The Enlightenment in Germany

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The Enlightenment in Germany

Changing Times.

In the seventeenth century German literature had often reflected the troubled religious landscape of the age, and the literary landscape was profoundly affected by the disputes of the era. In those years Protestant writers like Andreas Gryphius and Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen had been largely responsible for the creation of a national literature in Germany, a literature which, despite touches of humor and the picaresque, had often concentrated on creating new modes of expression for a language that authors desired to endow with the grandeur of classical rhetoric. Great variety had characterized the verse poetry and prose produced in this era, as many writers had experimented with new rhetorical forms and genres, a literary innovation that Germany's budding "literary societies" supported. Yet the tenor of much of the underlying moral, religious, and philosophical foundations of this literature had remained conservative. While religion continued to be a central preoccupation of German life in the early eighteenth century, new pious movements led in directions different from the highly theological and doctrinal spirit of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. At the end of the seventeenth century, the German Pietists had supported the development of a new spirit within Lutheranism. Leaders of this movement—men like Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke—advocated a religion that spoke to the heart rather than the mind. While Lutheran Pietism remained intensely orthodox in the theology that it espoused, it nevertheless supported a practical spirit, evidenced in the foundation of orphanages and schools as well as the formations of "circles" of lay people that met regularly for prayer and study. As its influence spread in the eighteenth century, Pietism affected many Protestant countries in Northern Europe, eventually helping to inspire the growth of Wesleyanism in England and the Americas. It also fostered the expansion of literacy through the foundations of hundreds of schools, particularly in northern Germany where its influences were most widely felt. Pietism also came to be an intensely literary movement, with its major leaders and advocates frequently publishing devotional works, spiritual autobiographies, and journals similar to those that were common in England and other European regions. Among the literary monuments of the movement Johann Philip Arndt's True Christianity (1610), an early work later claimed by the Pietists as one of their sources of inspiration, and Philipp Jakob Spener's Pia Desideria (Pious Desires; 1675) became important texts of the movement, and were much emulated by later writers. Francke's influence, too, was notable in his foundation at Halle of a scriptural study institute that trained many in the techniques of Pietist biblical study and commentary. But the movement's impact on the ideas of the eighteenth century was profound, stretching throughout Protestant Europe, and eventually coming even to influence many Catholic devotional writers as well.


While Pietism supported a "heart-felt" devotion rather than a hard-edged doctrinal religion, its teachings were nevertheless firmly located within the traditions of Lutheran orthodoxy fostered by the Reformation. Other sources of disaffection, though, were just beginning to appear in Germany around 1700, sources that eventually questioned the traditional role that Christianity had played in the country's public life. These forces can be seen at work in the career and writing of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), a figure that had been born into a devout Lutheran family. Leibniz's lifelong pursuit of a philosophical alternative to Christianity eventually called that edifice of belief into question. When he entered the University of Leipzig in 1661 as a law student, he soon became familiar with the entire range of scientific thinkers that were producing a reassessment of European ideas at the time, including Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon. In the years that followed, Leibniz developed an intensely metaphysical philosophy that attempted to harmonize this new learning with his own hunger for truth. Eventually, this quest resulted in a strikingly original philosophy. Leibniz spent the early part of his career without employment, although he eventually won positions at court. Of the many positions he filled, one as the librarian of the Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel was particularly important. Wolfenbüttel was home to one of Europe's most distinguished library collections, and there Leibniz was able to read widely, indulging his interests, which ranged across philosophy, the Classics, mathematics, history, and even physics and mechanics. From his tenure at Wolfenbüttel throughout the eighteenth century that followed, the position of librarian at this venerable institution was persistently awarded to some of Germany's greatest literary figures. Eventually, the puzzling philosophy that Leibniz developed based upon his broad reading and his concept of monads, which were independent things he thought composed the real world, proved to be a significant intellectual riddle to untangle. But his lifelong search for philosophical truth, a truth that was independent of the received wisdom of traditional religion, inspired other major German thinkers in the Enlightenment. For these reasons, he has often been dubbed the "Father" of the German Enlightenment.

