*Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim
With Lessing German prose reached a new level of point and power. Nietzsche praised Lessing’s unique gusto and precision that gave his prose new verve; Karl Jaspers described it as “philosophy in action.” While his writings contain few pieces that fit the definition of the essay in the strict sense, the search for an essayistic, experimental, and tentative truth informs virtually all of Lessing’s productions. The exposure and ridiculing of prejudices is already the task of the first plays like Der Freigeist (1753; The Freethinker), Die Juden (1749; The Jews), and Der Misogyn (1767; The Woman-Hater).
Lessing’s insistent critical alertness produces a new, striking, razorsharp style. Brief, pointed, uncompromising, yet flexible in his attacks, Lessing combines elegance, transparency, acuity, and logical stringency. His polemical tone reflects not simply a sublimated form of aggression but also the self-imposed imperative of honesty and veracity. The unrelenting rigor Lessing conjures in his writings not only means to challenge and often ridicule his opponents but, more importantly, aims to stake a claim for a public sphere which, in mid-18th-century Germany, was only just emerging.
Inspired by Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary), Lessing wrote a series of Rettungen (rescues), a particular type of essay that attempts to redeem falsely accused or misrepresented authors fallen from grace because of their unpopular or supposedly dangerous opinions. There he reissues the warning against siding too precociously with what seems to be the truth without careful examination first. He stresses that even when the truth seems to be found, error still plays a crucial role in its discovery: “There is no use for the simile that one need not care about the wrong ways once the right one is known. For one does not get to know the former through the latter but the latter through the former” (“Rettung des Cardanus” [1754; Rescue of Cardanus]). When truth wins, he insists, no individual side has prevailed; rather it is a victory for all, for truth is never won just for oneself: “The losing party does not lose anything but its errors, and can thus partake at any moment in the victory of the other.”
The concern with developing an open, liberal, and freespirited public space runs through all of Lessing’s dramatic, literary, and philosophical works. A prolific journalist, critic, playwright, pamphleteer, reviewer, and editor, Lessing envisaged a free republic of letters. The ambition to become Germany’s first economically successful freelance writer inspired him early on to emerge as a distinct critical voice. In addition to a steady stream of reviews and critiques, he experimented with new forms in which critics could express their concerns. In journals like Critische Nachrichten aus dem Reiche der Gelehrsamkeit (Critical news from the realm of scholarship), Berlinische privilegierte Zeitung (Berlin privileged newspaper), Das Neueste aus dem Reiche des Witzes (News from the realm of wit)—for which he also often served as editor Lessing advocates the acknowledgment of the public as an independent, self-regulatory power. His friendship with Friedrich
Nicolai, an energetic publisher and promoter of the Berlin Enlightenment, and the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, led to a close and intensive collaboration resulting in the creation of the first impartial and independent review of modern German letters, Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend (Letters on contemporary literature). Provocative and witty, the Briefe initiate a dialogue between its authors and the public as a way of establishing a shared aesthetic and critical understanding of the nature of drama, poetry, and literature at large. Against the “ut pictora poesis” (painting is like poetry) convention, the collection of essays Laokoon; oder, Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (1766; Laocoon; or, The Limits of Poetry and Painting) develops in a systematic fashion, marked by digressions and excursions into philology and conjecture, the intrinsic difference between painting and poetry. While painting is limited to representations of spatial ideas, poetry’s limits and strengths consist in staging temporal representations, i.e. actions and processes.
Unable to depict temporal difference, representations of an event like that which the Laocoon statue presents do not depict a process, but its “most pregnant moment.” On the other hand, spatial representations in literature are subject to transformation into the consecutive order of a progressing narrative.
In a series of fictitious letters, conversations, and in the running commentary Lessing fashioned for the Hamburg theater in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–68; Hamburg Dramaturgy), he critiques plays and their productions, poetry, translations, and other publications. Lessing’s critiques play a crucial role in preparing the stage for the essay as the proper medium in which to argue for and eventually establish standards of taste and judgment. Indeed, such standards emerge, if not via the public exchange, then at least by way of the ongoing dialogue between Lessing and his friends, especially Mendelssohn. The consequence of this dialogue is nothing less than the transformation of the conditions of the truthfinding process. The criteria for truth now appear as something that can be conceived only as an ongoing exchange, which itself can be delimited solely in and through the public.
