Born on January 22, 1729, in a small town called Kamenz, located near the city of Meissen, in Saxony, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was the second son and third child in a family of twelve children (five of whom died in childhood). His father, Johann Gottfried Lessing, shortly after earning a degree in theology from the University of Wittenberg, had obtained a modest position as assistant pastor in Kamenz and, in 1725, married Justina Salome Feller. Lessing’s mother, although a loving and dutiful housewife, manifested little interest in either her husband’s or her children’s intellectual pursuits. It was, consequently, from his father that Lessing developed his own precocious appetite for reading. A frequently repeated anecdote relates that at the age of six Lessing refused to pose for a portrait holding a bird cage and insisted that the cage be replaced by a pile of books. (Interestingly, Lessing managed to collect a personal library of more than five thousand volumes in later life.) Lessing’s father, despite some minor advancements in his career, remained an impecunious albeit respected clergyman throughout his entire life, but he nevertheless managed to find the wherewithal to send five of his sons to the university.
Lessing’s own formal education began in a progressive Latin school at Kamenz, where he remained until the age of twelve. He then entered the Elector’s School of St. Afra in Meissen, one of the three finest schools in Germany at that time, and proved himself such a gifted and eager pupil that his teachers described him as “a horse that requires double fodder.” After five years of intensive study at St. Afra’s, Lessing matriculated at the University of Leipzig as a student of theology, in deference to his father’s wishes. Philology and literature, however, proved more congenial to him than did theology. At the same time, Lessing became involved in the lively social life of Leipzig, a city commonly referred to during this period as “a little Paris.” It was in Leipzig that he became involved with the theatrical troupe headed by Professor Gottsched’s protégée, Karoline Neuber, who encouraged him to make use of his literary talents to write original plays and who eventually produced one of his early works. Distressed by the academic indifference and general waywardness of his son, Lessing’s father summoned him back to Kamenz, permitting him to return to Leipzig only on the condition that he would henceforth devote himself to the study of medicine. Before long, however, Lessing was obliged to flee from Leipzig because he was unable to make payment for debts incurred by some members of the Neuber troupe, for whom he had unwisely agreed to stand surety.
Except for about a year’s time spent at the University of Wittenberg, from which institution he acquired a Master of Arts degree in 1752, Lessing worked as a translator and freelance journalist in Berlin from 1748 to 1755. Here he eventually came into close association with such leading thinkers as Mendelssohn and...
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