Gotthold Lessing Biography
LESSING, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81). A German critic and dramatist, born at Kamenz, Jan. 22, 1729; one of the earliest of the great German classical writers. His father, pastor at Kamenz, gave him his early instruction and sent him to a famous school at Meissen, where he learned so rapidly that he was admitted at 17 to the University of Leipzig, where he studied theology, then medicine, and later philosophy and literature. Here his sturdy nature almost immediately asserted itself against the smug platitudes of the Leipzig critics. "I realized," he wrote at this time, "that books might make me learned, but would never make me a man. I sought society to learn life." He took lessons in dancing, fencing, and riding. He translated French plays for the theatrical troupe of Frau Neuber, in whose theatre he learned much of stage technique, and in 1748 she put on his first play, Der junge Gelehrte. His early comedies include also Die Juden, Der Misogyn, Die alte Jungfer, and Der Freigeist, all more or less under French influence. Soon afterward (1748) he left Leipzig for the University of Wittenberg, whence after a short stay he followed his friend Mylius to Berlin, then as now the centre of German free thought. Here he lived by his pen, writing keen literary criticism and hack translations and venturing on original dramas and lyrics of no great value.
Here, also, Lessing met Voltaire, for whom he worked; but they soon quarreled, for Lessing betrayed a literary confidence of Voltaire's. Critically Lessing profited greatly by the acute Frenchman. He became acquainted with Friedrich Nicolai, Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Ramler. and others, with whom he pursued philosophical and literary studies. Meantime he had taken his master's degree at the University of Wittenberg. In 1754 appeared his Vademecum für Herrn Samuel Gotthold Lange, a sharp criticism of Lange's translation of Horace and in general of mediocre literature. In 1755 there appeared in Berlin a collection of Lessing's works in six volumes, containing among other things his new tragedy written under the influence of the English novelist Richardson and the dramatist Lillo, Miss Sara Sampson, epochmaking for the German stage as the first bourgeois tragedy.
In the same year Lessing went back to Leipzig. He had started on a three years' period of travel through the Netherlands, England, France, and Italy, as the companion of a wealthy man, when he was recalled at Amsterdam by the disturbances of the Seven Years' War, at a moment when Frederick's deeds were giving to lyric poetry a popular turn, which was welcomed by Lessing in his preface to the Lieder eines preussischen Grenadiers of Gleim (q.v.). He went to Leipzig, associated with E. von Kleist, planned Emilia Galotti, Kleonnis, and a Faust, and returned to Berlin in 1758. There he began to issue Litterarische Briefe, which cleared the air of choking mawkishness and false formality. With these Letters one phase of the classical period of German literature begins and on distinctively national lines. The Letters are among the oldest German works generally read today, and make Lessing "the Father of German criticism." To this period belong also his three books of fables, his prose tragedy Philotas, and his edition of Logau's epigrams.
The Letters were continued till 1765, irregularly, amounting finally to 24 volumes. In 1760 Lessing went to the seat of war in Silesia as secretary of General Tauenzien and gathered there materials for the greatest drama and the greatest work of æsthetic criticism that Germany had yet seen, Minna von Barnhelm (1767) and Laokoon (1766). Minna von Barnhelm was the first national drama of Germany; its personages were Germans of the day, drawn from Lessing's Silesian experience, and all of them true to the soil. In every literary field its health-giving influence was felt.
The Laokoon attempts to define the demarcation and the limits of poetry and painting. Only the first book was ever written, yet that gradually revolutionized literary taste in Germany. "That long-misunderstood phrase, Ut pictura poësis, was set aside. The distinction between the speaking and the plastic arts was clear. All the results of this glorious thought were revealed to us as by a lightning flash," said Goethe. Lessing hastened the publication of the Laokoon, hoping to win by it the post of royal librarian at Berlin; but Voltaire had prejudiced the King, and he appointed a third-rate French official to the post. Lessing, however, was called to Hamburg to be critic and adviser of the National Theatre there. Having sold his library to pay debts and rent, with his Laokoon unfinished, Lessing left Berlin in April, 1767.
