Cult of the Self

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers/DALLE. Original images by Elise Photography and Prateek Katyal (CC0)

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February 03, 2024

In the world of internet influencers and YouTube stars, it’s not enough to be ordinary anymore. You need to be special. But where did this craze for personal branding come from? Why are we so obsessed with ourselves? To understand this cult of the self, we need to go back to 19th century spiritual movements and the rise of the huckster — and also the myth of rugged individualism. But if we’re always shouting “Me me me,” what are we losing? What has it cost us?

an online number going up

When producer Angelo Bautista was growing up, he dreamed of being in the internet. Not on the internet, but inside of it. Now, he's torn about social media. He's still addicted to scrolling, but posting about his own life — that's another story. But if nobody sees you on the internet, do you exist? 

a woman looking in a mirror

When you look online, you might think the most important pursuit in life is self-creation — optimizing, curating, branding yourself. Social critic Tara Isabella Burton says our current obsession with personal identity has deeply religious roots, which then got co-opted by advertisers and the self-help movement.

the looming monster of american myth

Social critic Alissa Quart says the American ideal of the self-made, rugged individual is built on a lie. In her book "Bootstrapped," she argues that even the people who preached the gospel of self-reliance, like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Henry David Thoreau, didn’t live up to it themselves. 


Just over 200 years ago, a group of renegade German writers and philosophers came together in a small town and forever changed who we think we are. Andrea Wulf tells this story in her book “Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self.” 


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February 03, 2024
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- [Anne] It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," I'm Anne Strainchamps. I don't have that much of a social media presence, mostly because it seems kinda stressful. Representing yourself online, curating your image, developing your personal brand, but then I have the luxury of not being a digital native. I didn't grow up having to figure out who I am online. But I know someone who did. Producer, Angelo Bautista.

- [Angelo] "Who are you?" Angelo Bautista. "Date of birth," August 22nd, 1995. Username, password, login. When I was five years old, I dreamed of being in the internet, not on the internet, but inside of it. My intro to the worldwide web actually was not on the computer, but through the Japanese animated TV series, "Digimon: Digital Monsters." ♪ Digimon, Digimon, Digimon ♪ Where a special group of kids get sucked into the digital world, discover their Digimon companions, used their Digivices to make them Digivolve, become Digimon masters, go on adventures and beat up the baddies. ♪ Digimon, get your Champions ♪ I wanted to be the master of my own Digi destiny. The real world just didn't compare. In sixth grade, I witnessed the beginnings of YouTube stardom. I desperately wanted to become a YouTuber with my own show. The name I came up with was "The Random Show," because I had no idea what I wanted to say or who I wanted to be. That dream was canceled before I ever even pressed record. But my desire to perform as me on the internet never stopped pulling me. In seventh grade, like all my friends, I ditched my emo-themed MySpace page for a shiny new Facebook wall. Every day I wrote, hoping to elicit likes. "I think lucky charm should make a cereal with just the marshmallows." "Wearing fedoras should be illegal." "I'm the force, you're disturbing me." Ugh. In eighth grade when my parents found out I liked a boy I'd only ever met on Facebook. I cried in the bathroom, and wrote up a coming out post. Might as well make the personal public. But what I thought was a liberating act, instead felt exposing. Without a second thought, I shared the part of myself that scared me the most with everyone, and I wasn't ready. I deleted the post the next day. In ninth grade, my Tumblr blog became my little museum of self-expression. My blog was filled with photos of male fashion models, memes, and Lady Gaga lyrics, all adding up to what I thought was the coolest version of myself, but I had my first taste of internet backlash after I made an insensitive post complaining about how on some days I felt too skinny. And like my self-esteem, I watched my follower count plummet. Once I entered college, my oversharing era on Tumblr came to a close. Some things from Tumblr stayed with me, though. I remember coming across this new word from "The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows." The word is sonder.

- Sonder.

- [Angelo] A noun, meaning the realization that each random passerby.

- Random passersby.

- Is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

- As vivid and complex as your own.

