Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2069

Article abstract: Lessing contributed to literature through his work in the field of literary criticism and drama, to philosophy in his efforts to bring the ideas of the European Enlightenment to Germany, and to theology in his founding of the philosophy of religion.

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Early Life

Born the son of a Protestant minister, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing enrolled as a student of theology at the University of Leipzig in 1746, but he was soon attracted by literature and the theater. He wrote his first play, Der junge Gelehrte (the young scholar), a comedy which was performed with great success by the local company in 1748. Other comedies were to follow, and soon it became apparent that Lessing had embarked on a literary rather than a theological career. Lessing’s early comedies were comparatively trivial, following the model advocated by Johann Christoph Gottsched, who dominated literary life in Germany until approximately 1750. Although Lessing followed Gottsched, he did write two problem plays, which show his departure from the Gottschedian model: Die Juden (wr. 1749, pb. 1754; The Jews, 1801) and Die Freigeist (wr. 1749, pb. 1755; The Freethinker, 1838). In the first comedy, Lessing attacked anti-Semitic prejudices, while in the second, he neither glorified nor criticized his protagonist but tried to provide his character with a larger degree of realism. While The Jews is a forerunner of Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise, 1781) in terms of its topicality, The Freethinker is an anticipation of contemporary realist comedy, as represented by Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm: Oder, Das Soldatenglück (1767; Minna von Barnhelm: Or, The Soldier’s Fortune, 1786).

In 1748, Lessing went to Berlin, where he stayed until 1755. Lessing was one of the first free-lance writers in German literature, trying to live by the work of his pen. He failed in the end and had to take a civil service position, as did the majority of intellectuals in eighteenth century Germany, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller; Lessing’s endeavors, nevertheless, were an inspiration to subsequent generations of writers. Beginning his career as a journalist, Lessing also published a number of scholarly articles and was active as translator, editor, and literary critic. In 1751-1752, he briefly attended the University of Wittenberg to obtain a master’s degree but returned to Berlin in November, 1752.

One of the most important events of Lessing’s life in Berlin was the beginning of his lifelong friendship with Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had made the transition from the protected existence within the Jewish community, which had lived in the physical and intellectual isolation of the ghettos since the Middle Ages, to participation in the surrounding German and European life of commerce and intellect. Mendelssohn met with much prejudice, but Lessing accepted him on equal terms. Indeed, Lessing’s support of Mendelssohn paved the way for Jewish emancipation in Germany. The Lessing-Mendelssohn friendship was perceived as a symbol of a successful German-Jewish symbiosis. While this symbol was rendered totally invalid by the Holocaust of World War II, it was, nevertheless, true for the eighteenth century. Lessing modeled Nathan the Wise, the noble Jewish protagonist of his last drama, after Mendelssohn.

Lessing’s first successful tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (English translation, 1789), was written, performed, and published in 1755. Lessing introduced domestic, or bourgeois, tragedy to the German stage. The introduction of middle-class characters and their family problems into tragedy constituted his break with Gottsched, who had reserved tragedy for affairs of state and the fate of princes. Because of its sentimental appeal and audience identification with the protagonists, the performance was a great success. The middle-class audience saw characters of its class onstage and witnessed their struggle with ethical norms and their ensuing tragic failures.

In 1756, Lessing planned to embark on a three-year grand tour of Europe as traveling companion to a wealthy young man, but they had to abandon their travel plans when the Seven Years’ War broke out in Europe. After a short stay in Leipzig, Lessing returned to Berlin in 1758. There, he edited and published, together with Mendelssohn and Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend (1759-1760; letters on current literature), a journal which employed the fiction of letters, reporting on recent publications to a friend. The criteria developed by Lessing and his friends in their literary criticism provided new standards of excellence for German literature, which was still in its beginnings at this time. One of Lessing’s most famous contributions was the seventeenth letter of February, 1759, attacking Gottsched and his hold on German literature and recommending William Shakespeare instead of the French classicists as a model for German drama. Lessing praised Shakespeare as a far greater tragic poet than Pierre Corneille and suggested the Faust theme as appropriate for German drama in the Shakespearean tradition.

Lessing’s journeyman years were over when he became a secretary to the Prussian commanding general in Breslau, Silesia, in 1760. This interlude from 1760 to 1765 marks the transition from Lessing’s early years to the major works of his life.

Life’s Work

Lessing’s treatise Laokoon: Oder, Über die Grenzen der Mahlerei und Poesie ( Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1836) of 1766 and his comedy Minna von Barnhelm were the major results of the productive pause of his Breslau years. With his treatise Laocoön, Lessing settled a problem that had plagued writers for generations, namely, that literature should paint with words. Lessing showed that literature cannot be judged by the same criteria as painting and sculpture; the various arts proceed according to their differing materials and methods, and their subjects are presented according to these differences.

Minna von Barnhelm is the first modern German comedy. Against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War, the comedy confronts the problem of honor and love. Uniting subjects of former enemy states (Prussia and Saxony) in marriage injected an element of a new German national consciousness into the play. The new realism made Minna von Barnhelm one of Lessing’s masterpieces.

