For centuries, Medieval life in Europe meant a world determined and prescribed by church and royalty. The social sphere was very much a pyramid, and everybody had to answer to and fit within the schemes of those on top. And then, on wings of reason, Modern selves emerged to scrutinize these systems and at great cost swap them for others that more evenly distribute power and authority. Cosmic forces preordained one’s role within a transcendental order…but then, across quick decades of upheaval, philosophy and politics started celebrating self-determination and free will. Art and science blossomed as they wove together. Nothing was ever the same.
Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.
This week we engage with returning guest, New York Times best-selling author of seven books and SFI Miller Scholar Andrea Wulf, about her latest lovingly-detailed long work, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and The Invention of The Self. In this episode we explore the conditions for an 18th century revolution in philosophy, science, literature, and lifestyle springing from Jena, Germany. Over just a few years, an extraordinary confluence of history-making figures such as Goethe, Schelling, Schlegel, Hegel, and Novalis helped rewrite what was possible for human thought and action. Admist a landscape of political revolt, this braid of brilliant friends and enemies and lovers altered what it means to be a self and how the modern self relates to everything it isn’t, inspiring later British and American Romantic movements. Arguing for art and the imagination in the work of science and infusing art with reason, Jena’s rebels of the mind lived bold, iconoclastic lives that seem 200 years ahead in retrospect. We stand to learn a great deal from a careful look at Jena and the first Romantics…maybe even how to replicate their great successes and avoid their self-implosion in the face of social turbulence.
If you value our research and communication efforts, Please subscribe to Complexity Podcast wherever you prefer to listen, rate and review us at Apple Podcasts, and/or consider making a donation at santafe.edu/podcastgive. You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at santafe.edu/engage — in particular, you may wish to celebrate ten years of free online courses at Complexity Explorer with SFI Professor Cris Moore’s Computation in Complex Systems, starting March 28th. Learn more in the show notes…and thank you for listening!
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Related Reading & Listening:
Episode 60 - Andrea Wulf on The Invention of Nature, Part 1: Humboldt's Naturegemälde
Episode 61 - Andrea Wulf on The Invention of Nature, Part 2: Humboldt's Dangerous Idea
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
by Andrea Wulf
Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and The Invention of The Self
by Andrea Wulf
Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership
by Lewis Hyde
Episode 37 - The Art & Science of Resilience in the Wake of Trauma with Laurence Gonzales
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
by James Joyce
InterPlanetary Voyager (Interactive Golden Record Liner Notes)
by SFI’s InterPlanetary Festival
Blue Planet (BBC)
with David Attenborough
Andrea Wulf (0s): They say fragments we can write together at the dinner table. And for me, that is something that I thoroughly enjoyed when I was researching this book, the way they came together. So they sit together, they work together, they eat together, they party together, they love together, they do everything together. But it's always noisy. It's always loud. They agree that they never have to agree because they say there's nothing more dialed than the uniformity of opinion. And they see this as communal working. So Novalis, for example, says, I think better in dialogue.
I need other people to electrify me. And they give it a name than they call it sim philosophy. So they add the perfect sym, s-y-m to a lot of words. Sym philosophy, sym poetry, sym working. Everything is sym and essentially means together. They believe that two minds put together can just create much more than one mind. It goes horribly wrong in the end, but that doesn't matter. For a while it worked.
Michael Garfield (1m 22s): For centuries. Medieval life in Europe meant the world determined and prescribed by church and royalty. The social sphere was very much a pyramid and everybody had to answer too and fit within the schemes of those on top. And then on Wings of Reason, modern selves emerged to scrutinize these systems and at great cost, swap them for others that more evenly distribute power and authority. Cosmic forces preordained one's role within a transcendental order.
But then across quick decades of upheaval, philosophy and politics started celebrating self-determination and free will. Art and science blossomed as they wove together. Nothing was ever the same. Welcome to
, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I'm your host, Michael Garfield. And every other week we bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.
This week we engage with returning guests, New York Times bestselling author of seven books and SFI Miller Scholar, Andrea Wulf, about her latest, lovingly, detailed, long work,
, the first romantics and the invention of the self. In this episode, we explore the conditions for an 18th century revolution in philosophy, science, literature and lifestyle. Springing from Jena, Germany over just a few years, an extraordinary confluence of history, making figures such as Goethe, Schelling, Schlegel, Hegel, and Novalishelped rewrite what was possible for human thought and action.
Amidst the landscape of political revolt, this braid of brilliant friends and enemies and lovers altered what it means to be a self and how the modern self relates to everything it isn't inspiring. Later, British and American romantic movements arguing for art and the imagination and the work of science and infusing art with reason Jena's rebels of the mind lived a bold iconoclastic lives that seem 200 years ahead. In retrospect, we stand to learn a great deal from a careful look at Jena and the first Romantics, maybe even how to replicate their great successes and avoid their self implosion in the face of social turbulence.
If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe to
podcast, wherever you prefer to listen. Rate and review us at Apple Podcasts and or consider making a email@example.com slash podcast give, you can find numerous other ways to engage with us at
. In particular, you may wish to celebrate 10 years of free online courses at Complexity Explorer with SFI Professor Cris Moore’s course
Computation and Complex Systems
starting March 28th.
Learn more in the show notes and thank you for listening. Alright, Andrea Wulf, it's a pleasure to have you back on
Andrea Wulf (4m 40s): Thank you for having me.
Michael Garfield (4m 42s): When we had you last, we were talking about your biography of Alexander von Humboldt and you teased us at the very end of that conversation with the fact that you were writing a new book. And that book is out now, it's
, and it is kind of prequel or it's a zoom out to look at the entire context of German philosophers that inspired his work and set the stage for the revolution of romantic philosophy.
Why don't you start, I guess maybe just by setting the scene for us with these people and the city in which they met, and then we can dive into the details.