Impact of English Literature.

Leibniz had envisioned a world free from the constraints of traditional Christian theology, and although his ideas attracted adherents among other philosophers and authors in eighteenth-century Germany, they were controversial all the same. Additional ferment and inspiration for new German literary forms also appeared in the eighteenth century from English literary works that came to be known in the country from the early eighteenth century onward. In these years German intellectuals avidly read the writings of Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and a number of others. The trend continued throughout the eighteenth century. Later German writers were highly influenced by the works of Samuel Richardson and the literary criticism of Samuel Johnson and others that issued from England in the mid-eighteenth century. The political writings of the French and British Enlightenment were another source of inspiration. Translations of many of these works were produced in Germany relatively quickly, making English fiction and European political writings accessible to many in German society. Among the figures that attempted to apply the insights that they had culled from English Augustan literature, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766) and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) were particularly important in fashioning new literary forms, both in the theater and in poetry. At Leipzig, Gottsched worked to establish new canons in the theater of his day, and he helped to formulate rules for judging the quality and content of literature. His rules were highly restrictive, but in the circle that he founded in the city, the discussion of them nevertheless produced a creative movement in the history of the country's drama and literature. His followers, for instance, were quick to fashion new, less restrictive canons and to do so, they studied and imitated the works of John Milton and other English writers. Klopstock was one of these writers and he made his greatest mark on German literature through his poem, The Messias, which was published between 1749 and 1773. When the first three cantos of that work appeared in 1749, they caused great excitement. They were modeled on Milton's Paradise Lost, and like that earlier text relied on unrhymed hexameter for their structure. Emotionally sophisticated, they helped to establish their author as one of the leading poets of his age.


Perhaps the greatest literary figure of the mid-century in Germany was Gotthold Ephraim von Lessing (1729–1781), a critic of considerable powers who also wrote drama, prose, and poetry. In 1770, he accepted the same position that Leibniz had two generations earlier as librarian at Wolfenbüttel. But even before this period, he had amassed a reputation as a literary artist of significant innovation. In his plays Lessing helped to develop a "middle-class" drama that spoke to the concerns of Germany's increasingly bourgeois urban society. He produced a number of sparkling comedies before his writing took a more overtly philosophical tone. His work, in other words, came to celebrate the search for rational truth and for a tolerant society, unhindered by religious fanaticism that was typical of many Enlightenment authors. These dimensions of his work eventually spurred controversy. His dramatic poem, Nathan the Wise (1779), which intimated that three great world religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—were essentially similar in their ethics, sparked controversy. His pleas for tolerance, particularly of Germany's Jews, were also unusual for their time. But despite criticism of his work, particularly its downplaying of traditional Christian truth, Lessing remained until his death fundamentally assured in his faith in humanity and its ability to perfect itself.


A more tempestuous note is to be found in the life, career, and writing of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), one of the founders of the "Sturm und Drang" literary style. The values of the "Sturm und Drang" (meaning literally "Storm and Stress") movement fascinated many authors in the final third of the eighteenth century. Writers who adopted this style abandoned the influence of Augustan-era England, with its imperturbable and graciously elegant lyric poetry and prose, and they searched instead for an idiom that was altogether more turbulent, emotional, and personal. Similar movements also influenced the visual arts and music at this time in Germany, helping to provide a bridge between the Classicism that was generally favored in the mid- and later eighteenth century and the Romantic Movement that developed around 1800. Goethe was one of the last great universal geniuses that European society was to produce. He was interested in every dimension of human experience and the natural world, and he became a poet, art critic, naturalist, educational reformer, philosopher, playwright, and novelist. His writings rank even today as among the greatest achievements of world literature. His scientific studies, in fact, fill a fourteen-volume edition, and to this must be added an enormous amount of other writings, all composed in one of the most thoroughly fluent and engaging prose styles imaginable. His life straddled the great literary achievements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in his consistent development, Goethe proved ever capable of reacting to changing times and changing questions. Born into the German middle class, he consistently