- [Angelo] I think about Sonder every day. Now, as an adult who sits on the cusp of millennial and Gen Z, I'm torn about social media. I saw how social media's mission to connect us, in turn isolated us. And yet I'm still addicted to the scrolling. I'm addicted to seeing other people, my friends, posting about their lives and being their best, authentic selves, whatever that means. I eat it up, I love it. But now I can't bring myself to do the same. I've become a lurker, Pre-pandemic, I used to love going to parties. That's how social media feels to me. Standing outside of a party I'm invited to, I'm right at the door looking inside. I want to go in. It looks so fun. Everyone is playing, they're laughing, they're dancing, sharing, commenting, arguing, protesting. "Look at this, buy this. Look at me, look at me." But the party is so noisy and the room is so full. Why even bother trying to squeeze in? What would I add? What difference would I make? But if you're not at the party, it kind of feels like you don't exist. It feels like The absence of sonder. Let's be real. Maybe you're thinking, I need to get off my phone. You're right, I do, I could use a break, spend more time in the real world, but then I remember how bad it is out there, and I'm pulled right back in. Real life used to be seen as an escape from the internet. Now it seems the internet is more the escape from real life, and I'm not sure where that leaves me. I don't think the answer to my struggle is to just give up. Leave social media behind, and stop trying to project this digital self. But something's gotta give. When I was five years old, I dreamed of being inside the internet. Today, that's where we all are. It's where we live. And in the internet, if you're there, but nobody sees you, do you exist? Who are you?

- [Anne] Producer Angelo Bautista. Coming up, Tara Isabella Burton on the religious roots of our obsession with the self.

- [Tara] So my book starts with the Renaissance. It starts with Albrecht Durer in 1500, his self-portrait often considered the first selfie where he presents himself as a kind of demigod. He sort of portrays himself as Jesus.

- [Anne] It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Do you ever worry that you're not living your best life?

- Deep down you know.

- Anyone you face.

- [Speaker 1] Defined by anyone's expectations.

- [Speaker 2] That inner demon we all share. Nobody told me it will feel this way.

- [Speaker 3] I know it's advertising, but there is an implicit assumption in a lot of what we see and hear online today that the most important pursuit in life is self-creation.

- [Speaker 4] You don't decide how your story begins.

- en angels will fall.

- You do get to decide how it ends.

- [Anne] Optimizing, curating, branding yourself,

- [Speaker 5] That voice that tells you to stop.

- You're not defeated.

- What do you wanna be?

- [Speaker 6] Greatness is for all of us.

- [Anne] Because in a crowded marketplace, how else will you be seen?

- [Speaker 7] There's nothing more empowering than choice.

- We're all capable of it.

- You have to limit yourself to be just one thing.

- Capable of anything.

- [Tara] But the construction of personal identity has a long history.

- You mean a miracle?

- Persistence.

- Live with vitality.

- Yes.

- Your inner goddess.

- Hal is a great guy, I like him.

- [Anne] Tara Isabella Burton is a writer and social critic with a background in history and theology. And to her mind, our current obsession was personal identity and self-creation actually has deeply religious roots. Her new book, "Selfmade," traces its history from Da Vinci to the Kardashians.

- You can't follow.

- You have to find it.

- [Speaker 7] I am what I am, what I am, what I am, what I am.

- [Tara] The story that I trace is the development of this idea that certain people who are able to create their own destinies or create their own public persona are kind of demigods, and this goes from an idea that some people, a few of them might be selected by God to have this opportunity. They're the exception that proves the rule to a world in the present day where it's both more democratic, and also more of a prison, because everyone is expected to create their own identity and shape their own destiny, and if you don't do that, it means you failed as a human being.

- [Anne] You over and over again talk about this underlying belief in our innate kind of divinity, we're supposed to become gods or demigods. Can you explain that a little bit more? Because I don't think that the average person going on social media trying to represent their best self or come up with a personal brand online. I don't think that they actually think that they're trying to become god-like

- [Tara] Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a story about religion as much as anything else. And this idea of self making and self creation is not specific to the US, but it's in the United States, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, that it gets fused with what I often think is one of the most underrated religious movements in world history. And that is the self-help spiritualist movement known as New Thought, which sort of starts out with the faith healing in the 1860s, a mix of pseudoscience and spiritualism. It's this idea that there's this force, this energy, these vibes out there in the universe, and if you focus on what you want hard enough, you can get in touch with this electrical undercurrent of the universe, you can harness it. Towards the end of the 19th century. This starts to be applied not just to health but to wealth. There becomes a real cottage industry in self-help books, basically proto versions of "The Secret" or "Manifesting," or contemporary versions of the same thing.

- [Anne] Some of those books are still around, and are still have cult followings. I'm thinking, "Think and Grow Rich."

- Absolutely.

- There are others.

- [Tara] Yeah, "The Power Of Positive Thinking," Norman Vincent Peale If you dream it, you can have it. It intensifies this idea that what it means to be human is to create ourselves, and that we are the closest thing to Gods in the universe. Now sometimes you get, people talk about this very explicitly. I'm always struck when I see wellness ads on Instagram. "Oh, find the goddess within you. Your divine power. You're divine." I think that it's so normal now that we don't think, "Wow, a few 100 years ago, like this would've been a really, really controversial statement."

- [Anne] Yeah, you could have been burned at the stake for it.

