Ludvig Holberg is the father of modern Scandinavian literature. Best known abroad as a writer of comedies, he was also a master in various other fields. He served, for example, as professor of history at the University of Copenhagen and wrote several historical works. Some of his works—including his autobiography—he wrote in Latin; most, however, were written in Danish, the language of Denmark and Norway. Holberg himself had been born in Bergen, Norway, and can be claimed as both a Danish and a Norwegian writer, a figure of whom both countries today are proud. Holberg was also an essayist, although his essays were written relatively late in life. The volume entitled Moralske Tanker (Moral Reflections) dates from 1744; the five volumes of Epistler (Epistles), containing 540 items in all, began appearing in 1748, with the final volume posthumously published in 1754.
Holberg traveled widely as a young man, spending two years in England (mainly in Oxford), and visiting the Netherlands and France twice, as well as Germany and Italy.
Curiously, Holberg’s stay in England at the beginning of the 18th century, the very time when periodicals were blossoming there, did not lead to a discernible interest on his part in English authors of the day. On the other hand, he found a major source of inspiration in French writers, particularly Jean de Clerc, whose work appeared in the Netherlands, where he lived in exile and where Holberg once called upon him.
The Moral Reflections, Holberg’s volume of 63 essays, is more philosophical and serious than most of the essays making up the “epistles” of his second, five-volume collection. Indeed, because of the Moral Reflections Holberg has been called a modern Cicero. The earlier essays also have a clear connection with those of Montaigne and Bacon. A champion of moderation and reason, Holberg was the chief Scandinavian moralist and rationalist of his time. The Moral Reflections present no cohesive system of thought, however, though they are in many ways both theological and philosophical, suggesting the work of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz and Leibniz’s foremost disciple Christian Wolff. Many of the essays recall those by English writers of the moral weeklies, treating subjects such as virtue, decorum, reform, the best way to take criticism, and why similar deeds may be judged differently. Holberg’s humor is present in these earlier essays, but subdued when compared with the humor in some of his other works, for example his Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741; A Journey by Nicholas Klimius to the World Under Ground), which strongly resembles Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Even the style of the Moral Reflections suggests British essays of the same or an earlier era. For example, the essay on studies begins, “Studies can be divided into the necessary, the useful, and the harmful”—an echo of Bacon’s essay on books.
Holberg was writing the Moral Reflections for a learned and fairly limited audience in Denmark and Norway; he often quoted in Latin and Greek, and prefaced each essay with a Latin quotation. (In contrast, the later Epistles appealed to a much broader audience and, by virtue of their number, necessarily dealt with many more and different subjects.)
An example of Holberg’s style, wit, and attitude can be found in the following quotation from the end of the essay dealing with the arrogance of the ignorant: “I for my part would not wish to live in a country where there are no fools; a fool has the same effect in a republic as fermentation in the human stomach. The fool is like a sal volatile, which causes movement of the blood and juices; indeed, he can be compared with a hurricane which, although it may from time to time destroy houses and trees, at the same time purifies the air and prevents sicknesses which are born of too much quietude.”
While the Moral Reflections express Holberg’s personal philosophy and beliefs, the later Epistles deal with subjects of a non-philosophical nature. In them Holberg is as ever a spokesman for moderation and tolerance, championing what he calls the middle path.
The individual epistles are, on the whole, much shorter than the philosophical essays in Moral Reflections. Nominally they are in the form of letters to an unknown person, a device which allowed Holberg to range considerably from the topic at hand and to insert quotations whenever it suited him. F.J.Billeskov Jansen (1938–39) demonstrates that Holberg wrote his essays using Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary) as a source of continuing inspiration: the sequence of essays in the Epistles corresponds to some extent to the sequence of articles in Bayle’s dictionary, and Holberg invokes Bayle frequently in the text of the essays. In Epistle 34, for example, he states that one can profit much from Bayle’s works and in particular escape the taste for the trivial with which most academics are infected. He goes on to say that no author known to him, old or new, “has written with greater pithiness and penetration and no publication has appeared which in regard to zeal, accuracy, variety of material, thorough criticism and gallant style can be compared with his critical dictionary.” There are also many references to classical writers, French writers of an earlier era, and contemporary phenomena, as for example the discussion dealing with Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’Homme-machine, a book of materialistic philosophy which had been published anonymously in Leiden in 1748. Works by La Mettrie had been publicly burned in The Hague in 1745, but he had the protection of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. Holberg’s attitude is evidence of his liberal thought and openness to new and different ideas, without, however, raising his voice against Protestantism or the Establishment in general.
