1902 Encyclopedia > Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
German dramatist and critic
(1729-81)




GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING (1729-1781), was born at Kamenz, in Upper Lusatia, Saxony, on the 22d of January 1729. He was descended from Clemens Lessing, a Saxon clergyman, whose name is found attached to an ecclesiastical document of 1580. Lessing’s father, Johann Gottfried, born in 1693, was the son of Theophilus Lessing, the burgomaster, of Kamenz, who died at the age of eighty-nine, when Lessing was between six and seven years old. At the time of Lessing’s birth his father was one of the clergyman of Kamenz, where, as few years afterwards, he became pastor primaries, or head pastor. He was a man of high character, rather irascible, but earnest in the fulfillment of his pastoral duties, and universally beloved for his kindness to the poor. Throughout life he continued the studies in theology and church history which he had successfully begun at the university of Wittenberg, and he made some reputation as an original writer and as a translator of Tillotson. Of the Frau Pastorian we do not know much except that she was a faithfully and affectionate wife and mother. They had twelve children, of when Lessing was the second who survived infancy. He seems to have been an exceedingly happy child, healthy and playful, and already remarkable for his fondness for reading. After attending the Latin school of Kamenz, he was sent in 1741 to the great school of St Afra at Meissen, where he was maintained free of charge. Here he made such rapid progress in classical and mathematical study that, towards the end of his career as a pupil, he was described by the rector as "a steed that needed double fodder." Work which was oppressive to others, added the rector, was to Lessing "as light as a feather. He had the reputation of being on of the most sarcastic, but at the school. In 1746 he left St Afra’s and went to the university of Leipsic [Leipzig], nominally for the purpose of studying theology. To theology, however, he did not give the slightest attention. Under Professor Christ and Ernesti he continued his classical studies, and he also attended the philosophical disputations presided over by his friend Kästner, a young professor of mathematics. For some time Lessing was shy and retired amid his new surroundings, but being of an eminently social disposition he soon became tired of this kind of life, and began to form friends among his fellow-students, and strove to acquire the manners of a free and polished man of the world. His principal friend was Weisse, who afterwards attained a respectable position as a man of letters. He also became intimate with Mylius, who was considerably older than himself, an had made a certain mark as a literary and scientific writer. There was at this time in Leipsic [Leipzig] an excellent actress, Frau Neuber, who had gathered around her a number of respectable players, and Lessing, in company with Weisse, was one of the most regular attenders at her theatre. At St Afra’s he had begun a comedy, Der Junge Gelehrte, and this he now completed. Frau Neuber immediately accepted it, and it was received with much favour by the public of Leipsic [Leipzig].

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing image

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
(Painting by Anton Graff, 1771.
Art Collection, Leipzig University.)



Alarmed by reports of what was supposed to be his dissolute life, the elder summoned him to Kamenz, where he remained for some months. He soon succeeded in overcoming the fears of his parents, who allowed him to return to Leipsic [Leipzig] on condition that he would devote himself to the study of medicine. Some medical lectures he did attend ; but his ambition was to become a great dramatist, and as long as Frau Neuber’s company kept together he occupied himself almost exclusively with the theatre, being frequently present at rehearsal during the day as well as at the performance in the evening.

In 1748 the company broke up, and Lessing, finding nothing to interest him in Leipsic [Leipzig], went to Wittenberg, and afterwards, towards the end of the year, to Berlin, where his friend Mylius had established himself as a journalist and man of science. In Berlin Lessing now spent three years, maintaining himself chiefly by literary work. he translated two volumes of Rollin’s history, wrote some of the best of his early plays, and, in association with Mylius, started a periodical (which soon came to an end) for the discussion of matters connected with the drama. Early in 1751 he accepted the office of literary critic to the Voss Gazette, and in this position he reviewed some of the most important German and French books of the day, manifesting already to some extent the learning, judgment, and with were the make him the greatest critic of modern times. His father had been bitterly opposed to his scheme of life, and in 1751 urged him to complete his studies at the university of Wittenberg. Feeling the need of further thought and research, Lessing at last consented, and at the close of the year left Berlin. It is worthy of note that he had been brought into slight contact with Voltaire, for whom he had translate some documents relating to the Hirsch trial. Voltaire’s secretary having lent him a volume of the Sièle de Louis XIV., which had not yet been published, he took it with him to Wittenberg. This came to the ears of Voltaire, who assumed that Lessing intended to print either a pirated edition or an unathorized translation. The affairs led to an angry correspondence, and was a subject of much talk in Berlin.

