A small German university town may seem an unlikely site for the emergence of the modern self. But, at the end of the eighteenth century, a fiery group of intellectuals—dubbed the “Jena Set” by Andrea Wulf in Magnificent Rebels—came to influential new answers to age-old questions about freedom, culture, and individuality. Wulf chronicles their comings and goings from 1794 to 1806, in the wake of the radical intellectual changes brought on by Kant’s philosophy and during the seismic political events of the French Revolution and subsequent French Revolutionary Wars. The book ends with the Battle of Jena in 1806, when Hegel rushed through the chaotic streets to send off the only copy of the Phenomenology of Spirit, his ambitious account of the development of consciousness, as Napoleon’s army was looting the town.
Such drama is typical for Wulf’s book—it maintains a fever pitch, detailing rocky relationships and petty academic rivalries, extramarital affairs, public betrayals, and private conflicts, including one over a dirty piano. Such stories are entertaining enough in their own right, especially in Wulf’s eloquent rendering, but the figures involved here are also incredibly significant drivers of intellectual history: Goethe, Schiller, the brothers Schlegel, the brothers von Humboldt, Novalis, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and the dynamic, brilliant, and charming Caroline Schlegel Schelling, who eventually leaves her marriage of convenience to August Wilhelm Schlegel for the young Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Wulf gives long overdue attention to this brilliant group of scholars.
The most recognizable name in this group is that of the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who remains known primarily for his literary work, but who also made crucial contributions to botany and other sciences. Wulf captures the beautiful friendship between Goethe and the sullen, sickly Friedrich Schiller, himself one of the most accomplished poets and playwrights of his generation. Goethe so enjoyed Schiller’s company and conversation that he spent more time with Schiller in Jena than at “home” in Weimar, just fifteen miles west, where he was a courtier and official.
Goethe frequently smoothed over various tensions in the testy group. When Friedrich Schlegel criticized Schiller’s journal in print and Schiller retaliated by firing Schlegel’s elder brother, August Wilhelm, Goethe played mediator. And when the Schlegels contemplated legal action against another journal for failing to review their own publication, Goethe advised a more measured approach. Goethe also helped navigate the various political problems caused by the group’s sometimes radical views, though he couldn’t always prevent disaster. For instance, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, ground-breaking theorist of freedom and self-consciousness, became embattled in his professorship at the University of Jena because of his purported atheism and, perhaps even more significantly, his early sympathies with the French Revolution. Fichte, hot-headed as ever, acted out in vindictive defensiveness without consulting Goethe, threatening to resign and found his own university. This bluff was taken in earnest and his resignation, which he never intended seriously, was accepted.
Wulf shows how successfully Goethe fostered and cared for the Jena Set, helping it thrive intellectually—at least for a time—but his own intellectual influence receives short shrift. For example, Schelling’s philosophy of nature benefited immensely from Goethe’s tutelage, as scholars like Dalia Nassar have shown, but Wulf tends to focus more on Goethe’s personal interventions.