As a persistent philosopher of the Enlightenment, Lessing breaks ground for the freedom of investigation that formulates its own rules. Repealing the traditional restrictions of competence, he insists that every truth without exception must be exposed to discussion and dispute in the public sphere: “It may very well be the case that no dispute has ever settled the truth; but in every dispute truth has gained. Dispute has nourished the spirit of examination…” (Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet [1769; How the Ancients represented death]). Truth, therefore, is no longer an entity that can securely be arrived at once and for all. Rather it becomes an ideal toward which we can only strive, which we can approach more or less but never possess. In his pitiless exchange with the reform theologian Reverend Goeze, Lessing sums this up in an image: “It is not the truth that a human being possesses but the sincere effort in getting to truth that makes a human being… Possession makes one at rest, inert, proud—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!’” (Eine Duplik [1778; Counterresponse]).
If the truth-finding process is to remain open-ended, a result only of a dialogical procedure, then this must also be reflected in the method in which the truth-finding process is enacted. As a consequence, many of Lessing’s writings are presented as thought experiments. They do not arrive at definitive results but rather open up more questions. They cause the reader to address the problems anew. They emphasize the paradoxical and unresolvable features of historical truths, and the difficulties posed by a thorough application of logic.
Conceived as exercises and experiments, Lessing’s essays aim at revising conventional history. In contrast to a Voltairean mode, Lessing’s interventions do not pretend to reflect the truth; rather they call for a reevaluation of the entire epistemological situation. By turning answers into questions, and assumptions into problems, Lessing exposes prejudices and assertions as unproven conjectures devoid of reasonable grounds.
The work-in-progress quality of Lessing’s prose, its unfinished, open-ended, investigative character makes it difficult to answer the question of which literary genre, precisely, these writings belong to. At times scholarly, historical, theological, and polemical, they form a new kind of essay. As much as they derive their force from polemical dispute, they also aim to be more than just a victorious attack against the enemy. For these essays redefine the framework wherein arguments are supposed to take place in such a way that the truth-finding process itself is transformed into a critical enterprise. Thus it is precisely the “polemical” character in Lessing’s essays that frees them from the implicit, yet harmful polemics inherent in the dogmatic practice of scholastic philosophy. What presents itself as erudite and scholarly is unmasked by Lessing as the petty politics of lazy pretensions.
Some of the theological writings do take the form of theses, as was common in both Reformation and scholastic disputations. But it is not just Luther and his contemporaries whom Lessing may have followed in this: Bacon’s scientific aphorisms may have been another literary model. In Lessing the strands of vigorous Reformation and logically rigorous scientific thought combine to form a new way of reasoning. His thesislength paragraphs sketch out the skeleton of an argument that remains strictly objective and yet also projects essayistic qualities. Exemplary of this kind of essay is Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780; The Education of the Human Race). Conceived as a thought experiment, this piece does not advance theses for disputation; rather it suggests a rethinking of the fundamental assumptions of religion and of the course of history.
Hermäa (wr. 1763), a project abandoned by the young Lessing, shows the author as a flâneur avant la lettre, one who undertakes excursions and digressions that depart from the deductive reasoning of a limited rationalism. Favoring the accidental, Lessing makes chance the legitimate guide for traveling the road to knowledge. By validating chance, he emancipates curiosity from the grip of dogmatic rationalism. Freed from conventions and customs, method is replaced by spontaneity and the sense for contingency is cultivated.
“Hermäa”—that which belongs to Hermes as the god of the roads, of traveling, mediation, but also of interpretation—were stone piles placed along highways dedicated to Hermes, the patron of travelers. Noting that Hermes is the god of both the roads and chance, Lessing’s Hermäa are an implicit commentary on the contingent character of methods, literally the “meta-ways.” His preface to Hermäa recalls Montaigne’s programmatic opening pronouncement in his Essais, transposing it to a German Enlightenment setting. Montaigne’s preoccupation with himself—or his “self” as the central and only meaningful concern—is now displaced by the author’s wandering mind, which promises rich returns from its intellectual adventures: “Imagine a human being with infinite curiosity and without the inclination for a certain discipline. Unable to give his mind a firm direction, he will wander through all fields of knowledge, admire everything, desire to recognize everything, and become disgusted with everything. If he is not without genius, he will notice a great deal, but get to the bottom of little.”