Lessing remained about a year in Wittenberg, where he passed most of his time in the university library, every volume in which, he afterwards declared, had passed through his hands. Having taken the degree of master of arts, he returned to Berlin, determined to make literature his profession ; and the next time years were among the busiest of his life. Besides translating for the booksellers, he issued several numbers of the Theatralische Bibliothek, a periodical essentially the same as that which he had begun with Mylius. He also resumed his labours as critic to the Voss Gazette. For many years the most influential writer in Germany had been Gottsched, the Leipsic [Leipzig] professor, who continually proclaimed the necessity of rigid adherence, in the drama and in poetry, to French rules. In his articles for the Voss Gazette, Lessing made it his principal object to ridicule the pretensions of Gottsched and his school, and in a short time there was no writer of whom they were so much afraid. In 1754 he produced a deep impression by Ein Vade Mecum für den Herrn Sam. Gotth. Lange, in which he expose with bitter satire Lange’s errors in his popular translation of Horace. During these three years Lessing took a definite position in contemporary literature by issuing, in six small volumes, those of his writings which he considered worthy of preservation. They included his lyrics and epigrams, some of the latter being in German, others in Latin. Most of his lyrics were written in Leipsic [Leipzig], and had already appeared, during his first residence in Berlin, in a volume of Kleinigkeiten, published without his name. Although they do not, like Goethe’s lyrics, touch deep sources of natural feeling, they have the merit of being, gay, and musical, and some of them are still sung by German students. The epigrams, many of which were produced in Wittenberg, are in the style of Martial, and gives evidence, like Lessing’s critical writings, of a keen and biting humour. Among his collected writings there was also a series of collected writings there was also a remarkable series of Letters, in which, for the first time in German literature, some of the results of extensive were presented in a free and vivid style. Even more important, perhaps, were the papers entitled Rettungen, in which he undertook to vindicate the character of various writers who had been misunderstood by preceding generations. One of the best of these Rettungen is on Horace, whom he defends against the critics who change him with sensuality and cowardice. In another, almost equally good, he shows that Cardan, instead of being an atheist, did full justice to the evidences for Christianity, as they were understood in his time, while he did rather less than justice to other religions. This essay contains a powerful argument in favour of Mohammedanism, developed from the point of view of an intelligent believer in the Prophet. In addition to these varied contents, Lessing in the six volumes of his Schriften his early plays and Miss Sara Sampson. Of the former the chief are Der Junge Gelehrte, already mentioned, Der Freidenker, Die Juden, and Der Misogyn. Although superior to any other German comedies produced at the same time, they cannot be said to reveal a high dramatic faculty. In the arrangement of his plots and the balancing of his characters, Lessing follows closely the methods of contemporary French comedy, and in the dialogue there is often a too obvious straining after effect. Miss Sara Sampson, written in 1755, marks a wholly different stage of his development. It has many faults both in conception and in execution, but it exercised a powerful influence by indicating to the dramatists of Germany that materials for tragedy are to be found in the experiences of ordinary men and women as well as in those of "the great." Lessing attributed much importance to this principle, which had been suggested to him chiefly by the study of Richardson, whose Clarissa is almost exactly reproduced in the heroine of Miss Sara Sampson.

This tragedy, when represented in Frankfort-on-the-Oder, was received with so much applause that he resolved to devote himself to the drama ; and in fulfillment of his design he suddenly quitted Berlin in October 1755, and went to Leipsic [Leipzig], where a good theatre had been lately established. During his second residence in Berlin he had made his name widely known, and he had secured several friends, whose affection he retained during the rest of his life. The chief of these was Moses Mendelssohn, in association with whom, in 1755, he wrote an admirable treatise, Pope ein Metaphysiker, tracing sharply the lines which separate the poet from the philosopher. The Berlin Academy of Sciences had offered a prize for the best essay on Pope’s doctrine that "Whatever is, is right," as compared with the optimism of Leibnitz. The treatise of the two friends was written to show that there cannot be a true comparison between a poetic and a philosophic conception; and they threw much light on the aims both of Leibnitz and of Pope. Other Berlin friends of Lessing were Nicolai, the bookseller, and Ramler, the author of many well-known odes. He had also made the acquaintance of Gleim, the Halberstadts poet, and Ewald Christian von Kleist a Prussian officers, whose fine poem, Der Frühling, had won for him Lessing’s warm esteem.