- Yeah. But now it's just advertising jargon.

- ;Anne] Well, there's also this bedrock of fascist ideology. You draw out this connection between this doctrine of self-creation, and self making, and the rise of authoritarian leaders in the early 20th century like Hitler and Mussolini.

- [Tara] There's two different paths that this idea of this self make or take in the 19th century that I think are actually more similar than they appear. And one is the one we've been talking about, this American idea of where it's the good news is anyone can get rich, but if you don't, it means it's your fault. In Europe, the idea of the self creator is a little more fraught. Obviously we're working against the backdrop of a hereditary aristocracy and decline. We're working against the idea that just some people have an innate specialness, and it's not money, but it's also not birth. It's the secret third thing, some special, again, God-like quality, and people like Nietzsche take this idea up, and they, again, given a more explicit theological cast that God is dead, this sort of old order, including old values is gone. And what we need is in Nietzsche's view, it's not weakness or kindness, which he sees as sort of Judeo-Christian vestiges of this fake religion, but rather power and strength.

- [Anne] So this is the rise of the Ubermensch.

- [Tara] Exactly, the Ubermensch as the sort of ultimate natural aristocrat. And so the idea that some people are just better than others and that if you are better, the way to sort of express that is to wield power over others, and the next best thing is maybe attaching yourself to someone who can sell you the fantasy of being part of it. If you can't be Mussolini, the next best thing is being a follower of Mussolini. And that's very powerful as a political force in the early 20th century in Europe, the same way as it becomes in a very different way very powerful, it's an economic force in America in the sort of heyday of advertising. If you're a normy, you failed. And that's true today as it ever was.

- [Anne] So this is why you call capitalist consumption in America, you call a warped mirror image of the fascist cult of personality. I don't think I'll ever pick up a copy of Vogue, and look at it the same way.

- [Anne] I mean, I think that what unites these two seemingly disparate worldviews is a sense that there's sort of three kinds of people. There's the sheep who don't know they're sheep, there's the specials, and then there's the sheep who maybe would buy products that make them feel special.

- [Anne] I feel like there were early ads, I don't remember if they were for cold cream or what but say things like "All around you people are watching."

- [Tara] Oh yeah, I think that's Woodbury shaving cream. That one? "Everyone is judging you. Everyone is watching you." There's one for like writing paper that's like, "Your friends are all judging you 'cause you're not using the right writing paper." But my favorite ad from the '20s that I think gets at the heart of a lot of what we're talking about from around 1928, it's for a correspondence course called Personal Magnetism. So the advertisement reads, "You have it, everyone has it, but not one person in 1,000 knows how to use it." And that's a really interesting reframing of these tensions. Hard work, innateness, authenticity, which is that everybody sort of has the capacity to unlock some inner power, but only people who want it badly enough, and who are willing to buy this book, or this correspondence course are gonna be able to have the kind of it that it takes to get ahead. Whether it's to become a then nascent Hollywood star or become a successful businessman, that it's about cultivating your innate youness by wanting it badly enough that makes you one of the specials.

- [Anne] Right, and so this is where I think we've arrived today at this particular place in our culture where the tension between authenticity and inauthenticity, reality and unreality, it's like the substrate we swim in. I mean, Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this, right? But I feel like this question about what's real and what's not real is just there everywhere today.

- [Tara] Absolutely, there's a deep nihilism in it that's only intensified by the fact that social media and the internet more broadly means that more and more of us live our lives in realms that do change depending on what we want. You know, the algorithm shows us different news headlines depending on what we click on. Different advertisements depending on what we already like. That becomes the truth, it affects how people vote, it affects how policies get made. There becomes a sense that truth is what you make it, and whatever one might make of Donald Trump, he's very explicit about this. He's very influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, author of "The Power of Positive Thinking," was his family pastor.

- [Anne] I did not know that until I read it in your book. I find that just astonishing, that direct, he's in the direct lineage of New Thought.

- [Tara] Oh, absolutely, Norman Vincent Peale officiated, I believe it was his second wedding. Trump's second wedding. Trump's even written explicitly about this, spoken explicitly about this. Yeah, you know, it's what you do, you massage the truth a little bit. You say that you're a bazillionaire, and then you become a bazillionaire, because everybody you know gives you money to invest. That's how it works,

- [Anne] Right, what does he call it, truthful hyperbole.

- [Tara] Truthful, exactly. I mean that's the idea that if you convince people of stuff, it becomes real.

- [Anne] And so I have always understood that about Donald Trump. I think most of us have, what I have struggled to understand are the authoritarian tendencies.

