Lavater, Johann Kaspar (1741–1801)

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Johann Kaspar Lavater, the German-Swiss poet, physiognomist, and theologian, was born in Zürich. He studied at the gymnasium there under the literary critics Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger. Later, in northern Germany, he attended the lectures of the Protestant pastor Johann Jakob Spalding, who, influenced by the Earl of Shaftesbury and the English moralists, sought to reconcile reason and sentiment and stressed the moral and religious conscience. While in northern Germany Lavater also met Johann Georg Sulzer, Moses Mendelssohn (whom he later tried to convert to Christianity), the dramatist Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and other persons of note. Returning to Zürich in 1764, he held various posts in churches there from 1769 on. He traveled widely in Germany, was acquainted with many culturally important people, and was one of the most sought-after and famous persons of that time. As a poet, he published a volume of religious verse, Christlicher Lieder (1771), and two epic poems in the manner of Klopstock, Jesus Messias (1780) and Joseph von Arimathia (1794). Because of his opposition to the Zürich government, Lavater was forced to move to Basel in 1796. He returned, only to be wounded during the French capture of Zürich in 1799. He died of this wound in 1801.

Lavater is chiefly known as a physiognomist. His theories were expounded in two main works, Von der Physiognomik (Leipzig, 1772) and Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beforderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (Physiognomic fragments for furthering the knowledge and love of man; 4 vols., Winterthur, Switzerland, 17751778). Johann Gottfried Herder and Lavater's close and longtime friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both collaborated on the latter work. Lavater claimed independence from traditional physiognomy dating from the time of Aristotle, but his independence was chiefly a matter of superficial knowledge of the tradition. He supported the classical view that the human body is influenced in shape by the character of the person, and vice versa; but his criteria were inconsistent and confused. There were two main reasons for his unprecedented success: First, his lively and simple manner of exposition that followed the pattern of the "popular philosopher"; and second, the psychology of character at the base of his theory.

Lavater stressed "feeling" and such spiritual qualities as inspiration and creative genius, which were being widely discussed in the eighteenth century. The native language of genius, and of virtue and wisdom, could become known only by studying the human form. Man is the measure of truth. That which harmonizes in form with a man, and is a part of him, is what exists for him. There is no absolute truth, but only a subjective experiencing. Therefore feeling should be cultivated, as it is in the genius. Lavater's psychology of genius, which gave emotions a place beside reason, was an important link between Pietism and sentimentalism on the one hand, and Sturm und Drang on the other. Lavater was severely criticizednotably by Georg Christoff Lichtenbergbut his handsomely printed volumes, with their illustrations, and his complimentary analyses of various influential contemporary figures were widely read.

As a writer of religious and devotional literature, Lavater was equally influential. His religious views were based on a belief in inner light, making his subjectivism a mystical and sentimental anthropomorphic theology. God is what satisfies the needs of man. The Bible is historically true but it is to be interpreted subjectively. Lavater was strongly convinced of the magical force of grace and prayer, and was strongly interested in miracles and prophecies. He was therefore drawn to spiritualism and mesmerism.

See also Aristotle; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph; Mendelssohn, Moses; Miracles; Pietism; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Sulzer, Johann Georg.


additional works by lavater

Aussichten in die Ewigkeit in Briefen an Zimmermann. 2 parts. Zürich, 17681769; 2nd ed. and 3rd part, 1773; 4th part, 1778.

Geheimes Tagebuch von einem Beobachter seiner selbst. 2 vols. Leipzig, 17711773.

Pontius Pilatus oder die Menschen in allen Gestalten, oder die Bibel im Kleinen und der Mensch im Grossen. 4 parts. Zürich, 17821785.

Nathanael, oder die Göttlichkeit des Christenthums. Winterthur, Switzerland, 1786.

Ausgewählte Werke. Edited by E. Stähelin. 4 vols. Zürich: Zwingli, 1943.

works on lavater

Bracken, Ernst von. Die Selbstbeobachtung bei Lavater, Beitrag zur Geschichte der Idee der Subjektivität im 18. Jahrhunderts. Münster, 1932. Dissertation.

Forssmann, J. Lavater und die religiösen Strömungen des 18. Jahrhunderts. Riga, 1935.

Janentzky, Christian. J. K. Lavater. Frauenfeld, Switzerland, 1928.

Maier, Heinrich. An der Grenze der Philosophie Melanchton, Lavater, D. F. Strauss. Tübingen, 1909.

Muncker, Franz. J. F. Lavater, Eine Skizze seines Lebens und Wirkens. Stuttgart, 1883.

Vömel, Alexander. J. K. Lavater 17411801. Ein Lebensbild. Elberfeld, 1923.

Giorgio Tonelli (1967)

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Lavater, Johann Kaspar (1741–1801)

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