In Leipsic [Leipzig], Lessing was asked by Winker, a wealthy young merchant, to accompany him in foreign tour, which was to last three years. As he offered liberal terms, Lessing consented ; and early in the summer of 1756 they started for England. They did not, however, get beyond Amsterdam, for after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War they heard that Winkler’s house was occupied by the Prussian commandent ; and he deemed it necessary to hasten back. After some time Winkler was offended by Lessing’s intimacy with certain Prussian officers, and suddenly announced to him that the must consider their engagement at an end. Lessing demanded compensation, and in the end the courts decided in his favour, but not until the case had dragged on for about six years. In the meantime it detained him in Leipsic [Leipzig], and, as there was little opportunity for earning money by literature in a city occupied by foreign troops, he went through a period of extreme hardship. During these anxious months he began the study of mediaeval peotry, in which some interest had been awakened by the Swiss school of critics ; he also translated several English writings, and worked occasionally for the Bibliothek, a periodical edited by Nicolai. Fortunately he had a opportunity of developing his friendship with Kleist, who happened to be stationed in Leipsic [Leipzig]. Kleist, a man of truly heroic temper, with the simplicity of a child, was powerfully attracted by Lessing’s frank and noble nature, and Lessing loved him with an ardour which was excited by no other friend, not even by Mendelssohn. Kleist’s regiment being ordered to new quarters early in 1758, Lessing decided not to remain behind him, and, saying farewell to his friend (who was mortally wounded in the following year at the battle of Kunersdorf), he returned once more to Berlin.

His third residence in Berlin was made memorable by the Literaturbriefe, a series of critical essays (written in the form of letters to a wounded officer) on the principal works that had appeared since the beginning of the Seven Year’s War. The scheme was suggested by Nicolai, by whom the Letters were published. Those written by Lessing manifested far higher intellectual power than anything he had yet accomplished. The critical principles set forth in the Literaturbriefe are now universally recognized, but they were then new, and even at the present day they seem to derive fresh vitality from the force, precision, and animation with which he expresses them. He insisted especially on the necessity of truth to nature in the imaginative presentation of the facts of life, and in one letter he boldly proclaimed the superiority of Shakespeare to Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire. At the same time he marked the immutable conditions to which even genius must submit in order to move enduring sympathies. While in Berlin at this time, he edited with Ramler a selection from the writings of Logau, a vigorous epigrammatist of the 17th century, and introduced to the German public The War Songs of a Grenadier, by Gleim. He admire the vigour of these songs, but in several private letters protested against the vehemence of the author’s patriotism -- patriotism being a virtue which, he thought, he "could do very well without." In 1759 he published Philotas, a prose tragedy; and in the same year appeared a complete collection of his fables, with an essay on the essential idea of the fable. The latter is one of his best essays in criticism, defining with perfect lucidity what is meant by " the action" in works of imagination, and distinguishing the action of the fable on the hand from that of the epic and the drama on the other. His theory prevented him from lending poetic interest to his own fables, but they surpass the works of all other German fabulists in the depth and variety of the moral truths which they are intended to enforce.

In 1760, weary of incessant writing, and feeling that change of scene and work necessary for his health Lessing went to Breslau to apply for the post of secretary to General Tauentzien, to whom Kleist had introduced him in Leipsic [Leipzig]. Tauentzien was not only a general in the Prussian army, but governing of Breslau, and director of the mint. He willingly granted the vacant office to Lessing, who retained it for more four years. He thus found himself in circumstances wholly different from those to which he had been hitherto accustomed. He associated chiefly with Prussian officers, went much into society, and became passionately fond of the gaming table, where he played for such high stakes that even General Tauentzien expostulated with him. While, however, he seemed to be wasting his energies, he never lost sight of his true goal. He gradually collected a library of about 6000 volumes (which he was ultimately obliged to sell) ; and after the conclusion of the Seven Years’s War in 1763 he resumed more enthusiastically than ever the studies which had been partly interrupted. In investigating the early history of Christianity, he obtained a profound knowledge of the fathers ; and a remarkable letter to Mendelssohn shows that he had penetrated more deeply than any contemporary thinker into the significance of the philosophy of Spinoza. In 1764 he was prostrated by a severe illness, during which he reviewed, in a rather sorrowful spirit his past life, and formed many serious resolutions for the future. Before this time he had worked hard at Laocoon the plan of Minna von Barnhelm. His parents were now in exceedingly straitened circumstances, and often appealed to him for aid. He responded generously to their demands, but they greatly overrated his power to help them, as they assumed that he intended to remain permanently in General Tauentzien’s service. In reality, he had always regarded the engagement as a temporary one, and in 1765 he resigned his office, and left Breslau.