- [Tara] Yeah, I think he kind of combines imagery from the Nietzschean tradition of the Nietzschean with this kind of PT Barnum humbug. Because if power is making people think stuff, true power is convincing people of things because that's how reality gets made. Then he is one of the ones who, according to this logic, is one of the specials at the top of the heap, and so I see him very much as an inheritor of both of these traditions. He is not an anomaly in American culture at all.

- [Anne] So given this historical backdrop, what's your take on the influencer economy today?

- [Tara] It's a natural extension of the fact that we all have to build our own brands, that self-creation is not just something we do with something that we sell, and that one of our jobs is not just to work hard, and be virtuous, and make middle class money. Our job is to use everything at our disposal to create ourselves as brands, as commodities. And the influencer whose authentic lifestyle is an excuse to sell products is like the apotheosis of that, and I believe something like 80% of members of Generation Z in one poll, said that they would be willing to post on social media for money. And actually I recently, last week I was teaching a college class on self-made to 18 to 22-year-olds, and I did quick show of hands. Pretty much everyone in the room said they would post sponcon for $1,000. It's even now gotten to the point where there was an article in the Atlantic a couple of years ago that people were pretending to be influencers when they weren't. They were pretending that things were sponsored content when they weren't because it was cool, they wanted their friends to think that they were someone who got brand deals. So they were pretending to be influencers saying like, this is sponcon when it wasn't.

- [Anne] So that's so interesting that it's not enough just to have an identity to quote, unquote, know who you are or have things that you like. Now, it's fundamentally about selling. You're not a good enough person somehow if you're not selling yourself.

- [Tara] Absolutely, 'cause you're not cultivating yourself, you're not making the most of what you have, like that personal magnetism ad from the '20s. You're not using the power you have, and that I think is very dangerous. I think fewer and fewer of us have a really robust conception of our private life, because all of our lives are reimagined as content. And I do see, I live in New York City and there's so many places including restaurants, bars, that very obviously exist for social media. You hear restaurants talking about how they don't focus on the taste of the food anymore. What really matters is a really visually exciting meal that will play well on TikTok. The idea that experiences exist in order to create content rather than the other way around, to me, it's very frightening.

- [Anne] It's interesting. I think everybody feels like they do have a private self, but now you're responsible for creating a narrative self. I guess going back to your idea that we are as gods. Yeah, we've made a creation, and now we're populating it with narrated versions of ourselves.

- [Tara] That is very unsettling. I do think sometimes that the only people who can be offline are the truly wealthy, or the truly successful, I feel like I'll know I've made it when I don't have to have a smartphone. You know, when I'm fancy enough that I don't need to chase reviews, that I don't need to promote my book, because I know it'll sell anyway. Where I have a flip phone, my assistant will read my emails, and call me on my flip phone. Like I think that privacy and being offline are gonna become luxury goods that the wealthiest and most successful among us can afford to have, and the rest of us can't. So maybe the next ethos of the specialness will be the people who unplug.

- [Anne] Who become invisible. Thank you so much, this was chilling and fascinating.

- [Tara] Oh, thank you, it was a delight.

- [Anne] Tara Isabella Burton is the author of "Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians" Also check out her new novel, "Here In Avalon." America has been an individualistic nation, pretty much since its founding. Personal identity is enshrined in our constitution and Bill of Rights. Part of what it means to be American. But Alissa Quart has come to think that the American ideal of the self-reliance, self-made rugged individual is in fact a lie. In her book "Bootstrapped," she argues that even the people we associate most with the gospel of self-reliance didn't live up to it themselves. If you go back to "Little House On The Prairie" writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or to the transcendentalist icons, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Alissa says, "They're not who we think." Shannon Henry Kleiber wanted to know more.

- [Shannon] I really like how you trace this through history, this idea of individualism, and let's go back to Emerson and Thoreau and your trip to Walden Pond. When you imagine transcendentalism, it sounds pretty good, right? I mean, simple living nature, spirituality, it sounds like a good life, but even that wasn't quite true, the story of Emerson and Thoreau, and tell us a little bit about why that is. You know, why Walden was not quite the way we might imagine in the Gloriousness, and why does that matter?

- [Alissa] To me, it was really important when I started looking into Emerson and Thoreau's biographies, because Emerson came from relative wealth, he depended on the fortune of his first wife, Ellen, for much of the funding that allowed him to work on his life of the mind. So after she passed away, he was able to support his family and on occasion his friends after suing her people for his share of her large estate. And yeah, there's no shame in that, but the idea of self-reliance, and some of the language that he came up with to describe how people, individuals need to waste themselves on their own petard, et cetera, he was not quite doing right. And neither was Thoreau who was dependent on Emerson, and also dependent on a whole social circle. So one of the things that was kind of amusing about reading Walden again is you thinking actually the guy was hanging out with his friends constantly, and he had like this, I read all this stuff during COVID when we were actually isolated, and I was thinking no way, like-

- [Shannon] He had a community.

