Philosophical Bohemians: On Peter Neumann’s “Jena 1800”

June 12, 2022   •   By Richard Eldridge

Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits

Peter Neumann

FACING GLOBAL CAPITALIST competition and overwhelming economic inequality, young people nowadays spend most of their time hustling educationally and economically, in the hope of getting high enough up the heap to become rich and famous or at least to make life tolerably decent. Outside the credentialization hustle, there are the clubs, drugs, streaming video of all kinds, walks in the park, and sex as vehicles of compensatory escape. The lucky 15 percent or so will sooner or later settle into a job and enjoy a decent family life. But unless they have managed to rise to the top one percent, their children will face the same structural imperative: credentialize and compete or wither. Decent satisfaction with life remains an unrealized aspiration for much of the world’s population. In wealthier countries, depression is endemic; according to the CDC, 13.2 percent of US adults have used antidepressant drugs in the last 30 days. Meanwhile, the immiserated neighborhoods of Lagos, Mumbai, Chicago, São Paulo, and Paris continue to grow rapidly.

As self-conscious animals who are aware of their sufferings, human beings are prone to dream of life otherwise. These dreams have motivated hopes for religious resurrection, the formation of breakaway sects of communal life, and all sorts of experiments in living: Shaker villages, Brook Farm, New Harmony, and Oneida in the United States; ashrams, ecovillages, kibbutzim, monasteries, and hippie farms throughout the world, each with their own forms of social organization, dietary and sexual practices, and educational systems. This started rather early. In 525 BCE, the philosopher Pythagoras founded a vegetarian commune in southern Italy.

No wonder then that the contemporary cultural imaginary, too, includes fantasies of life otherwise. “If only,” it is easy to imagine, “we could get together and think, feel, live, and work creatively; we might construct small communities of human decency, and they might even serve as beacons for others. Perhaps we could live together creatively and in genuine freedom, apart from the grinding imperatives of industrial production and competitive individualism. We might form an intentional community rather than living as a heap of competitive individuals.” (This is the inverse complement of the fantasy of striking it rich by inventing a killer app or writing a blockbuster screenplay.) Imaginings along these lines were common in the heyday of the naïve Rousseauism of the late-1960s New Left, and they still surface intermittently, yet with increasing self-skepticism. As the old joke runs: what is the difference between the New Left and the Old Left? ­­They’re exactly the same, except that the New Left has no economic or political analysis. It is difficult to avoid the thought expressed in Margaret Thatcher’s campaign slogan TINA: “there is no alternative” — to late capitalism, that is, with all its grinding inequalities and anxieties, except for ethno-authoritarianism-oligarchism, with its even worse horrors.

No wonder, too, then, that there is a current public of soi-disant intellectuals eager to learn about past experiments in living, especially those with a significant philosophical dimension. And so we have Peter Neumann’s Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits (translated by Shelley Frisch), “a fascinating and highly readable story of ideas, art, love, and war,” as one blurb has it, and a picture of “a world intoxicated with the possibilities of thought,” according to another. Jena in 1798 to 1800 was a backwater provincial city of 5,000 residents, one-fifth of whom were students. Initially attracted by the presences at the university first of Karl Leonhard Reinhold and then J. G. Fichte, both of whom were associated with the free thinking of Kantianism and the French Revolution, a circle of intellectual friends, including women as equals as well as men, formed around the brothers August and Friedrich Schlegel.

Friedrich and Dorothea Veit (Moses Mendelssohn’s divorced daughter) set up house in Leutragasse 5, where they were soon joined by August and his wife, Caroline (widow to Johann Böhmer and later to marry Friedrich Schelling after divorcing August). Intermittently, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), Hölderlin, Tieck, Schiller, Fichte, and Schleiermacher stayed with them or lived in the neighborhood. Goethe was a regular visitor from nearby Weimar. Intellectual improvisations and giddiness ran high, from Tieck’s fairy tales, to Novalis’s supernaturalist mysticism, to Schelling’s systematic speculations about nature as an unfolding order of powers. Fichte at one point proposed that “they could rent a big place in the city, hire a cook, [and] live together like one big family.”