It seemed not improbable that he might find a suitable appointment in Dresden, but he was again compelled, much against his will, to become a resident of Berlin, whither he went after a brief visit to Kamenz and Leipsic [Leipzig]. His friends exerted themselves to obtain for him the office of keeper of the royal library, but Frederick had not forgotten Lessing’s quarrel with Voltaire, and declined to consider his claims, although, about the time when Lessing went to Breslau, he confirmed his election as a foreign member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. During the two years which Lessing now spent in the Prussian capital he was restless and unhappy, yet it was during this period that he published two of his greatest works -- Laocoon in 1766, and Minna on Barnhelm in 1767. Laocoon ranks as a classic not only in German but in European literature, and its style alone, which is as near perfection as anything Lessing ever wrote, would almost entitle it to this position. His central aim is to define by analysis the limitations of poetry and the plastic arts. Many of his conclusions have been corrected and extended by later criticism; but he indicated more decisively than any of his predecessors the fruitful principle that each art is subject to definite conditions, and that it can accomplish great results only by limiting itself to its special function. The most valuable parts of the work are those which relate to poetry, of which he had a much more intimate knowledge than of sculpture and painting. His exposition of the methods of Homer and Sophocles is especially suggestive, and he may be said to have marked an epoch in the appreciation of these writers, and of Greek literature generally. He invariably starts from he consideration of doctrines set forth by other scholars (chiefly Winkelmann, Caylus, and Spence) ; but he is never satisfied until he arrives at positive principles and he leads us towards them gradually by the paths he himself had trodden, glancing at many side issues by the way. He was unable in later years to complete his scheme, but even in its fragmentary form, as Goethe testifies in Wahrheit und Dichtung, Laocoon was welcomed with gratitude by the most active minds of the age. The power of Minna von Barnhelm was also immediately recognized. This is, on the whole, the best of Lessing’s purely dramatic writings. The hero, Tellheim, is an admirable study of a manly and sensitive soldier, with somewhat exaggerated ideas of conventional honour; and Minna, the heroine, is one of the brightest and most attractive figures in the dramatic literature of Germany. The subordinate characters are conceived with the force and vividness; and the plot, which reflects precisely the struggles and aspirations of the period that immediately followed the Seven Years’ War, is simply and naturally unfolded. This beautiful play is valued by the Germans, not only as a work of art, but as one of the earliest and most striking manifestations of the growing spirit of German nationality.

In 1767 Lessing settled in Hamburg, where he had been invited to take part in the institution of a national theatre. The scheme promised well, and, as he associated himself with Bode, a literary man whom he respected, in starting a printing establishment, he hope that he might at last look forward to a peaceful and prosperous career. The theatre, however, being mismanaged, was soon closed, while the printing establishment failed, and left behind it a heavy burden of debt. Many of Lessing’s letters from Hamburg breathe almost of despair, and towards the end of his residence there he determined to quit Germany, believing that in Italy he might find congenial labour that would suffice fo his wants. Even in Hamburg he made splendid contributions to enduring literature, the chief being his Hamburgische Dramaturgie. It consists of criticism of some of the plays represented in the Hamburg theatre ; but in these criticisms he offers a complete theory of the laws of dramatic art. In the main his theory is that of Aristotle, but it is maintained on independent grounds and applied in new ways. By this powerful work he delivered German dramatists for ever from the yoke of the classic tragedy of France, and directed them to the Greek dramatists and to Shakespeare as the poets who have opened most truly the fountains of tragic feeling. Another results of his labours in Hamburg was the Antiquarische Briefe, a series of masterly letters in answer to Klotz, a pedantic writer who, after flattering Lessing, had attacked him, means of critical journals which he directly controversy, Lessing wrote his brilliant little treatise, Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet, contrasting the mediaeval representation of death as a skeleton with the Greek conception of death as the twin-brother of sleep.