Andrea Wulf (5m 27s): Okay, so basically it's a book about a bunch of philosophers, thinkers, scientists, writers who came together at the end of the 18th century in a small German town called Jena, which was a town about 150 miles southwest of Berlin. And together they really changed the way we think about us and the world because they put the self at the center of their thinking. Now, on the one hand, it's a book about big philosophical ideas such as the beginning of the modern self, but it's also a bit of a soap opera.
So it's looking at these thinkers, how they also use their own life as almost as a stage or a platform to try out these ideas of this kind of strong independent self. And maybe because you started also with Humboldt, maybe I should start telling you a little bit how I came to write this book, because that really comes out of the invention of nature because Humboldt came to Jena in this, in the mid 1790s before he went to South America. And his friendship with Goethe, Germany's most kind of famous poet, but also with the younger generation of these thinkers and philosophers who had assembled in Jena at that time became very important for his thinking.
So as I was doing my research in Jena, walking through the streets, I saw all the name plaques on the houses with, I suddenly realized they are all these German literary superstars, which I had had been taught in school. Many of the names are not very famous here in the English speaking world, but they are the literary superstars in in Germany. So I just stumbled from one to another and thought, hold on, this is very small towns. At the end of the 18th century, it had four and a half thousand inhabitants.
And I just thought like, hold on. How can it be that everyone who I had learned about in school seemed to have like lived together at exactly the same time in this kind of together in this little town? So what was going on there? And so I wanted to find out, and then I had to finish basically the Humboldt book. And then after that I started doing my research about this book. And it's just, it is an extraordinary story of love affairs and working together. And maybe we can talk about this because it really reminds me a little bit of what, what's happening here at SFI that this idea of working together as a collective and that was very important for them.
Michael Garfield (7m 55s): I definitely want to get there because there is a clearly a bit of self-serving that needs to go on here. But first I want to celebrate and explore with you the historical frame in which you put all of this, because the first couple things that I want to hear you riff on is how at this time Germany was really this patchwork of states. It was not unified or like it was lots of, it was like the Dutchy of Saxony Weimar, right?
Was where it was. And so travel from one place to another was you know, horse-drawn carriage, highway men and thieves and communication was slow. It was by letter. But at the same time, there are, as you see in the prologue, there are newer and more detailed maps coming out. Ben Franklin had just invented the lightning rod. So there's this growing sense of it's happening at the time that modern science is beginning to understand the laws of nature. Newtonian optics plays a big piece in the sort of background of this story.
And then I love that you emphasize clocks and the keeping of time and a new more mechanical mentality was seeing and understanding things with greater granularity. And so as you put it, life sped up became faster, more predictable and more rational. According to Hegel the motto of the enlightenment was, everything is useful, but that this creates an opportunity to push back against that with an emphasis on the poetry and the irrationality of our existence.
And so this is a tension that I wanna explore with you over the course of this show because that is one thing that I think that our world has a lot in common with the world that you're portraying here. There is this, not necessarily an antimony, but again, a fruitful and dynamic tension between the success of science and technology and the rebellious return into embodiment and sensuality and dreams and these kinds of things.
Andrea Wulf (10m 10s): You summarize this really nicely. So this is really for me at the heart of this book, because romanticism, romantic science has such a bad reputation. So I was trying to do something with this book to which I think, I suppose I started with Humboldt, which is the importance of imagination and art in science that this kind of can all belong together. So you have, so as you said, to set the scene, these, the members of the Iena said are born into the enlightenment and they're very much children of the enlightenment.
So, and this is also what, so this is a world where scientists understand the world as this, like Newton, like this divine clock. And we can, and although God has created it, we can understand, we only have to understand the natural laws, the mathematical kind of equations behind these natural laws. So everything has become more mechanical. You have in England, you have the industrializations and slowly starting microscopes allow scientists to understand the minutia of life.
You have telescopes which allows us to understand our place in the universe. You have classifications. So plants, minerals, animals are organ classified. There's this idea of that you can impose order upon nature. There's also the sense of we can exert control over nature from smallpox, inoculations to Franklin's lightning. So the problem for the people from the set, for the thinkers, from the set is that this increasingly rational approach to nature gives, produces a certain distance to nature because nature has become this thing that has to be observed and understood from the kind of objective perspective.
They think that that has basically erased the wonder and the awe of nature. And they say, no matter how much scientists calculate, experiment, observe, there is a emotional and visceral and maybe unexplainable connection between humanity and nature. So what they're trying to do with their kind of more romantic approach is to as they say, poeticize the sciences.
So young poet Novalis says, he wants to politicize the sciences who's another one who says he wants to make Euclid singable. So there's this idea that you can transcend different disciplines. So they want to fight this increasingly mechanical clanking of the world. So they're fighting against this kind of disenchantment of the world. And they put, so they're the very first to use the word romantic in its new literary meaning.
So they launched romanticism onto the international stage. Now if we would go around and ask everybody here's like, what, what's romanticism we would get a bunch of very different answers. So anything will range from, some people will associate paintings of lonely figures and moonlit forests. Other others will say romanticism, the romantics were against reason and celebrate rationality. Others will probably just say, ssociate candle-lit and passionate love declarations, but that's not what the uniset said.
Understood. For them, romanticism was something much more complex, much more radical and very dynamic. And they put at the center of everything poetry, but not in our modern sense by, in the ancient Greek sense, which means creative and productive. So for them, romantic poetry could be anything. It could be a poem of course, but also a novel, a play, even a scientific experiment, a piece of music, a painting. For them, romantic poetry meant that could transcend boundaries and subjects.
So like two chemical elements can produce a new chemical compound. They believed romantic poetry can put these two different subjects together and create something distinctively new. And at the center of everything was imagination. Now, imagination had in the discipline of philosophy was not very important. Philosophers had looked at imagination with suspicion really because it was, was revealed, it didn't show the truth and it was something that's not really graspable.
And so they put it at the center and I think, and that's for me the importance. So they didn't turn against reason. And I think that's really important. They didn't turn against reason, but they said reason alone is not enough to understand the world. We also need imagination and art.
