Books Philosophy

The Jena Romantics and How They Changed Our Lives

Peter Neumann. Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits. Trans. Shelley Frisch. New York: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 2022.

“I saw the Emperor—this world-soul—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.” Georg W.F. Hegel’s letter to his friend, Friedrich Niethammer, comes at the nadir of Jena’s brilliant decade. From roughly the mid-1790s to the arrival of Napoleon and his Grande Armée in the autumn of 1806, the excitement and ecstasy, hope and debauchery, of the revolutionary epoch had taken intellectual and personal form among a cadre of “radical” philosophers, theologians, poets, and mistresses at the University of Jena. The collision of man and spirit thunderously erupted on October 13, the roar of cannons and the victory of Napoleonic France over the feeble Kingdom of Prussia marked the end of an age, but that erupting collision of man and spirit that brought burning fire and billowing smoke into the air that autumn morning had already been clashing among a handful of spirited individuals to whom the spirit of the age enraptured.

Before Napoleon’s armies came roaring through the German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the liberty, liberality, and excitement of revolutionary fervor had already touched all aspects of human life—not just the political order. On the eve of the concert of the lives of Johann Fichte, Novalis, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel, Dorothea Schlegel, Caroline Schelling, Friedrich Schelling, Georg Hegel, and Ludwig Tieck, “Never had the future been so uncertain.” The uncertainty of the future gave greater risk and ecstasy to the now, the lives that these men and women were living, the intellectual currents they were swimming, and the suspicious eyes of journalists and politicos fearful of shadowy Jacobins in their towns and classrooms.

Jena 1800 by Peter Neumann reads more like historical fiction than anything else. It nominally discusses some of the prevailing trends of aesthetics, philosophy, theology—the intellectual life—that the Jena Romantics were dealing with. More specifically, Neumann’s book tells the story of the lives lived by the prominent Jena Romantics and how they intersected with each other and embodied the free spirit of play that had captivated revolutionary politics before turning to the horror of The Terror.

It is in transformative times that transformative men and women live. It is in the throes of epochal change that heroic souls endeavor out into that horizon, that horizon of stormy seas and darkening clouds, to live lives of adventure, romance, and new beginnings. Now is a great time for an expose into the adventurous lives of the Jena Romantics because we too are living in the throes of uncertainty, the death of the post-1945 order and the remaking of the world. To some, this uncertainty is frightening. To others, hopeful. To others yet, exhilarating. (I would count myself in the latter camp.) It should also be unsurprising to note, from Homer to the present, the best writers and best stories deal with nomads, travelers, romancers, mistresses, and all the messy ooey-gooey byproducts of a life in flux. Abraham’s life wouldn’t have been interesting if he stayed up in Ur Kaśdim just as the lives of our protagonists who gathered together in Jena wouldn’t have been interesting if they stayed in their childhood villages.

Jena, a quiet little town in the then Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, was the cultural capital of the Germanies on the eve of the French Revolution. Though a small town compared to some of the major commercial cities of the north, the University of Jena, with its star controversial philosopher Johann Fichte, captured the attention and imagination of students all over Germany. And as Jena blossomed into a modern-day Plato’s Academy, so too did it attract the spirits of all the future heavy weights of German art, philosophy, and theology, and Germany’s equivalents of Cleopatra or Marilyn Monroe.

What defines Romanticism? It’s hard to pin one definition. In Irrational Man, William Barrett said Romanticism was the protest of Nature against sterile Reason. Romanticism is generally associated with the passions and emotion, organicist conceptions of science, and swash buckling radical degenerates like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron in its English iteration. Friedrich Schiller, perhaps, gives the best definition. In summarizing Schiller’s views, Neumann writes, “Schiller was convinced that art liberated man from the rule of mere conceptualized thinking, and shattered the shackles of blind necessity. For Schiller, man was truly free only when at play.” What made Romanticism, even in its philosophy, stand apart from its competitors and co-intellectualisms, was that the “instrument of philosophy was the imagination…Imagination did not signify fiction, illusion, or deception, but rather an integration of the infinite into the finite.” In summarizing Schelling, one of the leading Romantics, who shared the same view, Neumann writes:

aesthetic intuition was an unconscious activity of the mind that led to conflicts between freedom and mechanism, and he regarded it as the pinnacle, the keystone of philosophy. Transcendental philosophy and the philosophy of nature were two sides of the same coin; the former ran from the I to nature, and the latter from nature to the I. Art ultimately reconciled the contrast between the self and nature by making the perceiving subject aware of the congruity of freedom, natural necessity, practice, and theory in an object of aesthetic intuition, namely, the work of art…Art was the only true organ and document of philosophy.

