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by Bamber Gascoigne

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. Lessing was the first of twelve children - five died in childhood. The family had long clerical traditions, and Lessing was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father. Due to his traditional but no means ultra-conservative views, Lessing  experienced Christianity at home in its learned, humane form. He was educated in Meissen at St. Afra's School; Lessing 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 lecture rooms.

To the disappointment for his family, Lessing deserted Lutheraranism and 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.

We did not choose a nation for ourselves.
Are we our nations? What's a nation then?
Were Jews and Christians such, e'er they were men?
And have I found in thee one more, to whom
It is enough to be a man?

(in Nathan the Wise)

Despite Lessing's refusal of help, his friends Kleist and Gleim used their influence to have him appointed to a secure salaried office. For short periods, Lessing lived the life of a freelance writer, in between carrying out low-paying secretarial jobs. "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)

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.

Lessing's tracts on theological subjects 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 a benevolet Providene, his concept of religious truth was individualistic and basically relative in its nature. Lessing's intense speculations never achieved clarity: "I was pulled from one side to the other; none wholle satisfied me," he said toward the end of his life.

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. He was buried at public expence. 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. But neither Kant nor Lessing seriously questioned the existence of God.

Lessing advocated liberal thoughts and religious tolerance. Due to his criticism of anti-Semitism many Jewish families adopted the name Lessing. Although his intellectual legacy stood in opposition to the ideology of the Third Reich, the Nazis refashioned Lessing into their own national ideals. Mathilde Lundendorff, a neuropsychiatrist and General Ludendorff's wife, who had a large following among Nazis, maintained in her pamphlet Mozarts Leben und gewaltsamer Tod (1936), that Mozart, like Lessing, Schiller and many others, had been poisoned by the Freemasons. 

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); The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay (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); Lessing und das Judentum: Lektüren, Dialoge, Kontroversen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert, herausgegeben von Dirk Niefanger, Gunnar Och und Birka Siwczyk (2015); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing by Friedrich Vollhardt (2016); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Epoche und Werk by Friedrich Vollhardt (2018); Literary Conclusions: The Poetics of Ending in Lessing, Goethe, and Kleist by Oliver Simons (2022)

Selected works:

