*Wieland, Christoph Martin

Christoph Martin Wieland

Christoph Martin Wieland



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Wieland, Christoph Martin

German, 1733–1813
While Christoph Martin Wieland is best known to the nonGerman world for his novels, romances, and didactic tales in verse, he was also among the first and most prominent of those writers, such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Georg Forster, who inaugurated the German essay in the 18th century. This distinction can be ascribed in part to Wieland’s ownership and direction of the longest-lived journal of the age, the Teutscher Merkur (The German Mercury), but also, more fundamentally, to his own creativity and enterprise as an essayist.
By his nature, background, and experience Wieland was eminently suited for his role as one of Germany’s first essayists. As has been well observed of him as a stylist, he possessed many of those qualities that most essayists in the European literatures seem to share: a sociable manner of expression, a habit of directly engaging the reader in a common enterprise, the wish both to make himself understandable and to incite the reader to independent thought (Fritz Martini, 1967). Certain other predispositions and habits of mind further equip him exceptionally for the role of essayist: a humane relativism, an openness to all sources of knowledge and truth, and a sincere willingness to give a fair hearing to views different from his own. For most of his career Wieland ardently held to a melioristic outlook; in so doing he became, along with Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most important literary representatives of the German Enlightenment.
There was hardly a question agitating his era that did not find expression in Wieland’s essayistic writings, and specific essay topics extend over a wide reach: Graecomania, Shakespeare, Rousseau, balloon flight, the plan for an academy, patriotism, the French Revolution, cosmopolitanism, animal magnetism, the Enlightenment, Sturm und Drang (Storm and stress) aesthetics, ethics, political philosophy, everyday life. The great variety of his output can best be schematized under the broad divisions of cultural, political, philosophical, religious, and literary, with the first two categories preponderant. Three fairly distinct periods in Wieland’s career as essayist evolved: early (1750–63), middle (1764–87), and late (1788–1813).
Wieland’s essayistic writings up to 1755 are pervaded by pietism and exuberant idealism, usually finding expression in the form of categorical assertiveness; accordingly, a sermonizing and rather imperious attitude toward the reader is the dominant tone.
Additionally, there is an occasional Anacreontic ornamentation, especially in those pieces cast in verse. Though there are only four or five essays in the earliest and extremely pietistic years, it is nonetheless significant that these works constitute much of Wieland’s entire literary productivity during that period. “Timoklea: Ein Gesprach iiber scheinbare und wahre Schonheit” (1755; Timoklea: a conversation on apparent and genuine beauty) and its companion piece, “Theages; oder Unterredung von Schonheit und Liebe” (1758; Theages; or conversation on beauty and love), are the two principal achievements in these early years.
As early as his 21st year a marked change occurs in the form, temper, and content of Wieland’s work. The shift begins after his departure from his patron, the critic and aesthete Johann Jakob Bodmer, is furthered by his friendship with the poet J.G.Zimmermann and a reading of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and becomes virtually complete under the influence of the Francophile Count Friedrich Stadion. The middle years of Wieland’s career (1764–87), then, witness both the maturity of his thought on philosophical, political, historical, and literary subjects and the full development of his skills as an essayist. Especially with his founding of the Teutscher Merkur in 1773, he had available a medium for expressing his confrontation with new developments in political and cultural affairs.
During the middle period he wrote over 50 essays. Among the most notable of those pieces on philosophical or religious topics are “Was ist Wahrheit?” (1778; “What Is Truth?”); “Über den Hang, an Magie und Geistererscheinungen zu glauben” (1781; On the inclination to believe in ghostly apparitions); “Antworten und Gegenfragen auf die Zweifel und Anfragen eines vorgeblichen Weltbürgers” (1783; Answers and counterquestions to the doubts and inquiries of a would-be cosmopolite); “Über religiöse Toleranz” (1783; On religious tolerance); and “Über den freien Gebrauch der Vernunft in Glaubenssachen” (1788; On the free use of reason in religious matters). “What Is Truth?,” written five years after Kant’s sanguine observations in “Was ist Aufklärung?” (1773; “What Is Enlightenment?”), is probably the most frequently reprinted of all of Wieland’s essays. Though the work is not demonstrably an intentional counter to Kant’s piece, Wieland confidently and persuasively states his case on the subject of humankind’s future with an optimism as cautious and diffident as that of his famous contemporary. A considerable portion of the middle years is also devoted to the relationship between religious and political matters, perhaps best represented by “Gedanken über eine alte Aufschrift” (1772; Thoughts on an old inscription), one of the most persuasive and well-crafted pieces of the entire period.
Wieland wrote approximately a dozen essays of a political nature during these 20-odd years, the best of which are “Das gottliche Recht der Obrigkeit” (1777; The divine right of kings); “Über die Rechte und Pflichten der Schriftsteller” (1785; On the rights and duties of authors), one of his most vigorous essays, dealing with the freedom of the press; and “Eine Lustreise ins Elysium” (1787; A pleasure trip to Elysium). “Das gottliche Recht der Obrigkeit,” which outdoes even Hobbes in its advocacy of the ancient political principle, unsurprisingly provoked the wrathful distaste of many of Wieland’s more progressive and optimistic contemporaries and evidently cost the Merkur no few subscribers. Much of this opposition failed to recognize Wieland’s perception of a fine line between unworkable idealism and brutal realism. Throughout his career, Wieland preferred a practical and skeptical empiricism that grants hope to the possibility of reform and progress (John A.McCarthy [in Jørgensen], 1994). His interest in historical topics was impelled for the most part by a search for historical parallels with his own age: the lessons of the past, he assumed, are often relevant to the problems of the present and can thus serve as a guide for the future.