Michael Garfield (15m 3s): Part of this that it strikes me is that there's a back and forth here, and we'll spend more time on this I guess when we get to the way that this group of people redefined or helped to define the modern self. But in being here there's a lot of work that goes on at SFI on a fundamental and formal definition of individuality. What do we mean when we talk about an individual and scientific terms? And it strikes me that if we are gonna make this analogy between Jena and Santa Fe and between what this group is doing and what our group is doing here, that one of the things that makes this work and you look at predecessors like Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project is remoteness, right?
It’s an insularity. And so I loved early on the book how you note Germany didn't have a frontier in the way that the United States did. It didn't have this massive constellation of colonies like England. And so German philosophy looked inward. It was inherently introspective. And there was also this thing about the way that the town itself, all of these towns are surrounded by hills or mountains. And that Jena in particular was a college town.
And so there was a kinda a transient involved. So I think the introspective component of this and the way that boundaries, if you think about like origins of life research and how, whether you think it's like a hot springs model or a a deep sea event model, we're talking about islands where elements are concentrated and so there's something about that kind of pressure cooker kind of model that seems relevant here.
Andrea Wulf (16m 56s): I think as you mentioned earlier before, so Germany was not a unified state at all. So it was this jigsaw of 1,500 states ranging from tiny principalities to big powerful states like Austria and Prussia. And this had advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that censorship was very difficult to, to enforce. Every state had their own little sets of rules. So if you were not allowed to publish something in one state, we you could frankly just go to another one and publish it there.
So it was relatively easy. And the other big difference is, as you say, is that Germany doesn't have this kind of global reach as Spain, France and England, and it doesn't have the unexplored West. So what it does, I think is it actually frees up the imagination. So Germans had to travel, they didn't travel on ships to colonies or something like that. They basically traveled in their minds and along the letters of books. It's a bit like sometimes child psychologists say that children need to be a bit bored in order to learn to use their imagination.
And I, I think it's a bit like this. So there's this inward looking the same time, you can just grow through your imagination. And because of the lack of censorship or the difficulty of enforcing censorship, new ideas and arguments traveled quite easily through the German states. So, and then you have Jena, which it's a small town in a very small dutchy. It is a university town.
So of the four and a half thousand inhabitants, 900, almost 900 are students. So it's very much dominated by its university in terms of its economy. So you have lots of taverns, for example, book binders, there's a big library there is reading society. So it's very much the whole town caters its university kind of status, but it also has a very particular set of circumstances. So through complicated inheritance law, the University of Jena, which was once controlled by Saxony, was now controlled by four different Saxon Dukes with no one really in charge.
So no one is really dealing with them. They forget about it. So what happens is it becomes this place that attracts liberally thinking thinkers, but also professors and thinkers who have been in trouble with the authorities in their home state. So you have, for example, Friedrich Schiller who is Germany's most famous playwright and who had become famous through his revolutionary play
. He was then imprisoned by the rule of his home state. So he came to Jena because it was this place forgotten by the authority.
Small professors didn't get a lot of money. So the famous professors would not go there because they would get much more money. So it attracts these revolutionary thinkers. The more of them are there, the more people are attracted. So it becomes this hotbed.
Michael Garfield (20m 7s): So actually I'm glad you brought up imprisonment here, right? Because one of the things I really like about this book, and we have, we've hardly mentioned them at all, is the prominence and the influence that a handful of women played in this. Among them, and I'm gonna butcher the pronunciation, I'm so sorry, but this name is extraordinary, Caroline Michaelis Böhmer Schlegel Schelling. We called like the beating heart of this group who when you start the story, you start with her pregnant in prison with her daughter in prison with her, and she's pregnant from a one night stand, a French revolutionary soldier, and she's in prison for being a revolutionary sympathizer.
And and she's a widow already. And there's this sense that you get, like when you look at it's hard being in this generation not comparing these figures and their stories to the revolution that happened in the West and then like the 1960s, right? And the nature of the revolution is one that it's like you're not going to rebel unless you have something to rebel against. So I'd like to deepen this a bit because even though you say that, yeah, in Jena there was relatively little censorship and people were allowed to think freely.
All of these people had been oppressed or censored in some way. Like all of them had come together in part as a way of articulating something else. And so like yes, the strain, especially with the backdrop of the aftermath of the French revolution going on here, like all of this stuff has a kind of straining against or a yearning for something more, for something beyond.
Andrea Wulf (22m 1s): Yeah. So they, they're all born before the French Revolution. So they are brought up in a world where rulers basically can decide about every detail in their subject's life. So philosophers get censored for their ideas. Writers are banned from writing for their ideas. Professors lose their jobs because of their ideas. Rulers can decide who can marry whom. They can decide sometimes the profession of their subjects. They can sell their subjects as mercenaries to other nations.
So the world they were born into was a world of despotism, inequality and control. And then happens to French Revolution in 1789, boom, like this kind of gigantic big earthquake of an event that doesn't leave anyone unaffected in Europe. And I think the French Revolution and of course also the American Revolution, but the America is just so far away. So the French revolution is much more important for them. The when the French revolutionaries declare everybody equal or every man equal, let's you know, not forget that it promises the possibility of a new social order based on the idea of power and freedom.
And it proves that. So basically philosophy leaves the ivory tower of rarefied thought and arrives in the minds of ordinary people. And it is the proof, the French revolution is the proof that ideas and words mightier than weapons in kings and queens. And I think that is something that we cannot underestimate, that kind of powerful moment. So the thinkers, the philosophers, the writers of the Jena said they realize that their pens are sharper weapons than guns and swords and they use them and they feel for the first time I can change the world with my writings.