  • Der junge Gelehrte, 1747 (with others, publ. in Schriften, 1754)
  • Giangir odr der veschmähte Thron, 1747 (fragment)
  • Demon, 1747
  • Die alte Jungfer, 1748 (pub. in 1749)
  • Der Misogyn, 1748 (pub. 1755)
  • Samuel Henzi, 1749 (pub. 1753)
  • Der Freygeist, 1749 (pub. 1755)
  • Die Juden, 1749 (pub. 1754) - The Jews (translators: Ingrid Walsoe-Engel, in Nathan the Wise and Other Plays and Writings, 1991; Noel Clark, in Two Jewish Plays, 2002)
  • Der Schatz, 1750 (pub. 1755)
  • Beyträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters, 1750
  • Kleiningkeiten, 1751
  • Schriften, 1753-1755 (6 vols., rev. ed.1771)
  • Theatralische Bibliothek, 1754-1758
  • Miß Sara Sampson, 1755 (prod., publ. in Schriften, 1755) - Miss Sara Sampson (transl. by G. Hoern Schlage, 1977) / Sara (transl. by Anthony Meech, in Two Plays by Lessing, 1990)
  • Briefe die Neueste Literatur betreffend, 1759-65
  • Fabeln, 1759 (rev. ed. 1777) - Fables (tr. 1829)
  • Pilotas, 1759 (prod. 1774)
  • Doktor Faust, 1759 (fragment)
  • Philotas, 1759 - Philotas (transl. by Edward Dvoretzky)
  • Der Schatz, 1764
  • Laokoön, oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie, 1766 - Laokoön; or, The Limits of Poetry and Painting (transl. by William Ross, 1836) / Laocoon. An Essay Upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry (transl. by Ellen Frothingham, 1904) / Laocoon (transl. by Sir Robert Phillimore)  / Laocoon, Nathan the Wise, Minna von Barnhelm (transl. by Willam A. Steel, 1930) / Laokoön, an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (transl. by Edward Allen McCormick, 1962)
  • Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 1767-1769 - Hamburg Dramaturgy (introd. by Victor Lange, 1962) / Hamburg Dramaturgy: A New and Complete Annotated English Translation (translated by Wendy Arons and Sara Figal; edited by Natalya Baldyga, 2019)
  • Minna von Barnhelm, 1767 (prod., publ. in Lustspiele, 1767) - The Disbanded Officer (tr. 1786) / The School for Honor (tr. 1789) / Minna von Barnhelm (translators: anonymously in 1805;  Ernest Bell, in Plays of Lessing, 1888: Philip Schuyker, 1907; Otto Heller, 1917; Kenneth J. Northcott, 1972; Bert Cadullo, in German Language Comedy, 1992) - Minna von Barnhelm eli Sotamiehen onni (suom. teoksessa Näytelmistö 3, 1864) / Minna von Barnhelm: viisinäytöksinen huvinäytelmä (suom. Jalmari Lahdensuo, 1921)
  • Lustspiele, 1767 (2 vols.)
  • Briefe antiquarischen Inhalts, 1768 (2 vols.)
  • Wie alten den Tod gebildet, 1769
  • Berengarius Turonensis, 1770
  • Trauerspiele, 1772
  • Emilia Galotti, 1772 (prod., in Trauerspiele, 1772) - Emilia Galotti; a Tragedy in Five Acts (translators: Anna Johanna Gode von Aesch, 1959;  Edward Dvoretzky, 1962; F.J. Lamport, in Five German Tragedies, 1969)  / Galotti (suom. teoksessa Näytelmistö 1, 1861)
  • Zur Geschichte det Litteratur aus den Schätzen der Wolfenbüttelschen Bibliotek, 1773-1781
  • Eine Duplik, 1778
  • Eine Parabel, 1778 Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger, 1778 (fragment)
  • Anti-Goeze, 1778
  • Ernst und Falk, 1778 - Ernst and Falk (transl. by William Zweibel, in Nathan the Wise and Other Plays and Writings, 1991) / Masonic Dialogues (tr. 1927)
  • Nathan der Weise, 1779 (prod. 1783) - Nathan the Wise (translators: R.E. Raspe, 1781; Adoph Reich, 1860; Isidor Kalisch, 1869; Leo Markun, 1926; W.A. Steel, with Laocoon and Minna von Barnhelm, 1930; Berthold August Eisenlohr, 1942;  Günter Reinhardt, 1950; Bayard Quincy Morgan, 1955; Anthony Dent, in Laocoon and Other Writings, 1971; Noel Clark, in Two Jewish Plays, 2002; Edward Kemp, 2005; Ronald Schechter, 2004; William Taylor, 2015) -  Viisas Nathan (suom. J. Enlund, 1876; J. Siljo, 1919; Matti Rossi, 1996)
  • Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, 1780 - The Education of the Human Race (transl. by Rev. Fred W. Robertson, 1858; H. Chadwick, in Lessing's Theological Writings, 1956)
  • Fragmente des Wolfenbüttelschen Ungenannten, 1784
  • Theologischer Nachlass, 1784-86 (ed.  K.G. Lessing)
  • Theatralischer Nachlass, 1784-86 (2 vols., ed.  K.G. Lessing)
  • Literarischer Nachlass, 1793-95 (3 vols, ed.  K.G. Lessing)
  • Sämtliche Schriften, 1886-1924 (23 vols., ed.  Karl Lachmann, rev. by Franz Muncker)
  • Selected Prose Works of G.E. Lessing, 1900 (transl. by E.C.Beasley)
  • Briefe, 1912
  • Werke, 1925-1935 (25 vols., ed.  Julius Petersen and Waldemar von Olshausen; supplement, 5 vols., 1929-1935)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1954-58 (10 vols., ed.  P. Rilla)
  • Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 1958 (ed.  O. Mann)
  • Lessing's Theological Writings, 1956 (ed.  Henry Chadwick)
  • Werke, 1970-79 (8 vols., ed.  H.G. Göpfert and others)
  • Lessing im Gespräch, 1971 (ed.  Richard Daunicht)
  • Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel, 1972 (ed.  J. Schulte-Sasse)
  • Briefe aus Wolfenbüttel, 1975 (ed.  Günter Schulz)
  • Meine Liebste Madam: Briefwechsel, 1979 (ed.  Günter and Ursula Schulz)
  • Unvergängliche Prosa, 1981 (ed.  Konrad Dietzfelbinger)
  • Werke und Briefe, 1985-2003 (12 vols., edited by Wilfried Barner and others)
  • Philosophical and Theological Writings, 2005 (translated and edited by H.B. Nisbet)
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessings Briefe, 1760-1769: Texte und Erläuterungen, 2007 (von Agnieszka Ciołek-Jóźwiak)
  • Von der Aehnlichkeit der Griechischen und Deutschen Sprache, 2016 (herausgegeben von Mark-Georg Dehrmann und Jutta Weber)

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