Wieland consistently held an adamant conviction that belleslettres constituted the most effective means for advancing the humanistic ideals of the European Enlightenment. He frequently addressed in a direct and sustained way questions concerning the nature and essence of literature—especially such theories as were current in the period between the baroque and Romantic periods (McCarthy [in Jørgensen], 1994). Most of the more important of his essays on these matters are contained in a series of articles written in the 1770s and early 1780s, among others: “Der Eifer, unserer Dichtkunst einen National- Charakter zu geben” (1773; The enthusiasm for giving a national character to our literature); “Wenn sie fortfahren, die Teutschen des 18. Jahrhunderts für Enkel Tuiskons anzusehen” (1773; If they continue to regard the Germans of the 18th century as descendants of Tuiskon); “Der Geist Shakespears” (1773; The Shakespearean spirit);
“Über das Schauspiel Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand” (1773; On the drama Götz von Berlichingen); “Unterredungen zwischen W** und dem Pfarrer zu ***” (1775; Conversations between W** and the Pastor of ***); “Gedanken über die Ideale der Alten” (1777; Thoughts on the ideals of the Ancients); Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (1782–84; Letters to a young poet) (McCarthy [in Jørgensen], 1994).
While it can be reasonably asserted that Wieland’s writings on literary and cultural themes deserve as firm a place in the literary history of the 18th century as those of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Lessing, and Schiller (McCarthy [in Jørgensen], 1994), in his role as reviewer during the 1770s and 1780s he revealed his weakest side. In fact, there exists only a handful among the dozens of reviews in these two decades that can qualify as essays, the piece on Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen being the most notable.
Tone and general style are, at best, straightforward, at worst, lackluster. The relatively unimportant contributions that Wieland brought to his role of reviewer had more to do with his wishes, as editor of the Merkur, to avoid harsh or otherwise imperious judgments, whether his own or those of his many contributors. At the same time this policy served the ultimate purpose of establishing and maintaining a good tone in his journal. Moreover, severe criticism would almost necessarily imply an inconsistency with Wieland’s constant and avowed aspiration to entertain multiple perspectives (McCarthy [in Jørgensen], 1994).
Essayistic writings in the late period (1788–1813) are with few exceptions devoted to topics connected with the Revolution in France. The form in which Wieland expresses his thoughts on these topics is generally dialogic, while the tone is principally apprehensive and monitory. The most noteworthy of these serious writings are “Das Geheimnis des KosmopolitenOrdens” (1788; The secret of the order of cosmopolites); “Über deutschen Patriotismus” (1793; On German patriotism); Neue Göttergespräche (1791; New dialogues of the gods, translated as Dialogues of the Gods); “Für und Wider” (1793; Pro and contra); and “Betrachtungen über die gegenwärtige Lage des Vaterlandes” (1793; Observations on the present condition of the homeland). Fritz Martini regards this last essay as a unique masterpiece of Wieland’s dialectic thought. The 13th dialogue of the Dialogues of the Gods deserves particular comment for its expression of Wieland’s general attitude toward the French Revolution, its employment of a favorite form—the dialogue—and its surprising use of historical parallelism. While the latter is a favorite device throughout his career, it is used here with striking variation: the past (represented by various rulers and divinities) is conjured to comment upon and judge the present; human history is hailed before the bar of transhistorical reason, as it were, and forced to testify against itself. “Gespräche unter vier Augen” (1793; Tête-à-têtes), a culmination of several earlier works advancing the thesis that rule by the stronger, however unpalatable as a political principle, is nonetheless a historically established fact (McCarthy, 1979), was Wieland’s last major essay on the Revolution.
Most of the common methods of setting forth an argument, such as inductive or deductive reasoning, precatory appeals, the invocation of authority, and the presupposition of reader agreement (ad hominem and ad populum), are found in abundance throughout the middle and late periods of Wieland’s career in essay writing.
Two types of argumentation, however—the dialectic and the rhetorical question—are both his preferred and his most accomplished devices.
As has often been remarked, Wieland was hardly akin to the more militant spirit of a Lessing or Herder; thus he only occasionally advances an adamantly polemical viewpoint. The desire, indeed the felt necessity, to shun severe criticism was part of his pacific nature, and he generally opted for a nonconfrontational and neutral ambiguity over harsh judgment. Such an attitude easily led, of course, to the charge—unfair, but leveled by contemporaries and later critics alike—that he was a trimmer and waverer.
Wieland himself was clearly aware of and explicitly acknowledged his vulnerability on this count. In any event, his tone and temper in expressing his ideas, whether affirmative, negative, or indecisive, can be bitter, witty, dour, lighthearted, indignant, ironic, wry, resigned. Regardless of his stylistic disposition in a given work, however, he is consistently lucid and eminently readable. As one of the true founders of the German essay, he continues—almost two centuries after his death—both to reward careful and reflective study and to entertain and educate the casual reader.