So that, and I think it's such a powerful moment because before it was, it was the night in the shining armor who could change something but not your thoughts couldn't change anything. So they were watching over the border to France seeing how a state was arising out of the idea of a state. So they're all of them very much influenced by the French Revolution. And you mentioned Carolina earlier, let me give her surnames again. Caroline Michaelis Böhmer Schlegel Schelling, a woman who carried the name of her father, but also of her three husbands.
And she's really the soul of the Jena set. And she, so she, before Jena, she lives in mines, which was in 1792 and 93 became the hotbed of revolutionary thought. So there's the mines republic, which is the first German republic, only four months. So she's there, she's hanging out with the French revolutionaries, she gets imprisoned, she has a child after one night stand with an 18 year old French soldier.
She's 29 and we just quite scandalous behavior when you're not really even allowed to be with a man on your own in a room. And despite all these obstacles, she continues. So she, she's called a revolutionary whore, but she says, hold on, why should my life be destroyed by a simple mistake that would've meant nothing had I been a man? But because of society, I mean literally the cities are not allowing her to live there.
So along comes the young writer August Wilhelm Schlegel and marries her. She doesn't love him, they become very close friends. They come to an arrangement of an open marriage. He gives her a new name and a new beginning and he takes her to Jena and she is fiercely independently minded. She creates the physical space where the friends meet, but she's much more than a muse. And because I think we have a tendency to think women in the 18th and 19th century who have these literary salons they're just the muse. She's not, she's at the intellectual heart of this group. So she's a razor sharp critic who dissects poems and poetry and philosophical treatises. She writes reviews in her husband's name. She is the editor of their literary magazine and she translates together with her husband 16 Shakespeare's plays as these are the first German verse translations, which are to this day, the standard edition in Germany. Her name is not on the cover. So she's been written out of history as so many women, but she's really important and they meet in Schlegel's house.
So there's Carolina and her husband, August Wilhelm. And then there's his younger brother Schlegel, who is a very hot tempered young man. Then most of these, most of them are all like in their twenties. So they're very young and, and Schlegelis a literary critic with a pen as sharp as a french guillotine. And he like basically pisses off so many people because he just criticizes them. And unlike other reviewers, he puts his name on the reviews and he lives in the same house in Jena with his lover.
Dotier is the daughter of one of Germany's most famous enlightenment philosophers, Moses Mendelssohn, she's, she's also married, she meets Frederich, she gets a divorce, which is very unusual at that time and then lives with her lover with Frederich unmarried in the house of his older brother. So the Schlegel house in Jena become for me is really Germany's first commune and they're all sleeping with each other. So they're, there's this, and then you have the Humboldts.
So you have Wilhelm Humboldt who's Alexander von Humboldt's older brother with his wife, another very fiercely independently minded Carolina who lives, they live with her lover in their house in Jena and no one cares. He goes to all the kind of dinner parties and everything. And then you have Goethe who lives with his lover, who's also the mother of his children unmarried for 20 years in his house. So it's this very open-minded space.
And I found a statistic which absolutely blew my mind that a quarter of all children at that time in Jena were born out of wedlock. So it is a transient place and people come and go and leave behind kind of trails of scandals, broken hearts and children behind.
Michael Garfield (28m 27s): So in speaking just a moment ago, you made a couple key points about first of all that Carolina, yeah,
Andrea Wulf (28m 36s): Just let her, if we call her Carolina at that moment, she's called Carolina Schlegel.
Michael Garfield (28m 43s): Carolina Schlegel is publishing under her husband's name. And then you've got Schiller who's stepping out in front of his incendiary reviews and that gets him into trouble with the other members of this scene when he is somehow just blatantly viciously critical of some of their work. And then you've got Fishta who we haven't really spoken about yet, but is a key figure in the way that he philosophies the and this self and non-self thing or the I and the non-I.
And so yeah, I want to go a little deeper into the formulation of the modern self, but in so doing, again, I want to linger with you a moment on boundaries because like in a world of censorship and with or without distance from controlling powers like Goethe and Schiller talk about how the concealed authorship of their over a thousand vicious zingers about critics, the zenian allowed them to aim sharper and hit harder.
But then like Fishta when he is a professor and he is on stage and he critiques the fraternities and then is tormented for five months by vicious mobs of frat boys, at which point was it Goethe reminds him that this is like proof. So it's, it's funny because there's this tension and this is where I want to go with you, but I want to go in in terms of like the assertion of the self and how when you have, for instance, Wilhelm Schlegel says, my goal is to live free, but then you note he also wanted to be famous.
And so there is this thing about the need for credit or recognition. I love Lewis Hyde's book,
Common As Error
, which explores the origins of modern United States intellectual property law, which spends a lot of time in Europe around the same time and points out how figures like Ben Franklin were often publishing their pamphlets anonymously as a contribution to the commons. And so it's like something about recognition for credit, but then also for the pure practical demand of anonymity at the same time.
Andrea Wulf (30m 60s): So I think it's because this is obviously the next generation after someone like Franklin. So lemme start with Fishta. So Fishta arrives in Jena in 1794. He's a philosophy professor and he is the most popular professor in Jena. Half of Jena's students come to his lectures, they're auditoriums. They're standing on ladders looking in, they're kind of spill out into the corridors and they all wanna hear this new philosophy of the self.
So Fishta step basically says, gives us the most exciting and thrilling of all powers, the free will and self-determination. So he says the source of all reality is the self. And that might not sound very exciting for us, but at that moment it was something completely new and revolutionary because this is still the time when most people believe that the world is based on divine and absolute truth.
Natural laws. We can understand them but we can't shape them. So Fistha says, the self deposits its own being. So basically the self brings itself into reality. And not only that, through this powerful initial act, it also brings into existence, at least in our mind, the external world. And what he, basically, what he's doing with that is that he's saying that self is the agent of everything.
And that's a very powerful idea and it's obviously also an idea that is sparked on the ideas of the French Revolution. So this excites basically everybody in Jena, but also through his publications everywhere in the German states. Some people are terrified by it because they think free will is gonna bring down the world and others like the younger generation in Jena, absolutely thrilled by these ideas. So what they do is they take this philosophy and they live it.
