The German philosopher, dramatist, and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was one of the most brilliant representatives of the German Enlightenment and stood on the threshold of the Sturm und Drang, or Storm and Stress, movement.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the son of a parson, was born on Jan. 22, 1729, in Kamenz in der Oberlausitz near Dresden, Saxony. After early education at the Fürstenschule St. Afra in Meissen, he attended the University of Leipzig from 1746 to 1748. This “little Paris” of 18th-century Germany was the stronghold of Johann Christoph Gottsched.
In 1748 Frau Caroline Neuber’s company performed Lessing’s Der junge Gelehrte, a comedy about a haughty, pedantic young scholar, composed in the French manner and, to a degree, autobiographical, as Lessing himself was in danger of becoming a bookworm. From 1749 he was a feuilletonist and critic in Berlin; his friends and acquaintances included Karl Wilhelm Ramler, Christoph Nicolai, and Moses Mendelssohn, on whom Lessing modeled the noble Jew in his Lustspiel(comedy) entitled Die Juden (1749).
With Miss Sara Sampson (1755) Lessing introduced a new German genre, the bürgerliches Trauerspiel (domestic tragedy), which turned away from the French tragedy. The play is based on the Medea theme but in an English setting.
From autumn 1755 to May 1758 Lessing was in Leipzig, where he met Ewald von Kleist, the author of Der Frühling. Kleist, mortally wounded at the battle of Kunersdorf in 1759, was Lessing’s model for Tellheim in Minna von Barnhelm. In Berlin from 1759 Lessing, with Mendelssohn and Nicolai, published the Briefe, die neuesteLiteratur betreffend (referred to as Literaturbriefe). These letters, concerning the most recent literature, attacked literary facades, mediocrities, and inflated celebrities, above all Gottsched. Nobody was supposed to deny that German theater owed many improvements to Gottsched, but Lessing, in the seventeenth Literaturbrief, claimed to be that “Nobody” and repudiated indebtedness to Gottsched, who, instead of pointing to Shakespeare as Lessing did, saw in the French theater the model for Germany.
At the end of the letters Lessing published his Doktor Faust fragment (1759), a brilliantly conceived work, unfortunately never completed. In Act II, scene 3, seven spirits of hell offer their services. Faust needs the swiftest: neither the finger through the flames, nor the arrows of the plague, nor the wings of winds, nor the rays of the sun, nor the thoughts of men, nor the revenge of the revenger can be as quick as the transition from good to evil, which he chooses as his quickest servant.
In the same year Lessing wrote Abhandlungen über die Fabel and Fabeln. Abhandlungen contains five “Essays on Fable”: on the essence of fable; on the use of animals, for example, the wolf and lamb, to illustrate a moral truth; on the division of the stories; on their artistic presentation; and on their use in education. Lessing lets the readers discover the moral for themselves. In this respect and others he differs from Christian Fürchtegott Gellert’s treatment of fable: Gellert imitated the easy, lengthy flow of Jean de La Fontaine’s narrative, whereas Lessing is almost barrenly brief; Gellert wrote in verse meter, Lessing mostly in prose; Gellert’s fables reflect his own age, Lessing’s are timeless.
Zerstreute Anmerkungen über das Epigramm (1771), counterpart to Abhandlungen über die Fabel, reveals Lessing’s unique mastery of succinct statements, pointed modes of expression, and witty sayings. According to Lessing the Sinngedicht (epigram) is a kind of headline or inscription (as on monuments) to arouse curiosity and attention.
The Laokoon (1766, first part) is, next to Hamburgische Dramaturgie, Lessing’s most important literary and esthetic criticism. Poetry and paintings are interpreted as essentially different expressions: actions, or things which succeed one another, are the true subjects of poetry; bodies are the true subjects of painting and sculpture. Beauty, not Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity and serene greatness,” is the highest principle of artistic presentation. Laokoon’s death agony would distort his features to an unbearable degree. The sculptor is subject to artistic laws different from those of poetry. Bildende Kunst(pictorial art) depicts bodies adjacent to one another and presented in the most pregnant moment of time, whereas literature presents actions in succession.
In 1767 Minna von Barnhelm, set in the Seven Years War, appeared, a landmark in 18th-century German drama—its first successful comedy, first truly national drama, and still a popular play. Doubtless the national elements are unmistakable, but they are not decisive in this comedy of situation (the deception with the ring, the apparent poverty, and so on) and of character (the teasing Minna and the chivalrous but rigid Tellheim). The vividly funny, mirth-provoking effects are mainly delegated to subaltern figures (Just, Franziska, and the retired sergeant major Werner), whose deeds are set against the serious, touching conflict between Tellheim and Minna, at times verging on tragedy. But their essentially generous characters assure an ultimately happy outcome.
From 1767 to 1770 Lessing was dramaturge of the national theater in Hamburg. His periodical, Hamburgische Dramaturgie, appeared on April 22, 1767, the day a national theater first opened in Germany. Lessing revealed himself as a champion of Shakespeare and a relentless critic of the slavishly observed French “three unities” of time, place, and action. For Lessing, Shakespeare was nearest to the Greek tragedians-thus in a sense a “classic” author.
It was not until the early German romantics that Shakespeare was fully understood as essentially akin to the German genius. But in a LiteraturbriefLessing maintained that, after Sophocles’s Oedipus, no plays have more power over passions than Othello, King Lear, or Hamlet. Lessing translated Aristotle’s fobos kai eleos as Furcht (fear; not Schrecken, or terror) and Mitleid (pity). The two terms are pivotal in the main discussions of the Hamburgische Dramaturgie: we are prompted by the fear that a similar fate may befall us; thus fear is pity transferred to ourselves.