Born 5 September 1733 in Oberholzheim, near Biberach. Studied privately with Johann Wilhelm Baumer, 1748–49; enrolled at the University of Erfurt, 1749–50. Engaged to his cousin Sophie Gutermann (i.e. the novelist Sophie von La Roche), 1750 (broken off, 1753, but remained friends throughout his life). Began a course in jurisprudence, University of Tübingen, 1750, but wrote poetry rather than studying law. Lived as guest of the scholar Johann Jakob Bodmer, Zurich, 1752–54; tutor in Zurich and Berne, 1754– 60. Engaged to Julie Bondeli, 1759 (broken off). Senator and acting town clerk, Biberach, 1760. Married Dorothea von Hillenbrand, 1765 (died, 1801): eight daughters and four sons (two other children died in infancy). Appointed privy councillor of Mainz, 1769, and of Saxony, 1772. Professor of philosophy, University of Erfurt, 1769–72; tutor to the sons of Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia of Sachsen-Weimar, 1772–74. Cofounder and
editor, Der Teutsche Merkur (later Der neue Teutsche Merkur), 1773–96. Became lifelong friends with Goethe, from 1775. Elected to the Prussian Academy of Science, 1787. Founder, Attisches Museum (Attic museum), 1796. Lived on the Ossmannstedt country estate, near Weimar, 1797–1803, then returned to Weimar. Awards: Legion of Merit (France), 1808; Cross of Saint Anna (Russia), 1808. Died in Weimar, 20 January 1813.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Sympathien, 1756
Sammlung prosaischer Schriften, 2 vols., 1764
Beyträge zur Geheimen Geschichte des menschlichen Verstandes und Herzens (includes fiction), 1770
Prosaische Schriften, 2 vols., 1771–72; revised edition, 2 vols., 1785
Dialogues, translated anonymously, 1775
Neue Göttergespräche, 1791; part as Dialogues of the Gods, translated by William Taylor, 1795
Meine Antworten: Aufsätze über die Französische Revolution 1789–1793, edited by Fritz Martini, 1983
Politische Schriften: Insbesondere zur Französischen Revolution, 3 vols., 1988