And this is I think where they're not doing something for the common good. The idea is also to do something for yourself. And this is not as selfishness as we understand it today. And so for me, another kind of essential part of this book is this tension between the thrilling possibilities of free will and self-determination against the kind of pitfalls of selfishness. And so this tension is at the heart of this book, and I think underlying, underpinning this are two essential questions.
Who am I as an individual and who am I as a member of a community or society? How can I live a life that in which I fulfill my dreams but be at the same time a morally good person? How can I reconcile my personal liberties with the demands of society? And if you look at the pandemic, this is a perfect example of what happened there. So you have millions of us who followed lockdown rules because we believe that it's the right thing to do for the greater good.
And then you have a few who say like, hold on, my personal liberty is much more important. So the moment that Fistha puts the it, the self at the nexus of his philosophy, people had to deal with the perils of this kind of newly emboldened self. But this was not a narcissistic kind of celebration of the self. This was, they li he liberated the self really with the intention of creating a better society. What we've made of that today is a completely different story because we obviously live in a society that's completely obsessed with the self where we just rotate around ourself, where self-fulfillment has become the mantra where there's a whole generation called the me generation, but that is not what he intended.
So he said in his first lecture series in Jena, he said that freedom always comes with obligations. So freedom comes with our moral duty. So freedom elevates us over our base instincts. Freedom gives us the choice how to act and how behave, but freedom does not mean we can do whatever we want and cast aside other people. So, and it's this balancing act that we still tiptoe along today, which was also at the heart of their lives and problems.
So they're trying to live a life where they feel they're self-determined and I think it's very important for the women. There are a lot of women who take their own destiny in their hands and free themselves from the constraints of society, from unhappy marriages. But at the same time it is this balancing act and you can very easily become a selfish bastard.
Michael Garfield (35m 49s): There's a tragic component to this. I want to linger for a little bit on the story that you tell about Novalis, right? Because Novalis falls for this poet Sophie von Kuhn, and when she dies as a teenager, a lot of these people are like the, the, a lot of the women especially are very young.
Andrea Wulf (36m 8s): But his love of Sophie is a little bit uncomfortable today because she's 12. Yeah. In love with her.
Michael Garfield (36m 14s): She dies at 15, right? And then when she dies he goes from this sort of romantic poetic sensibility like you said earlier in which he's, he's arguing that the sciences must be poeticize into like a kind of alchemical super villain fixation with death and with going into a laboratory and trying to find like a material substrate by which he can escape the body. And so there's again, this thing about just how thin is sometimes blurry the line is between liberty as a precondition for responsibility and liberty as an endo to itself in a way that Americans in particular tend to conflate liberty in the proper formulation with this sort of indiscriminate freedom. And that this is a common pattern. When I had Laurence Gonzalez on the show and we talked about the difference between pilgrimage and escapism in one's response to trauma. And so I don't know why I feel the need to like linger on these particular topics, but it does seem related to when you talk about Schiller and his comments on the, the relationship between utility and beauty or the way that on this show, we've talked a lot about the difference between our understanding of like useful and useless knowledge or the role of art in society.
And yet we're gonna talk about the way that, again, muses are understood throughout history that the muse doesn't really like care about you personally so much as it cares about the instantiation of poetic vision in the world and people are destroyed. And so you got Novalis dying at 28, much life Forever 27 Club with Jim Morrison.
Andrea Wulf (38m 2s): He becomes the epitome of the young romantic. Yeah, okay, you've conflated lots of different things, but let's, it's let's some people, let's go to Nova first. Yeah. And then maybe talk about Schiller and his kind of utility and art and beauty, which I think is very important. So Novalis is a really interesting character. I think some people might have heard about him. There's a very famous novel by Penelope Fitzgerald called the
, where he is the main figure, but he's super famous in Germany, but very unknown here.
He's the only one who comes from an aristocratic family in this group, but they're very poor. So he has to work. He's actually the only one who really has a job. He's a mining inspector. He works in with his father in the salt mines. He studies together with Frederich Schlegel and they become very close friends. They study in Leipzig. And then his family estate is only 30 miles away from Jena. So although he doesn't live in Jena, he's there very regularly. He falls in love with Sophie von Kuhn when she's 12 and they secretly get engaged when she's 13 and then she goes through some very harrowing surgeries in Jena and she eventually dies when she's 15.
So Novalis is completely distraught, but it becomes this kind of rather strange obsession with death. So he decides that he wants to die, but he doesn't want to kill himself. He takes Fishta’s philosophies, which he has studied very intensely. So there are about 500 manuscript pages handwritten, like written by Novalis, all about Fishta’s philosophy. So he says, if the self is so strong, surely I should have enough willpower to kill myself just by thinking myself dead.
So slightly crazy maybe, but I think it is the logical continuation of what Fishta is saying. So, because what he's saying is like, if my will can move, my body can move my limbs. So maybe if I will myself, I can grow an arm that was amputated, I can grow that back. So that's the first step. And then the next step is I can kill myself that only that counts as following her in love. So she becomes, in her death, she becomes this kind of magical figure, which has nothing much to do anymore with the real Sophie.
And he writes this diary where he observes himself and then he gets, he tells himself off if he has suddenly some fun because then obviously his willpower is not strong enough. Needless to say he does not manage to kill himself by willpower. But he writes, I think one of the most beautiful romantic poems, or it's a cycle of poems called
Hymns to the Night
where he really plays with, he always plays with opposites. So with death and life with sun and darkness.
And, he uses, so he's a mining inspector, so he uses this, his scientific work, the going into the earth becomes like his big metaphor. You go inside, you go deep inside, you go into the darkness. So before darkness was always something terrible. It's something in literature and poetry, but he celebrates it. It becomes a very important metaphor in his work. So he studies at the mining academy in Freiberg where Alexander from Humboldt also studied a little bit previously and he is in his lab and he tries for him, it's really, he tries to find something where he can transcend the boundaries between body and mind.