After resigning from his position in Breslau in 1765, Lessing went for a short stay in Berlin. In 1767, he accepted the position as official critic of the German National Theater. As such, he was to write weekly commentaries on the current productions, reviewing the plays and analyzing the performance of the actors. When the project of a national theater at Hamburg was abandoned, Lessing lost his position. His reviews were published in book form under the title Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-1769; Hamburg Dramaturgy, 1889). In these weekly commentaries, Lessing developed his own theory of drama, based on a reinterpretation of Aristotle’s poetics. Rejecting French classical drama, Lessing embraced Shakespearean tragedy, which did not follow Aristotle’s rules yet always achieved, according to Lessing, the effects of tragedy. Lessing interpreted Aristotle’s concept of catharsis as purification of the passions of pity and fear aroused in the spectators. The goal of tragedy was the “transformation of the passions into virtuous faculties.”

After the collapse of the national theater enterprise in Hamburg, Lessing accepted a position as court librarian at the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel, where the Dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg had assembled one of Europe’s largest libraries. During his years in Wolfenbüttel, Lessing was very productive as a scholar, playwright, and theologian. In 1772, he authored the tragedy Emilia Galotti (English translation, 1786). Its subject is a middle-class woman named Virginia who lacks the political elements of the Roman Virginia, who was killed by her father to protect her honor from a tyrannical ruler. This sacrifice caused a revolt that abolished the tyranny in Rome around 450 b.c.e. Lessing may have wanted his audience to draw its own conclusions, but it took more than ten years before the political content of his tragedy was realized.

As a scholar, Lessing made available in print excerpts from a manuscript of his late friend Hermann Samuel Reimarus, who had advocated Deism, a denial of revelation in Christian religion. Such views were so controversial in Germany that Lessing published these excerpts from 1774 to 1778 under the fictitious claim of anonymous manuscripts, Fragmente . . . aus den Papieren eines Ungenannten (fragments . . . from the papers of an unknown [author]), found in the Wolfenbüttel library. Even this fiction, however, did not protect Lessing from the attacks by the Protestant clergy. He had to defend himself in numerous pamphlets against his adversaries, but finally the Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg imposed strict censorship on Lessing’s theological writings. Lessing then turned to the stage, since literature was not subject to censorship, and presented his theological thoughts in the form of a drama, Nathan the Wise. The place of action is Jerusalem, where representatives of the three revealed religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, meet during the Crusades to engage in a controversy that may end in tragic death. The main representatives are Sultan Saladin, a historical figure; Nathan the Wise, a noble Jew; and a Christian Knight Templar. The drama poses the question: Which of the three great religions is the true one? Nathan answers by telling the parable of the three rings. The moral of the parable advises the three principal characters of the play that verification of the true religion is as impossible as the identification of the original ring in the parable. The revelations of the major religions must rely on faith and tradition. Their representatives are enjoined to exercise tolerance and to strive for ethical superiority.

While Lessing’s treatise Ernst und Falk: Gespräche für Freimaurer ( Masonic Dialogues, 1927) of 1778 is considered a statement of his political philosophy, his tract Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts ( The Education of the Human Race, 1858) of 1780 is called his religious testament. Lessing regarded Freemasonry as a means to counterbalance the inevitable evils of the absolutist state. The goal of Freemasonry was to unite men regardless of nationality, religion, and class. Lessing did not advocate revolution but expected changes to bring about a republican form of government. In The Education of the Human Race, Lessing presented his religious convictions within the framework of a philosophy of history. He conceived history as the process of the immanent revelation of God, which leads mankind toward independence and self-determination. This work may be considered the seminal document of modern philosophy of religion.


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing has been declared “the founder of German literature” by H. B. Garland. In 1750, when Lessing began his career, German literature was provincial and practically unknown in Europe. By 1781, when Lessing died, German literature had achieved world acclaim. As a theologian, Lessing defended religion against mysticism as well as rationalism. He became the most prominent spokesman and practitioner of religious and racial tolerance of his age. As the founder of the philosophy of religion, Lessing’s ideas contributed toward the concept of the death of God long before Friedrich Nietzsche.

The most characteristic elements of Lessing’s personality were his independence of mind, common sense, and integrity. These qualities made him, according to Garland, “the most admirable figure in the history of German thought and literature between Martin Luther and Nietzsche.”


Allison, Henry E. Lessing and the Enlightenment: His Philosophy of Religion and Its Relation to Eighteenth-Century Thought. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. An intellectual history of the philosophies of John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz and their impact on Lessing. Includes notes and index.

Brown, F. Andrew. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. New York: Twayne, 1971. This biography discusses Lessing’s works with references to scholarly works. Includes a selected bibliography, with annotations for individual titles, and an index.

Garland, H. B. Lessing: The Founder of German Literature. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1962. Best summary before Brown’s biography appeared. Includes a one-page bibliographical note and an index.

Lamport, F.J. Lessing and the Drama. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981. A study of Lessing’s practice and theory of dramatic writing. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Lessing Yearbook. 1-19 (1969-1988). This yearbook, edited by the International Lessing Society, covers current Lessing research.

Metzger, Michael M. Lessing and the Language of Comedy. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. A study of Lessing’s theory of comedy and discussion of individual works. Includes a bibliography of sources consulted and an index.

Robertson, J. G. Lessing’s Dramatic Theory: Being an Introduction to and Commentary on His “Hamburgische Dramaturgie.” Edited by Edna Purdie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939. Exhaustive study of Lessing’s predecessors and sources.

Ugrinsky, Alexej, ed. Lessing and the Enlightenment. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Scholarly essays on current trends in Lessing studies. Numerous bibliographical notes, including an index of names.

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