Several of the epistles are concerned with drama, specifically with Holberg’s own comedies, the foreign criticism of them, and the unwillingness of the French to accept Holberg on a plane with Molière. As a dramatist Holberg identifies with Plautus and Molière but has little positive to say of contemporary writers of comedy.
Holberg’s essays clearly demonstrate that he wrote as a result of studying other writers, and how dependent he was on them for his thoughts. The Epistles may be designated as essays evolved from his reading, his reflections, and his efforts at synthesis. On the whole they do not develop a single argument; rather they are reactive, responding to other works and to the issues of the day. Like essays in the moral weeklies of England and elsewhere, Holberg’s essays are easy, pleasant reading, and it is as easy to disagree as to agree with what he writes.
Born 3 December 1684 in Bergen, Norway. Studied theology at the University of Copenhagen, 1702–04. Visited the Netherlands, 1704–05, 1714–16, and 1725–26, Germany, 1705–06 and 1708–09, and England (mostly Oxford), 1706–08. Fellow, Borch’s College, Copenhagen, 1709–14; professor of metaphysics, 1718–20, of Latin literature (and secretary of the university), 1720–30, of history, from 1730, and rector, 1735–36, and university bursar, 1737–51, University of Copenhagen. Wrote for Montaigu’s troupe at the Lille Grønnegade Theatre, Copenhagen, 1722–28; stopped writing plays during the ban on theatrical activity by Christian VI, 1730–46; made a baron, 1747; unoffical adviser and writer, Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen, 1748. Died in Copenhagen, 28 January 1754.
Essays and Related Prose
Moralske Tanker, 1744; edited by F.J.Billeskov Jansen, 1943; as Moral Reflections, with Epistles, edited and translated by P.M. Mitchell, 1991
Epistler, 5 vols., 1748–54; edited by F.J.Billeskov Jansen, 5 vols., 1944–54; in part as Selected Essays, edited and translated by P. M. Mitchell, 1955, and as Epistles, with Moral Reflections, edited and translated by Mitchell, 1991
Essays, edited by Kjell Heggelund, 1977
Other writings: 32 plays (including Den politiske kandestøber [The Political Tinker], 1722; Jeppe på Bjerget [Jeppe of the Hill], 1722; Jean de France, 1722; Den voegelsindede [The Weathercock], 1722; Erasmus Montanus, 1723; Henrik og Pernille [Henry and Pernilla], 1724; Maskarade [Masquerade], 1724; Jacob von Thyboe, 1725;
Den Stundesløse [The Fussy Man], 1726; De usynlige [The Masked Ladies], 1731), the novel Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741; A Journey by Nicholas Klimius to the World Under Ground), the mock epic poem Peder Paars (1719–20), many books on history, and an autobiography.
Ehrencron-Müller, Holger, Bibliografi over Holbergs skrifter, Copenhagen: Aschehoug, 3 vols., 1933–35
Billeskov Jansen, F.J., Holberg som epigrammatiker og essayist, Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 2 vols., 1938–39
Billeskov Jansen, F.J., Ludvig Holberg, New York: Twayne, 1974
Billeskov Jansen, F.J., A Guide to the Writings of Ludwig Holberg and to His Manor- House Tersløsegaard, Dianalund: Holbergske Stiftelse Tersløsegaard, 1979
Bredsdorff, Thomas, “Holberg: A Scandinavian Slant on the European Enlightenment,” Scandinavian Canadian Studies/Études Scandinaves au Canada 4 (1991):115–22
Greene-Gantzberg, Vivian, “Holberg and German-Speaking Europe,” in Holberg, a European Writer: A Study in Influence and Reception, edited by Sven Rossel, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994: 67–103
Haarberg, Jon, “Essayet: Holberg, Montaigne og ‘de gamle’,” Edda 1 (1987):73–83
Naess, Harald, “Holberg and the Age of Enlightenment,” in A History of Norwegian Literature, edited by Naess, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993:53–81
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