We settle for as self-evident that every of us is free to suppose and kind our personal opinions, that now we have autonomous selves. Western societies and establishments are based on this spirit of particular person freedom and self-determination. However it’s turning into clear that this very core of Western democratic tradition is being undermined—be it by Russia’s cyber interference in elections or the widespread dissemination of faux information on social media. Many individuals assumed that they had been at the very least in command of selections over their very own our bodies, till the Supreme Court docket overruled Roe v. Wade in June. Subsequent up may be the reversal of the legalization of same-sex marriage and even a return to the criminalization of consensual homosexual intercourse.
All of those assaults on autonomy make it much more vital to know the beginnings of the trendy self, the origins of that hard-won freedom. I spent the previous a number of years in search of the place this concept—taken without any consideration at the moment, however as soon as fairly radical—first emerged and was shocked to find that it was in a quiet college city known as Jena, some 150 miles southwest of Berlin. It was there that, within the 1790s, a small group of rebellious playwrights, poets, and writers revolutionized the way in which we consider ourselves and the world.
I name them the “Jena Set,” and they’re the topic of my new guide, Magnificent Rebels. Amongst them had been a few of Germany’s most sensible minds—the poets Novalis and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; the playwright Friedrich Schiller; the philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; the younger scientist Alexander von Humboldt; the combative Schlegel brothers; the formidable Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling. These thinkers started to noticeably take into account quite a few existential questions: How do now we have management over our personal lives? Can we belief the data produced by our minds? And maybe most significantly, what does it imply to be free?
What occurred in Jena within the 1790s that introduced these inquiries to the fore? And why Jena? Why Germany? On the finish of the 18th century, Germany wasn’t but a unified nation; quite, it was a patchwork of greater than 1,500 states—constituting the Holy Roman Empire—starting from tiny principalities to highly effective dynasties such because the Hohenzollern in Prussia and the Habsburgs in Austria. One unintended benefit of such fragmentation was that censorship was far tougher to implement than it was in massive, centrally dominated nations corresponding to France and England. Each German state, regardless of how small, had its personal set of laws and legal guidelines. Germany was small, splintered, and inward-looking. And Germans appeared significantly enamored of the written phrase. The publishing commerce was 4 to 5 occasions bigger than that in England. Germans had been voracious readers—and books, newspapers, pamphlets, and articles unfold new concepts throughout the inhabitants.
Jena was solely a small city of 4,500 inhabitants, but it surely was residence to an vital college. Due to difficult inheritance guidelines, the establishment was nominally managed by at the very least 4 Saxon dukes. In actuality, nobody was actually in cost. Because of this, a broad scope of topics could possibly be taught. “The professors in Jena are nearly solely unbiased,” Schiller wrote. There was no college prefer it in Europe. Drawn by this openness, thinkers who had been in hassle with the authorities of their residence states got here to Jena. The final decade of the 18th century appeared to search out extra well-known poets, writers, and philosophers dwelling in Jena’s small confines, in proportion to its inhabitants, than in any city earlier than or since—the makings of an mental hothouse.
Image the most important auditorium in Jena in the summertime of 1794. It was noisy with the sound of a number of hundred college students combating for seats. They spilled out into the corridors, clambered onto benches within the again; some even climbed onto ladders on the home windows to hearken to their new professor, Fichte. The air was stale and scorching. Fichte stood on the lectern in driving boots with spurs, holding his whip. Extra bull than racehorse, he was of common top however muscular, with a forceful presence. There was nothing light about him. He thundered, insulted, and shouted. He stomped quite than walked, each step an affirmation of his very existence. He ate his snuff tobacco quite than inhaling it.
Philosophy was not simply the area of philosophy college students, he insisted, however of society at massive. “I’m a priest of reality,” Fichte shouted from his lectern. Assured and confident, he wished nothing lower than to show the world how one can suppose. There have been no God-given or absolute truths, Fichte mentioned; the one certainty was that the world was skilled by the self—by the Ich, because the Germans say. The Ich, he defined, “posits its personal being”—in different phrases, the self brings itself into existence. Not solely that, however by this highly effective preliminary act, it additionally conjures up the so-called non-Ich—the exterior world that features nature, animals, different individuals, and so forth. Fichte didn’t say that the self creates (or controls) the world however quite that it creates our data of the world.
Within the mid-Seventeenth century, the French thinker René Descartes shifted emphasis to the self when he famously asserted, “Cogito, ergo sum”—“I believe, due to this fact I’m.” However he had been troubled by how the immaterial thoughts could possibly be joined to a cloth physique. His philosophy was certainly one of dualism, of a division between thoughts and matter. The German thinker Immanuel Kant had additionally given the thoughts a extra vital function. He asserted that we’re primarily residents of two worlds, occupying each the inner world of our personal notion (the “thing-as-it-appears-to-us”) and the exterior world (his “thing-in-itself”). Kant defined that we are going to by no means actually perceive the thing-in-itself, as a result of we’ll at all times comprehend the exterior world by our senses and the classes of our thoughts, corresponding to time, area, and causality. They’re like tinted spectacles by which we perceive the exterior world.
Fichte’s start line for the whole lot was the self, however not Kant’s twofold view of the thing-in-itself and the thing-as-it-appears-to-us. He criticized Kant for not having overcome Descartes’ dualism, through which the exterior world exists independently of the thoughts. Not solely did Fichte overcome this divided world (when he asserted that our data of the exterior world was produced by our self) however his Ich was highly effective: If the Ich brings itself into existence, it should be free. The Ich, not God or monarchs, was the primary precept of the whole lot. At a time when most German rulers demanded full subordination from their topics, Fichte gave the self probably the most thrilling of all powers: free will.
