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||Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781)|
Dramatist, aesthetician, and critic, the main representative of the German Aufklärung or Enlightenment. Lessing has been called the true founder of modern German literature. His most famous dramas are Miss Sara Sampson (1755), a domestic tragedy, Minna von Barnhelm (1755), a comedy about honor, marriage, and pretence, and Nathan the Wise (1779), set in Jerusalem during the Crusades.
"One single grateful thought raised to heaven is the most perfect prayer." (in Minna von Barnhelm)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born in Kamenz, Saxony, where his
father, Johann Gottfried Lessing, worked as a Protestant minister. He
was the first of twelve children -
died in childhood. The family had long clerical traditions, and Lessing
was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father. He was educated
in Meissen at St. Afra's School; he went to school at the age of
twelve. Most of the classes were conducted in Latin. The school
inspector described him as "a good boy, but inclined to mockery".
In 1746, at the age of seventeen, Lessing entered the
university of Leipzig, where he matriculated as a student of theology,
but his main interest lay in the philosophical (or arts) faculty. The
first months he spent immersed in books, and then took lessons in
dancing and fencing before launching himself to the society outside the
To the disappointment for his family, Lessing devoted himself to writing comedies. All his close friends had literary interests, among them his cousin Christolob Mylius, a freethinker, who went around as Karl Lessing said "in down-at-heel shoes, with holes in his stockings and tattered clothes, to the annoyance of the galant world of Leipzig." Lessing's first play, Der junge Gelehrte (1747, The Young Scholar) was performed by the acting company of Caroline and Johann Neuber. It was written in the style of Holberg and mocked arrogant students. For the most part, Lessing's comedies were conventional, but in Die Juden (1749) and Der Freigeist (1749) he also touched serious issues.
Lessing's early career as a playwright was stopped when the acting company left him alone to cover its debts. In 1748 Lessing fled to Wittenberg, where he studied at the university and then moved to Berlin. At that time it had a hundred thousand inhabitants and its atmosphere in religious matters was freer than in the provinces, although Fredrick II did his best to suppress political discussion. In a letter Lessing wrote: "But let someone come on the scene who wants to raise his voice on behalf of the rights of subjects and against exploitation and despotism... and you will soon discover which is the most servile land in Europe to this very day."
Lessing had arrived to Berlin without money and decent clothes, but he soon started to support himself with his pen, the first German writer to do so. By the age of 25, he established his fame as a sharp-witted critic and essayist. He contributed to Berlinische Privilegierte Zeitung, wrote plays, and established with Mylius a short-lived theatre quarterly, Beiträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theatres. His new friend, the Jewish philosopher Mises Mendelssohn, Lessing portrayed in the play Jews. In 1751 Lessing received his Master's degree at Wittenberg, and published a collection of poems, Kleiningkeiten.
Again in Berlin in 1752, Lessing continued his literary activities. As a playwright Lessing made his breakthrough with Miss Sara Sampson, the first noteworthy German tragedy of bourgeois domestic life, with contemporary characters, situations, and issues. From 1755 to 1757, Lessing was in Leipzig, where he met Ewald von Kleist, a poet and a major in the army. The character Tellheim in Minna von Barnheim was partly based on him. After returning to Berlin with Christoph Friedrich Nicolai and Moses Mendelssohn, he began publishing the literary review Briefe die neuste Literatur betreffend, the first independent review of modern German letters. But Lessing did not gain any strong foothold in Berlin. Voltaire, the French thinker and satirist, denounced Lessing to Fredrick the Great, ruler of Prussia. Behind Voltaire's anger was an unlucky remark Lessing had made about him, and false rumors that Lessing planned to publish a pirated edition of Voltaire's Le siècle de Louis XIV. Lessing had also criticized a translation of Horace, made by a protégé of Frederick II.
In the 1760s Lessing served as secretary to General Friedrich von Tauentzien in Breslau. During these years he started to write Laoköon, oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766), which was inspired by the thoughts of J.J. Winckelmann. Lessing argued that although painting and poetry are similar in creating an illusion -"both are imitative arts" - painting uses completely different means or signs from poetry; the plastic arts are spatial while poetry is temporal. This was a new view - in art theory they were considered sister arts. Horace's "Ut pictura poesis" (painting is like poetry) had been part of the humanistic tradition since the fifteenth century, but Lessing rejected this belief - painting uses "figures and colors in space rather than articulated sounds in time". To clarify his idea he analyzed the famous sculpture, representing three dying figures in the grip of snakes. (The work is thought to be from the 2nd century B.C.E.) "Simply imagine Laocöon's mouth forced wide open, and then judge! Imagine him screaming, and then look! From a form which inspired pity because it possessed beauty and pain at the same time, it has now become an ugly, repulsive figure from which we gladly turn away. For the sight of pain provokes distress; however, the distress should be transformed, through beauty, into a tender feeling of pity."
Lessing knew that his hopes of becoming Royal Librarian in Berlin were not realistic, because he was not in favour with Fredrick. He moved to Hamburg and assisted in the founding of the Nationaltheater, which was funded by a group of merchants. The project was not a success. The audience was not ready for his ideas, but they paved the way for the realistic social drama which began to fully develop in the 19th century. His reviews of the performances Lessing published under the title Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-69). In this work, which owed more perhaps to Mendelssohn's theory of "mixed sensations" than to Aristotle, he attacked the formalism of neoclassicism, and the French classical theater which dominated the German stage. One of Lessing's targets was Voltaire, whose tragedies he criticized; he praised the genius of Shakespeare. Also In Hamburg he ran with his friend a printing and publishing company. To cover his debts Lessing had to sell his own private library.