In May, 1767, Lessing began to publish twice weekly the theatrical criticisms (52 in number) known as the Hamburgische Dramaturgie. These criticisms soon came to be true essays on dramatic art. The Dramaturgie may be regarded as a continuation of the Laokoon, and to this day remains the vade mecum of the German stage. It gave the deathblow to French imitation [see Opitz] and pointed the way to Schiller and Goethe. In November, 1768, the National Theatre had to close, and Lessing went into the publishing business with Bode.
In 1769 Lessing suspended the Dramaturgie, which pirated reprints had made unprofitable, and was attracted to antiquarian studies by the ill-natured attacks of Professor Klotz, of Halle, against whose journal Lessing openly declared war in the Antiquarische Briefe. One of the last papers growing out of this campaign was the important essay How the Ancients Represented Death.
Famous, but poor, Lessing left Hamburg and in the spring of 1770 became court librarian of the Duke of Brunswick at Wolfenbüttel. He was now eager to found a home, for he had fallen deeply in love with Eva König, widow of a friend who had been a silk manufacturer in Hamburg. In 1775 he visited her at Vienna, where he was welcomed as no German author had ever been. He was recalled thence to accompany the Duke's son to Italy and found that his fame had gone before. In February, 1776, he returned and in October married his betrothed. She and her infant son died in January, 1778. During these years he had completed a remarkable prose tragedy, Emilia Galotti (1772). The story is that of Virginia, made familiar by Macaulay's "Lay"; the scene is ostensibly modern Italian, and, though Lessing seems to have avoided all definite political significance, the general application was so obvious that the court of Gotha forbade the representation. Lessing's work as a reformer of the German stage ends here. His Nathan der Weise (1779), though still acted, is rather a philosophical work in dramatic form, uniting his ethical and æsthetic studies to the theological controversies that were to fill his later years.
After the death of his wife and son, Lessing sadly yet bravely plunged into three years of intense controversial activity. Of this controversy the immediate cause was Lessing's editing of some posthumous essays by a Hamburg friend, Reimarus, a freethinker, which Lessing was not, though he was an unflinching believer in free speech, in the higher criticism of Scripture, and in the development of doctrine, as he showed in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780), a rather brief essay in 100 short numbered paragraphs. He thought and said that it was better error should be taught than freedom of thought stifled, and, further, that "the letter is not the spirit and the Bible is not religion." All these were novel ideas in that generation and peculiarly hateful to Pastor Goeze, of Hamburg, who led a numerous band of obscurantists, while at first Lessing was almost the only defender of free discussion. Lessing's letters in this controversy are remarkable for their eloquence, wit, satiric power, and dramatic vivacity. They mark a distinct advance in German prose style and a permanent gain to the religious life of the German nation. And out of the bitterness of the dispute came as a sweet fruit the dispassionate expression of its results in the dramatic poem of toleration, Nathan the Wise, inspired partly by his friendship for Moses Mendelssohn.
The same lofty theme of toleration was pursued during Lessing's closing years in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, the work on education cited above; and its principles appear in the political sphere in Ernst und Falk, Gesprache für Friemaurer (1778), whose bold utterance was muzzled by the Brunswick censor. Lessing in these last days wrote as one to whom hard experience had taught its lesson of self-denying wisdom. His mind was still active and eager, but his body was gradually giving way. On a visit to Brunswick he suffered a stroke of apoplexy, and died Feb. 15, 1781.
Lessing, says Goethe, was great by character and tenacity of will. By his plays he gave Germany a national drama; by his criticism, the field of his highest power, he established for his nation true canons of æsthetic and dramatic criticism, freed her from a petrified orthodoxy, and taught her to breathe a more tolerant and loftier Christianity. He himself offered the example of a life devoted to the search for truth.
Lessing's Works have been often collected, notably by Lachmann (13 vols., 1838–40; 3d ed., by Muncker, in 22 vols., Stuttgart-Leipzig, 1886–1910). Most of them are published separately. There are translations of the Laokoon, Minna von Barnhelm, Emilia Galotti, Nathan der Weise, and many others of his important works in all of the civilized languages.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 13-15.