The so-called Enlightenment and its attendant philosophy of liberalism-cum-utilitarianism, sought to rid the world of myth and imagination. Mathematical facts, reductionist science seeking the singularity of all existence, the simple existence of human nature and its pursuit of bodily pleasure and elimination of harm, was what modernity had unleashed. Romanticism, then, was a pushback against this sterilizing and destructive intellectual disposition, but it also married itself with modernity’s overriding impulse of innovative newness and freedom, the byproducts of the upheavals of liberalism’s spirit: the scientific revolution.

In this brave new world of adventure, opportunity, and intellectual freedom—at least if one didn’t run afoul of the authorities as Fichte did—the Romantics emerged to offer up a new spirit of life through imagination and the lives they lived. If Romanticism could be characterized by a single word, it would be the philosophies of Fichte and Schelling in their respective understandings despite incongruencies between them: action. Humans and the nature of the cosmos are not static or rigid, not confined to fixed systems, but constantly acting, moving, and progressing. To what? The Romantics each had their say and were often contradicting each other. But that was another insight of the Romantics. Life is a contradiction. To embrace the contradiction is to embrace life. Life is contradictory or paradoxical action. Action is what mattered most.

Neumann retells the very active and contradictory lives of these energetic and enigmatic souls that ended up in Jena between 1795-1805, with the highlight being 1800. We meet a flush and beautiful woman, rumored to be a hussy and Jacobin, Caroline Böhmer-cum-Schlegel-cum-Schelling, imprisoned for politics and freed by an enraptured student ten years who younger (August Wilhelm Schlegel) on a second chance opportunity to reveal his devotion for her and win her heart that was initially rejected before being seduced by Friedrich Schelling and he by her. Meanwhile, a melancholic Friedrich Schlegel, trying to rescue “lagged” German literature, embraces his melancholia and bouts of romantic enthusiasm and depression to write Lucinde—his great romantic novel that foreshadows our own conceptions of love as mutual companionship, gender complementarianism, and constant erotic activity as the highest manifestation of loving devotion. Meanwhile, the “blowfly” Karl August Böttiger is sent to spy on our protagonists, always on the prowl for juicy details to feed the sensationalist press. (Nothing new under the sun after all.)

From the seductive proto-feminist Caroline Schelling to the equally aloof but intellectually brilliant Friedrich Schelling who vivaciously flirted with Caroline until married, from the obtuse Johann Fichte (then the most brilliant philosopher in Europe after Kant and before Hegel), from the Schlegel brothers to poets Novalis and Goethe, and, oh, by the way, that guy named Hegel whose Phenomenology of Spirit was completed on the eve of Napoleon’s sweeping victory over Prussia in 1806, Peter Neumann takes us on a dance across the stage with the most prominent German Romantics and Idealists whose lives intersected at Jena. In providing a telling of their private lives, we also encounter brief explanations of the Romantic and Idealist philosophies they exposited.

The men and women who erupted a revolution at Jena unleashed a revolution of the heart and mind. Against the stifling dogmatism of religion, the tyrannical politics of both the Ancien Régime and French Revolution, and the crass dualism of Descartes and the Enlightenment, the “revolutionary” ideas and ways of life presented by the German Romantics offered liberation and hope for greater freedom in the maelstrom of the revolutionary years from 1790-1805. They had an insatiable appetite for liberty and liberation in all things. Their ideas have influenced the lives of billions of people, including our own. And ironically, their ideas have often ended up enslaving and tyrannizing billions more despite the promise of liberation and liberty they desired.

*This review was originally published at VoegelinView, 9 July, 2022.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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