Lessing’s practice of writing presents a paradoxical project of controversy, dispute, and dialogical experimentation. How intimately Lessing experiences the connection of the thoughtprocess to his writing is expressed in a paradox in “Über eine zeitige Aufgabe” (1776; On a timely task): “What a pity I cannot think without the pen in my hand! What a pity! I only think for my own instruction. If my thoughts satisfy me, I tear the paper apart. If they don’t, I have it printed.”
Born 23 January 1729 in Kamenz, Saxony (then part of the Holy Roman Empire).
Studied theology and medicine at the University of Leipzig, 1746–48; University of Wittenberg, 1748 and 1751–52, masters degree in theology, 1752. Editor, with Christlob Mylius, Beiträge zur Historie und Aufnahme des Theaters, 1750; review editor, Berlinische privilegierte Zeitung; editor, Theatralische Bibliothek, 1754–58, Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend, 1759–65, and Das Neueste aus dem Reiche des Witzes.
Secretary to General Bogislaw von Tauentzien, Breslau, 1760–65. Theater critic for the National Theater in Hamburg, 1767–68. Librarian for the Duke of Brunswick, Wolfenbüttel, 1770–81. Member, Academy of Mannheim, 1776. Married Eva König, 1776 (died, 1778): one son (died in infancy). Died in Brunswick, 15 February 1781.
Essays and Related Prose
Laokoon; oder, Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie, 1766; edited by Dorothy Reich, 1965; as Laocoon; or, The Limits of Poetry and Painting, translated by William Ross, 1836, E.C. Beasley, 1853, Robert Phillimore, 1874, Ellen Frothingham, 1874, W.B.Rönnfeldt, 1895, and Edward Allen McCormick, 1962
Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 2 vols., 1767–68; edited by Georg Zimmerman, 1879(?), Charles Harris, 1901, Julius Petersen, 1916, Hans Kaufmann, 1953(?), and Otto Mann, 1958; as Hamburg Dramaturgy, translated anonymously, 1962
Briefe, antiquarischen Inhalts, 2 vols., 1768
Eine Duplik, 1778
Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, 1780; edited by Louis Ferdinand Helbig, 1980;
as The Education of the Human Race, translated by F.W.Robertson, 1858, and Henry Chadwick, in Theological Writings, 1956
Theological Writings, translated by Henry Chadwick, 1956
Unvergängliche Prosa: Die philosophischen, theologischen und esoterischen Schriften, edited by Konrad Dietzfelbinger, 1981
Other writings: several plays (including Minna von Barnhelm, 1767; Emilia Galotti, 1772; Nathan der Weise [Nathan the Wise], 1779), fables, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Werke, edited by Julius Petersen and Waldemar von Olshausen, 25 vols., 1925, supplement, 5 vols., 1929–35; Werke, edited by H.G.Göpfert
and others, 8 vols., 1970–79; Werke und Briefe, edited by Wilfried Barner and others, 1985– (in progress).
Bauer, Gerhard, and Sibylle Bauer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Darmstadt:
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968; revised edition, 1986
Kuhles, Doris, Lessing-Bibliographie, 1971–1985, Berlin: Aufbau, 1988
Seifert, Siegfried, Lessing-Bibliographie, Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1973
Blackall, Eric A., The Emergence of German as a Literary Language, 1700–1775, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978 (original edition, 1959)
Dilthey, Wilhelm, “Lessing,” in Poetry and Experience, edited by Rudolf A.Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985
Goetschel, Willi, “Negotiating Truth: On Nathan’s Business,” Lessing Yearbook 28 (1997)
Heftrich, Eckhard, Lessings Aufklärung, Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1978
Jaspers, Karl, “Lessing,” in his Die grossen Philosophen: Nachlass, vol.1, edited by Hans Saner, Munich: Piper, 1981:346–415, and vol. 2:726–63
McCarthy, John A., Crossing Boundaries: A Theory and History of Essay Writing in German, 1680–1815, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989
Pikulik, Lothar, “Lessing als Vorläufer des frühromantischen Fragmentarismus,” in Wolfram Mausser und Günter Sasse, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993:428–35
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