Other writings: several novels (including Die Geschichte des Agathon [The History of Agathon], 1766–67), poetry (including the verse romance Oberon, 1780), and correspondence. Also translated works by Shakespeare, Horace, Lucian, and Cicero.
Collected works editions: Sämtliche Werke, edited by Heinrich Duntzer, 40 vols., 1867–79; Gesammelte Schriften (Berlin Academy of Science Edition), edited by Bernard Seuffert and others, 1909–(in progress; 100 vols. projected); Werke, edited by Fritz Martini and Hans Werner Seiffert, 5 vols., 1964–68; Werke, edited by GonthierLouis Fink and others, 1986–(in progress).

Ottenbacher, Viia, “Wieland-Bibliographie, 1983–1988,” WielandStudien, vol. 1,
Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1991
Steinberger, Julius, Bibliographie der Wieland-Übersetzungen, Göttingen: Selbstverlag, 1930
Günther, Gottfried, and Heidi Zeilinger, Wieland-Bibliographie, Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1983

Further Reading
Ermatinger, Emil, Die Weltanschauung des jungen Wieland, Frauenfeld: Huber, 1907
Fink, Gonthier-Louis, “Wieland et la Révolution française,” Revue d’Allemagne (Homtnage à Robert Minder) 5 (1973):497–522
Haas, Gerhard, Essay, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1969
Jørgensen, S.-A., H.Jaumann, John A.McCarthy, and H.Thomé, Christoph Martin Wieland: Epoche, Werk, Wirkung, Munich: Beck, 1994
Just, Klaus Günther, “Essay,” in Deutsche Philologie im Aufriss, vol. 1, edited by W.Stammler, Berlin: Schmidt, 1966: columns 1897–1948
McCarthy, John A., “Wieland as Essayist,” Lessing Yearbook 8 (1976):125–39
McCarthy, John A., Christoph Martin Wieland, Boston: Twayne, 1979
McCarthy, John A., “The Poet as Journalist and Essayist: Chr. M. Wieland, Part One—A Descriptive Account,” Jahrbuch für internationale Germanistik 12, no. 1 (1980):104– 38
McCarthy, John A., “The Poet as Essayist II,” Jahrbuch für internationale Germanistik (1981):74–137
Martini, Fritz, “C.M.Wieland und das 18. Jahrhundert,” in Festschrift Paul Kluckhohn und Hermann Schneider, Tübingen: Möhr, 1948
Martini, Fritz, “Nachwort” to Werke by Wieland, vol. 3, Munich: Hanser, 1967
Meesen, H.J., “Wielands Briefe an einen jungen Dichter,” Monatshefte 47 (1955):193– 208
Meyer, Verena, C.M.Wieland und die geschichtliche Welt, Zurich: Buchdruckerei Akeret, 1944
Rehder, Helmut, “Die Anfänge des deutschen Essays,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 40 (1966):25–42
Rohner, Ludwig, Der deutsche Essay: Materialien zur Geschichte und Ästhetik einer literarischen Gattung, Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand, 1966
Schulze, Volker, “Der Teutsche Merkur (1773–1810),” in Deutsche Zeitschriften des 17.
bis 20. Jahrhunderts, edited by HeinzDietrich Fischer, Pullach: Dokumentation, 1973
Seiffert, Hans W., “Die Idee der Aufklärung bei Christoph Martin Wieland,”
Wissenschaftliche Annalen 2 (1953):678–89
Sengle, Friedrich, Wieland, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1949
Stamm, Israel S., “Wieland and Sceptical Rationalism,” Germanic Review 33 (1958):15– 29
Starnes, Thomas C., Der Teutsche Merkur: Ein Repertorium, Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1994
Tietze, Wilhelm, “Wieland der Mensch und der Schriftsteller,” Die Literatur 43 (1940– 41):275–79
Vogt, Oskar, “‘Der goldene Spiegel’ und Wielands politische Ansichten,” Forschungen zur neueren Literaturgeschichte 26 (1904): 1–101
Wahl, Hans, Geschichte des Teutschen Merkur, Berlin: Mayer & Müller, 1914
Weyergraf, Bernd, Der skeptische Bürger: Wielands Schriften zur Französischen Revolution, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1972

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