The Goethe-Schiller Monument in Germany (Alamy stock photo).

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. 

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.

The other main caretaker of the group is Caroline, and it is a delight to see this neglected but crucial historical figure brought to life in Wulf’s vivid prose. Caroline was loved by many but despised by others, including the Schillers, who called her “Madame Lucifer,” and the wife of the poet Ludwig Tieck, who saw her beauty, brilliance, and charm as threats to Tieck’s virtue. During the day, Caroline translated Shakespeare and other English and French texts into German with her husband, August Wilhelm; in the evening she acted as muse and hostess, welcoming the group of early Romantics into her home. Her razor-sharp wit shines in quotes from her many letters, and one imagines that her conversations were just as delightfully wicked. She pokes fun at August Wilhelm for being overly meticulous in his dress, ridicules the wives of academics for their pettiness, and jests that her brother-in-law Friedrich Schlegel entertains them with “his head, which is frizzy both inside and out.” But when Caroline became romantically involved with the taciturn Schelling in 1799, everyone was angry and jealous except her husband, who remained happy for her friendship and scholarly collaboration while he engaged in several affairs of his own. The Schlegel-Schelling affair was one of many events that eventually led to the dissolution of the group.

Wulf takes inspiration from Caroline as a sort of Romantic heroine. “Unlike most women, she lived her life” and was the “conductor of the great symphony” of the Jena set’s intellectual activities. Caroline thrived by throwing off the social and moral conventions of her age. When she became involved with Schelling, what rankled everyone was not the affair itself but that it was conducted openly. Although the gossip and subsequent isolation bothered Caroline, she never let it alter her path in life. Wulf presents her willful determination as indicative of the new philosophy of freedom, the “Ich-philosophy” of Fichte, which begins with the posit of an absolute self, and its expression in the fragments and poems of the early Romantics. 

This is one of many instances in which Wulf pits the freedom of the subject against cultural, moral, or political strictures. The dichotomy arises repeatedly in the book: the freedom of the subject against objective truth, the self-determination expressed in the democratic ideals of the French Revolution against the control exerted by emperors and dukes of the German-speaking world, the self versus culture, religion, or morality. On Wulf’s telling, the “magnificent rebels” are rebelling against these strictures, championing the self over and against all that would seek to limit or constrain it. Freedom, on this story, is freedom of the self from any claimed authority—whether it be moral, religious, or political. On Wulf’s telling, these scholars “liberated people’s minds from the corsets of doctrines, rules, and expectations.” Occasionally, Wulf even pits the freedom of the self, and the Jena Set as well, against reason and absolute or objective truth: “It was the very absence of rules they celebrated. They were not interested in an absolute truth.” 


For the early Romantics, ideas are as significant—indeed, more significant—than the cannonballs fired by the French that marked the fall of their glorious Jena. Accordingly, the characterization of those ideas is no small matter. On their view, the self or Ich (the “I”) cannot be completely self-determined. These scholars recognized the incoherence of a self that is created out of nothing. To strip the self of all internal or external authority or guidance is to render it completely arbitrary, akin to an arrow that points randomly, that wills what it wills for no reason at all. This subjectivist or existentialist inflection of these ideas is present throughout Wulf’s book in a way that distorts the overarching orientation and intentions of these figures. 

The starting point for the idea of freedom operative in this period is found in the works of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the will is autonomous or free to the degree that it determines itself in accordance with the moral law. The moral law is the law of the practical will, and so we are most ourselves when acting morally. Now, these thinkers are not strict Kantians, but they take a cue from Kant in seeing freedom as lawful. To be free, says Schelling, the most romantic of the idealists, is to “act in accord with the laws of one’s own essence.” What makes this freedom rather than slavish obedience is that these laws are internal to the self; they are not imposed by some external authority. Crucially for the Romantics, these laws are universal, but still expressed creatively through the individual. 

Wulf’s emphasis on freedom as a kind of freedom from rules leads to various tensions in the book.

Wulf’s emphasis on freedom as a kind of freedom from rules leads to various tensions in the book. For example, she puzzles at the early Romantics’ fascination with the medieval church, calling it “ironic” that they would turn to the “dark ages” for enlightenment. She attributes their fascination to a lack of good contemporaneous options for creative, self-oriented spirituality. If Wulf is correct that the main goals of the Jena Set were to free the self from all rules and limitations, then a turn to medieval Christianity does seem odd. But if the goal is rather to discover and create a culture in which the self finds its deepest universal expression, articulated through art, poetry, and philosophy, then medieval Christianity, with its deep artistic and philosophical traditions, is a natural starting point. 

Similarly, she claims that Kant turns to the subject “instead of searching for absolute truth or objective knowledge,” and that Hegel’s “‘absolute knowing’ had nothing to do with an objective truth” but was rather the mind’s knowledge of itself. While Wulf adopts a subjective rather than objective framing, in both of these cases the major innovative idea involves transcending the dichotomy. Kant makes his way to objective knowledge by taking account of the contributions of the subject. Hegel’s absolute knowing is not a turn to reflexive subjectivity but a reconciliation of subjective and objective spirit—if his absolute knowing has “nothing to do” with objective truth, then it has nothing to do with subjective truth either. 

In general, rather than adopting one side of the various divisions—the freedom of the subject versus objective truth, and so on—these scholars proposed a new synthesis of these divisions. One arrives at objective truth through the subject; just political rule in and through an account of the interests of the individual and its expression in various institutions; the freedom of the self through the dictates of the moral law; and finally, absolute, universal truth through individual expression.


Wulf’s philosophizing is at its best when she turns to Schelling’s philosophy of nature. For the most part, her interpretation of Schelling avoids the one-sided subjectivism found elsewhere in the book. Like the other Romantics and idealists, Schelling seeks a synthesis or reconciliation of subject and object, mind and nature. According to Schelling, there is a kind of primordial, coequal unity between mind and nature, such that when we turn to the natural world, we find our own subjectivity and freedom expressed in it. Schelling’s philosophy of nature is a reaction against the mechanistic philosophy of the modern era—the detached subject and descriptive, third-person knowledge that had become the norm in the physical and chemical sciences. We can come to know the natural world because there are affinities between the human mind and nature; our own freedom is prefigured in nature’s lawfulness. Freedom is a kind of knowing or conscious lawfulness that grows out of the particular lawfulness of our own organic nature. Here, Schelling is reacting against two popular strands of thought: first, that mind is the mere mechanistic consequence of lawful nature, and second, that nature is an arbitrary result of a free mind. Only once we see that “mind is invisible nature and nature visible mind” can we recognize the true reconciliation of freedom and lawfulness in both mind and nature, and justify the claim that nature is knowable by mind. 

Where does this leave the self? The mind is at home in nature through an original affinity and so can be reconciled to it, so long as it eschews the false assumptions of early modern science and the Enlightenment. The mind does not escape from nature but finds itself expressed in it. This is true freedom. We can view culture and religion in the same way: the self should not strive to escape them, but rather to find expression in them. Freedom in its fullest sense requires expression of the self in culture, and thus we see universal truths expressed in and through individuals, in art, poetry, and so on. The idea that people can realize themselves in a satisfying way in isolation from culture and religion is a strange, recent mistake. To find this error scattered throughout these pages was a slight disappointment in an otherwise dazzling book. 

Magnificent Rebels
The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

Andrea Wulf
$35 | 512 pp.

Naomi Fisher is an assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. Her research focuses on Kant and post-Kantian philosophy.

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Published in the April 2023 issue: View Contents
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