Instead of going to Italy as he intended, Lessing accepted, in 1770, the office of librarian at Wolfenbüttel, a post which was offered to him by the hereditary prince of Brunswick. In this position, he passed his remaining years. For a time he was not unhappy, but and by he was rendered miserable by his inability to pay the debts which he had contracted in Hamburg. He missed, too, the society of his friends, and his health, which had hitherto been excellent, gradually gave way. In 1775 he travelled for nine months in Italy with Prince Leopold of Brunswick; and in the following year he married Eva König, the widow of a Hamburg merchant, with whom he had been on terms of intimate friendship. She was in every way worthy of Lessing, and their correspondence during his lonely years in Wolfenbüttel forms one of the most attractive elements of his biography. Their happiness in each other was perfect, but it lasted only a for a brief period; in 1778 she died in childbed. After death Lessing found one of his chief sources of consolation in the love of his four step-children, to whom he was tenderly attached.

Meanwhile he had extended his fame by several important writings. Soon after settling in Wolfenbüttel he found in the library an ancient manuscript, which proved to be a treatise of Berengarius of Tours on transubstantiation in reply to Lanfranc. Lessing was thus induced to write as essay on Berengarius, vindicating his character as a serious and consistent thinker. The essay was much admired by the leading theologians of Germany, and it is, on the whole, the ablest and most interesting of his Rettungen. In 1771 he published his Zerstreute Anmerkurgen über das Epigramm, und einige der vornechmsten Epigrammatisten -- a work which Herder described as "itself an epigram." Lessing’s theory of the origin of the epigram is somewhat fanciful, but no other critic has offered so many pregnant hints as to the laws of epigrammatic verse, or defended with so much force and ingenuity the character of Martial. In 1772 lovers of the drama were delighted by the appearance of Emilia Galotti, a tragedy which he had begun many years before in Leipsic [Leipzig]. The subject was suggested by the Roman legend of Virginia, but the scene is laid in an Italian court, and the whole play in conceived in accordance with the modern spirit. Its defect is that its tragic conclusion does not seem to be absolutely inevitable, but there is high imaginative power in the character of the prince of Guastalla and in that of Marinelli, his chamberlain, who weaves the intrigue from which Emilia escapes by death. The diction of Emilia Galotti is at once refined and vigorous, and there are scenes in which some of the deepest passions of human nature are sounded with perfect art. Having completed Emilia Galotti, Lessing occupied himself for some years almost exclusively with the treasure of the Wolfenbüttel library. The results of his researches (some of them of high value) he embodied in a series of volumes, Zur Geshichte und Literatur, the first being issued in 1773, the last in the year of his death.

The concluding period of Lessing’s life was devoted chiefly to theological controversy. Reimarus, professor of Oriental languages in Hamburg, who commanded general respect as a scholar and thinker, wrote a book entitled Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes. The standpoint of Reimarus was that of the English deists, and he investigated, without hesitation, the evidence for the miracles recorded in the Bible. The manuscript of this work, after the author’s death in 1767, was entrusted by his daughter, Elise Reimarus, to Lessing who published extracts from it in his Zur Geschichte und Literatur, in 1774-78. These extracts, the authorship of which was not publicly avowed, were known as the "Wolfenbüttel Fragments." They created profound excitement along orthodox theologians, and evoked many replies, in which Lessing was bitterly condemned for having issued writings of so dangerous a tendency. Lessing delighted at all times in the stir of combat, and prepared to offer a full and vigourous defence. His most formidable assailant was Pastor Goeze, of Hamburg, a sincere and earnest theologian, but utterly unscrupulous in his choice of weapons against an opponent. To him, therefore, Lessing addressed his most elaborate answers, -- Eine Parabel, Axiomatta, eleven letters with the title Anti-Goeze, and two pamphlets in reply to any inquiry by Goeze as to what Lessing meant by Christianity. These papers are not only full of thought and learning; they are written with a grace, vivacity, and energy that make them hardly less interesting to-day than they were to Lessing’s contemporaries. He does not undertake to defend the conclusions of Reimarus; his immediate object is to claim the right of free criticism in regard even to the highest subjects of human thought. The argument on which he chiefly relies is that the Bible cannot be considered necessary to a belief in Christianity, since Christianity was a living and conquering power before the new Testament in its present form was recognized by the church. The true evidence for what is essential in Christianity, he contends, is its adaptation to the wants of human nature; hence the religious spirit is undisturbed by the speculations and researches of the boldest thinkers. The effect of this controversy was to secure wider freedom for writers on theology, and to suggest new problems regarding the growth of Christianity, the formation of the canon, and the essence of religion. On one subject, the origin of the gospels, Lessing poured a flood of fresh light in a treatise, published after his death, presenting "A New Hypothesis concerning the Evangelists, regarded as merely human writers." The Brunswick Government having, in deference to the consistory, confiscated the "Fragments" and ordered Lessing to discontinue the controversy, he resolved, as he wrote to Elise Reimarus, to "try whether they would let him preach undisturbed from his old pulpit, the stage." In Nathan der Weise, written in the winter of 1778 -79, he gave poetic form to the ideas which he had already developed in prose. Its governing conception is that noble character may be associated with the most diverse why the holders of one set of religious principles should not tolerate those who maintain wholly different doctrines. This elements of Nathan der Weise receives so much attention from its critics that many of them overlook the high artistic qualities of the work. As a play it has serious imperfections, but as a dramatic poem it is one of the finest creations of the 18th century. The characters possess true vitality, and several passages (including, of course, the famous passages setting forth the parable of the three rings) have both the depth and the spontaneity which are the unmistakable notes of genius. In 1780 appeared Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, the first half of which he had published in 1777 with one of the "Fragments." This work, composed of a hundred brief paragraphs, was the last, and is, perhaps, the most suggestive, of Lessing’s writings. The doctrine on which its argument is based is that no dogmatic creed can be regarded as final, but that every historical religion has played a great part in the development of the spiritual life of mankind. Lessing also maintains that history reveals a definite law of progress, and that occasional retrogression may be necessary for the advance of the world towards its ultimate goal. These ideas afterwards became familiar, but they offered a striking contrast to the principles both of orthodox and of sceptical writers in Lessing’s day, and gave a wholly new direction to religious philosophy. Another work of Lessing’s last years, Ernst und Falk (a series of five dialogues, of which the first three were published in 1777, the last two in 1780), also indicated in a fascinating style many new points of view. Its nominal subject is freemasonry, but its real aim is to plead for a humane and charitable spirit in opposition to a narrow patriotism, an extravagant respect for rank, and exclusive devotion to any particular church.

