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Lavater, Johann Kaspar


Swiss theologian, philosopher, and poet: b. Zurich, Nov. 15, 1741; d. there, Jan. 2, 1801. He attended schools in his native town and began Protestant theology in 1759. As early as 1763, however, he was turning from the enlightenment's rationalistic conception of religion to the ideas of the Sturm und Drang period. He became parson at the church of St. Peter, Zurich, in 1786. A writer of deep feeling and vivid imagination, he won wide fame by his religious writing, his Schweizerlieder (1767), and especially his four-volume Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (177578), in which he attempted to analyze the character of man through an intuitive interpretation of bodily structure. This occasioned his reputation throughout Europe and led to extensive correspondence with great contemporaries such as goethe, Johann herder, and Johann hamann. Lavater first sympathized with the French Revolution but later protested its excesses. Ironically, he died of wounds sustained while acting as stretcher-bearer at the battle of Zurich (Nov. 26, 1800).

Lavater's belief in Christ was manifested in an undogmatic and emotional piety, as is evident in Christliche Lieder (177680), the four-volume Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (176878), and the four-volume Pontius Pilatus oder die Bibel im Kleinen (178285). Yet his attempt to confirm by logic his shakily based convictions led to tensions between his religious experience and theology and his yearning for a constant, earthly manifestation of God, hence his uncritical interest in mesmerism and spiritism and his passion for detecting miracles. He rebutted atheism with untiring clerical fervor; he was generally tolerant of Catholics, and his friendship with Bp. J. M. sailer led some to believe that he was a crypto-Catholic.

Bibliography: Ausgewählte Schriften, ed. j. k. orelli, 8 v. (Zurich 184144), 4 v. (3d ed. Zurich 185960). c. janentzky, Johann Caspar Lavater (Frauenfeld 1928). m. lavater-sloman, Genie des Herzens: Die Lebensgeschichte Johann Caspar Lavaters (5th ed. Zurich 1955). o. vasella, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 6: 840841.

[j. b. keller]

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