And he calls it my magical idealism. And he's the one who takes it to an extreme. But in a way they all try to transcend boundaries and bring different disciplines together. The most important for them is bring together the arts and the science. The arts, beauty, imagination becomes very important for all of them. And then maybe that leads me over to s Schiller now. So Schiller, who was originally a great supporter of the French revolution, like so many other Germans, becomes disillusioned with Robbe Pierre’s reign of terror.
So as 15,000 heads role in France in 1793 and 1794, he turns away from this and he begin and he thinks about the French Revolution and he comes up with an argument where he says that because of reason, because of the enlightenment, the French revolution could happen. But because there's so much utility and rational thought behind it, we've lost the importance of feelings and emotions and beauty. So for them, art and beauty is not something that's aesthetically pleasing and decorative and ornamental, it's something deeply political.
So Schiller believes that the French were not mature enough, morally mature enough to deal with the freedom that the French Revolution gave them. And he says all this reason, all this rational thought, all this knowledge that cannot make you a morally good person. The only thing that can make you morally good is beauty and art. So art, he calls the daughter of freedom. So that becomes very politically. You might not agree with him that the French were not morally mature enough.
But what I find interesting about this is that this is a time when art and imagination was at the center of everything. And today we have pushed it out of the sciences so much, kind of the normal sciences that it's not really allowed. But if you talk to scientists here, most of them will say that imagination is actually incredibly important in their work. But it's not something you put into a peer reviewed article.
Michael Garfield (44m 2s): And so this leads me into kind of a politically sensitive question I guess, cuz I was just listening to another conversation on this relationship between moral thinking and aesthetic thinking and how over the last hundred years, Germany had a really intense lesson in how a refined aesthetic does not necessarily lead one to moral behavior, right? And so interestingly, you look at people that were kinda more famously inspired, at least in the United States in England, you got like Mary Shelly and Byron and the British romantics and Shelly having written what is famously considered like the first work of science for
, which starts within explicit nod to the experiments that Humboldt and Goethe we're doing, experimenting on the animal dissections and yes, galvanism and pulling frogs apart and electrocuting different parts of them to see if muscle twitches and so on.
And I feel like we've been exploring this from a number of different angles. But there is this paradox in the relationship between reductionism and emergence or between dissection and the unification of knowledge and this awkward reality that much like the role of imaginative flights in the formulation of scientific hypotheses, there is this role of, as you say, believed Alexander von Humboldt could never create only to divide.
And yet he's really good at connecting ideas and seeing chains of things. But in order to have chains of things, you need to have individual links. And so this is not real. These things aren't intention with one another. But I wanna give you that to riff on in light of the fact that another one of these big thinkers, as you mentioned was Hegel. And you've got the Hegelian dialectic and this thesis antithesis synthesis thing going on that becomes an enormously influential mode of thinking about history and the unfoldment and evolution of ideas.
And so I'd just, yeah, I'd love to hear you pull
Andrea Wulf (46m 8s): That one. But let's first maybe talk about Schelling because I think he's, for me more important. They're great. I'm not a he scholar at all. And you might have noticed that he only comes at the very end of the book. So Schelling is very important. So Schelling comes to Jena in 1798, but he's already famous. He's only 23. He becomes the youngest professor at the university. He was originally inspired by Fishta’s philosophy, but then moves away from this. And he says that the self and nature is identical.
So instead of dividing the world into mind and matter as philosophers are done for centuries, he says that in fact everything, the living and the non-living world are ruled by the same underlying principles. So unlike Newton who had declared matter as essentially an inert or Descartes who had declared animals to be machines, he rejects these mechanical models of nature, which is then something that becomes very important for Humboldt of course. So he talks about, Schelling talks about nature as this living organism.
And he says that because we are identical with nature, that means two things. One thing is that can understand the workings of nature almost by osmosis because we are part of nature. And the other thing is that he says it means that whenever we are outta nature being scrambling up a mountain or walking through forest, we can find ourselves. And this philosophy of oneness becomes the heartbeat of romanticism. This idea that you go into nature and you find yourself, you feel something.
So before, and I think it's always interesting to see what was before to actually realize how extraordinary this was. If you look at travel accounts from the early 18th century, you have the learner traveler who looks through the window of his carriage and looks at the landscape that passes like a painting. And he will describe it through the prism of his art, historical knowledge or architectural knowledge. And then you have the romantics who suddenly scramble mountains, stay in caves, spend the night in forests and howl at the moon.
And so they think that they describe nature through their own lens, through their feelings rather than through the prism of their learning. And I think that becomes very important also then for the next generation of romantics. One is the British romantics where you have Samuel Taylor Coleridge and then here in America, Emerson, Ralph Emerson, who's fully, deeply inspired by the ideas that are coming out of Jena. And though many of them are not very known today, back then they were all learning German to understand them.
So you have Roe for example, you have Emerson, you have Whitman, they're all reading Melville, they're all reading these ideas. Emerson's famous essay on nature is deeply influenced by Schelling's ideas of the unity between self and nature. And the same with Coleridge. Coleridge is so obsessed with these ideas that he travels to Germany to meet his heroes, runs out of money, which is very annoying for the historian because means he didn't meet them.
But he returns to England with a trunk full of philosophical books. He reads everything. He is so impressed by Schelling's ideas that he translates page by page and then potentially his own writing. So he's then accused of plagiarism because they're literally 60 pages, which is just stolen from Schelling. But he was found out too. So these ideas are, they're spread, and it is a very short intellectual reign. It's just a good good long decade.
But these ideas stay with us. And so when you look at Humboldt, for example, who arrived in Jena really very much as a child of the enlightenment, as a scientist who believed in empirical data and scientific measurements. And he leaves Jena and he says that Goethe has given him new organs to see the world and it's with these new organs that he travels to South America. And what it means is that he is on the one hand, a scientist who schleps his 42 scientific instruments through South America.