Symphilosophieren (communal philosophizing) and symfaulenzen (communal idling) were the order of the day. Woven into all this free intellectual activity was the sex: not just the exchange of partners (Caroline leaving August for Schelling; Friedrich and Dorothea taking up with each other prior to marriage), but also love and sex as life-activities that served as both vehicles of thought and foci for creativity, particularly in Friedrich’s 1799 Lucinde, a novel that was for at least four generations regarded as pornographic in intimating that there are sexual positions other than the missionary. “Love had no use for external structures,” Neumann writes in commenting on Lucinde, “[i]t was the form of life itself.” In all of life, work, and thought, “[v]apid unanimity would be unacceptable.” Improvisation, irony as eternal agility, and in general change (rather than commitment within institutional life) were all. The members of the Jena Circle “regarded freedom as an unending process of liberating the human species as such, as an ongoing challenge to existing constraints and boundaries, including those that were self-imposed.”

It was a good experiment in radically free, unconstrained life. And, as such experiments go, it too went. By the end of 1801, Novalis was dead; Schiller had left for Weimar to be closer to Goethe; and Tieck was in Dresden. August, now separated from Caroline, had moved to Berlin, and Friedrich and Dorothea decamped for Paris. Fichte had already long since been dismissed from the university on charges of atheism, and Schelling was soon to move to Würzburg.

To the extent that the kind of life envisioned and practiced in this small circle in Jena from 1798 to 1800 continues to figure in the contemporary cultural imaginary (at least among those in educated circles who have the time, means, and taste for bohemianism), it would be good to have a serious book on it. Unfortunately, Jena 1800 is not that book. Partly, this is a matter of structure. The book is written in short sections (five to eight pages) that jump chaotically across time, place, and character: from the University of Tübingen days of Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin, to the development of Schiller’s career prior to Jena, to Goethe’s scientific work, to Hegel’s mature, post-1806 philosophy, to various battles in the Napoleonic Wars, to the atheism controversy launched by the philosopher Jacobi’s charge that Lessing had become a Spinozist on his deathbed. These are all relevant topics for a book on Jena Romanticism, but it is impossible to treat any of them adequately, let alone all of them, in the brief and scattershot way in which this book indulges. It is impossible, here, to see how any personality, set of ideas, or mode of life arises, changes, and passes away for any kinds of social, intellectual, or economic reasons.

This difficulty is exacerbated by a style of writing that is both excessively breezy (“Try wrapping your head around that”) and sometimes incoherent (“Heimweh […] expressed a painful, nearly insatiable longing to return to untrodden territory”: how could one return to territory upon which one has never set foot?).

Most important, Neumann makes little effort to analyze the ideas and mode of life proposed by Jena Romanticism. Jena 1800 is written only to present an eruption of fantasy in detached snapshots, not to understand it. As those of bohemian temperament tend to be, Neumann seems generally approving of the idea that freedom simply is absence of constraint issuing in unceasing creativity, expressed in continuing personal and intellectual mobility. While this may be one partial aspect of freedom, it is far from the whole story. An equally important aspect of substantially free life is wholehearted, continuing participation in relations and joint activities that are stable and reproducible over time. As the noted philosopher Joni Mitchell observed,

What happens when you date is you run all your best moves and tell all your best stories — and in a way, that routine is a method for falling in love with yourself over and over. You can’t do that with a longtime mate because he knows all that old material. With a long relationship, things die then are rekindled, and that shared process of rebirth deepens the love. It’s hard work, though, and a lot of people run at the first sign of trouble. You’re with this person, and suddenly you look like an asshole to them or they look like an asshole to you — it’s unpleasant, but if you can get through it you get closer and you learn a way of loving that’s different from the neurotic love enshrined in movies. It’s warmer and has more padding to it.

Not everyone is likely to be lucky enough to have such a long-term relationship, but the thought that such relationships matter is an important one. Happily, there are some other things that can take up some of the slack. Thank God for sports, dogs, and music. In any case, a measure of a good society is the extent to which it makes a freely created and chosen life that is both stable and deep possible for its members. Jena 1800 has no grip on this thought.


Richard Eldridge has published widely on German Idealism, the philosophy of art (especially literature and film), and the philosophy of language.