This was an thought lit by the fireplace of the French Revolution—an occasion so pivotal that nobody in Europe was unaffected. When the French revolutionaries declared all males equal, they promised a brand new social order based on freedom and the ability of concepts. Philosophy left the ivory tower and provoked strange individuals to motion. Phrases and concepts may change the world extra essentially than may weapons and monarchs. “Issues have gotten actuality,” the poet Novalis wrote in 1794, “which, ten years in the past, would have gone straight to the philosophical madhouse.”
Fichte’s thought of the Ich as the primary precept of the whole lot was as revolutionary as any of the political adjustments witnessed in France. “My system is, from starting to finish, an evaluation of the idea of freedom,” Fichte declared—and this radically new idea of a free self carried the potential for a distinct life. An individual “must be what he’s,” Fichte instructed his college students in Jena, “as a result of he needs to be it and is correct to need to be it.” His personal life was proof of the ability of his philosophy. Born the son of a poor ribbon weaver in a small village in Saxony, Fichte grew to become probably the most well-known German thinker of his time, after Kant. He used his thoughts—his will—to desert a seemingly predestined path.
Fichte electrified his college students and his contemporaries—they known as him the “Bonaparte of Philosophy.” Greater than half of Jena’s 800 college students got here to his lectures, and lots of declared him their idol. For the 24-year-old poet Friedrich Hölderlin, the thinker was the “soul of Jena.” For Hegel, he was a “Titan combating for humanity.” Schiller and Goethe went to Fichte’s lectures, and Schelling believed Fichte’s concepts to be a “revolution led to by philosophy.”
However there have been additionally vital voices. Fathers feared Fichte’s affect on their impressionable sons; different observers frightened about what they known as the “lawless capriciousness of the present zeitgeist.” This new dependancy to the Ich, they mentioned, would inevitably result in egotistical self-absorption. In the meantime, the German thinker Johann Gottfried Herder accused Fichte of “disgustingly taking part in with himself—a masturbation of pure-impure cause.” However no matter individuals mentioned, it quickly grew to become apparent that college students and thinkers weren’t philosophizing anymore, however “fichticizing.” The self had grow to be the start line of the whole lot.
Jena and its most well-known residents—Fichte, Goethe, and Schiller—appeared to exert a magnetic pull. Quickly, a brand new technology of younger thinkers arrived within the small college city, together with Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, two brothers who fought the literary institution. Turning in opposition to the polished refinement and inflexible metric patterns of earlier 18th-century poetry, they had been the primary to make use of the time period romantic in its new literary that means. “Now we have to imagine within the energy of phrases,” Friedrich Schlegel declared. Inside the subsequent few years, they based their very own journal and launched Romanticism onto the worldwide stage. Their lives grew to become the laboratories for Fichte’s Ich-philosophy: They defied social conventions, and the emphasis on particular person expertise grew to become their guiding gentle.
Friedrich Schlegel lived along with his lover, the divorced author Dorothea Veit, in his brother’s home in Jena. He known as himself a “Dictator-Critic,” a literary critic with a pen as sharp because the French guillotines. He took the obsession with the self to a different stage when he wrote Lucinde, an erotic autobiographical novel through which he invited readers into his bed room to look at him and Dorothea make love.
In the meantime, August Wilhelm Schlegel and his spouse, Caroline, had come to the extremely uncommon association of an open marriage—“an alliance that between ourselves we by no means considered something however totally free,” she defined. Earlier than marrying August Wilhelm, Caroline had been imprisoned for being a sympathizer of the French Revolution and had discovered herself pregnant by a younger French soldier, probably after a one-night stand at a ball. However why, she requested, ought to her life be destroyed by “one little foolishness” that may have meant nothing had she been a person? She was educated, stunning, witty, and self-confident. She assumed the function of editor for the Schlegel brothers’ literary journal, wrote evaluations below her husband’s identify, translated with him 16 Shakespeare performs (which nonetheless make up the usual version in Germany at the moment), and gave the Jena Set a spot the place they might suppose, discuss, chuckle, and write. And although she didn’t contribute theoretical treatises or essays, she lived and breathed this new Ich-philosophy. She was the embodiment of the empowered free self.
The Jena Set felt invincible. They had been embroiled in countless fights with the literary institutions and later with one another. They walked a effective line between free will and selfishness, self-determination and narcissism—a balancing act that appears all too acquainted at the moment. Perhaps it’s not that stunning to search out inflated egos, infighting, and self-absorption in a gaggle of strong-willed women and men who believed within the supreme rule of the self. Freedom brings with it each duties and risks. The chums in Jena struggled with that, simply as we do at the moment. From the second this seismic shift towards an empowered self rippled out of Jena, individuals have needed to take care of the perils. However Fichte himself by no means meant his concepts to be a celebration of narcissism. Quite the opposite, he at all times insisted that our freedom is tightly certain to our ethical obligations. “Solely these are free,” he instructed college students throughout his first lecture sequence, in 1794, “who will attempt to make everybody round them free.” Freedom at all times brings its twin: ethical obligation. How can we stay a fulfilled life through which we comply with our goals whereas additionally being a morally good particular person? How can we reconcile private liberty with the calls for of society? Are we too egocentric? Are we treading on another person’s liberty?
The self, for higher or worse, has remained middle stage ever since Fichte put it there. The French revolutionaries modified the political panorama of Europe, however Fichte and the buddies in Jena incited a revolution of the thoughts. We could have forgotten Fichte, and we would not discuss his self-determined Ich any extra, however now we have internalized it. We’re this Ich. We’re nonetheless empowered by the Jena Set’s daring leap, by absolutely the significance they positioned on private freedom. And at a time after we discover our democracies hollowed out and threatened by liars, despots, and reactionary politicians, it’s as much as us to find out how a lot we need to combat for this legacy.