Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Biography of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (22 January 1729 – 15 February 1781) was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist, and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era. His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature. He is widely considered by theatre historians to be the first dramaturg.
Lessing was born in Kamenz, a little town in Saxony. His father was a clergyman and the author of theological writings. After visiting Latin School in Kamenz (from 1737 onwards) and the Fürstenschule St. Afra in Meissen (from 1741 onwards) he studied theology and medicine in Leipzig (1746–1748).
From 1748 to 1760 he lived in Leipzig and Berlin and worked as reviewer and editor for, amongst others, the Vossische Zeitung. In 1752 he took his Master's degree in Wittenberg. From 1760 to 1765 he worked in Breslau (now Wroclaw) as secretary to General Tauentzien. In 1765 he returned to Berlin, only to leave again in 1767 to work for three years as a dramaturg and adviser at the German National Theatre in Hamburg. There he met Eva König, his future wife.
In 1770 Lessing became a librarian at the Herzog-August-Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. His tenure there was interrupted by many travels. For example, in 1775 he journeyed to Italy accompanied by Prince Leopold.
In 1771 Lessing was initiated into Freemasonry in the lodge "Zu den drei Rosen" in Hamburg.
In 1776 he married Eva König, who was widowed now, in Jork (near Hamburg). She died in 1778 after giving birth to a short-lived son. On 15 February 1781, Lessing, at 52, died during a visit to the wine dealer Angott in Braunschweig.
Lessing was a poet, philosopher and critic. His theoretical and critical writings are remarkable for their often witty and ironic style and their unerring polemics. Hereby the stylistic device of dialogue met with his intention of looking at a thought from different angles and searching for elements of truth even in the arguments made by his opponents. For him this truth was never solid or something which could be owned by someone but always a process of approaching.
Early in his life, Lessing showed interest in the theatre. In his theoretical and critical writings on the subject—as in his own plays—he tried to contribute to the development of a new bourgeois theatre in Germany. With this he especially turned against the then predominant literary theory of Gottsched and his followers. He particularly criticized the simple imitation of the French example and pleaded for a recollection of the classic theorems of Aristotle and for a serious reception of Shakespeare's works. He worked with many theatre groups (e.g. the one of the Neuberin).
In Hamburg he tried with others to set up the German National Theatre. Today his own works appear as prototypes of the later developed bourgeois German drama. Miß Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti are seen as the first bourgeois tragedies, Minna von Barnhelm (Minna of Barnhelm) as the model for many classic German comedies, Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise) as the first ideological idea drama ("Ideendrama"). His theoretical writings Laocoon and Hamburg Dramaturgy (Hamburgische Dramaturgie) set the standards for the discussion of aesthetic and literary theoretical principles.
In his religious and philosophical writings he defended the faithful Christian's right for freedom of thought. He argued against the belief in revelation and the holding on to a literal interpretation of the Bible by the predominant orthodox doctrine through a problem later to be called Lessing's Ditch. Lessing outlined the concept of the religious "Proof of Power": How can miracles continue to be used as a base for Christianity when we have no proof of miracles? Historical truths which are in doubt cannot be used to prove metaphysical truths (such as God's existence). As Lessing says it: "That, then, is the ugly great ditch which I cannot cross, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make that leap."
As a child of the Enlightenment he trusted in a "Christianity of Reason", which oriented itself by the spirit of religion. He believed that human reason (initiated by criticism and dissent) would develop, even without help by a divine revelation.
In addition, he spoke up for tolerance of the other world religions in many arguments with representatives of the predominant schools of thought (e.g. within the "Anti-Goeze"). He also worked this position into his dramatic work (in Nathan der Weise) when he was forbidden to publish further theoretical writings. In his writing The Education of Humankind (Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts) he extensively and coherently lays out his position.
The idea of freedom (for the theatre against the dominance of its French model; for religion from the church's dogma) is his central theme throughout his life. Therefore he also stood up for the liberation of the upcoming bourgeoisie from the nobility making up their minds for them.
In his own literary existence he also constantly strove for independence. But his ideal of a possible life as a free author was hard to keep up against the economic constraints he faced. His project of authors self-publishing their works, which he tried to accomplish in Hamburg with C.J. Bode, failed.
Lessing is important as a literary critic for his work Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. In this work, he argues against the tendency to take Horace's ut pictura poesis (as painting, so poetry) as prescriptive for literature. In other words, he objected to trying to write poetry using the same devices as one would in painting. Instead, poetry and painting each has its character (the former is extended in time; the latter is extended in space). This is related to Lessing's turn from French classicism to Aristotelian mimesis, discussed above.
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Gotthold Ephraim Lessing Poems
Der Weise sprach zu Alexandern. 'Dort, wo die lichten Welten wandern, Ist manches Volk, ist manche Stadt.' Was tut der Mann von tausend Siegen?
Auf Sich Selbst
Ich habe nicht stets Lust zu lesen. Ich habe nicht stets Lust zu schreiben. Ich habe nicht stets Lust zu denken;
An Die Schwalbe
Die 12te Ode Anakreons. Schwatzhafteste der Schwalben, sprich, Was tu ich dir? wie straf ich dich?
An Die Leier
Toene, frohe Leier, Toene Lust und Wein! Toene, sanfte Leier, Toene Liebe drein!
Sein Glueck fuer einen Apfel geben, O Adam, welche Luesternheit! Statt deiner haett ich sollen leben,
Sechs Tage kannt ich sie, Und liebte sie sechs Tage. Am siebenten erblasste sie, Dem ersten meiner ewgen Klage.
Der Bruder Liebe Schwester, wer ist die? Deine Freundin? darf ich kuessen? O wie frei, wie schoen ist sie!
Das Bild An Hrn. H.
Das, Maler, ist dein Meisterstuecke! Ja, H**, ja; an Anmut reich, Sieht dies Kind meinem Kinde gleich. Das ist sein Haar; dies seine Blicke;
Das Aufgehobene Gebot
Elise. Siehst du Wein im Glase blinken, Lerne von mir deine Pflicht: Trinken kannst du, du kannst trinken;
Nach der 11ten Ode Anakreons. Euch, lose Maedchen, hoer ich sagen: 'Du bist ja alt, Anakreon.
Antwort Eines Trunknen Dichters
Ein trunkner Dichter leerte Sein Glas auf jeden Zug; Ihn warnte sein Gefaehrte:
An Eine Kleine Schoene
Kleine Schoene, kuesse mich. Kleine Schoene, schaemst du dich? Kuesse geben, Kuesse nehmen, Darf dich itzo nicht beschaemen.
An Die Kunstrichter
Schweigt, unberauschte, finstre Richter! Ich trinke Wein, und bin ein Dichter. Tut mir es nach, und trinket Wein,
An Die J. L***
Natuerlichs Ebenbild der Liebe! Nimm hier dein kuenstlich Ebenbild; Das, wenn man dich auch drueber schriebe,
An Den Horaz
Horaz, wenn ich mein Maedchen kuesse,
Entflammt von unserm Gott, dem Wein,
Dann seh ich, ohne kritsche Schluesse,
Dich tiefer als zehn Bentleys ein.
Dann fuehl ich sie, die suessen Kuesse,
Die ein barbarscher Biss verletzt,
Sie, welche Venus, nebst dem Bisse,
Mit ihres Nektars Fuenfteil netzt.