Andrea Wulf – Magnificent Rebels

This is my third post of 2024 and the previous two already referred to my reading of Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels“. The second of hers I’ve read, after “The Invention of Nature“. The connection between the two is the overlap of explorer / scientist Alexander von Humboldt, his brother Wilhelm and his wife Caroline intersecting with thinkers clustered in and around Jena and the German / Prussian “states” of the time. The intersection is impressive enough – Goethe, Fichte, Hegel, the Humboldts, Novalis, Schelling, Schiller, the Schlegels, Schleiermacher and Tieck – the union is frankly the whole of European, North and South American and Russian politics and thought in the arts and sciences – and government, in the aftermath of the French revolution. Too many leaders to name-drop again, but well-connected and influential to say the least.

I read “Magnificent Rebels“ to a conclusion about 4am one night, excitedly covered in post-it notes. The notes I’m extracting are for my philosophical / metaphysical purposes, and it’s hard to exaggerate how much momentous thinking happened in Jena. I originally said 1750-1850 (1749-1854 spanning their lives) but the action all happened in a decade from 1796 when the Schlegel’s arrived in Jena and 1806 when Napoleon rolled through.

I’m not going to have bandwidth for a full review of all those notes, they’re back on the shelf for future reference alongside the Humboldt book.

Just a couple of general historical observations.

Women and Marriage. What with the Holy Roman Empire and the myriad of little states and principalities each with their feudal hierarchical arrangements, the rules about who could marry who were culturally tangled well beyond the individuals involved. Ditto the rules for divorce. Perhaps therefore not surprisingly, many of the couples understood they weren’t married to the right person and had by mutual agreement open relationships with any number of lovers and partners, including coveting their brother’s/sister’s wives/husbands. Only social propriety – and the consequences of being caught rule-breaking – maintained discretion, but within the walls of “liberal” Jena, who cared? That the women “helped” their male partners with their thinking and writing, at the very least editorially if not co-authored was openly acknowledged in that liberal environment. Even when the whole was explicitly authored by the women and advertised as such by their men, only the men’s names made it through the wider publishing process.

Disease and Death. It was very easy to die in those days. Ignoring the ever-present violence of governance and war, and travel – on horseback, carriage or on foot (the distances they walked!) – the death of a child and/or the mother in childbirth, death of children who survived birth, death of anyone contracting any number of prevalent diseases we’d consider minor in the 21st C, were all a part of daily life. Medicine was crude and often more harm than good, infection hadn’t been recognised yet. They’d all better live their best life and produce their best work today, they might be dead tomorrow.

Amazing work done in Prussia / Germany before anywhere else UK, US or continental Europe under the most adverse conditions. Anyway, enough for now, a dozen other reads – inevitably – added to my virtual reading list, whilst I am still in writing-not-reading mode.

Both wonderful books by Andrea Wulf, highly recommended.


Previously on Psybertron

So this is 2024” (3/4/5 Jan 2024 – “Friday I’m In Love“) A round up on my resolved priorities for 2024, where my first mistake was to start reading “Magnificent Rebels“.

2024 – Another day” (6 Jan 2024 – “Saturday I’m still in love“) ever deeper into “Magnificent Rebels

Humboldt – Pictures with Everything” (11 Sep 2023) My original reading of Wulf’s previous work “The Invention of Nature“.


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