Lessing’s theological opinions exposed him to much petty persecution, and he was in almost constant straits for money. Nothing, however, broke him manly and generous spirit. To the end he was always ready to help those who appealed to him for aid, and he devoted himself with growing ardour to the search for truth. He formed many new plans of work, but in the course of 1780 it became evident to his friends that he would not be able much longer to continue his labours. His health had been undermined by excessive work and anxiety, and after a short illness he died at Brusnwick on the 22nd of January 1781.

He was rather above the middle height, and during the greater part of his life maintained an appearance of vigour and elasticity. Luther himself was not of a more feearless and independent character. In age when men of letters were fond of grouping themselves in sects and coteries, Lessing pursued his own way, unmoved by clamour, and indifferent to popular favour. Yet no man was ever more warmly loved by friends, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that the younger generation of writers looked up to him with confidence and reverence. Jacobi wished for many years to make his acquaintance, but was deterred from addressing him, as he explained to Lessing, by a profound consciousness of the difference between himself and one whom he regarded as "a king among minds." "We lose much, much in him," wrote Goethe after Lessing’s death, "more than we think." It may be questioned whether there is any other writer to whom the Germans owe a deeper debt of gratitude. He was succeeded by poets and philosophers who for a time gave Germany the first place in the intellectual life of the world, and it was Lessing, as they themselves acknowledge, who prepared the way for their achievements. Without attaching himself to any particular systems of philosophical doctrine, he fought incessantly against error, and in regard to art, poetry, the drama, and religion, suggested ideas which kindled the enthusiasm of aspiring minds, and stimulated their highest energies. While his work was thus effective in its own day, it has lost little of its value for later ages. His great dramas have imaginative qualities which appeal to every generation, and an unfading charm is conferred on his critical and theological writings by the power and classical purity of his style.

The first edition of his collected works appeared, in 30 vols., in 1771–94. A critical edition by Lachmann, in 13 vols., was issued in 1838–40, and this edition was revised, with additions, by Maltzahn in 1853–57. In 1868–77 Lessing’s works, edited by several competent scholars, were published in 20 vols. by Hempel, and there is an illustrated edition in 8 vols. (Grote, 1875–76 ). See Lessing’s Leben, 1793, by Karl G. Lessing (his brother) ; Danzel, G. E. Lessing, sein Leben und seine Werke, 1850 (completed by Guhrauer, 1853–54); Stahr, G. E. Lessing, sein Leben und seine Werke, 1859; H. Düntzer, Lessing’s Leben, 1882; and in English, J. Sime, Lessing, 1877, and H. Zimmern, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 1878. (J. SI.)



The above article was written by James Sime, M.A.; formerly on the staff of the Graphic, Nature, and other journals; author of a History of Germany, and several works on German literature.





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