Lessing’s Letters of Antiquarian Content (Briefe anti-quarischen Inhalts, 1768-1769) arose from a bitter dispute in Halle with the antiquarian Christian Adolf Klotz, who attacked Laokoon. Another polemic against Klotz, who misunderstood a remark in Laokoon, is the inquiry into the theory about death and youth, Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet (1769), in which Lessing rightly maintains that skeletons portrayed by the ancient Greeks never were meant to symbolize death.
According to Lessing, the skeletons on sarcophagi, sepulchers, monuments, and the like portrayed lemures, or spirits of the dead. The Greeks showed death as the twin brother of sleep, as in Homer, namely as a youth. Klotz misread and deliberately obscured Lessing’s statement about death in chapter 11 of Laokoon.There is no question of mawkishly glossing over the terrors of death. As a rationalist, Lessing faced the issue with unshrinking sentiment: death meant the end of suffering; Lessing, therefore, aptly concludes his erudite Untersuchung with a reference to Scripture in which an angel is the image of death.
In the spring of 1770 Lessing went to the Brunswick Ducal Library in Wolfenbüttel, where he stayed until his death on Feb. 15, 1781. Emilia Galotti, a domestic tragedy based on the Virginia theme, appeared in 1772. Lessing’s intention was to modernize the Roman story; rather than fall into the prince’s seductive power, Emilia chooses to die at the hands of her father, Odoardo. The ultimate solution remains a rather unconvincing, highly intellectual exercise: Friedrich von Schlegel called it “a great example of dramatic algebra;” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spoke of a nur gedacht (thought-out) play.
Lessing’s introduction of the theme of political power and arbitrary authority, however, must have found a ready response among the angry young men of his time, although the play does not advocate a violent break with traditional powers. Galotti sacrifices his daughter—he does not kill the prince. The real flaw is that Emilia Galotti has no hero. Emilia is clearly not the hero, nor is her father. Marinelli is too contemptible a villain, and the prince lacks personal stature as a ruler. Although he masters brilliant repartee, for example, in the conversation with the painter Conti, he reveals himself as a moody, irresponsible lover and ruler who is quickly ready to sign a death sentence.
From 1778 Lessing engaged in a vehement theological conflict with orthodox Protestants when he published fragments from the Apologia for the Reasonable Worship of God by the Hamburg professor Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Lessing’s fearless attack on the Hamburg pastor Johann Melchior Goeze in Anti-Goeze(1778) and his noble defense of tolerance were, however, frustrated when the Protestants persuaded Karl I, Duke of Brunswick, to silence him. Lessing, cruelly condemned to refrain from answering the attacks, suffered a year of despair: his beloved wife, Eva König, widow of a Hamburg friend, died in January 1778. Lessing had married her in the autumn of 1776.
In Anti-Goeze Lessing uttered the proud statement: “If God in His right hand held all truth and in His left hand the ever-active quest for truth, although with the reminder that I shall for ever and ever err, and said to me: ‘Choose,’ I would in humility choose His left hand and say: ‘Father, give. Pure truth is for You alone.”‘ Lessing’s views obviously had much in common with Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism. Both believed that ultimate truth lay beneath all church dogmas.
Nathan der Weise: Ein dramatisches Gedicht (1779; Nathan the Wise), written in blank verse, demonstrates that idea. It is less a drama than a manifestation of Lessing’s progressive thinking, religious tolerance, and enlightened humanitarianism. There is no doubt that Mendelssohn and Lessing himself were the models of Nathan’s character. The play, in spite of comedy-like features, is no comédie larmoyante. It turns on the meaningful ring fable from Boccaccio’s first day in The Decameron: the rings symbolize the three religions—Christian, Jewish, Mohammedan. This ring parable appears also in the Gesta Romanorum, an early-14th-century Latin collection of stories.
Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780) reaffirms Lessing’s profound belief in the enlightenment and progress of the human race. Various forms of religion are merely stages in the striving toward perfection and truth. Lessing pretended to be merely the editor of the hundred paragraphs of “The Education of the Human Race.” In fact, it summarizes his doctrines of faith. Does he uphold the dogma of immortality? He clearly believes in metempsychosis, that is, the transmigration of the soul of a human being (or animal) at death into a new body; and he strongly reasserts his trust in human progress and its highest stages: enlightenment and the purity of the heart. The doctrine of Erbsünde, the original sin, is demonstrated as the inability of man to be intelligently governed by moral law. Education is the key to Lessing’s faith. There is a very personal note in the statements of religious conviction as regards the foundation of all certainty in knowledge and of faith in an eternal Providence that can never be rationally perceived. Lessing realizes that “the shortest line is not always the straight one.”
Whether Lessing was the first critic in Europe, as Thomas Babington Macaulay claimed, is arguable, but he was certainly, with Goethe and Schiller, a most brilliant and fearless judge of artistic form and a great modern literary critic.
Important works on Lessing are Henry Burnand Garland, Lessing: The Founder of Modern German Literature (1937; 2d ed. 1963), and J. G. Robertson, Lessing’s Dramatic Theory (1939). Interesting recent studies are Henry E. Allison, Lessing and the Enlightenment: His Philosophy of Religion and Its Relation to Eighteenth-century Thought (1966), and Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann, and Kafka (1966). See also Kuno Francke, A History of German Literature as Determined by Social Forces (1897; 4th ed. 1927); W. H. Bruford, Germany in the Eighteenth Century: The Social Background of the Literary Revival (1935); Curtis C. D. Vail, Lessing’s Relation to the English Language and Literature (1936); and E. L. Stahl and W. E. Wuill, German Literature of the 18th and 19th Centuries, edited by A. Closs (1970).
Garland, Henry B. (Henry Burnand), Lessing, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.