating on her moonlit grave he felt an intimacy with the universe that inspired Hymns to the Night, a cycle of poems that made him famous and inspired Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde.

Wulf’s narrative reveals much of the alchemy behind clusters of brilliance like the Jena Set. What is today Germany was then still a patchwork of city states, principalities, duchies and kingdoms. This very fragmentation, this poly-centricity, helped to curb the power of censorship. Jena sat in the small duchy of Saxe-Weimar and on the crossroads in the mail routes between Berlin and Prague, Frankfurt and Dresden. It was a great age of reading and writing in the German-speaking world: literacy rates soared to the highest in Europe, the book market was about four or five times the size of England’s and literary societies, journals and lending libraries were sprouting even in the smaller towns. Wulf attributes this to Germany’s largely landlocked geography: where France, Spain and England had oceanic colonial horizons, “German readers travelled to distant countries and new worlds along the black letters on printed pages.”

Saxe-Weimar, led by the literary-minded Duke Carl August, was a liberal place by the standards of the time. That was particularly true of Jena University thanks to convoluted inheritance rules putting it under the control of four different Saxon dukes, and so in practice none of them. This free thinking also applied to social and sexual mores: a quarter of children in Jena were born out of wedlock, compared with a general German average of 2 per cent at the time. So it was a natural place for radical new ideas about individuality and the self to take hold, especially in the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution, which shaped and inspired the Jena Set. “It is the purpose of all governments to make government unnecessary,” Fichte told his rapt students.

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The group landed in this fertile soil not fully formed but in a self-perpetuating cascade. First came the older Classicists drawn by the duke’s open-minded spirit. Carl August had personally invited Goethe to Saxe-Weimar and entrusted him with responsibilities including the establishment of a scientific botanic garden in Jena. Schiller fled there from the authoritarian climate of his native Württemberg and marvelled on arrival at how “the professors in Jena are almost entirely independent”. He then invited August Wilhelm Schlegel, who brought with him his wife, Caroline, and later his brother, Friedrich, who in turn invited Novalis, who in turn helped to lure Schelling, who in turn urged the young Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to become the last major addition to the group in 1801.

Yet most important of all was the socio-intellectual Brownian motion by which they all collided, cooperated, clashed and generally sparked off each other at close quarters. Jena contained only about 800 houses, mostly clustered tightly together within its walls, making it an ideal confined space for symposiums and experiments, love affairs and rivalries, gossip and debate. At the heart of this process was the brilliant, vivacious Caroline Schlegel – the parlour of her house in the Leutragasse constantly bustling with visitors – who would herself scandalise the town in 1799 by leaving her husband for Schelling.

Wulf brings her account to life with a phenomenal eye for visceral detail in letters and other accounts from the time, recalling her 2015 masterpiece The Invention of Nature, about Alexander von Humboldt. Readers join the Jena Set not just in their salons but on their travels farther afield in cramped, rattling stagecoaches smelling of sweat, farts, food and smoke, valuables and money sewn into their clothes for fear of highwaymen. They are ushered into the gruesome room where a doctor in apron and powdered wig slices into Novalis’s fiancée without anaesthetic and drains a liver abscess which “continued to flow for what seemed like an eternity”. They sit with Goethe as he opens a drawer in Schiller’s desk and is nauseated to find it filled to the top with rotting apples (the latter’s wife explained that he needed the putrid smell in order to work). Wulf ranges deftly from the profane – like bodice-busting accounts from Jena’s bed chambers – to mind-stretching explanations of the rival philosophical theories of the Ich, and back again.

The very things that propelled the Jena-ites to their greatest heights ultimately conspired to bring them down. Rebels against the philosophical and social norms of their time, and pioneers of a confident new selfhood, the set ended up collapsing into solipsistic rivalries, broken marriages and ruptured friendships. They were also broken apart by the long-term effects of the event that had inspired and taught them the power of ideas: the French Revolution. The waves unleashed in 1789 finally inundated this previously calm and charmed small town deep in Germany at the Battle of Jena in 1806, a triumph of Napoleon’s troops over the German armies after which the region was occupied, student numbers plummeted, shops and taverns closed and what remained of the Jena Set scattered to the winds. Their short, revolutionary moment together over. “Perhaps, Jena was the last truly vital occurrence of its type for centuries to come?”, pondered a wistful Schiller as it all crumbled.

However, the group’s work would live on, and travel far from the valley of the Saale where it had been conceived. Not only did they inspire German Romanticism, that great 19th-century backlash against the rationalised, ordered world of Enlightenment Classicism and the industrial transformations it unleashed, but they also had a lasting effect in the English-speaking world. The Schlegels’ translations stirred new engagement with Shakespeare’s plays in England. “A German critic first taught us to think correctly about Shakespeare,” wrote Wordsworth. The Jena Set also inspired Coleridge – to visit Germany, learn German and indeed pass off swathes of Schelling’s work as his own – and American transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (advised by his brother to “learn German as fast as you can” to read their work) and later minds as influential as Marx, Nietzsche, Joyce, Borges and Freud.

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It is tempting to dwell on some of the darker lower reaches of this intellectual family tree. The excesses of Romantic “Ich” worship would eventually be contorted into the all-consuming irrationalist national “Ich” of totalitarian German nationalism. And reading about the early emergence of the self as an idea it is hard not to think too of the self-regarding extremes of our own age, of a TikTok generation growing up seemingly transfixed by its own image on a smartphone screen. “We don’t talk about Fichte’s self-determined Ich any more,” muses Wulf, “because we have internalised it.”

And yet to immerse oneself in the work of the Jena Set and the world on to which it exploded is also to be reminded of what came before: stiflingly hierarchical post-feudal patterns of thought with no room for the originality and agency that are so integral to fully-fledged human experience. By changing that, as Wulf concludes, they implicitly affirmed not just individual freedom but the imperatives of self-awareness and self-reflection that accompany it. They taught us to recognise our own ability to shape the world – but the responsibility for what we do with that ability lies with us alone.

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
Andrea Wulf
John Murray, 512pp, £25

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