- [Alissa] He totally had a community, and it was kind of a righteous one. And you know, there's a famous thing that his mother, you know, helped him out. His mother was doing his cleaning for him, and he saw Emerson all the time, and he was in constant exchange, both Emerson and he, that's part of the transcendentalists, that's their circle, was that they were in constant contact with each other, and they put out famous magazine, "The Dial," and the opposite of this isolated existence.

- [Shannon] Alissa, you take aim at Laura Ingalls Wilder and the rugged individualism of her books, and the show that followed, the self-made pioneer, the iconic self-made pioneer, what problems do you have with that?

- [Alissa] Well, part of the problem was her family were beneficiaries of the Homestead Act, which was an 1862 huge land giveaway. And this idea that they were doing this all on their own is truly false. And the number of adult descendants of the original Homestead Act recipients has been estimated to be 46 million Americans, and they have gone on to benefit from this giveaway, and they're almost entirely white. They were able to often to get this land through the dislocation of Indigenous people. So this idea that this text is all about plucky Laura, Paw, who's this great farmer, all doing it themselves, moving to the West, it rested on a lie. And I think we need to look at that lie, because otherwise we'll believe the propaganda. And the reason that I say it's propaganda is it was, I mean Laura Ingalls Wilder published eight books between 1932 and 1943. She sold 60 million copies roughly, and that period was the Depression. She was a conservative leaning person, her daughter was a rabid libertarian, Rose, and it was aimed at FDR and the New Deal. These books were critique of whatever they call it, handouts. And they were Hooveian, they were in praise of Herbert Hoover who promulgated the term rugged individualism. So they had a political function. So I think we need to focus on that, especially when we have our seven, eight, and nine-year-olds reading it still, to recognize that they're getting this ideology fed to them.

- [Shannon] I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder growing up, we're similar age, we're Gen X, and it was part of my memories of childhood. But then when I had daughters, and you have a daughter, I started to read the "Little House" books to my daughters, and I found myself skipping passages. When you were growing up, were you like me, where you thought it was wonderful, and then it took parenthood for you to change your view on it?

- [Alissa] Oh my God, completely Shannon, I had this romantic view of it. Yeah, when I was reading to her, the books when she was reading them herself when she was like six or seven or eight, and they had slurs against Indigenous people, they were clearly propagandistic. And I would watch the show with my daughter, and I was like, how do I let her enjoy this, yet tell her that these messages are kind of false. And so by the end of that chapter actually, she had gotten the memo. I mean the things I loved when I was looking into the, again, with the biography was that Paw was a terrible farmer. And when I found that out, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I love this, because he got every benefit. Homestead act, got land, but his neighbors were helping him farm."

- [Anne] When we look at rugged individualism, why would you say that's not a good thing for Americans?

- [Alissa] If it was in a vacuum, and we were told to pray to the God of rugged individualism, I'd say fine. But the problem is it's sort of incentivized voters to believe in the self-made man myth, and the latest result of that was in part the election of Donald Trump, who voters believed was a self-made man, which is very interesting, obviously he wasn't. it's allowed for social programs to be gutted, for people to have difficulty accessing everything from Medicaid to snap. So that story is part of the thing that permits lawmakers to do these things, 'cause they know that the voters have been inculcated in this.

- [Shannon] And it's in our human nature, right, in biology to be social creatures who rely on each other, right? And what happens if we don't do that?

- {Alissa] I mean, during the pandemic, there was a split around that, right? 'Cause we were both incredibly dependent in new ways. There was a rise of mutual aid, there was a rise of other kinds of care vehicles within communities. But at the same time there was a ton of isolation, and if you look at the depression and anxiety levels, that's like a huge sample group of what happens when we're not interrelating.

- [Shannon] You quote the poet, Adrienne Rich, in your book, and I know she didn't mean it for that time, but it struck me as that time, you say, "In those years people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you. We found ourselves reduced to I," and it really struck me as caregiving mental health. Is that how you meant that to resonate?

- [Alissa] Oh, completely. I read this poem over and over again during the pandemic because I felt like that's what was happening. We were being reduced to I, and I wanted to just personally, I wanted to be close to the we. If I had a religion, it would be the religion of this kind of care and willingness to be visibly dependent oneself and to respond to other people's dependence and not to shame them or blame them for it, not to stigmatize it as codependence. I think that would be an article of faith for me.