But at the same time he will also talk about his feelings and his wonderful nature and that's what he brought, that's what he learned in Jena, this importance of yourself in nature.
Michael Garfield (50m 35s): So because you brought it up at the very beginning of this conversation, and I have a dispensation to go here, I want to look at how this kind of thinking forms a substrate for the kind of thinking that pervades this institution. And in one of the ways I love on it's the hard cover 164, you mentioned that romanticism, right? I wanna just read this short passage “Though the meaning of the term romantic may have been confusing. It was the unwieldiness of the concept that the group liked.
Their definition was never meant to be a neat entry in a dictionary. Romantic poetry was unruly, dynamic, alive and forever changing. It was a living organism. It was inherently incomplete and unfinished. And because it was incomplete, Goethe explained it left room for the imagination of the viewer or reader.” This is foundational to complex systems thinking. And in fact is the thing that people are always complaining about when they ask we're constantly having to answer to questions about what is complexity science, right?
And well, complexity science is rooted in things like Goethe’s Incompleteness theorem or David Wolpert’s work on No Free Lunch or the Heisenberg's Uncertainty. Is it something that had to happen before we can think about bounded rationality and economics terms. So much of this book is about the organism. So you know, when we had Simon DeDeo on and he is talking about there being multiple systems of thought by which people arrive at different ideas of what constitutes a satisfactory explanation and how these all hold one another in check.
And I just, I love this because it's related to something that I've always valued aesthetically in artwork, which is art that emphasizes like messy, unfinished emphasis on process over product. And you make the point that like a lot of these people are writing in fragments, they're drawing the raw and incomplete and chaotic into it. And that their work was inspirational to like Chopin's preludes or
Right? That I want to, I wanna just, one more thing I wanna say here and then toss it back to you. You have this lovely passage from Robert Schumann about Chopin. He says “His preludes are sketches, beginnings of etudes or so to speak, even ruins a single eagle wing all colorful and in wild confusion.” This is something that drives people insane about SFI. And yet it's like, it's not a bug, it's a feature.
Andrea Wulf (53m 16s): It's a celebration of the uncertainties. It's a celebration of the unfinished. So they celebrate, for example, both Fishta and Schelling, basically every year they rewrite their philosophical idea and publish a new book. And so when you read them you think, oh my gosh, changed again. But that's, they celebrate it. They celebrate that this is ephemeral, that this is changing. It's for them to prove that they are really at the cutting edge of thinking. They develop their ideas in front of their students.
So this is not about writing the definitely work on their self or something like that. This is every year something gets added, taken away, changed, moved, shifted. So this shifting, this uncertainty is very much part of it. And then their fragments. So the fragments is something that they create this as a literary genre. They have a literary magazine called Athenaeum and with where Carolina is the editor and that's where they publish their fragments. And a fragment can be one line, but it can also be two pages.
But what it does is it allows them to talk about so many different things in a quite often funny way. It allows them to bring all the different disciplines together and it allows them to be naughty and it allows them to write something, sometimes something quite revolutionary. And it kind of is hidden as they say in all the other thousands of fragments. So the censorship is not gonna find it. So there are lots of advantages of it,
Michael Garfield (54m 49s): Write for philosophers and you won't get
Andrea Wulf (54m 51s): And they say fragments we can write together at the dinner table. And for me that is something that I thoroughly enjoyed when I was researching this book, the way they came together. So they sit together, they work together, they eat together, they party together, they love together, they do everything together. But it's always noisy. It's always loud. They agree that they never have to agree because they say there's nothing more dialed than the uniformity of opinion. And they see this as communal working. So Novalis for example, says, I think better in dialogue, I need other people to electrify me.
And they give it a name. Then they, they call it sym philosophy. So they add the prophet sym, s-y-m to a lot of words, sym philosophy, sym poetry, sym working, everything is sym and essentially means together they believe that two minds put together can just create much more than one mind. It goes horribly wrong in the end, but that doesn't matter. For a while it worked. So for example, their literary magazine becomes their communal work of art.
So this is really this idea that we come together, we do something, we come from different disciplines, and we bring it together and we create something new.
Michael Garfield (56m 5s): So because you went there, and I wanted to ask you this anyway, it does go horribly wrong. The center cannot hold, right? And when earlier you were talking about what in the book you call a thin line between free will and selfishness, between self-determination and narcissism between empathy and righteousness. On the one hand you've got Goethe's, mother Frau Goethe flinging open the windows and playing her piano loudly while Frankfurt is under siege by the French. This like this beautiful vignette of the rebellion of the modern self and of art and of beauty against the oppression of the political background that becomes the foreground. And then on the other hand, you've got Schiller's, frankly misogynistic poem. Although one I read thinking about myself as a parent unfortunately, but the famous wife where the mother, first thing that she does in the morning is she gets up and she reads the reviews to see if she's in them while loud crying can be heard in the nursery. And so yeah, I would like to know, based on your close historical study of this place and this time, and then you look again at like the sixties and seventies followed by the eighties, right?
What is it that you see in the recipe, the execution of all of this that led to the tragic soap opera conclusion here? And is there any way you know that other bold assemblages of singular minds avoided? Yes. Asking for a friend.
Andrea Wulf (57m 39s): So yeah, it goes horribly wrong. And may I think it's not surprising because if you put together a bunch of young rebellious women and men who declare the self to be the supreme ruler of the world, it's maybe not surprising that you end up with inflated egos and self-absorption and infighting. So I think that it was almost inevitable that this happened. They're all so strong-minded and then throw into the mix love and sex and then it just goes horribly wrong because you have divorces, you have, for example, Carolina, Carolina Schlegel who then falls in love with Schelling who's 12 years younger and she gets divorced in the end, interestingly, Schlegel Schelling, they actually don't fall out with each other.