From 1770 until his death, Lessing was librarian to the duke
of Brunswick at Wolfenbüttel. Also the philosopher Leibniz had worked
at the court library, famous for its rare books. Lessing welcomed the
post. It secured him a regular income, he could help his family, settle
his debts, but in Wolfenbüttel he also felt lonely. In 1776 he married
Eva König, the widow of his friend. With Prince Leopold of Brunswick he
travelled in Italy for a year. Eva died in January 1778; she had given
a birth a few weeks earlier to their son, Tragott, who lived only two
days. Lessing was left to take care for her four children, trying to be
a good father to them.
Nathan der Weise, a kind of symbolic fairy tale, which
Lessing wrote in Wolfenbüttel, was performed at Easter 1778. Its
message of universal brotherhood was advocated through one of its
central characters, a noble Jew, Nathan. He is called "the Wise" by
Jews, Christians, and Moslems alike. Saladin, the Moslem chief, is
honest, but Christians are scheming and unscrupulous. Nathan's family
was murdered by Crusaders. At the center of the play is "the parable of
three rings", adapted and reworked from Boccaccio's Decameron. Nathan offers the
parable, an allegory of the thee (Abrahamic) religions, as an answer to Saladin's question, "Since you're accounted
wise: / Then tell me, pray - what faith, or
moral law, / Has most appeal for you?" Nathan avoids the pitfall of siding with one religion.
Later in his life Lessing published a number of tracts on
theological subjects, which caused a bitter dispute with the Church
authorities. To provoke public debate on the fundamental truths of
Christianity, he published H.S. Reimarus's Fragmente eines
Ungenannten (1774-77, Fragments of an Anonymous Author), a
critical attempt to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus.
Although Lessing held fast to his vision of an benevolet
Providene, his concept of religious truth was individualistic and
basically relative in its nature. In Erziehung des
Menschengeschlechts (1780, The Education of the Human Race) he
connected the progress of religious thinking with three different
stages of the human race; every religion has contributed something to
human development. Judaic tradition represents the childhood, but the
third stage is still waiting in the future. Lessing's writings were
censored and he had to submit his works to the duke for approval. In
spite of this, he was offered membership to the Academy of Mannheim and
he also was an adviser to the Mannheim theatre. When his sight began to
fail, he had to give up his literary activities, and he could not carry
out his duties as a librarian.
Lessing died in Brunswick on February 15, 1781, following a stroke. Before his death, Lessing apparently told Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) that he was a kind of follower of Spinoza. At that time it was considered one step short of declaring as an atheist. When Jacobi published his correspondence with Moses Mendelsson concerning Lessing's final philosophical position, this unleashed a controversy known as the Pantheismusstreit (Pantheism Controversy); Kant disagreed with Jacobi, while Herder and Goethe defended Spinoza's theism.
Lessing advocated liberal thoughts and religious tolerance. Due to his criticism of anti-Semitism many Jewish families adopted the name Lessing. Before entering the service of a prince, Lessing lived the life of a freelance writer, or carried out secretarial duties. "What a pity I cannot think without the pen in my hand!" he once said. Independent of the goodwill of patrons, he often mocked current opinion. Lessing did not believe in fixed truths but in discussion and dispute. "If God were to hold in his right hand all the truth and in his left the unique ever-active spur for truth, although with the corollary to err forever, asking me to choose, I would humbly take his left and say: 'Father, give! for the pure truth is for you alone!'" (in Eine Duplik, 1778)
For further reading: Life of G. Lessing by T.W. Rolleston (1889); Lessings Nathan by K. Fischer (1896); Lessing als Philosoph by C. Schrempf (1921); Lessings Weltanschauung by H. Leisegang (1931); Lessing's Dramatic Theory by J.K. Robertson (1939); Lessing und Aristoteles by M. Kommerell (1940); Lessing als äesthet by F. Leander (1942); Von der Menschlicheit in finsteren Zeiten by H. Arendt (1960); Lessing: The Founder of Modern German Literature by H.B. Garland (1962); Lessing und Brecht by H.J. Schrimpf (1965); Lessing and the Enlightenment by H.E. Allison (1966); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing by K.S. Guthke (1967); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing by F.A. Brown (1971); Lessing und sein Zeitalter by P. Rilla (1973); Lessings Aufklärung by Eckhard Heftrich (1978); Lessing and the drama by F.J. Lamport (1981); Lessing's "Laocoön" by David Wellbery (1984); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing by Gerhard Bauer and Sibylle Bauer (1986); Catalyst of Enlightenment: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing by Edward M. Batley (1990); Absent Mothers and Orphaned Fathers: Narcissism and Abjection in Lessing's Aesthetic and Dramatic Production by Susan Gustafson (1995); A Companion to the Works of Lessing, edited by Barbara Fischer and Thomas C. Fox (2005); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life, Works, and Thought by Hugh Barr H. Nisbet (2013)