- [Anne] That's Alissa Quart, the author of "Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream," talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. So I don't know, is focusing on yourself really such a terrible thing? Does it have to be? Maybe we need to go back to the origins of individualism because there was a time when placing yourself at the center of the universe was liberating, even thrilling. And believe it or not, we can pinpoint the precise moment, even the place where that idea was born.

- [Andrea] How we are today, you know, from taking selfies to self-fulfillment as this kind of aspirational mantra. I think it all comes from these very short years in Jena, at the end of the 18th century,

- [Anne] Meet the scandalous band of rebel poets and philosophers who created modern identity next. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To The best Of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. 200 years ago, a group of renegade German writers and philosophers came together in a small town and forever changed who we think we are. That's the story Andrea Wulf tells in her book, "Magnificent Rebels: the First Romantics and the Invention of the Self. So it's not often that you come across a work of intellectual history with a plot like a Netflix series, but "Magnificent Rebels" is a rare and riveting book. Steve Paulson, for one, couldn't put it down. It's the story of the birth of an idea that changed the world, a new vision of what it means to be a self, to have a unique individual personal identity. But it reads like an 18th century bachelorette with a bunch of charismatic geniuses hopping in and outta bed with each other, and it all begins as all good stories do with a remarkable woman, Caroline Schlegel.

- {Andrea] She was a woman who really refused to be restricted by the role that society had intended for her. She spoke several languages fluently. She was beautiful, she was witty, she was educated, and she was fiercely independently minded. And she married young, but she was widowed by the age of 24. So she hung out with German revolutionaries only to be then imprisoned by the Prussians for being a sympathizer with the French revolution. So she, and her 7-year-old daughter, Augusta, ended up in prison for several months. And not only that, in prison, she discovered that she was pregnant after an one night stand within 18-year-old French soldier after a wild ball night, which was quite something at a time when it was seen as being pretty scandalous just to be on your own with a man in a room. She was not really deterred by these obstacles. So after her imprisonment, she zigzagged through Germany, she was treated like an outcast, she was called a revolutionary whore. So then the young writer, August Wilhelm Schlegel, came to her rescue. So he married her, gave her a new name, and with that, a new beginning. And then took her in 1796 to Jena, which was this small town in Germany, about 150 miles southwest of Berlin where she became the heart of the Jena.

- [Steve] Just an amazing story, and I get the sense from what you write that you yourself identify quite strongly with Caroline, I mean partly because of your own personal history. Is that fair to say?

- [Andrea] Yeah, so I was a single mom. I think I have a quite fierce sense of independence, which sometimes kind of turned into something slightly more egotistical. I'm not sure if I identified with her, but there was definitely, I sympathized with her, let's say it like this.

- Yeah, There's one line that you say in your prologue, "Maybe some of my choices were reckless, but they were mine." And this strikes me as basically the creed of the Romantic Movement, this belief in self-determination that you are going to create your own destiny and not bow to outside pressures.

- [Andrea] Yeah, so I think at the heart of this book is really the tension between the breathtaking possibilities of free will and the pitfalls of selfishness. And it's a balancing act, which I think we all to different degrees have to negotiate. So I'm interested in history. In order to understand why we are who we are. So we live in a society that's obsessed with the self. I mean, there's a whole generation called the me generation. So for me it was a way to ask questions such as when did we become such a selfish species? When did we expect that we can determine our own lives? When did we first ask how to be free? And the answers really I found in this town, Jena in Germany.

- [Steve] So the premise of your book is that the idea of the self was basically invented in this university town of Jena, Germany in the 1790s, which is a very audacious thing to say really?

- [Andrea] Well it obviously is not invented, invented, but I think it is put at the center stage of thinking. What happened there is, so we have this group of rebellious thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers, which although most of their names are not very well known to the English speaking world, are they're literary superstars in Germany, kind of names school children grow up with. And one of them was the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and he was quite a character, I think. So he was feared for his volatile temperament. He gave his lectures at the university, dressed in riding boots, spurs, and his whip in hand. And there was nothing gentle about him. So he stomped, he insulted, he shouted, he ate his snuff tobacco rather than inhaling it.

- [Steve] And you say his lectures were packed. He was the superstar of the university.

- [Andrea] Yes. So Jena is a small town of about 4,500 inhabitants, and there were almost 900 students. So they very much dominated the small town. And half of them, or more than half of them, went to Fichte's lectures. So they were spilling out to into the corridors. They were standing on the benches at the back of the room. They were standing sometimes on ladders outside to look through the window. So they actually called him the Bonaparte of philosophy because he revolutionized the way we think about us at a time when Europe was very much in the iron fist of absolutism. He said there were no God-given or absolute truth. The source of all reality is the self, which for us might not sound that extraordinary, because we are so used to understanding the world around us through the prism of our mind. But at that time it was a radically new idea because for centuries, philosophers had said that the world was ruled by a divine hand.

