Andrea Wulf
Magnificient Rebels

Big ideas from a small town

Today, we live in a world where we as individuals have to tiptoe a thin line between free will and selfishness. Self-determination and narcissism. Empathy and righteousness. Underpinning everything we do are two crucial questions: who am I as an individual and who am I as a member of a group in society. Are we really magnificent rebels? We take our individuality for granted. It may sound strange to us, but there was a time when philosophers and thinkers argued that the world was controlled by a divine hand, and ruled by God’s absolute truths. Humans could not make or shape them.

When did we first ask the question: how can I be free? Andrea Wulf found the answer to these questions in the small German town of Jena, for it was here that in the last decade of the 18th century a group of novelists, poets, literary critics, philosophers and playwrights who placed the self at the center of the stage of its thinking. The impact was seismic, their idea’s spreading into the world and into our minds. Who were these magnificent rebels?

The French Revolution as a catalyst for change

It was at a time when their lives were ruled by monarchs and leaders who controlled many aspects of their lives. In their minds, a person should be self-determined, never letting himself be defined by anything external. For 10 years, as this group of thinkers was living together in the small town of Jena, they were the nexus of Western philosophy. In this 10 years, they were shaping the modern mind. The story takes place against the background of the French Revolution. This revolution declared all men (and women?) equal, suggesting the possibility of a new social order founded on the power of ideas and freedom. The French Revolution lit a fire that awakened the ideals in the thinkers in Jena.

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The Self as the center of philosophy

The ‘Jena Set’, as Andrea Wulf describes them, placed the self, the Ich, at the center of this new philosophy. It imbued the self with the most thrilling of all ideas: free will. It was a liberation of the individual as it was a rebellion against the despotism of the state. This radical new concept of an unfettered self carried the potential of a different life. A revolution set on by philosophy.

Magnificent rebels

Magnificent Rebels captures that moment in history when a cluster of intellectuals, artists, poets and writers come together at a particular time and in a particular place to change the world. It describes the lives and relations of the persons who comprised the ‘Jena set’: August Schlegel, a translator, writer and critic, and his wife Caroline. Friedrich, August’s younger brother and his partner Dorothea. Friedrich Schelling, the poet Novalis and Fichte, the philosopher who created the concept of Ich and who taught in Jena. And Goethe, who played an important role in the background.

The birth of ideas

They loved, they squabbled and feuded and they divorced. Andrea Wulf magnificently captures their lives and the 18th century they lived in. In passing, aside from all the philosophy and ideas, you also learn a lot of those conditions that defined the century: the diseases, the incompetent doctors, the sudden deaths of both adults and toddlers and the Napoleonic wars. Andrea Wulf spins a lively yarn of the birth of ideas and feelings we today take for granted.

  • Andrea Wulf

    Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

    ISBN: 9780525657118 | Pages: 512 pages | Publication date: September 13, 2022

    Buy on Amazon


Andrea Wulf's book Magnificent Rebels is a fascinating exploration of the thinkers and poets who disrupted traditional philosophical thought in Jena shortly after the French Revolution. The book highlights the important role that Jena played in the development of German idealism and Romanticism, and the impact that these movements had on European culture and thought.

— Bill
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