introduction: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's dramatic poem, Nathan the Wise prompted controversy when it first appeared in 1779. It was a verse drama, intended to be read or staged, and its action was set in Jerusalem of the twelfth-century Crusades. It narrated a series of exchanges between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. In the following excerpt of dialogue between Nathan, the Christian, and Saladin, the Muslim, can be seen part of the reason for the controversy. Nathan's parable relates the way in which three world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—proceeded as a gift from God. The parable upheld Lessing's teaching that the ethical importance of each of these sets of teachings was essentially similar, and fit with the Enlightenment's championship of tolerance. The piece shows how the Enlightenment's values of religious tolerance came to shape literary texts, even in conservative Germany, where Pietism and the generally strong support that the state granted to the region's state churches tended to uphold the importance of traditional Christianity.

Nathan: There lived a man in a far Eastern clime
In hoar antiquity, who from the hand
Of his most dear beloved received a ring
Of priceless estimate. An opal 'twas
Which spilt a hundred lovely radiances
And had a magic power, that whoso wore it,
Trusting therein, found grace with God and man.
What wonder therefore that this man o' the East
Let it not from his finger, and took pains
To keep it to his household for all time.
Thus he bequeathed the jewel to the son
Of all his sons he loved best, and provided
That he in turn bequeath it to the son
What was to him the dearest; evermore
The best-beloved, without respect of birth,
By right o' the ring alone should be the head,
The house's prince. You understand me, Sultan.

Saladin: I understand: continue!

Nathan: Well this ring,
From son to son descending, came at last
Unto a father of three sons, who all
To him, all three, were dutiful alike,
And whom, all three, in natural consequence,
He loved alike. Only from time to time
Now this; now that one; now the third, as each
Might be alone with him, the other twain
Not sharing his o'erflowing heart, appeared
Worthiest the ring; and then, piously weak,
He promised it to each. And so things went
Long as they could. But dying hour drawn near
Brought the good father to perplexity,
It pained him, the two sons, trusting his word,
Should thus be wounded. What was he to do?
Quickly he sends for an artificer,
To make him on the model of his ring
Two others, bidding spare no cost nor pains
To make them in all points identical;
And this the artist did. When they are brought
Even the father scarcely can distinguish
His pattern-ring. So, full of joy, he calls
His sons, and each one to him separately;
And gives to each son separately his blessing,

Saladin: I hear, I hear—Only
bring you the tale
to speedy end. Is't done?

Nathan: The tale is finished.
For what still follows, any man may guess.
Scarce was the father dead, but each one comes
And shows his ring and each one claims to be
True prince o' the house. Vainly they search, strive, argue,
The true ring was not proved or provable—
Almost as hard to prove as to us now
What the true creed is.

source: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön, Nathan the Wise, and Minna von Barnhelm. Trans. W. A. Steel (London: J. M. Dent, 1930): 166–167.

praised bourgeois culture for its production of history's greatest cultural embodiments. Educated in the sophisticated atmosphere of eighteenth-century Leipzig, he left Germany in 1765 on what was intended to be a grand tour. Stopping in Strasbourg, he wanted to study law for a time before going on to Paris and other European cities. In Strasbourg, though, he was so captivated by the sight of the city's Gothic cathedral that he came to realize the poverty of Leipzig's culture of sophistication. From this time he devoted himself to promoting the integrity of the "Gothic ideal." In Strasbourg, he also made contact with Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), one of Germany's foremost poets. His discussions with Herder convinced him of the poet's great role in expressing emotions and fashioning a primitive language that spoke to the human soul. From this point, his poetry, prose, and dramas thus began to acquire the characteristic mix of emotions, strains, and pressure typical of the Sturm und Drang. Goethe had not created this style, but he was its most famous proponent, even as he later experimented with other literary movements. As a Sturm und Drang writer, though, his most significant achievement was the publication of his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a work that in many people's minds became emblematic of the values of the entire Sturm und Drang movement, and which exerted a powerful influence over the development of literary Romanticism. The contents of Werther, the story of a young man's unrequited love for a woman who is promised to another, was partially autobiographical. Yet Goethe fashioned his retelling of the tale in such a way as to elicit great pathos and enormous response from his readers. The tale's tragic ending—young artistic Werther commits suicide as a victim of his love—spoke to readers who had to this point been schooled in the belief that art should mirror high ideals and present a larger-than-life heroism. Goethe showed them that the emotions might be a powerful barrier to achieving such a vision. His story thus played on the wellsprings of emotion that lay just beneath the imperturbable classical veneer of eighteenth-century middleclass and aristocratic societies. The novel produced an immediate sensation, not only in Germany, but throughout Europe, where it became one of the great literary success stories of the later eighteenth century. Its plot and style were widely imitated, and its popularity persisted into the nineteenth century, when it was dramatized, made the subject of ballets, and set to music in several operas.


In Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther can be seen many of the forces that were shaping European literature as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European writers had experimented with various literary forms and genres to give expression to their underlying religious, moral, and philosophical beliefs. In the seventeenth century, these attempts had produced great spiritual autobiographies and personal narratives, in which the Christian dramas of the Fall of humanity and its eventual redemption had been given a highly personal, individualistic cast. Poets like John Milton in England and Andreas Gryphius in Germany had similarly devoted themselves to relating the traditional concerns of the classical and Christian worldviews in ways that spoke to their generations of readers. Such works had greatly expanded the literary possibilities of the French, German, and English languages. In France, they had produced a great age of drama, poetry, and prose, in which the greatest writers of the period had developed a distinctly classical idiom. In Germany, such efforts resulted in the emergence of a forceful, varied, yet florid prose and poetic style. And in England, the literary Baroque of figures like John Donne and Milton, with their emphasis on encapsulating difficult meanings, gradually gave way to an Augustan form of expression, notable in John Dryden and others for its detached beauty. In the decades that followed 1700, the quest to present philosophical truths and for a literature that represented the changing realities of the time had begun to produce a fundamental shift, evidenced in the writings of many eighteenth-century authors. Now prose fiction and philosophical writing gave expression to many of the new ideas of the developing Enlightenment. That movement was the recognized heir to the mechanistic views of the universe promoted by Isaac Newton, the theories of natural law and psychology of John Locke, and the questioning and inquisitive spirit of figures like Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. As the Enlightenment endeavored to reform society into one based on the tenets of human reason, authors searched for new literary modes of expression that might give voice to the concerns of their age. Although the novels of Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson still continued to be profoundly affected by traditional Christian moral concerns, they were prized, not only in England, but also throughout Europe for the way in which they gave expression to the concerns of an expanding and urban "middle class" society. In Moll Flanders, for instance, Defoe presented to his readers a seemingly realistic portrait of life without the middle-class comforts of Augustan London. And in his Clarissa, Richardson warned his readers of the enormous powers of the emotions, helping to inspire a genre of "sentimental" novels in his native England, but also in France and Germany. The quest for a realistic fiction that might embody and examine the emotions and problems that accrued from living in the new civil societies of the age persisted throughout the later eighteenth century. Yet in Goethe and in the troubled spirit of his hero, Werther, can be seen at the same time the very same forces that eventually shattered the eighteenth-century confidence in human reason and its ability to perfect society. With Goethe, European readers were faced with a fundamentally new paradigm, a paradigm that led to the great Romantic literary experiments that fascinated nineteenth-century Europe.


S. P. Atkins, The Testament of Werther in Poetry and Drama (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949).

R. Critchfield and W. Koepke, Eighteenth-Century German Authors and Their Aesthetic Theories (Camden, S.C.: Camden House, 1988).

K. S. Guthke, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Stuttgart, Germany: Metzler, 1979).

W. Lefèvre, Between Leibniz, Newton, and Kant: Philosophy and Science in the Eighteenth Century (Dordrecht, Germany: Kluwer, 2001).

G. Lukács, Goethe and His Age (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1969).

see also Philosophy: The Enlightenment Elsewhere in Europe ; Religion: Pietism

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The Enlightenment in Germany

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