- [Steve] And Fichte had a word for this, I mean the Ich,

- The Ich-

- I mean that was his word for self.

- [Andrea] It's the German word for self. The Ich and then the external world, he called the non-Ich, so the non-self. So everything that was not the self, but what it meant is that he gave the self the power to be really the supreme ruler of the world, not God, not kings or queens. And that was an absolutely thrilling idea. So from then on, these young men and women kind of experimented with this idea.

- [Steve] So connect this to what's happening today. I think it's fair to say that we are obsessed with ourselves and self-expression, and self-fulfillment, and maybe the modern version of this is the cult of authenticity. Is that all kind of an updated version of what was Fichte talking about more than 200 years ago?

- [Andrea] Yes, I think so. So I think it began in Jena. So I think underpinning all of this are two questions, two very crucial questions. Who am I as an individual and who am I as a member of a society? So how can I live a meaningful self-fulfilled kind of life in which I pursue my dreams, but be at the same time a good member of society? So this is this balancing act, and it all started in the last decade of the 18th century in Jena.

- [Steve] Yeah, and to set the context for this, I mean this happened within 10 years of the French Revolution, which really had just turned Europe upside down. And then immediately following the French Revolution, Napoleon seized power in France and was marching across Europe conquering one country after another, and these writers and philosophers in Jena seem to be just thrilled by all of this, by the French Revolution, by Napoleon. He seemed to be kind of the embodiment of the romantic ideal.

- [Andrea] Yes, so I think in order to really understand how extraordinary it was, what these guys and women did is to understand, you know, the world in which they were born into was one of despotism, control and inequality. So this was a time when Monarchs could pretty much decide about everything in their subject lives, from refusing marriage permissions to selling their subjects as mercenaries to other nations. And then the French Revolution happens in 1789, and it's an event that's so dramatic that it really affects everybody in Europe. And when the French revolutionaries declared all men as equal, they promised the possibility of a new social order based on the power of ideas. So this is the moment when philosophical ideas kind of leave the ivory tower of rarefied thought and arrive in the minds of ordinary people. So Fichte's Ich philosophy is very much lit on the spark of the French Revolution.

- [Steve] Yeah, so we should talk about some of the people who are part of this group that you call the Jena Set and much more than just Fichte, and it was not just their ideas that were so exciting. I mean they led large lives, scandalous lives. Tell me about some of these people.

- [Andrea] So maybe the most famous man to the American audience is Goehte who was Germany's most celebrated poet. But by the time the younger generation arrived in the 1790s, he was very much part of the small Dutch government. And he had run out of kind of his creative juices really. So he was struggling, and the younger generation came, and their radical ideas really rejuvenated him, and he felt very much inspired. But he, for example, lived with his mistress, who was also the mother of his son. It's really one big soap opera. So there's, for example, Friedrich Schlegel, who's the brother of Caroline's husband, he lived with his lover together with his brother and Caroline in their house in Jena, which I think is really the first commune in Germany, and they all had lovers on the side. He also wrote an autobiographical erotic novel in which he invited his readers to his bedroom, watching him and his lover making love in quite explicit detail.

- [Steve] And it's worth pointing out, I mean this is the 1790s. I mean, it's just like, wow, this is amazing that they would be writing about these things.

- [Andrea] Although I will say that the 1790s were definitely more sexually liberated, say, than the Victorian times because you have, for example, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, who is Alexander von Humboldt's older brother, he lived with his wife and her lover together in their house in Jena, and very openly joining into all of the social activities. And then you have Caroline who gave birth after her one night stand to a child who married August Wilhelm Schlegel. But his brother, Friedrich, was in love with her. She then took Friedrich Schelling, who was a young philosopher who was also part of this group as her lover. He was 12 years younger, and a very close friend to her husband, but her husband didn't mind, because they had come to the unusual arrangement of an open marriage. So, and it just kind of goes on and on and on like this. So it's such a confusing mess who's sleeping with whom that one of the friends calls Schlegel household a big pigsty. So there's a lot of kind of fun going on on the side. So big ideas, but quite inflated egos also, and a lot of fighting.

- [Steve] Let's talk a little bit more about one of these people you've mentioned, Friedrich Schelling, who became the superstar after Fichte, this brilliant young philosopher who became, what, a full professor at the age of 23.