Frederich Schlegel gets much more upset about it. And I think it's, first of all, he used to be in love with Carolina, so maybe he's a bit upset that he didn't do it. And secondly, I think there's this worry that if the dynamics in the group change, the group is gonna collapse. And it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interesting is I think, is that who gets blamed always with the women. So it's Carolina, who's the terrible one who like breaks this group apart by selfishly falling in love with Schelling. It's not Schelling they blame, it's her.
So I don't know what you can do against it. I think it's, it just happens If, I think it happens, if you put a group of very smart people together in one room, and they're not working, just working together. They're living together. So it's quite claustrophobic. So here, for example, people go home in the evenings, they fly in for a week or two or sometimes two months, but they leave again. So I think there's a fluidity that makes it not as claustrophobic.
Michael Garfield (59m 33s): It's funny, just to, to toss Caitlin McShae sitting on my shoulder interplanetary festival question into this. There was, they just put together the liner notes for Voyager's golden record, which like links to all of the panel discussions from last year's interplanetary festival. And one of the things that came up on the panel, I think it was on the limits to human performance, was just how insanely challenging the social and psychological problem of putting people together on a long duration space mission really is.
Andrea Wulf (1h 0m 7s): Not just the technology, right? It's the, it's the people.
Michael Garfield (1h 0m 9s): Yeah. So that's, yeah, that's in passing here again, there is this funny thing about the pressure of a container and we didn't even get to this point.
Andrea Wulf (1h 0m 21s): But don't you think for me the important things, maybe not that it lasted, but that what came out of it. And maybe that's something to celebrate. We were talking earlier about uncertainty, something unfinished and in a way that is the same thing. It was never finished, it was unfinished, but that was great. Imagine that all stayed there and gotten like 90 years old. Yeah, it would've been probably really boring. So there's something very exciting about a group of young, smart people coming together, doing something.
Boom. Then they go out like a pool table, the balls go all in different directions and, but something change and that's just enough. Why do we need to have them all together for the rest of them?
Michael Garfield (1h 1m 5s): Just to nod again to the role of darkness and of the irrationality. I love you quote FrederichHolderlinHyperionwhere he says poetry is the beginning and the end of all scientific knowledge. And so yeah, of course it's some point. It's all gotta dissolve back into the, so that's where our conversation is now dissolving into irrationality. I would love, in keeping with that, I'd love to just hear you riff on where your inspiration is living, where your curiosity is pointed.
What are you left with after writing this book and where is it moving you?
Andrea Wulf (1h 1m 42s): This book really is a pair with the Humboldt book. In a way belong together. I should have probably written The Magnificent Rebels first and then Humboldt. It never works like this. So for me, I think what I've taken out from this is something that started with Humboldt but has become even more now is this the importance of imagination and the bringing together the arts and the sciences. And it's something that I think is incredibly important when you look at climate change. It's that sense that we cannot get us out of this mess if we just rely on scientists and politicians or geo engineers, and we need poets and writers and musicians and artists.
And that does not mean that I'm saying anything against statistics or mathematics or scientific projections because that's just like with the romantic scientist. Reason science is important, but we need something else that comes with it. And I think that is imagination. A few years ago there was a BBC documentary Blue Planet with David Attenborough. And there was one episode where an albatross fed his chick with plastic, and it was such a horrendous scene, the law in England.
So they changed that you have to pay for plastic bags now, which is, doesn't mean that there are no plastic bags anymore, but there are definitely less plastic bags. It's not that we didn't know how bad plastic was before, but it was that visual impact of this scene, which sometimes numbers just can't do. So you need something else. And I think for me, that is one of the very important things that have come out of both of those books, the importance of imagination. And I suppose also that if we look at us as being a selfish species today, who's destroying this planet?
If you go back to the original idea of the free self, this freedom always comes with your moral duty. So it's quite good to remind yourself of that moral duty to you. You have to the greater community.
Michael Garfield (1h 3m 33s): So given privilege of your position here as someone not working on formal quantitative theory, who has been recognized and honored and invited into the mix, I guess I'd like to end it by just letting you expand on that a bit and offer to listeners your thoughts about something that comes up again and again in the problem, they're being two cultures, right? And the way that it seems most art science relationships go wrong.
It seems as though a lot of attempts at synthesizing or unifying these different domains are fraught with one side or the other, thinking that it's almost like missionary work. And I think most artists, myself included, would agree that art is a hugely important part when you talk about, for instance, the role that these people recognized in the way that poetry figures into political change. But yeah, how might we shift our thinking around this in a way so that the sciences and the humanities are actually learning from one another rather than merely trying to colonize or translate each other's thinking into their own language?
Andrea Wulf (1h 4m 52s): I don't know. It's my, it's the straight answer. So I'm a historian, so what I try to do is to show, I think what I've tried to do with both of these books, but maybe more even with Magnificent Rebels, to show a historical moment, a moment in the past where it worked, where it was not a competition, and just offer that as an inspiration that look at someone like Goethe, who was Germany's most celebrated poet, but he was also a scientist who worked on optics, on botany, on comparative anatomy.
And one didn't take anything away from the other. Quite the opposite. One informed the other. So if you look at Goethe’s Faust, for example, it's deeply inspired by the latest scientific discoveries. It's all woven into it. Take his novel elective affinities, so he's taking a term from chemistry, but it is about two couples which kind of change their partners just as the elective affinities in chemistry. So I think just sometimes looking back can give us a window into a moment where something worked and gives us, doesn't mean that it has to work one-to-one like this, but I think it's just a moment where we can see that scientists and artists and poets can be all working together and produce something pretty amazing.
Michael Garfield (1h 6m 10s): Go team. Let's do it. Right, Andrea, thank you. Both of these books have just been such illuminating and beautiful reads, and thank you for writing them, and thanks for your
Andrea Wulf (1h 6m 20s): Time. Thank you.
Michael Garfield (1h 6m 24s): Thank you for listening. Complexity is produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex system science, located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts, research links, and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts, visit Santafe.edu/podcast.