- [Andrea] So everything that he did, he did young. So at the age of 11, he informed his teachers that they couldn't teach him anything anymore. So he's years ahead of his peers. He wrote his first philosophy book at the age of 20, and then followed it every year with another one. So by the age of 23, he was so famous that he was made professor of philosophy at the university, the youngest professor at the university. He was hugely popular with his students. So much so that people of Jena could tell when his lectures were about to start by the number, the great number of young men rushing across the market square. Schelling arrived in 1798, and he really knew how to stage himself so that there are wonderful descriptions by his students. How he entered this packed auditorium slowly, and deliberately, he would kind of light two candles at the lectern. Leaving the auditorium in the dark, but his students could kind of see him lit up in the candlelight, like a halo around his head basically. And everybody's really quiet, and they were waiting for him to talk. And a lot of the students describe an almost religious epiphany by listening to these ideas because what he did is he said that the self and nature were identical. So instead of dividing the world into mind and matter, as many, many philosophers had done for centuries, Schelling insisted that everything was one. So the living and the non-living world, according to him, were ruled by the same underlying principle.

- [Steve] And that is such a modern idea, this idea that the human mind, you cannot separate it from the natural world, that we are part of all this interconnected web of life. I mean, that is the foundations of modern ecological thinking, and here was Schelling talking about it 200 years ago.

- [Andrea] Exactly, so he basically said everything's kind of interconnected in one big living organism. It's means that being in nature, be it walking through a forest or climbing up a mountain, or you know, wandering along a meadow was always self discovery. And that was an absolutely thrilling idea, and this is this philosophy of oneness. And that becomes very, very important then for the American transcendentalists and the English romantics, this idea that we can discover ourselves in nature. So you have Coleridge and Wordsworth, for example, who are these walking poets who literally found their voice in nature, because they had kind of stripped nature of wonder and awe.

- So I wanna bring these ideas up to the present. We already talked about how our modern obsession with self and with self-expression is, at least in western culture, kind of describes much of what seems to make us flourish or tick in the modern world. And I'm wondering how much of that comes from the unset? And also is there a problem here? Are we too obsessed with the self? And do we need to somehow rethink some of these ideas?

- [Andrea] I think there's a direct line to the uniset from how we are today, and that we are such a society that's so obsessed with the self. But what I will say is I don't think that's the selfishness that they intended quite the opposite. They liberated the self with the intention of creating a better society. So this was very much against the backdrop of absolutism and despotism, and Fichte always said that, "Freedom is always tightly interwoven with our moral duty." So freedom gives us the choice how to act and how to behave, but it always comes with its twin, moral duty and moral obligations. And I think that is the problem that we have.

- [Steve] That's the piece that we've lost today. Exactly.

- We celebrate freedom, but that sense of moral duty's kind of disappeared.

- [Andrea] Exactly, and I think that's the problem, because there is nothing more exciting than free will and self-determination. But obviously it only works if we also take other people into consideration. It can't be that I'm only concerned about that I'm free. We are only free if also others are free, then we are a free society.

- [Steve] I wanna come back to what happened to these remarkable people in Jena. This whole movement, this flourishing really only lasted about 10 years if that. It sort of seems like they were so tempestuous, so brilliant, so creative, and so fragile in some ways as well, and everyone was sleeping with everyone else, and it all kind of fell apart rather quickly, didn't it?

- [Andrea] Yes it did, very sadly. But I think very often these revolutionary ideas, or revolutions, collapse very quickly. So what happened is they experiment with this kind of free will and freedom and the pendulum swings too much into the extreme. So they all become, not all, but some of them become a little bit, you know, too egotistical and have inflated ego. So they all fall out with each other. So they turn into what Friedrich Schlegel's lover calls a republic of despots. So you have these friends who had relentlessly attacked the literary establishment, feeling quite invincible, then began to turn against each other. So you have Friedrich Schlegel, for example, writing savage reviews about Shila. You have Shila, their enemies quite like it. So there's a wonderful quote where one of them says, isn't it fun watching these philosophers kind of attack each other? It's like seeing starving rats eating each other. So they all fall out and go. They have different paths. So they leave Yuni, they go to Paris, to Rome, to Berlin. Some of them remain in, continue to correspond, and some of them never, never speak to each other ever again.

- Hmm, Well this is such an amazing story. Thank you so much. This has been fun.

- That's Steve Paulson talking with Andrea Wolfe, the author of "Magnificent Rebels:" the First Romantics and the Invention of the Self "To The Best Of Our Knowledge, comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. Our producers are Charles Monroe-Cane, Shannon, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director and sound designer Is Joe Hartdke with help from Angelo Bautista, and Sarah Hopefl. Additional music this week by Madan, Jan Lucas Calabro, Jason Stache, Daniel Birch and Ben Pegley. Steve Paulson is our executive producer, and I'm straight in. Be well and thanks for listening.

- [Radio host] PRX.

Last modified: 
February 05, 2024